What have our soldiers seen in Afghanistan, and what are they seeing now? What can you hear there, if you tune out the commentary from home? And how is the effort going — really going? These are three of the questions that Matthieu Aikins’ cover piece tries to answer this month.
The question of our military progress is not an abstract concept. In creating these covers, we wanted to emphasize the concreteness and the seriousness inherent in these points. Real people — our neighbours, our fellow citizens — have gone to Afghanistan to do work that few of us would willingly do. And frequently these Canadians have died in the process.
Therefore, we needed portraits of real people. We wanted the resulting images to project dignity, to communicate that we should be proud of the sacrifices that our soldiers have made for us. To this end we contacted the Canadian Forces to request assistance finding two soldiers who have both served in Afghanistan. From that first contact through to the conclusion of the shoot (and after), everyone at the Forces was exceptionally helpful, not least our cover subjects, Major François Couture and Sergent Valérie Lanouette.
Alana Riley shot a previous cover for The Walrus, for our September 2009 issue, which, ironically, depicted military reenactors in Quebec City on the 250th anniversary of the battle of the Plains of Abraham. For this project, we left the choice of location up to the Forces — all we asked was that both soldiers could be in the same location for the shoot — and I’m very glad it ended up being in the Montreal area, which allowed us to work with Alana again.
What I like about Alana’s portraits is how they stand midway between the even light and studied composition of Ingres and all of the possibilities of film: a fleeting expression will cross the face of a perfectly posed subject, or a corner will reveal just the smallest a bit of disorder. You always feel, too, that what you are seeing in her subjects, in their expressions, in their eyes, is representative of them; you never get the feeling that they are having an off day. Her portraits are both formal and real. I think this stems from her self-reflexive approach to her work. She is fully aware of the intrusion that is inherent in taking a picture of another person, but rather than shake this discomfort off with bluster, she instead places it in the foreground. Quite apart from her considerable talents and attention to the craft of the medium, I think it is this quality which makes her portraits truly great.
Brian Morgan: After we spoke about this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?
Alana Riley: I am a big fan of The Walrus, so I was happy to receive your call to shoot another cover. I was also excited by your art direction for the portraits of the soldiers: referring to the German school of photography for inspiration. My work has certainly been influenced by German photographers August Sander, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth, amongst others. And I must confess that I love uniforms — so all to say, I was very excited about the shoot.
Brian Morgan: What is your typical process for generating ideas?
Alana Riley: Part of my process involves thinking about the context in which the photographs will be presented. Understanding the tone of the article is important. Once that is established, ideas tend to arise more intuitively. I prefer to arrive to a shoot with an open mind about how I will compose the image, as I have learned that environments are rarely what I imagine them to be, and most often ideas change and take shape during the process of shooting and interacting.
Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?
Alana Riley: I have to say that Major Couture and Sergent Lanouette were a pleasure to work with. They were both very open, accommodating, and humble; they share a great sense of humour. I like to talk with my subjects, of course depending on time constraints, as on some shoots this isn’t always an option. But absolutely, I prefer to connect with my subjects. I generally talk with them on and off during the shoot, putting down the camera at times to ask questions and look them in the eyes. It can be distracting for them when dealing with a lot of the technical details of photography, but that is also why I prefer to have a lot of advanced preparation time for scouting locations and setting up. I don’t like to do much in Photoshop; just basic color tweaking is all I try to do. I do everything I can on-site and with lighting, so as not to spend too much time in post[-production].
Brian Morgan: How did you first approach these photographs?
Alana Riley: I always like to research the people I am photographing. For this story, I didn’t know so much about them as individuals, but I was obviously aware of their profession, and I imagined the strength in character they would possess. You and I had spoken about the tone of the piece, and understandably I had wanted to portray them in a very real, open, and humane way (as much as possible, given the limitations of portraiture). I didn’t do a lot of positioning as I didn’t want them to be too “posed,” nor did I want to elicit too much emotion.
With this shoot, we had already agreed to try a studio set-up. I brought two different colour backdrops — but in the end, the outdoor shots won.
Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for the final images?
Alana Riley: These portraits were taken on a very cloudy and rainy day at the garrison in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, just outside of Montreal. We had hoped to get some shots outside, but I wasn’t sure the rain would hold off long enough to get both of them out there. Thankfully it did, as these turned out to be my favourite options. What I find most compelling in these shots is the softness of the natural light contrasted with the intensity of their gaze, and the strength in their presence.
Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?
Alana Riley: Well, that would be a long list... but if I were to choose only a few whose work stands out in my mind and have certainly influenced my aesthetic, besides the photographers that I mentioned above, I love the work of the British artist Gillian Wearing, Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, and my dear friend in New York, Mackenzie Stroh, who is a great inspiration to me in so many ways.
Brian Morgan: In your artistic practice, you are frequently very present in the photograph or video, either as audience [“Songs of Love”] or participant [“The pressure between you and me is enough to take a picture”]. How do you find this relationship with photography influences your assignment work?
Alana Riley: I suppose that my artistic practice has influenced my assignment work in the way that I approach my subjects. When I first began taking photographs, I was often quite shy about pointing a camera at someone; I felt as though I was somehow betraying them by hiding behind a lens, like I was too much of a voyeur. I still find portraiture a struggle sometimes and I often feel conflicted, but this is also why I love it so much and why I continue taking photographs of people. I strongly believe that portraiture is bound by the relationship of the photographer to the subject and this is what those projects were exploring, in a very direct and literal way. I think my artistic practice has allowed me to explore these questions and has brought me some resolve, though I’m still not sure I have any answers yet.