Estelle Hanania

Estelle Hanania was born in 1980 and raised in the east suburbs of Paris, Noisy-le-sec (93). She has been living in Paris for the past 10 years, in the heart of the city, Bastille, busy area!

After publishing a book on her work in 2011 (A propos de Gisèle published by JSBJ), it was a great pleasure to collaborate with her again. We had this conversation in her apartment in the remote 19th district, where little streets and houses give a kind of village atmosphere.

How would you describe your aesthetic in a few words?

Wow difficult one, I’d like my work to have various contradictory facets. So I’d say raw and soft at the same time, both magic and very realistic. 

You are living in Paris, is this city a source of inspiration for you and your work? Is the notion of travelling important for you? Discovering new horizons, new cultures, new rituals?

Unfortunately, not at all. Paris is my home base and I don’t really see myself living anywhere else, but it’s not a source of inspiration visually for my work. I need to travel and escape the everyday routine. I don’t need to go very far though, I can go in the north of France, in Belgium, Germany, east of Europe, Italy but I need to escape from Paris to get some inspiration. I’m not looking for exoticism at all, just a different background. Sometimes taking a car to the suburbs is enough to get the “fuel” I need. I stopped bringing a camera with me when I’m in Paris, I don’t look for inspiration in my everyday life. My Iphone is enough for this kind of Paris daily note taking.

Your work is mostly organized in series, how do you consider the concept of a series?

I think it is inevitable for me to organize my work in “series” because I put a lot of narrative aspects in my way of combining images. But I run away from the idea of rigid, systematic, claustrophobic series. With an end and a beginning, series as a restricted area. I want to be able to make the boundaries of a series move. I like to insert images randomly. I’m not self-conscious enough to define precisely what a series will be when I shoot it. Sometimes it changes from a year to another. Series are like families which grow or loose members at times.. If you see what I mean.

Looking through your library, I realized that you had more books about illustrations & drawings than photo books. I also know that you and your twin sister, Marion, used to draw a lot when you were kids. Is that what led you to photography? How important is drawing for you nowadays?

Oh yes, I find a great deal of inspiration in artists who use their fingers and produce lines, even more than in photographers. Yes my sister and I drew a lot when we were kids. Living in the suburbs leads you to do that, you have to find excitement inside you because we couldn’t really go outside and play easily. My mother used to draw a lot and she still does even more now. My twin sister Marion keeps drawing daily much more than I do. On my side I’ve always kept diaries of my everyday life gathering texts and drawings, as an exercise not to loose track of time passing by. So at the end of the week I sit down and I open my note book and I draw some little things without any pressure on my shoulders. I have so many people around me who are excellent artists and illustrators, I needed to find a way to produce something with my fingers without having to show the result. Apart from the fact that photography and drawing are both a way of framing a subject I don’t see the two aspects as related.

Regarding the books, I have a lot of folk art ones and some painters I love like Ensor, Bruegel, or more contemporary ones like Steven Shearer. But the one I’m totally obsessed with is George Grosz. If I had to select just one book from my entire library I would pick “The Big No” which gathers drawings from 2 portfolios “Ecce Homo” and “Hintergrund”. Endless source of inspiration.

You won the Hyères Festival in 2006, did it have a professional impact or did it influence your work? Do you follow the festival yourself?

Hyères was a very good stepping stone since at the time I had just graduated from the school of Fine Arts in Paris. This photo prize gave me some confidence and a spotlight on my work at the time. I got to meet very interesting people and learn to be careful with some others. It was professionally good for me on that matter. It didn’t have a real influence on my work though apart from the various other photographers and fashion designers I met there. It was a good social moment where I discovered I had to face people and deliver my work to them in a genuine way and it can be rewarding. I keep an eye on the festival of course, I like to discover the photo and fashion selection each year.

You worked for brands such as Maison Martin Margiela, Damir Doma, Issey Mikaye, are you interested in Fashion? Does it inspire you?

Fashion inspires me a lot. But it’s like a snake eating its own tail, sometimes fashion inspires you, sometimes you realize that fashion is totally eaten by its own inspirations. Sometimes fashion is very vain, especially in the way it works for fashion photographers who produce fashion series, I think it’s too vain and ephemeral for the kind of energy it demands.

More widely I would say I’m inspired by anything that covers up the body in an unexpected way: make-up, textile, paper, nothing at all.

