Interview with photographer and author, Alice Pierre!
Ahead of her upcoming Write me a Novel exhibition that launches online in early September, Britain Uncovered had the opportunity to speak with the project’s creator, Alice Pierre, about everything the project entails. We discuss how the concept first came to light, the importance of the human body in relation to the project, Alice’s views on her own body confidence, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Alice! It’s been great following your work both as a photographer and as a creative writer, and we’re looking forward to discussing your upcoming exhibition in great detail! When did you first become interested in writing and photography, and would you say that you’ve always been a creative person at heart?
Alice: Hello and thank you! Yes, I believe it is fair to say that I have always been creative. My parents made sure that my sister and I always had a creative outlet to experience as kids, and I think I was about five or six years old when I asked my mother if she could write down the story I had imagined.
Writing has always been a big part of my life, but I really started developing it during my time as an editor for the French student magazine at my alma mater, Concordia University (in Montréal, Québec). We had one theme per publication, and I was able to develop my voice as a writer through the short stories I was writing for them.
Photography as an art came slightly later, during the professional diploma I completed after my bachelor’s – although I had always enjoyed making pictures of people and their lives during my travels and was told a few times that I had an eye for visual composition.
Britain Uncovered: You're also currently serving as the Editor in Chief for The Verse, the University of Brighton's official newspaper. How much do you enjoy working on this publication, and how have you helped influence the editorial direction thus far? Are there particular topics or areas that you've been keen to provide coverage to, perhaps?
Alice: Yes, I’m about to start my second year in this role, and am really looking forward to it! As you can imagine, the pandemic hasn’t been very helpful, because covering events such as concerts and plays wasn’t possible this past year. However, I really enjoyed assigning and editing more political pieces; for example, about the living situation for students in Brighton.
One thing I really wanted to work on was the fact that The Verse is described as a newspaper ‘for students and by students’. In that idea, I started a new section called ‘Graduates’ in which we interview and talk about students who just graduated and their artistic projects (such as fashion, illustration, film etc.). I think it’s very important that we talk more about what the students are doing with the university and what is happening on campus for them to feel more concerned by what we publish, and to create a stronger sense of community within the university – especially after the year we’ve had, during which most of us were scattered around the world and not always able to meet our teachers and fellow students in person.
Britain Uncovered: Combining your photography with your work as a writer, you’re currently working on your upcoming Write me a Novel exhibition – which will be an online project launching later in the year. What can you tell us about this concept, and are we right in thinking that the original idea actually began a couple of years ago when you started writing a novel on some of your friends’ bodies?
Alice: Yes, Write me a Novel was born in October 2018 in Montréal, during my Professional Photography Diploma.
I was doing my first studio photoshoot, and it just came to me that it could be fun to write the beginning of my novel on a trio of bodies. It was quite hectic because the three professional models I had hired bailed on me at the last minute and I had to find replacements for them, which turned out to be amazing! Three of my friends showed up, and they had such incredible chemistry. Even though they had never met, they really managed to comfort me in the idea that my ideas weren’t stupid and that I was doing something interesting. The project evolved a lot over time (you can read about it in more details on the exhibition website), but the main idea stayed: writing my own words on three bodies.
At the moment, Write me a Novel is based on a short story called You Can Go Anywhere in Paris in Under 30 Minutes, which belongs to the genre of autofiction. I always use personal experience when I write, but it became very important for me that this particular story highlighted every woman I could be, as well as the ones I am influenced by, whether good or bad. I very rarely write from the point of view of women, and it was really interesting seeing it unfold in my mind, and then on the bodies.
Britain Uncovered: The centrepiece of the project involved a photoshoot at the Capture Factory Studios in Brighton back in July, and we’ve been really impressed with the photos we’ve seen from the day – and it’s fascinating seeing your original text scribbled all over the models! Before we get into the shoot itself, can you tell us a little about the planning stages? How did you go about selecting the models involved, and what mood or ambience were you hoping to achieve via the shoot?
Alice: Thank you! It is actually very fascinating for me too, because we’re used to seeing our work on paper or on a screen, but this canvas is very different, and seems to be bringing the whole story to life. I have to admit, the planning of the photoshoot was rather stressful. What I had in mind were three women with different shapes and sizes, different hair colour, etc. – which didn’t quite work out in the end, mostly because of the pandemic.
