by Dieter Debruyne

© Teresa Lemme from the series 'Tide Over and Onto the Shore'

How did you get into taking pictures?

Teresa Lemme (TL): I started at an early age in a very playful way, while doing other creative activities. I remember when my sister first got a DSLR camera (still film) with a telephoto lens. During our holidays I often borrowed it and took snapshots. Afterwards, my family would ask: why did you take pictures of strangers? Who are those people? I didn’t know the word “street photography”. I felt a bit ashamed and voyeuristic. Photography was clearly there to document the holidays, birthdays and so on. At least that was the image I got. At that age I probably wasn’t stubborn or hardheaded enough to experiment further with photography. Although I never lost track of it, it was not my biggest passion either. I actually dreamed about being a filmmaker or about doing something in the movie business. It was never clear to me what my position would be exactly. I started studying cultural anthropology and chose visual anthropology as a focus. In the meantime I started making some documentary movies. I liked how documentary filmmaking allowed you to start with shooting the film, before making a script/ plan in the editing room. Editing too and how it allows the manipulation of meaning fascinated me. One of my problems though, was that I had never had an explicit narrative in mind to start with. What bothered me about filmmaking was that you needed a team, discussions and compromises. I was never satisfied with the result, so my interest shifted to photography, which is when I started to engage in it more seriously and more passionately. Photography allowed me to work more independently and suited my impatient nature, as I usually could get immediate results.

Three years ago I quit my job, which I hated at that time and traveled to New Zealand, Samoa, and Asia for half a year, while focusing on photography. Without having had an education in photography, I was just following my instinct, which was very naive. I wasn't focused at all, it took a lot of time and during that time I got bored of landscapes or certain kind of landscapes. When I was back from that initial photography trip, I got an apprenticeship as a photo editor and started doing workshops that were focused on street photography. Eric Kim helped me with getting rid of my fear of shooting strangers a bit, though I am still shy. After a year I quit again to travel to North and South America, this time equipped with two cameras, an analog Contax T2 and my Nikon. When I came back from that trip I was broke and out of a job, but when I read about the workshop with Alex and Rebecca Webb in NYC I knew I had to do it.

© Teresa Lemme from the series 'Tide Over and Onto the Shore'

In which sense does your Master degree in Cultural and Visual anthropology influence your photographical work? 

TL: I am an adherent of Claude Lévi-Straus and structuralism, a school within anthropology, which left a deep impression on me and influenced my way of understanding and seeing things. Photography is a way of “wild thinking“ or “Pensée sauvage”, as are all forms of art I would say. Wild thinking is typical of a mythical worldview. While natural sciences are deconstructing things into single segments and analyzing them, looking at everything in a purely rational way, wild thinking is an understanding through the senses. It’s a play of trial and error, a “bricolage" that sees things in their whole complexity. The merit of Lévi-Strauss's work is that he revalued this way of thinking, showing that it's not archaic, but just a very different approach. Our eyes, or better our brains, are able to make sense of the colors, shapes and layers that we see. We can focus on a single spot, instead of seeing the whole picture. A camera is a good tool to reverse that step and make reality a bit more complex or abstract again. It’s capable of making us question what we see and of adding mystery and magic to our profane reality again.

Anthropology opened my mind to this form of logic, therefore I could understand and start to express myself through it. Bricolage describes the way I work, as I start out without a concept in mind, but just work intuitively and perceptively. Afterwards, during the editing process, I start to get a picture of what I unconsciously had in mind while shooting. When I edit I see patterns and combinations, as if I had sequences in mind that I had not been aware of. Often, to my own surprise, the images naturally fit together like pieces of a puzzle and I always end up seeing much more connections than while I was shooting.

