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October 18, 2023

18 >> 20

Photography by Elsa Arrais
Words by Paulo Kellerman
Excerpt from interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico

Elsa Arrais is a photographer living and creating impressive work in Leiria, Portugal. Born in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Elsa has become a beautiful thread in the tapestry of Portugal. With a background in Engineering, her attraction to visual arts emerged almost imperceptibly and gradually photography became her means of expression and artistic object.

Elsa is married and the mother of two beautiful children, living and being inspired by the intricacies of the city of Leiria. Here Elsa has forged a path for her photography by embracing the artists and writers that bring life and character to Leiria in new and exciting ways. In 2021 began an important journey in photography contributing to the collaborative group Fotographar Palavras, and becoming an integral part of their project. Fotographar Palavras is a group founded by Paulo Kellerman, that combines the talent of writers and photographers, engaging them to collaborate on translating words into photography. Elsa shares her inspiration.

“Since 2021, I have contributed to the Fotografar Palavras project, where I often search the self-portrait for the defining elements of meaning. With a predilection for minimalist black and white, my visual exploration is guided by local and temporal ephemera, transforming the peculiarities of the details that I find, in the streets I wander, into brief windows, fragments or reflections of memories and personal essences.”

Despite all these years living in Leiria, Elsa never felt a real connection with the city. As a mother of two children, it can be hard to find time to call your own, to focus on what inspires you as an artist, and to commit to making the time to create work. These disconnections became the motivation for the photographic base concept of this project ‘18>>20’, which was conceived to embrace these challenges, and create meaningful work.

Elsa shares the creative and critical thinking processes that helped her breathe life into her project and give it a powerful direction.

“This project emerged with the intention of connecting me with the city and naturally with myself. The use of a 28mm lens served to reinforce this aim of proximity and intimacy with the city, both metaphorically and technically. From this reflection of my relationship with the city, capturing both details and subtleties as well as the city's identity marks, at the end of this project I came across a series of images that subtly lead to a city-shelter. This theme ended up being as personal as it was universal and will therefore serve as the basis for a cycle of reflective conversations developed in partnership with the municipality of Leiria, publisher of the book.”

With critical thoughts and ideologies in place, the creative process becomes the focus. Elsa was driven to make the commitment to create this work in a meaningful way.

“During one year, always at the same time of the day (between 18 and 20 o’clock), I wandered around the city and photographed Leiria freely. I created a collection of hundreds of images, composing a subtle and emotional portrait of the city, capturing details and subtleties, permanence and mutations, the subtle identity marks that define the soul of constructions and nature, of spaces, of people.

From each weekly selected photograph by Paulo Kellerman, he created a brief text (amalgamation of fiction, philosophical reflection and poetic narrative) that offers new possibilities of reading for those images.

The aim of this collaborative work (52 weeks, 52 photos, 52 texts) was to compose a simultaneously artistic, emotional, poetic and imagery portrait of the city in a predetermined period of time, in an intimate relationship between emotion and reflection, urbanism and privacy, collective and individual, space and time, image and word.”

One can make a significant statement through their personal work, while sometimes the power can be amplified by combining artistic energy and vision from another artist to create an entity larger than oneself. This was the dynamic and inspiration for both artists to produce this relevant work together. Elsa explains the relationship between her and Paulo Kellerman, and how effective they have become at exchanging artistic concepts and visions through photography and word.

“Fascinated by the various readings, interpretations and meanings that are normally attributed to my photographs by observers, already collaborating at the time in a project that combines literature and photography and being an avid supporter of multidisciplinary and interconnection of various artistic expressions, the partnership with the local writer Paulo Kellerman came naturally. Mutual respect and trust in individual works allowed us both to be free in the process of creating images and texts. And it was from this freedom, trust, interconnection of interpretations, individual complicities with the city and complicities between photographer and writer that a new vision as collective as personal was born, created week after week. This process culminated in the publication of a book where growth and discoveries are shared.”

Paulo Kellerman shares his experience collaborating with Elsa on this project together.

“The project 18 » 20 was an amazing creative experience, based on the complicity between writer and photographer. We had time for this project, and that was very important to us: to have the opportunity to think about and discuss the project, to experiment, to see how it slowly materialized. Elsa is very enthusiastic, very determined, very challenging, very cooperative, very generous; it was an enormous pleasure to work with her and I think it shows in the book. I'm very proud of the work we achieved and also of the way we did it, the process in itself. It was a perfect example of co-creation: sharing and creating together, harmonizing points of views and aesthetics, learning with the other, putting the best of each one in the pursuit of a common goal.”

Elsa has created new pathways she follows through the streets of Leiria with her photography. She has embraced a philosophy and vision that inspires her to utilize photography in meaningful ways to create important work. As an artist and photographer, she works with clear vision, and an open mind to learn more and to be influenced in creating new ways of seeing and understanding the world around her.

“We exist in a present where photography is as accessible as it is conditioned. Accessible to everyone at the touch of a cell phone but restricted in many contexts to those who want to use it in the shared space as a form of artistic expression. Based on this dichotomy, Elsa Arrais searches in the commonplace of everyday life for a voice that many times echoes beyond the expressiveness of a face; her search for notable physical expressions, as well as places' identity details, seeks to establish words capable of awakening emotions and imaginary (and imagery) interpretations in external observers, usually keeping the identity and intimacy of those portrayed intact.

The result of this balance between technique, emotion and delicacy is the creation of an ambivalent language dictionary, as complex as it is simple, which oscillates between light and shadow, geometry and emptiness, being and its outer contour, the concrete and distortion; between what remains immutable and what continues under construction; between freedom and repression.

As an existential metaphor, this dictionary continues its quest for permanent growth and mutation, in the hope that one day it will become extinct or transformed into a grammar that, complete in itself, forms part of the universal language of images of the present in which we exist. The present where photography is as accessible as it is conditioned, and therefore needs dictionaries.”

Elsa Arrais has presented in national and international exhibitions and magazines, co-author of the book ‘18 >>20’, and currently contributes to several projects that combine literature and photography. Have a look at her portfolio and follow her links for new ways of seeing and thinking about photography.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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