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October 18, 2023

18 >> 20

Photography by Elsa Arrais
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.”

The Pictorial List asked Elsa some questions about her as a photographer, and co-creator of project and book ‘18>>20’.

“I truly aim for the viewer to be drawn into the city of Leiria and walk in it, along with us, having a temporal journey and identifying the subtleties we came across during the one year. I wish this work can make them question their own relationship with this city and with their home cities. And also hope that, amplified by Paulo Kellerman’s words, the viewer can get carried away by imagination and create their own stories and interpretations around the shared pictures projecting this skill to others' photos.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Elsa, thank you for your insight into your inspiring project. Tell our readers a little about yourself and the important role that photography has come to play in your life.

ELSA ARRAIS: I come from a typical middle class Portuguese family. For as long as I can remember, photography has always been present in our lives. In my parents' house I could always find framed photographs on dressers and walls. I remember my father showing photo-slides of significant family moments, seeing organized family photo albums and, later, seeing my brother experimenting with slow shutter speed or printing his photographs in an improvised darkroom at my parents' house basement. I was about sixteen years old when my brother gave me my first camera, a film point and shoot, easy to use but with a significant dimension in my ability to immortalize moments. I suppose I've always had a part of me connected to the visual aspect of the world around me, but at that time I still couldn't recognize it. This legacy of keeping significant moments in the form of photography continued to accompany me over the years and with the birth of my first daughter it was amplified, challenging me to explore and improve the photographic technique. With the arrival of Covid-19, and with it the first lockdown, the impossibility of visiting my parents and them going out led me to document the small hygienic walks, with the aim of bringing them a little of the beauty of a world they were prevented from seeing. In the beginning, they were photographs of small details that captured my attention, but as people returned to their daily routines, I began to become interested in including the human figure in my images, finally discovering my interest in street photography. On this trip I met extraordinary people with common interests, who helped me shape the artistic path I have been following. Today I can no longer imagine going out without a camera and, although there are many moments when I go out objectively to photograph for projects, it is still in the most unexpected moments that I manage to see and find the most special images.

TPL: How hard was it to devote a commitment of time to balance your creative work in photography and your love for your family and the unsurmountable work that can be 24/7. Do you think it is essential for women, or men that care for their families to make this time for themselves, and if so, why?

EA: It is definitely essential for anyone to have the possibility of using time for themselves in order to maintain an inner balance that allows them to remain persistent, tolerant and kind towards those around them on a daily basis. On a personal note, it was precisely photography that allowed me to balance both worlds, hiding behind the camera and using it as a physical and emotional barrier to create brief moments of detachment from family routines, even while within them.

TPL: How have you grown as a person from these two hours a day, as a photographer, as a mother, as a citizen of your community? How has your family grown from this experience?

When I walk through the streets of the city of Leiria, I finally feel the sensation of knowing every corner and alleys. The streets now have names, images, many stories and questions associated with them. The city is no longer just a city, it has become mine, both through the moments spent there and through seeing and reviewing the images collected and the texts created by Paulo Kellerman for them. I now understand that to have a sense of belonging, even in the case of a city, personal openness and genuine dedication are necessary.

In Portugal, the time range in which we developed the 18 » 20 project includes approximately seventy percent of the year twilight or night light, which means that as a photographer I was able to widely explore low-light environments. The fact that Leiria is a relatively small city forced me to pay extra attention in order to obtain original perspectives and images week after week, making it a demanding exercise that cuts across all my photographic explorations.

I often jokingly say that eighty percent of my photographs were taken with someone saying they are hungry, thirsty or need to go to the bathroom, as my children often accompany me on my photographic explorations. This project was no exception. Even so, it was never an impediment to facing it with dedication and rigor, quite the contrary, it proved to be an exercise of patience and joint growth. They were part of my vision, sometimes within the photographs, sometimes forcing me to see what my adult vision often doesn't see. My children are also co-authors of the look that is reflected in the images I produce. Deeply grateful for their precious help, when I make these forays into the life of the city, I also hope to illuminate the path to the possibilities of personal expression and forms of artistic contribution to the community.

Despite the reflection on my relationship with the city being something personal ended up proving to be universal. The municipality's interest in holding a cycle of conversations on the topic of Leiria city-shelter is clear evidence of the impact that this work had on the city management responsible and that it will certainly continue to happen on the Leiria community.

TPL: Since your work on this project, have you made connections to communities you did not have before, if so, explain what they are and the value or difference they have made in the way you engage your community now.

EA: Regardless of having connected myself to the city itself, being a shy person, I still feel that I haven't connected myself to the humans of Leiria community. Hopefully it may happen within the cycle of conversations. Despite this, it has led me to get involved in several different projects, where I have been using all the growing know-how from this project and making me take a next step into the photography world by talking and getting to know the local people.

TPL: Can you tell our readers what collaboration and working on projects have done for you, and the importance of setting goals, and committing to achieving them.

EA: For me, working on both individual and collective projects is a process of permanent learning. I always try to work on something meaningful, so it becomes intuitive to maintain focus and motivation, and the work flows naturally, especially on long-term projects.

Challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone is also something I try to do with each project. This helps me to continue studying and exploring more about photographic techniques, other arts, places and people. When I deliberately challenge myself, I know I'm going to do something I've never done before, I overcome my mental barriers and technical knowledge, which usually results in truly rewarding meaningful images.
Working objectively for projects, whether individual or collective, also helps me to establish visual priorities when I go out and to be methodical about categorizing the photographs that I regularly add to my image collection.

However, for a project to come to fruition, a certain degree of commitment is always necessary, and the first step is to clearly establish the objectives and methodology. Nevertheless, the biggest benefit I derive from involvement in all projects is undoubtedly personal. They have been a beautiful way to rediscover myself and meet other people. 18 » 20 is a clear example of this and would not have been possible without the complicity created with Paulo Kellerman.

Despite the reflection on my relationship with the city being something personal ended up proving to be universal.

TPL: What is some advice you can share about working on projects, and working with other people? What are some of the challenges you have come across, and how did you address them?

EA: As I mentioned previously, I like to see each project as a learning process. Coming from the science field, I am always aware that the mutation and evolution of objectives throughout the implementation of a project is part of the process. This is essential for work with more significant and better results but, above all, for us to be able to be motivated.

From my experience, in transdisciplinary collective projects it is important to maintain flexible thinking, without too preconceived ideas so that we are open to new perspectives and able to adjust to the ideas that emerge from the collaborative environment. This flexibility helps us learn more from individual shares, creating the right environment so that everyone can be surprised by the best of their contribution.

The biggest challenge I faced in collective projects was managing individual expectations. This happens mainly in projects that involve several people with equal decision-making power, which is why I emphasize the need not to idealize something too personal and concrete when joining a work group. As an example, I can mention a project in which I participate, and which involves thirteen people. Managing expectations regarding the materialization of the project has been somewhat delicate and the solution we found to speed up decisions was to work in an open manner, where the choices approved by the majority of participants are in force. It's not the perfect solution but it's respected by the entire group, and it works.

TPL: If you could work with any photographer for a day, from any time period, who would that be and why? What would you want to learn from them? What would you like to share with them?

EA: The history of photography is full of interesting people, with whom I would love to share a day with, so it is very difficult to answer this question in a few words. Having to choose, I will opt for some of the classics and first of all I have to say Josef Koudelka. I am fascinated by his images, by the intimate relationship he managed to create with the gypsy community, by the peculiar relationship he shows with architectural aspects, by the mix of rawness and poetry he achieves in each photograph, by his simpler and complex compositions.

I would love to spend a day with Saul Leiter, in a way his magnificent compositions show a certain shyness, with which I particularly identify myself, giving them a touch of intimacy in both his color and black and white work.

André Kertész would also be one of those chosen, as I really like the way he used distortions to create surrealist images, decontextualized objects and used small surprise elements in his compositions. The use of small format prints also makes all your work special.

As we are speaking of the Masters of Photography, I am positive that if it would be possible, I would rather learn than share.

TPL: You are heavily influenced by the written word, what are some of your favorite authors, what inspires you in their words?

EA: I confess that a great influence on my way of observing comes from the fact that I am an avid consumer of children's literature. Over the last twelve years I have spent a lot of time collecting and reading stories with my children by authors such as Leo Lionni, Hervé Tullet, Oliver Jeffers, Eric Carle, Jimmy Liao or Ana Juan. In these illustrated books the dynamics of composition, light and color serve a text, often very graphical and minimal. On a page, an image and a sentence, sometimes just a word, sometimes just the image, say it all. And it is in this world of saying a lot with little that I move with my camera and try to portray life.

Naturally, it is inevitable to talk about the written word and not think about Fotografar Palavras, as it is a project that keeps me connected with the most diverse authors and the most diverse literary expressions. Being mostly made up of Portuguese authors, Fotografar Palavras, in the form of its founder and coordinator Paulo Kellerman, permanently challenges me to give new meanings to my photographs or create unique images with the aim of significantly filling each line presented to me. Once this process begins, for me, any author or phrase can be the target of inspiration and it is extremely rewarding when the perfect words are found to describe an image and vice versa.

TPL: Do you have any new projects you are working on that you can share with us? What is their inspiration?

EA: I currently have several projects underway. Mostly collaborative and multidisciplinary, in general they encompass themes that I particularly identify with, such as different areas of artistic expression and relationships between people and spaces. For example, in one of the collaborative projects we are exploring critical areas of environmental value. With a theme that is both current and future, it is perhaps one of the most challenging projects I am involved in at the moment.

TPL: Where do you see Elsa Arrais in the next five years, what do you hope to achieve, are there any long-term goals?

EA: My path in photography has been very natural and spontaneous. My goals have come to life as opportunities arise, and I like that. But in general, I hope to continue meeting interesting and generous people who I can establish new bridges with, challenge myself, share work and complicities, continue to learn and carry out work with its own identity, interesting and meaningful.

TPL: When you are not conquering Leiria with your camera, what would we find you enjoying?

EA: When I'm not photographing you can find me playing with my children, dissecting photography books, visiting museums and art galleries (especially with my eldest daughter), listening to music, discovering new places and exploring old places.

Elsa Arrais has developed an eye and mind for insightful observations that she has learned to define through the lens like poetry, with much symbolism and meaning in her details. Her work is worthy of study, and with a deep look you’ll be swept away and walk the walk of the enlightened and inspired.

Elsa 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.

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