This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
Photographer Gaëlle Elma was born in Haiti and now lives in Montréal. Her work revisits our perceptions of racialized bodies, with images anchored in vulnerability and the gentleness of nature. What emerges are authentic portraits that seem to emerge from a suspended world, where the subject is sheltered from external social mechanisms.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I’ve always had a love for photography, but I was 18 when I really became aware of it. I had just left home and I was searching for myself. I wanted to find out who Gaëlle Elma really was. I was on a quest to find myself, after having spent long years trying to erase myself in order to please others.
What photograph(s) or photographer(s) have influenced you the most?
There are several, but the person who often comes to mind is Graciela Iturbide—a Mexican photographer, artist, and great dreamer. You become attached to Iturbide’s photos, because it feels like she tells the most beautiful stories.
What do you like the most about water as a backdrop for your portraits?
Water symbolizes so many things for me: safety, the freedom to be vulnerable, our relationship to nature and Mother Earth. When I’m in the water or surrounded by trees, I feel enveloped in warmth and maternal protection. I feel at home.
Have your view of photography changed with the current context and the BLM protests around the world?
No. My unique and personal view as a Black woman has not changed. It’s the view of some others around me that has changed. They’re starting to see me and my pigmentation, which is a positive thing, because before that they didn’t see the colour of my skin. They didn’t see me at all.
What are you trying to capture in the subjects you choose?
I would like for my subjects to be unafraid of intimacy—and of being vulnerable. Whether with themselves or with the people around them.
Is there a story or a place captured in photography that has particularly impacted you?
Yes. When I first came to Montréal, I contacted a girl over Instagram. We took a two-hour bus ride together to the beach at Cap-Saint-Jacques. That day, I wanted to take photos of a girl who was proud of her body and her hair. A girl who was empowered and who walked with her head held high. A girl I desperately wanted to be. That session and that beach marked me so deeply I immediately started a series of photographs in the water, a series that is still in development.
What do you want to communicate to the people who look at your photos?
I started taking photographs to fill a void and to try to understand myself. My photos are the mirror of what I live and feel every day, and this is why I don’t have expectations of people. I’m just thankful they take the time to look at my photos.
What are you working on now?