Dressing Up in the Valleys

Clémentine Schneidermann explains how a commissioned project became a creative and collaborative body of work that combines portraits with atmospheric landscapes in the heart of Wales.

© Clémentine Schneidermann, from the series Heads of the Valleys

Living and working in South Wales, Clémentine Schneidermann has been photographing the people and places of her local region for several years. Her latest ongoing project Heads of the Valleys began as a commission from Arts & Minds, an initiative to encourage creativity in the local community. "It was originally a three-month photographic residency to photograph the region of Blaenau Gwent, which suffers from frequent negative stigmatisation," says the French photographer, who studied a Master’s in documentary photography at the University of South Wales. "I decided to stay as I became quite passionate about the place, the people, and the work I was (and still am) producing there."

Inspired by photographs taken in the 1980's and ’90s from the Valleys Project commissioned by Ffotogallery, "which made me wonder how we can move forward in re-representing this region that lives too often in its own past", Schneidermann worked closely with youth clubs on two estates, creating portraits of young people dressed up in clothes provided by stylist, Charlotte James. These naturalistic yet lightly styled portraits fall somewhere between fashion and documentary, and sit alongside evocative, moody landscapes to create an alternative view of this former mining area. "I quickly realised you cannot photograph on the streets of these small mining towns as you do in larger cities," says Schneidermann. "I felt I wouldn’t succeed if I approached strangers, so I contacted local organisations – retirement homes or youth clubs."

© Clémentine Schneidermann, from the series Heads of the Valleys

As intrigued by the landscape as she was with the people who live in Blaenau Gwent, Schneidermann worked with James to create both staged and un-staged portraits, as well as landscapes, battling wind and rain in the process. "People were glancing out of their windows to observe these surreal moments unfold," Schneidermann recalls. "Everybody knows each other on the estates, so when you see a group of children wearing over-sized clothes in bright pink, it’s noteworthy."

"I wanted to create opportunities so I could photograph the children in a more performative and collaborative way," she adds. "There is a certain harshness in the landscape that contrasts with the tenderness of the colourful portraits, which reflects my opposed feelings [towards] living in this region."

© Clémentine Schneidermann, from the series Heads of the Valleys

Coming to a place like Blaenau Gwent, an area that has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Wales, and making work about the conditions and difficulties people face as they try to make ends meet is a difficult task for a documentary photographer, says Schneidermann. There is a risk of being exploitative, so it is even more crucial to think about the kind of images you are making. "This is why I think I felt more comfortable staging some of the photographs, and playing with fantasy, imagination, creativity and also humour," she says. "What I’ve been doing is artistically and socially challenging, [but] the work took my practice in new directions, and I became even more aware of the ethical issues of my role as a photographer."

It was especially important her subjects and the local community felt involved in the process of making the work, and Schneidermann was mindful to organise public projections showing the images after each shoot. James also ran workshops where kids could customise clothes. "The response is always positive," says Schneidermann of the project. "If [the local kids and residents] can get something out of these shoots and be inspired, as well as learn new skills, it is very rewarding."

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To see more of Clémentine’s work visit her PHmuseum profile.

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