I’ve been a fashion magazine reader though ever since I’ve been a young teenager with my sister. We loved to collect them, know the names of the brands, campaigns, models in the mid 90′s, and later we were totally into Purple magazine and reading the fashion supplement of Libération with excitement. I remember I went to the hairdresser with one image Mark Borthwick did of Chloé Sevigny when she had that Joan of Arc hair cut to get the same one. hum.. My sister did it even younger, bringing a Jurgen Teller photo of Kristen McMenamy naked and totally trashy to show the short haircut she wanted. Funny to see how the classic hairdresser reacted! This world was totally unknown for us, as my parents were a doctor and a French teacher, it was our own field to discover. Since then we took various paths always related to this weird attachment to the fashion world.

The photography we used for the Études T-shirt is issued from the series Les Douzes Nuits, what’s the story behind this picture? 

This is a photograph I created according to a story I’ve read about a weird object of devotion. This object is often named “the tree of souls”, it relates to a funeral custom. During a special day in Normandy and Brittany, people choose a large branch on which they artificially skewer apples. The tree is then placed in a chapel for a year and the apples rot slowly. This tree can also be placed on the graves on the day of the dead. 

Talking about work like Hanania & Brunnquell or A propos de Gisèle, I am curious to know more about your approach to collaboration or re-appropriation, how do you apprehend this thin line?

I’m mainly very solitary in my photo process, I’m not at all into groups or photographer gatherings etc.. but I’m inspired a lot by other people’s creativity, especially if I feel there are some non obvious connections to be made. With Christophe Brunnquell the collaboration started in the summer of 2008 in Berlin. I was invited to shoot a portfolio for a Swiss magazine, as was Christophe, so we decided to do something together. The day after Christophe arrived in Berlin we started an eight-hour nonstop shoot. It was a great encounter and experience for the both of us, totally exciting, and, more than free, it was liberating, like a total break from our own works but still linked in many ways. It became an inspiring collaboration to feed my other stories. ‘Hanania & Brunnquell’ was born then. Regarding the ongoing collaboration with Gisèle Vienne, it’s different. Gisèle and I met through some common interests in the rituals, costumes, dolls etc. Then she gave me a kind of “carte blanche” and “open access” to her shows and backstage. So I started documenting her work with the filter of my own interests. Mainly by going backstage or during the creative process, the making of masks and dolls etc… It’s been a few years now and we intend to keep on and maybe produce a big book in 5-6 years around that work.

Digging in your bookshelves, I discovered a dummy book with your Purim series. You told me that you needed to bring your pictures to a physical form in order to organize them. What is your relationship to books and publishing in general?

Yes indeed, I feel the need to gather images in a physical object always, I have a big notebook collection. Usually I just print things on random paper, tape them in a notebook, write ideas, play with layout ideas, etc. But for this dummy book for the “Happy Purim” series, I needed to see how it would look like printed and bounded and which images would have a good reason to be in a book and which ones don’t really work. This is not a real dummy this is just a way of gathering the content, like a family album I can flip through. The finality of a book is very important during my creative process. For almost all of my series I have a different book idea in mind. More than an ephemeral show the book is another way to display the work and make it last. For people who buy the book there’s a real intimacy and connection with the photographer.

You are actually working on a new book, can you tell us about it?

Yes this is very exciting for me, I’m gathering a wide selection of the winter traditions I photographed from 2006 to 2012.  I’m glad to work on this with the publisher Shelter Press and it should be out and ready in September. I’m very excited to share it.

Your boyfriend, François, is also a photographer. Do you think there may be a mutual influence? Do you discuss or argue a lot about photography, art?

Ah we don’t argue really, but we definitely discuss and check on each other’s work. Asking for advice and following it or not!  We have some different ways of approaching photography, even though the aesthetic can be close sometimes. He works a lot with a large format camera, which is a totally unknown world for me. Even though I work with medium format, I use it almost as a snapshot instrument, which would not be possible with a large format camera. There’s something too precise with it, when you use this kind of camera you have to know exactly what you want to do and decide on a frame in a very conscious way. I need more improvisation and less control even though I think the result of the large format has very often more quality. I’m more of a messy kid I guess. 

Conversation with Estelle Hanania, Paris, October 2013. Photography by Études Studio.