Of the three original models who were selected back in April (the photoshoot took place in July), only one of them actually made it in the end. However, she did bring along one of her friends when I asked her if she knew anyone available, and the third model is actually a very close friend of mine, whom I have known for three years now.
I then had to find a space, which seemed impossible at first, because most studios in Brighton wouldn’t allow more than three or four people at a time. So basically, I either had the models in there on their own, or myself and two of them, which didn’t really make sense for what I had in mind. I think part of me was definitely trying to recreate the first Write me a Novel photoshoot, even though I knew it wouldn’t be possible.
Although I kept the idea of a black background, strong contrast and bodies working close together, limbs intertwining, most of my favourite poses from 2018 were completely improvised by the models, which is why they were so striking, even though it makes them hard to copy.
The way I handle the models and photoshoots in general has also evolved a lot since my first studio experience, and I have learned to let go a lot, allow the models to have fun while giving indications when needed, and understand that the photoshoot doesn’t stop when we say it does. Some of my favourite photographs were made during what were supposed to be test shots, or when the girls were relaxing and dancing around at the end of the day.
Britain Uncovered: How did the shoot go on the day, and is it powerful seeing your work etched all across these different bodies? Does this new canvas bring the words to life and impact the meaning or interpretation of the text itself, or give you (as the author) a different perspective? Is it gratifying seeing your words ‘come to life’?
Alice: The photoshoot went amazingly, in huge part because of the team. Everyone got really excited about the whole project, and I think it really helped that all of us more or less knew each other. It is indeed very powerful seeing my work written on them, especially because I got to write a huge chunk of it myself – there is something quite cathartic about writing your own story (literally and figuratively, as they are my words, and there is an autobiographical facet to this piece) on somebody else, and it was really interesting seeing how their bodies were appropriating the words. It was as if my story was becoming their own, or one that we share and experience together.
A body definitely brings the words to life because every shadow, muscle, tattoo, scar, hair, and movement is going to alter the words in some way, by hiding them in part or changing their shape, and that it is extremely important to the project, because I want the viewer to be able to create their own story with what they witness.
During the photoshoot, and after, we were discussing the fact that we all entered a sort of meditative, trance-like state when we were writing the words, because it was impossible to keep track of what each sentence meant, and the feeling of an eyeliner pencil stroking one’s skin is very relaxing, somewhat like a massage. Éloïse, one of the models, rightly pointed out that we were actually focusing on the poetry of the words and letting go of the story’s meaning. Which is all for the better, as the story is not meant to be read in its entirety.
Britain Uncovered: Although this is somewhat different to the various body positivity photoshoots we’ve held for Britain Uncovered, the body is still very much at the heart of the images you also created. How significant is the human body element, and do you find these types of photoshoots inspiring or empowering to be a part of?
Alice: The human body has always been at the centre of my photography – after all, I started out by taking pictures of locals in countries I was visiting, mainly because they had so much more to convey than a building or a sunset view. I love capturing everything the human body can do, how it interacts with others and how it changes from one person to the other and how they act in front of the camera. Which is why I have loved working with dancers so far, and endeavour to include movements that can relate to dancing in every photoshoot I do. I always find it more inspiring to work with the human body because it allows for a never-ending renewal of creativity and inspiration.
Britain Uncovered: How do you wish viewers to perceive the human body in this unique context, and what is the significance of the human body being featured in this way? Is the body intended to be seen in a celebratory light, or are you seeking to normalise/desexualise the body, perhaps?
Alice: I believe that Write me a Novel is celebrating the human body by showing off the many facets of what it can be: a vessel carrying a story, a canvas for art, a mirror for the author who identifies with other people and uses them as inspiration. Each model more or less became their character during the photoshoot (they each have one chapter written on them, and each chapter is centred around one character), to the point that one of them decided to have two sentences permanently tattooed on her arm.
I think it both normalises and desexualises the body, because they are not completely naked and do not need to be: nudity would probably take something away from the project, when I am simply showing that so much more can be done with the body, especially in art – why close oneself off from different types of canvases?
