Elsa and Johanna: the duo who immerse themselves into cinematic self-portraiture

Playing out their characters for several days in various sets and outfits, the duo immerse themselves fully in their chosen context.

22 January 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

As two protagonists playing dress up in their own cinematic land, French photographer and director duo Johanna Benaïnous and Elsa Parra first met through a shared love of storytelling. It was during their first day at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2014 where they were introduced and, after the initial day of class, became friends within an instant. Not only did they realise their compatibilities as pals, but also how their creative process was ever-so in tune with each other’s. “We share the same vision, ambitions and creative aspirations,” Johanna tells It’s Nice That. “We used to discuss the things that we saw – especially people in the street – and we realised that we had the same sensitivity, both emotionally and aesthetically speaking.”

Six months later, once their time in New York had come to an end, the duo embarked on their first project together back in their homeland of France. Titled A Couple of Them, this series comprised a bundle of thematic self-portraits, and little did they know that this would then become their signature. Now, starring in their own photography, they describe their style as such: “beautiful, sad, unreal, realistic, autobiographical and fictive with banal stories – our artistic process is made of a multitude of narrations,” says Johanna. Filling the frame with uniquely staged compositions, often they will use their own bodies and faces to embody these elements, whether they’re looking to represent “identity, desires, memory and loneliness” as their subjects. “We are like sponges that absorb landscapes, people and the atmosphere around us,” she continues. “As soon as we are pressed, we spit out a colourful liquid that is a reflection of our society.”

These personal projects sit nicely alongside music videos and commissioned editorial projects in the duo's portfolio. While working on a new self-portrait series, it’s a completely different ball game: “We need to be in total immersion and intimacy to create characters, find their costumes, find their attitude and of course play them in a chosen context,” says Johanna. More often than not they will land on a chosen location picked by intuition, and they will “try to go there without really knowing what [they] are going to find”. She continues: “Once we’re there, we do a lot of spotting and we look at the people around us in the public spaces.” Analysing those around them is vital before commencing a project, as is a visit to the local thrift shops to gather the right clothing. “Then, we play during the day from eight in the morning until midnight,” she continues. “We really try to make our characters live so it’s never really planned before; we let them tell us what to do and where to go.”

Their latest series, Beyond the shadows tome II series is set in Calgary – “a city with the ghostly atmosphere of Western Canada,” says Johanna. Lightly packed with just a tripod and self-timer remote control in hand, Elsa and Johanna set out to pose in a “meticulously” chosen setting, to then let the characters play out their destiny. “The characters in this series have all been imagined as a duo; they are friends, lovers, brother and sister, mother and daughter,” she continues. “They all have a strong relationship, whether it’s fusional, conflictual or harmonious.”

One photograph in particular sees two women pinching through a barbed fence in the fields, looking to get their horses back before the night arrives. “The one of the left originally grew up in a big city and left everything to settle in this small mountainous country town,” Johanna comments on the lives of the characters. “The other is from this area. They have been working together for four years and run a ranch and a guesthouse. They are independent women.”

Playing out these stories for several days in a multitude of sets and outfits, the attention to detail in these pictures is incredible. Looking like a shot picked straight out of Twin Peaks or one of Jeff Wall’s photographs, the series also comes as the second part of three chapters – keep your eyes peeled for the third.

GalleryElsa and Johanna: Beyond the shadows tome II series

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and continued to work with us on a freelance basis. From November 2019 she joined the team again, working with us as a Staff Writer on Mondays and Tuesdays until August 2020.

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