How One French Photographer Is Documenting Herself While Social Distancing
Throughout history, presenting oneself through a self-portrait has been an evocative means of self-expression. From Frida Kahlo depicting herself in her paintings to Robert Mapplethorpe turning the camera lens on himself, visuals starring the individuals who produced them have always helped tell a bigger story. That’s precisely why Adeline Rapon, a Paris-based jewelry designer and photographer, decided to begin documenting herself, self-portraiture style, in isolation.
When she started social distancing back in March, Rapon began sharing daily self-portraits that only captured moments of her time spent in quarantine, but also thoughtfully—and quite literally—tapped into the past. “I felt posting as if nothing was going on would feel off,” explains Rapon of what compelled her to narrow in on a singular theme. “I wanted to take photos, but needed a purpose—something that would be educational.” In the spirit of exploring and celebrating her French West Indian roots, Rapon decided to riff on a Pinterest board she’d made featuring vintage photos of women from Martinique and Guadeloupe. “I thought it would be a great subject for a series, and that’s how it started: one picture a day, re-creating an image with text explaining the culture and context around it,” she explains. Here, Rapon talks through her recently wrapped self-portrait series, revealing how the images came to be, and how they helped serve as an emotional release.
You recently wrapped up your self-portrait series. How did it come to be?
I have a folder on my Pinterest with many old photos of women from Martinique and Guadeloupe, and I thought it would be a great subject for my self-portrait series. My mother is from Corrèze, in the South of France, and my father is from Martinique. As a biracial woman, my culture is French, but also West Indian, and even though Martinique is under French control, there’s still racial discrimination. So it can be a bit hard to live in harmony with both sides. But I loved doing these pictures every day, and even more so when I realized that so many people enjoyed it.
The thing is, many of the postcards I pinned are actually very objectifying, as they were mostly sent by tourists to show what people looked like in the islands. I desperately looked for paintings depicting those women, and I can tell you that they are like a needle in the haystack. I wanted to show another side of the lives of West Indian women, and by re-creating certain images, I could really look at those women in another way, which was the purpose of this project. Almost all the images and paintings are from right after the abolition of slavery in 1848, around the end of the 19th century through first part of the 20th century. I did a lot of research to find the right way to channel those women, and almost always gave an explanation, as well as a short biography when it was possible.
What kind of camera do you use to shoot your self-portraits, and how do you go about styling yourself for them?
I shot with my Canon 650D, using different lenses, and a little remote to be able to shoot myself without help. The editing was mostly about lighting, but I had so little clothing with me, I also changed a lot of the color of the fabrics. As for styling, it depended on whom I was channeling. Sometimes I wouldn’t wear any makeup, but if the woman in the image I was re-creating was wearing it, I tried to be accurate. It was mostly lipstick and mascara. The most challenging thing was the hairstyles with le maré tèt (the headscarf) because I had to guess how to redo everything with a little tablecloth.
It’s hard to choose favorites, but what were a few standout moments for you in this series?
__La Coiffure:__ This was the first time that I changed the colors of my dress, and I was really proud of that.
__Maria l’Antillaise:__ This was pretty hard to do because I had to chase the sun. It was blinding me, while everything was falling apart, my hair, my blouse.... But I’m happy because I really wanted to have this particular lighting to be different as the original picture by Nadar, which is already perfect on its own.
__Rire de Rêve:__ I discovered Adrienne Fidelin, a woman from Martinique, in the exhibition Le Modèle Noir. She was painted by Man Ray in this poetic way that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Her story is a bit sad. They were lovers, lived in Paris, and he photographed her all the time and considered her a muse. She was the first black girl to pose in an American fashion magazine. But as soon as the World War II started, Man Ray came back to his country and forgot her, barely mentioning her in his biography. She died in a nursing home.
Now that the series is finished, what have been your biggest takeaways for future projects?
I will still wear traditional clothes, talk about my culture, share everything I can, and have a purpose in posting. I would love to make an exhibition or a book out of this self-portrait series—I think it deserves another medium where I can explain the context further and have discussions. Through this project, I discovered that I love to tell stories and also to share beauty. I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most, being this able to have the time to think and work on something like this.