Britain Uncovered: What are some of the major challenges with a shoot like this, and were you ultimately happy with the end results you achieved on the day?
Alice: I would say that finding models who wouldn’t mind being in their underwear on the internet was definitely the hardest. Although this is supposed to be art, and we are all exposed to partial/full nudity on social media, it’s not always easy to see yourself in that particular light, and the reaction from viewers is not always the one we expect.
I remember one of the covers of the student literary magazine I used to work for in Canada, on which one could see the backs of three naked bodies on a white background. It was beautiful, simple, and elegant, and yet was dubbed by many at the university as ‘pornography’. I had this in mind when it was time to ask myself whether or not I wanted the models to be naked or wearing underwear, and I am glad that I opted for the latter, because it allows the viewer to concentrate on the concept of Write me a Novel and the movement of the bodies, rather than sexualizing these three women and finding ways to criticise the project.
After that, it was just all about making sure that we would have enough time to shoot, because writing on the models took a good three hours – which is all completely worth it because yes, I am very, very happy with the results.
Britain Uncovered: Where do you stand on the body positivity movement in general, and would you consider yourself to be a 'body confident' person? Is promoting body confidence a particular aim of your work, or just a happy by-product to arise from what you’re already doing?
Alice: I don’t think I can be described as a ‘body confident’ person, no. Like everyone, there are things about my body that I would prefer to change, even though I have started, over the past few years, to accept myself for who I am, rather than who and what someone else wants me to be. And I know I have the body positivity movement to thank for that, at least in part.
Whenever I do a photoshoot, I want the people posing for me to feel confident and beautiful. As I see it, that’s the goal of photography: to show a person whole, with all their flaws and strengths, is beauty. Every little scar, stretch mark, every inch of skin and hair that we have is who we are, and rather than pointing out everything we cannot be, we should be highlighting and celebrating what our bodies already do for us, and what they will continue doing to make us grow and live.
Britain Uncovered: As a photographer, do you feel as though you have a platform to help people of all shapes and sizes to feel more confident about themselves? Is body positivity an area you might wish to work in more in the future, and does helping people see the beauty in themselves through your photography one of the most rewarding parts of the job?
Alice: I remember being quite impressionable when I started thinking about photography as a career. Most of what I was seeing in fashion magazines and on social media related to losing weight, hiding one’s body, and sticking to an ‘ideal’. I even remember my photography teacher saying that we should always pick people who are beautiful to photograph, because otherwise what’s really the point. And although I have loved the photoshoots I have done thanks to him, my vision of beauty has changed a lot since, along with the evolution of my work.
Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to do a photoshoot with a friend of mine, who was going through pancreatic cancer and wanted to reconnect with her body. We showed off her scar, her tattoos and her wrinkles, and it was extremely rewarding to see her accept her new body, the one that she hadn’t gotten used to love yet.
That same summer, I started a new series called ‘summer portraits’ for which I take portraits of people with natural lighting, no makeup, and showing off natural expressions born out of laughter and conversations. Most of the models who took part in this last project said that they loved seeing themselves that way: unedited, happy, and natural.
I guess I hadn’t thought of any of these projects as part of the body positivity movement until now: as long as the people who pose for me are happy with the final result, and/or see themselves in a new light, which gives them more confidence, I feel like I have done my job in the best way possible.
Britain Uncovered: Finally, where, and when will people be able to experience the final results from the project, and how will viewers be able to experience the photos along with your story simultaneously?
Alice: Write me a Novel will be available on its own website, writemeanovel.com on September 3, 2021. Viewers will be able to see how the project started, three years ago, and how it evolved, before stepping in the actual exhibition. There, they will have the opportunity to look at a selection of photographs, while hearing parts of the story being read out loud by a friend of mine. At the end, they will get the chance to write their own version of a story, a dream, a situation, or anything creative that was inspired by what they have seen, read and heard.
- As mentioned above, ‘Write Me a Novel’ officially launches online on September 3, and you will be able to access the exhibition by visiting writemeanovel.com. You can also follow Alice on Instagram and see more of her work over at @alicepierre.