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Without a Face
Izabella Demavlys started out as a fashion photographer. Years later, she is still interested in beauty; it’s just her definition of beauty that has changed. As I was looking at her portraits of acid attack victims in Pakistan, I realized: certain pictures you take (or see) and then you move on. But certain images you take (or see) and they pull you into themselves and stay with you.
GL: You photographed this woman in what seems like a traditional, painterly ‘Virgin Mary’ pose. Head slightly tilted, looking gently away. Her face is horribly disfigured. What is it like for you now, years later, when you look at it?
ID: I shot several women before I met Bushra. So, I was rather calm and focused. Bushra was also very comfortable with herself and we were actually joking around before I took this picture. She was one of the most grounded of all the women I shot for this particular project; she made me feel at ease.
The decision to travel to Pakistan had changed how I view things in life. I have an emotional connection with the ‘Without a Face’ series, more than with any other series I have done. It marks a huge shift in my life both spiritually and professionally.
GL: When talking about portraits we seldom discuss what they meant for the subject of the picture. There’s always a ‘contract’ between photographer and subject and a classical studio portrait is a combination of the photographer’s vision of the subject and of the subjects’ ideas about how they want to see themselves. Do you know how these women felt when you took their pictures?
ID: Because I was shooting with my Sinar 4″x5″, I was taking Polaroids as well, so all the women whom I shot for this project had a choice of seeing the picture before it was taken. Some of them didn’t want to see the Polaroids, some of them did and then changed their hair or make-up. Bushra, who is portrayed in this picture, actually changed the scarf and wanted the white scarf for the picture in instead.
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to shoot her as the Virgin Mary. I think growing up and being surrounded with and collecting catholic iconography might have subconsciously made me portray her as the Virgin Mary when she put the white veil on.
To me Bushra represented a woman who, after so many years after her attack, had achieved a state of acceptance. She was smiling in all of her pictures and was hugging me and chatting away afterwards. She embodied everything that I went to look for in Pakistan – beauty and what that really meant to me.
GL: How do these pictures fit in your opinion into the centuries-old tradition of portrait painting/photography?
ID: I grew up in a household where both my parents were interested in the arts and both of them painted a lot – I was surrounded by art books from all kinds of artist and painters, such as Van Eyck, Bronzino, Vermeer, to name a few, and they are painters that still inspire me today. When it comes to portrait photography I am inspired by Paul Strand, Alec Soth, Rineke Dijkstra. The interest in the tradition of portraiture and the aesthetics of the large-format camera will always be present in my work.
Looking back on my old fashion work, most of my editorials were portraiture/fashion stories inspired by other great portrait photographers and painters. I once did a whole black-and-white fashion editorial inspired by Bronzino’s – Eleonore of Toledo & her Son Giovanni de Medici – but it wasn’t too popular. Magazine editors always wanted my images to be sexier, when I wanted it to go the opposite direction. No wonder I got tired of the fashion world.
GL: An image, technically, is just the surface it takes up on paper or on a screen. These portraits simply do not allow you to stay there. It’s a vortex that pulls you in and I really cannot describe it in any other way, that what I feel is pure, unbearable pain. So, in a way, these are photographs that ‘undo’ themselves: they stop being stills, moments in time – they become an event, a history.
ID: I didn’t want to reduce these women’s existence to one single event in time – though their stories and their scarred faces are parts of their identity. I want people to see this – as a reminder of what is wrong with our world and what needs to be changed.
I think when you look at the series of Saira in her home it forces you to try to understand what life after such event can look like, and that life still can mean happy moments spent with your family. Because life does move on for these women and they are forced to embrace and deal with these horrific events and they do that with so much grace and courage.
GL: You are also shooting a film about this topic. Instead of still images, you have decided to use moving images.
ID: I felt I needed to continue this project within another medium; I wanted to explore it even further and see if I could make a film about the same issue. Making a film is a totally different ball game and requires even more planning, structure and funding than working with a photography project. Suddenly, sound or what people are saying become a lot more important. I can shoot hours of film, beautiful cinematography, but without any interesting dialogue going on it stays just that – images. Editing is also a complicated process when it comes to film and I can already see that this part will be much harder than I have previously anticipated.
Someone told me once: “Forget about still photography, it has nothing to do with filmmaking!” He was right.
GL: What equipment did you use for these portraits?
ID: For my portrait work I use a Sinar 4″x5″, 150mm lens, f/5.6, shutter speed between 1/60-1/125. I used the natural light in the office of the NGO I was working with at that time. I always use film with my personal projects, and yes it’s an aesthetic choice. I like the 6×7 and the 4″x5″ format, I have problems with the 35mm format, it feels too cropped to me.
GL: What about post?
ID: In my previous work as a fashion photographer there was a huge amount of retouching. Now there is none, just some dogging and burning, that’s all. I never crop my images in post.
GL: What motivates your choice of black-and-white or color?
ID: I mostly work in color but sometimes I pick up a roll of black-and-white or two after I’ve shot all my color film.
GL: In most of your other images from Pakistan and Afghanistan, e.g. in the Saira images you never go as close to your subjects as you do in these portraits. You stay ‘politely’ at a slightly greater distance; you’re close but not intimately close.
ID: I wanted it to be a traditional head and shoulders set of portraits. Working with a 4″x5″ camera and with the lens I had I needed to be careful not to get too close in order to avoid any distortions. But, out of respect for these women, it was never my intention to get closer than this. They are close-ups but not intimately close. I wanted details of their skin but made an artistic choice to keep the aperture wide open to keep parts of the image softer.
GL: The picture of the young woman feeding her child is another painfully beautiful religious icon. It is almost idyllic but there seems to be a deep shadow under the mother’s right eye. As a viewer it makes me uncomfortable, the idyll is broken. Am I making this up? Or is it really in the image?
ID: I travelled to the Bamyan province in Afghanistan where I visited the Bamyan Hospital founded by the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS). I took this photo at the female ward where mothers came in with their malnourished babies. In this particular case the baby was dying. (Afghanistan has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world; almost 20% of children die under the age of five.)
When I met the mother and started to communicate with her through the translator – she smiled while her baby was passing away. She did have a black eye – probably due to domestic violence. It was a sad and awkward moment. She couldn’t even have been 20 years old.
We saw a lot of very young mothers at the ward with their very sick children that day.
GL: You move a lot between color and black-and-white. At what point do you decide if color is something you’re interested in or not? Do you always have two film cameras with you?
No, in Afghanistan I worked with a single Pentax 6×7 camera. When I felt that I was ready with my color shots I moved to black-and-white film. I always start with color. This image was shot on T-Max 100 film, f/4, shutter speed between 1/30 -1/60 with a 55mm lens.
GL: What do you think about beauty? Do you think that this portrait is beautiful? (Or is it just pain organized into a frame, into color and grain?)
ID: I would like to ask you the question – what is beauty? Why can’t this portrait be beautiful? Can this woman change someone’s perspective about beauty?
I went from the fashion world where beauty is only ‘skin deep’ – what you see is what you get and people in this world will only judge you by that. But there has to be something more to it all doesn’t it? I think so. For me beauty radiates through how you make an example of yourself to others. How you directly or indirectly inspire others through your personal struggles and through your accomplishments in life.
But I guess as much as I tried to convey this in these images, I am the only one who can truly understand this because I have met these women in person and have felt their beauty. Most people will see only sadness and pain. I guess all the dimensions of a person cannot be viewed in one single photograph.
(To see more of Izabella Demavlys’ pictures visit her website at www.izabellademavlys.com. All images © Izabella Demavlys and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)