“The first camera I picked up belonged to my younger sister when we were still children,” recent photography graduate, Léa Thijs, tells It’s Nice That, “I remember taking photographs for fun of her friends during her birthday party.” A couple of months later, for her own birthday, Léa received a small compact camera and her passion developed from there, but it was when a teacher at school built a darkroom on site that she turned her attention to film photography, spending all her free time printing. The hard work paid off, she sold her first print at just 15 years old.
Now based in London, Léa’s upbringing in South Africa – and the country’s past and present – still influence her today, predominantly “feelings like the discomfort of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth, the fact that I do not belong to a country, being a white European born in South Africa and the unfairness of racial discrimination still very present today.” Likewise, she takes inspiration from artists and the ways that they have processed times of turbulence and, more generally in terms of approach, artists David Goldblatt, Antoine d’Agata, Viviane Sassen, Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, and Juan Miró influence how she experiments with photography.
Over the years, her camera has naturally become part of her everyday life and is “key to exploring [her] curiosities in depth”. Playing with shadows and reflections, you notice new details each time you revisit one of Léa’s images – and this isn’t accidental, intended to provoke thought and capture the viewer’s attention, “Most times, people overlook details as we are bombarded with photographs every day, so we forget to look properly at photographs to make our own sense of them.”
Léa’s final year project, titled Safe House, was an exploration of her father’s bipolar diagnosis as a way to process the emotions she felt but were never discussed. “It also involved my childhood memories,” Léa tells us, “the person I am today and how my family’s acceptance of the past has expanded. It turned out to be an emotionally hard and tiring process.”
The title is taken from psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’ bestseller The Examined Life , a collection of moving, insightful essays and case studies from his 25 year career. Léa borrowed the book from her university library and, recognising her father in certain chapters, subsequently loaned it to him. A few days later, he told her it was one of the first books he’d ever been able to relate to; “The chapter that made him cry was titled Safe House and he read the passage to me and explained how he felt in a similar way” explains Léa. It wasn’t only the title that the book inspired, an image from the series that shows him with his arms wrapped around bamboos, smiling, is a direct representation: “he planted bamboos all around his fence, that would reach 10-20 meters high, so he could not see his neighbour (or, in other words, the outside world), so he would feel safe in his house.”
The locations she picked to shoot were equally as telling, shot in South Africa where she was raised, but also in Belgium – where her father grew up. It’s clear how mindful she was of his feelings, including the decision to shoot purely in black and white because he’s colour blind – “I wanted us to be on the same page.” The process, it turns out, was very therapeutic for both of them, with Léa’s father getting more and more involved in the creative side as time went on, making it a truly collaborative process. “It made my dad and I so much closer” Léa reveals, “I now understand how he feels and how it has affected me as a child.”