Cécile Smetana photographs the universal sentiment of growing up

Driven by the frustration of having her work edited and working in a more journalistic environment, the photographer's personal work strives for a visual connection.

16 September 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

Studying both documentary and photojournalism, the work of Danish-French photographer Cécile Smetana sits somewhere in the middle. Working in the centre of these fields is a place Cécile feels most comfortable explaining how, despite her studies, “I wouldn’t classify myself as belonging solely to one genre.” A running thread throughout her projects, and every photograph she takes as a result, is a deep, considered back story. Virgin Soil, an ongoing piece by Cécile, demonstrates this wholeheartedly.

Launching back in 2013, at this time Cécile was working at a newspaper. “Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper knows that, as exciting as some assignments can be, there are definitely also moments where you being sent off to shoot a hole in the road,” she tells It’s Nice That. The photographer isn’t just joking either, recalling an instance where an editor asked her to literally photograph a hole in a road: “When I arrived back at the newspaper I had photographed the wrong hole, so they sent another photographer,” Cécile continues. A good example of the frustration the photographer sometimes felt in this field, Virgin Soil grew out of a “desire to create a universe that was mine.”

In terms of aesthetic quality, the series is immediately a reaction against some of the restrictions placed on Cécile’s practice while working in this position. For example, the paper she worked at would never publish photographs in black and white, a position of taste the photographer defies in the monochromatic shots that make up Virgin Soil. But most importantly the series is an example of Cécile running with the opportunity to not have her work edited by someone else. Embracing this freedom, “I would run after people I saw on the street, someone who had an interesting face or look, and little by little, I begun to realise that there was a red thread in my work.”

Despite featuring some subjects very close to her, the first portrait in the series is of Cécile’s twin brothers, aged 14, there are also photographs taken in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans or on the outskirts of Mexico City: “Although the people in my photographs might be far apart geographically, they are all around that age when you’re leaving childhood behind and gaining the courage to become your own person,” Cécile explains. In turn, across intimate portraits or even vast landscapes, “the series attempts to reflect on the universal sentiment of growing up, and that period of time, which is so full of uncertainty.”


Cecile Smetana: Virgin Soil

Imbuing portraiture with narrative appears to be where Cécile really shines as an artist. Aiming for a connection in the work, whether that’s via eye contact or a glimmer of personality through an arranged pose, the photographer also describes the act of taking someone’s picture as creating a “space of sincere trust being created”. Striving to transmit this feeling into a photograph, “so that the viewer has a similar experience,” the act of photographing is a very personal experience. “I think we need to see ourselves in others,” she adds, “in order to relate to one another, which is what I hope to do.”

The landscape shots featured in Virgin Soil compliment this approach, and “set a form of location for the series, but in reality it doesn’t matter where we are,” continues Cécile. The landscape shots are purposefully ambiguous geographically and the same goes for the vast backstory of those featured. “I want my work to reflect on what it feels like to be human and to dissect these preconceived socially constructed ideas that people are who they are because of their ethnicity, gender or social class,” notes the photographer on this approach.

Never creating the project with the aim of it being published, Virgin Soil, across the seven years of which it has been created, has run with total creative freedom. “It gave me the liberty to think more of what I wanted to say with the images, and not if it was news worthy enough,” Cécile concludes, hinting at maybe even more to follow, as she recently began the series again, “with a more focused approach.”

GalleryAll images by Cecile Smetana: Virgin Soil

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Cecile Smetana: Virgin Soil

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.


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