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Jean-Samuel N'Sengi

Performing photographer and videographer

A selection from N'Sengi's body of work.

Q: Is a portrait a performance?

A: I can directly answer, without hesitation, that a portrait is a performance, even more so in my practice.

In fact, in my opinion, everything that leads to a portrait is performative. Whether it is in the preparation of a model in the context of a fashion shoot, or in the set-up of the set, the decor (natural or staged), the use of different materials, studio lights (live or indirect). All these gestures are performative. A stolen portrait, taken without a person's knowledge, is also one, from the photographer's point of view. Since the photographer will adopt a certain behaviour, a certain attitude, to take the picture (voyeurism, observation without a person's knowledge).

To come back to my projects, whether this be a portrait that I take of a person or of myself. The whole ritual around it seems to me to be prepared, or at least played out, while remaining natural. I always want to create a space of time, a bubble in which there is only me and the model or models.

I still have a lot of trouble when people consider me as a photographer. I feel more like a performer, who at times decides to take the camera lens as an audience.

Q: What can a portrait do?

A: A portrait has to be appealing, whatever the project, the purpose, the message you want to convey. This detail will sometimes be played out according to the style or vision of the author. The portrait can be a very powerful tool. Politicians have understood this very well. We all have in mind portraits of Mao, Stalin and Hitler. I did not choose these personalities by chance, because the cult of personality could be seen, once again, as a performative act as well as an act of propaganda. The portrait is linked to a story, a philosophy, a regime...

Q: Where would you start if you portrayed me in an image?

A: I think I have very rarely called for shoots out of the blue. Normally everything happens as a result of a meeting, a connection, a form of relationship undertaken before the idea of a possible photographic project arises. When I start a project, I have this kind of directory or database in my head that I consult, while imagining this or that person in a certain context that I would like to photograph. So I think it would start with a discussion between us. A shared moment, before the shooting. Besides, it's a bit like my execution protocol. The sessions have always started with a tea, a coffee, some explanations, some references. A form of trust must be established between the model and I. It is this basis that will allow us to realise everything and anything in a consensual way. This common strength, this collaboration, will be felt in the final image.

Q: Do you agree if I say that by making a self-portrait you heal yourself?

A: There has always been a therapeutic dimension to my work. My self-portrait work began with this confrontation with my body that I did not accept, that I still do not accept at times. It was an encounter with this bodily envelope that is mine, in which I am stuck until the end of my existence. All these sessions allowed me to establish a form of complicity with my body. Which has become a tool of artistic expression. That allowed me to externalise all the disappointment and hatred that I could feel. When one of the members of my family could compare my homosexuality to a disease, a failure... There is this rather old thought, but that still exists today in certain cultures, that to be queer is to choose satan. That's exactly what I did in the series "The Initiation of Esther", I put in a scene my pact with the devil. The more the series evolved, the more Esther, my alter-ego, became enticing, manipulative and seductive.

Q: Does being unclothed in a portrait automatically frame the portrayed person in a sexual light?

A: I would say that it depends on the author's intention. But it would clearly be a pity to directly associate nudity and sex, in a vulgar and senseless way, I mean.


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