In Camera: Real Selves, Imaginary Selves, Symbolic Selves

In Camera is a love letter from Arian Christiaens. Who it is a love letter to is another question. Is it to her mother, her father, or herself? Or perhaps it’s to the act of photography and the act of looking and the intimacy of her mother’s family album.

Open the book, and there’s another picture of her mother. It shows a reflection of her standing topless in front of a mirror. Behind her, Christiaens’ father stands, also topless, holding the Canon AE-1 that is taking the picture. He’s in the background, the mother in the foreground, a look of utter seriousness on her face.

Turn the page and there’s an image of Arian herself, light leaking over the top of the image as she stares intently at the viewer.

More images of her parents appear. We see her father, fully dressed now, holding his camera on some wintry meadow, her mother is shown topless again, head cut off, her French knickers, belly, ribs, and breasts dissolving into a very 1970s cocktail of contrast and grain as she poses in an open field.

More nods to the 1970s come in pictures taken in the bedroom against a backdrop of the kind of geometric wallpaper that keeps you up at nights. There are kaleidoscopic images and pictures showing her mother engaging in various balletic poses.

Mixed in with these images are pictures of Arian herself. There are split images of her standing on a chair naked, kissing her partner, standing pregnant in front of her own mirror, her partner behind her, only this time she is holding the camera.

The images from the past and present become blurred (I know Arian but have difficulty telling which image is of her and which is of her mother), in fact everything becomes blurred. There is the idea of the male gaze in here. The mirrors are a clear nod to Laura Mulvey and the hell of Lacan and mirror theory that are at the roots of  her idea of the male gaze. There are multiple mirrors playing a role in  Christiaens identity formation, a formation where the real, imaginary, and symbolic overlap (as they do in true life).

But there is also a double reclamation in the book. The mother recovers herself in the images, she rises above the at times generic nature of the pictures, she repeatedly stares back at the viewer, at her partner, at her daughter.

By making her own homage to the images, the daughter reclaims her mother’s and her own identity in a way that is connected to the ways in which Jo Spence recovered her own identity in her Family Album remakes.

Here however, the mother is somebody that Arian recognises and identifies with. She is both of her and outside her, in the same way her own children are of her and outside her.

The multiple roles of what it means to be a mother, a woman, a daughter are continuously re-emphasised in In Camera. They are apparent in the images of both Christiaens and her mother pregnant, and they are are apparent in the final image in the book; an accidental multiple exposure of Christaens as a child lying onto the floor next to her mother. There are multiple timescales, multiple frames of reference, multiple generic templates. But none of them settle and none of them should. And that is the gift of In Camera.

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All images from In Camera © Arian Christiaens, published by Art Paper Editions

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APE#214

Arian Christiaens

In Camera

Available from Art Paper Editions

22,6 × 34 cm, 80 p, paperback

Design and edit: Arian Christiaens & Jurgen Maelfeyt

Text: Diane Smyth

Prize: €30

Edition of 700

December 2022

ISBN 9789464660685

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Arian Christiaens (1981) examines ideas of photographic and familial gazes, recontextualising family images and the photographic genre in a way that resonates with ideas of a reclamation of sites of photography. It’s multi-layered work where family, photographic, and gender-based narratives overlap with material ideas of the photographic image. Her first publication handling these themes was ‘Xenia’, published by Art Paper Editions.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, Sofa Portraits is available here.  Follow him on Instagram.

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In Camera: Real Selves, Imaginary Selves, Symbolic Selves by Colin Pantall

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