Body language of sleeping Nambikwara © Claude Lévi-Strauss

In fact, to me photography is a way of understanding myself and of shedding light on the unconscious. You can compare it to a dream that you don‘t understand immediately. You might think it’s humorous at first, but then you can't let go of the images and when you look long enough you begin to understand it. I thus believe that photography, like myths or dreams, can be a way of understanding patterns of the mind, of revealing what pattern determines our minds and which hidden rules it follows. Revealing those hidden patterns is the core of structuralism. What I love about Lévi-Strauss’s approach is that he exactly did not focus on the differences between cultures. Instead, he said that the differences are similar and that the unity of mankind is expressed in diversity. He believed that underneath the visible things that differ, there is a common reason. I find this way of seeing very beautiful and every time I think about it, it excites me again.

Lévi-Strauss et un Indien tupi-kawahib au bord du fleuve Machado, novembre 1938. © Archives CLS/cl. Patrick Léger-Gallimard. Photo parue in Vincent Debaene et Frédérick Keck, Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’homme au regard éloigné, 2009, Collection Découvertes Gallimard

Can you tell me how this works in your different series? This way of seeing that excites you...

TL: How it relates to my work in general? Well my work is not documentary; I am not trying to show a distinctive place or a visible reality at all. The sequences are mixed images from different places and countries. They could be documentary themselves, but I like to put them in a broader context detached from the location and situation, in order to refer to something beyond. It usually derives from personal experience. Yet the aim is not to tell a personal story, but to transcend the meaning to a level that others can relate to or to create a trigger for their imagination.

Arms of ink. While editing my photos from South America, I found all those boxes I put people in. Frames of colors and doors. I had never done that before and started to wonder what made me see like this. I also realized that it had a lot to do with gender roles. The struggle I felt against existing gender roles and the value connected to them, but also the boxes within my own head that are so hard to break down, found their visual expression. A more engaged series I did at the same time was one about “men behind bars“, I saw a lot of men behind fences, iron railings etc. It was funny but I dismissed that as too simple, obvious and negatively directed.

In Tide over and onto the shore all images were taken on a trip to the US in a short period of time. I did not plan to make a sequence or a project. I had just finished the workshop with Alex and Rebecca Webb and after working with digital for one week, I switched to film for the remaining time in NYC and the time that I spent in LA afterwards. It‘s a relief to me that I can‘t see and judge my images immediately when working with film. It‘s about a moment of transition indicated by surprising events. It reminds me of a poem by Rilke (title: 'Die Welt steht auf mit euch'): the wish for an impulse from gods /fate to break down the walls of your reality and create a new "field of breath". A radical and welcome change that one awaits passively.

The series Veracious kind and candy was made in Argentina around the time of the presidential election of 2015. It‘s probably much more documentary and less connected to the above-mentioned approach. Argentina indulged me and emotionally set me back to the time of my childhood. The candy, colors and the title refer to that feeling. It was as if the Kirchner era had preserved a veracity and unpretentiousness and saved it from a good part of modern madness. Nobody seemed worried about gluten or had even heard of it. I felt enchanted and wondered whether the political change might affect the genuine.

© Teresa Lemme from the series 'Veracious Kind and Candy'

The series of the nudes is a very different kind of work. Why the fascination for nude photography?

TL: The nudes are a rather recent work. To me they are not so different as they sort of come from the same source of inspiration or curiosity. You can describe it as a raw and intuitive interest, an interest in shapes and light and a voyeuristic joy that I have in street photography as well. Apart from the fact that they are not “found“ scenes but more posed than other subjects of course. Also they are shot indoors, whereas most of my other work is mainly shot outdoors, but I only worked with natural light for the nudes as well. I did experiment with flash / additional lights but it does not work for me.

Since the very beginning of my interest in photography I have been fascinated by nudes, starting with Helmut Newton. Later I discovered Jürgen Teller, whose nudes inspired me a lot. And then there are so many ways to do nudes that I don‘t like. I think it‘s relatively easy to take a decent street photo compared to taking an interesting and honest nude. Nudes are a bigger challenge, because there is a thin line between falling into something cheap or something that has been done many times before and making something worthwhile. I think with nudes the “mistakes“ are more obvious and less likely to be forgiven. All my nudes so far have been self-portraits. Diether De Lathauwer actually asked me if that was out of practical reasons. I answered affirmatively, while at the same time wondering whether that was true. He said, “You know what, I think there‘s more to it”.

