Both tender and melancholic, Charlotte Yonga’s photo series interrogates ideas of love

The series, Naam Na La, takes its name from the Wolof expression which translates to "I long for you".

20 September 2022

“Love is undeniably common and universal, but also overused and overrepresented in our visual cultures,” begins the photographer Charlotte Yonga. “As a feeling, it’s capable of great amplitude and density, but also exists in its deficiencies, flaws, ambiguities and vanities.” With these musings in mind, taking on a project with the sole theme of ‘love’ may seem like a daunting – if not insurmountable – task for a photographer. Therefore, as a means of tackling the brief Charlotte dug deep into her own “visual writing”, tapping into her very personal perceptions of the feeling, “far from the watered-down, naïve or corny romantic imagery that is mostly deployed.” The resulting series, Naam Na La – which holds the freedom of interpretation at its core – is a sensitive, considered and beautifully ambiguous reference to the complexity of love.

The project arose after Charlotte met fellow photographer Lou Escobar. They built a “deep connection”, talking for hours with Charlotte sharing her work with her. Lous then proposed that Charlotte be part of a residency programme she was curating with the Blachère Foundation in Senegal around the theme of ‘love’. In May 2021, Charlotte arrived in Dakar with no pre-established plan and spent a month travelling and photographing. Visiting Senegal for the first time, Charlotte found herself dazzled by its beauty, landscapes and people. “Knowing mainly my country of origin, Cameroon – that I deeply love – and having lived in Morocco, in Senegal I discovered another human and climatic dynamic, an energy from which I left filled with respect and admiration for Senegalese people."

It was upon returning to Europe that the series found its name. The moment Charlotte received her freshly developed film, she received a message from one of her Dakar models, Assane, which read "Naam Na La". A Wolof expression that translates to "I long for you", the text resonated with Charlotte. “I found these words to be both tender and melancholic,” she details, “they echoed with the idea of ​’​love’. As it moved me, I tried to reveal it through my images almost unconsciously.”


Charlotte Yonga: Naam Na La (Copyright © Charlotte Yonga, 2021)

Born to a French mother and Cameroonian father, Charlotte grew up in a somewhat romantic setting – an old Christian abbey on the banks of the river Green Venice in the west of France. She discovered her love of photography in her early 20s while studying visual arts at Ecole nationale supérieure d'arts de Paris Cergy. "Photography was the discipline which allowed me to get into ‘real life’, out of the school studio where it wasn’t easy for me to focus,” Charlotte explains. Since then, Charlotte has worked and lived in Paris, Oakland, Tangier and Cameroon and she now lives between Barcelona and Paris.

While unified in style and tone, the images in the series are notable and distinctive for their varying composition and approach. Some images appear natural – a mother and son sat on a sofa, half bathed in sunlight, or a group of friends reclining on a beach. Others appear staged and fraught. One shows a couple, their hands on their faces in a dismissive, exasperated action, imitating a moment one would expect post-argument. This visual contradiction was important for Charlotte, as she wanted to explore the “inaccuracies” in perceptions of love, “like power of interpretations, power of representations, acting, staging, limits of reality and fiction”.

Even Charlotte’s landscape and scenery shots, which feature no figures in sight, make sense within the theme. As Charlotte explains, “love is very complex and able to exist or manifest in a multitude of ways, even in a kind of absence.” The shot of the setting sun behind a calm ocean evokes a meditative setting where someone may contemplate a love far away, or a love lost entirely. Discussing how she wishes people to receive the series, Charlotte mainly hopes they can build their own interpretations, viewing the images through their own field of vision and emotion. “Creating some contemplation, curiosity or disturbance suits me well,” Charlotte muses, ending our conversation.

GalleryCharlotte Yonga: Naam Na La (Copyright © Charlotte Yonga, 2021)

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Charlotte Yonga: Naam Na La (Copyright © Charlotte Yonga, 2021)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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