An interview with Sandra Mehl
Sandra Mehl won our recent theme ‘Youthhood’ with her wonderfully dynamic image of a young French girl, Maddelena, climbing the wall next to her home. It’s an image imbued with youthful imagination, celebrating an escape from dull surroundings, in an aesthetically rich composition.
The image comes from Sandra’s social documentary series ‘Maddelena et Ilona’, which follows the exploits of these two captivating young girls, and in doing so comments on how the media tends to portray the working class. It’s a poignant and timely message, captured through gorgeous, intimate compositions.
We sat down with Sandra to ask her more about how the series developed, about her journey into photography, and about how she uses a personal subject matter to frame a type of social activism.
Hi Sandra – Firstly, congratulations on winning our eighth theme ‘Youthhood’. Can you tell us a little more about the image?
This image was taken last December, on the day of Maddelena’s birthday. She became 11 years old. For the occasion, she wore a golden dress with sparkles, and vivid red fake nails. She was very happy and decided to go out, even though it was cold. She climbed the wall of her building, the unit 26 of the Gély neighbourhood, with a lot of freedom, without taking into account the looks of people.
Tell us about your background? How did you first get into photography, and what led you down a documentarian path?
I am a self-taught photographer, with a background in social sciences: I have masters degrees in both sociology and political sciences. I started photography when I was teenager and my passion has always been photographing people: my family, my friends and the people I meet when travelling. I started working on long term projects 4 years ago. For me, there is a narrow link between social sciences and photography: on one hand you try to understand the way societies function, and on the other hand you show it with images.
The first image I made of Maddelena and Ilona, in front of their building in the Gély neighbourhood of Montpellier, while they were walking their three dogs.
The image is from your series ‘Ilona et Maddelena’. Tell us what that series is about, and how it fits into your larger body of work about ‘France’s forgotten class’. How did you meet Ilona and Maddelena, and what first attracted you to photographing them?
I started this series in July 2015. I wanted to develop a project about the neighbourhood called the “Cité Gély”, which is next to the one I live in, in Montpellier, south of France. It is a poor neighbourhood, and I wanted to tell the stories of its people. I met Ilona and Maddelena walking their dogs at the bottom of their neighbourhood, and I decided to concentrate on their daily life. I was immediately struck by the imaginary fantasy world they seem to hold inside of themselves.
This project fits into a bigger project of mine about the French working class. Every time the media deals with the working class, the view is that it lacks everything (education, income, healthy people etc…). My aim is to show that people from this social class also hold a real and solid culture.
There’s a real intimacy to your work – it seems like you had unprecedented access into Maddelena and Ilona’s lives, and that they became very comfortable with having you around. How did the relationship develop?
I come from the working class. And when I was their age, I used to live in a similar neighbourhood. I felt immediately at ease when I met theirs parents and when I spent time with them. Maybe there is a mutual understanding between us that enables me to be intimate with them.
I’ve told Maddelena, Ilona and their parents about the prizes and press this work has received, but it’s like the wind passing through their living room – they are happy, but then daily life returns very quickly. They’re always very interested in the images I give to them. Their mother knows that I’m building An account of family memories for the two girls, and I think this is the main reason she lets me photograph them with so much freedom.
Viewing the images, I’m struck by the power of childhood imagination. The girls’ creative capacity to escape their basic surroundings into world of fantasy. Did you encourage that in them for your images? Or was it more of a case of photographing what you saw unaltered?
I have never had to push them in a direction. They are naturally creative and full of fantasy. That’s why I didn’t feel any necessity to create scenes with them. Sometimes reality is more original and deeper than fiction, and with Ilona and Maddelena this is the case.
Do you have a favourite image from the series?
It depends of the moment. But the one that won the prize belongs to them!
Maddelena, her mother Françoise, her sister Ilona and their father Thierry at the church, for the two girls’ first communion.
Maddelena playing with the tablet that she got for her birthday, in the bedroom that she shares with her sister Ilona and her mother Françoise.
What do you hope that viewers take from the series? Is there a political message at the heart of it? And what did you learn from the teenagers Ilona and Maddelena yourself?
Yes, there is a small political message in this work. I hope that it encourages people to see the working class in a different way – to consider that there is also beauty in this social class.
And working with Ilona and Maddelena reminded me that teenagehood is not only the age of weakness but also the age of strength; when it seems possible to overcome everything.
What other photographers, or other things outside of photography inspire you?
Music. Sometimes, when I photograph, I have music playing in my head and it pushes me towards some kind of images rather than others. The images I make are like a part of a mental film that I play in my head. For instance, I’ve just discovered a few days ago the Danish musician Agnès Obel. I’ll push the mental button to play the song “It’s Happening Again” when I next see again Ilona and Maddelena. That’s for sure!
And photography of course. Photographers like Lise Sarfati, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Nick Waplington inspire me a lot.
And finally, what next for your work with Ilona and Maddelena?
The series so far will be exhibited from the 15th December until the end of March at the National French Library François Mitterrand. And after that I’ll continue following Ilona and Maddelena in their daily lives – until they’re adults or even grandmothers…
“Working with Ilona and Maddelena reminded me that teenagehood is not only the age of weakness but also the age of strength; when it seems possible to overcome everything”.