© Teresa Lemme

I have tried shooting with models, but as they wait for instructions they pose in front of the camera (a model in front of a camera, especially when nude, will always try to pose in a way, because we are very self-conscious and critical of our looks, unless it‘s a private setting/moment). So I was just not completely satisfied with the results. Consequently, I started to use myself as a model, for the obvious practical reason that I could be spontaneous; I didn’t have to arrange a location, model etc. Moreover, I am comfortable alone with the camera; it‘s just me looking at myself. Although also for me, it was an exercise and challenge not to perform. Besides the practical reasons, it was also a way of exploring myself from an outside perspective, a way of showing myself. I struggle to sync the picture I have of myself with the impression I leave on others. So nude photography gives me the possibility to see myself the way others might see me. Taking nude pictures of yourself is also an act of courage or of self-exposure if you want. I‘m quite a withdrawn person, I like to be in control and find it hard to open up. Taking nudes is maybe a way to step out, an attempt to open up and an exercise in overcoming the fear of being vulnerable, exposed and observed.

I‘d like to do male nudes in the future. Following the thought that John Berger expressed: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” I am talking about the fact that a naked female body is acceptable as it is the norm. A nude male body on the other hand is… Being looked at means being exposed, which means running the risk of judgment and comparison. There is an imbalance of power that lies within this distribution of who looks and who is being looked at, which I‘d like to break up. The reaction to this idea showed me how ridiculously out of the box it seems to be in normal standards. I had people laughing about it, because they thought I was joking. Just the thought of male nudes, the idea that the roles could be reversed seemed hilarious to many. Why is there such a difference whether it’s a naked male or a naked female body? There should not be. You hear different arguments like for instance that female bodies are simply more aesthetic. I think it‘s pure cultural/ social imprinting to reason like that. It‘s not about beauty it‘s about power.

Besides your theoretical background, what are your interests and things that influence your work?

TL: Almost everything can be a source of inspiration: beauty of all forms, conversations, silence, fashion, food, music, memories, and new encounters. Movies are definitely one of my main interests that always inspire me, but also psychology, sociology, traveling and (contemporary) dance have an influence on my work. Courage inspires me. People who give a shit about what others think and follow their inner voice inspire me. Photographers who dare to get really close to their subjects in the streets, for example during an intimate moment like when a couple is kissing. I don‘t always have that attitude. I am shy and have a lot of doubts. Even though I like to surprise myself with acting more courageous than I thought I could. To be inspired or to do any kind of art, you need to get over the inner critical voice and hesitation. Certain people are role models. Mostly people who’ve kept the natural curiosity of a kid and have a kind of “non-judgmental, enthusiastic, living in the moment without regret” sort of attitude. Yoga, meditation and poetry are also things that help me get beyond the judging and thinking process and on the way to a creative courage. Sometimes very trivial things such as anger or heartache help as well. Strong feelings can make the trivial distractions disappear and give access to intuition. Photography has certainly helped me out of several moments of despair. Some of my nudes were made out of the feeling of being thrown back into myself. Terrifying moments can be turned into strength and solitude can be a catalyst to inspiration. 

© Teresa Lemme from the series 'Tide Over and Onto the Shore'

What do you plan for the future?

TL: I plan on making more projects, maybe even abroad for a little while. Right now I am looking for an artist in residence programs and preparing to find a way to focus solely on that project for a certain time. I have several ideas for projects in mind, but nothing definite yet to elaborate upon. At this point I am starting to get a bit bored with the kind of street photography I’ve been doing and feel I need to add a clearer narrative and meaning. I don't know yet where this is going, maybe in a more abstract, more personal way or in form of a visual comment to subjects that interest me. So for this year the plan is to strengthen my style and realize the next project.


Teresa Lemme
urbanautica Germany