Exhibitions and fairs  •  Interviews

Photo Doc. Close-up: Isabel Corthier

The countdown to Photo Doc. Paris 2019 is on! At this year’s fair, Singulart will be presenting three, outstanding photographers from our online gallery: Fethi Sahraoui, Isabel Corthier and Baudouin Mouanda. To celebrate, we sat down with each of these talented artists to learn more about their artistic practice and the works they will be presenting at Photo Doc. 2019.

In this installment of ‘Photo Doc. Close-up’ we get to know Belgian photographer Isabel Corthier. Corthier’s photography is primarily focused on depicting people living in current or former conflict zones with dignity. Since 2005, she has been photographing for humanitarian organisations like Caritas and Doctors Without Borders in places like Haiti and in South Sudan. Since 2015, Corthier has been working as a photography ambassador for Fujifilm Belgium. Read the full interview to find out what she thinks about the role of photography in humanitarian initiatives, its relationship with social media, and contemporary issues facing South Africa communities.

To see all the amazing work that will be presented at the fair, check out the official Photo Doc. Paris collection on Singulart.com.

Hello, Isabel! Could you tell us a bit about the series you’ll be presenting at ‘Photo Doc. Paris’?

“Free yourself” is a series of portraits made in one of the oldest townships of the Western Cape in South Africa, called Vrygrond. I focus on the young generation, born in the 1990s, who grew up with hopeful anticipation for a better life than their parents who lived under apartheid.

In reality, they are faced with a corrupt government and a difficult situation in the townships where unemployment, crime, and drug abuse is high. While apartheid may be over, its consequences are still part of daily life.

In my work, I depict young people who have fought against their circumstances, according to the principles of Mandela: “Free yourself – Free others – Serve Every Day”. Through the development of their talents they are lifting themselves out of poverty. They have become role models for the youngsters in their community and make a positive contribution to society. Some have started social projects to keep youngsters off the street.

Isabel Corthier, VELA MAGAGASI, 2018. Digital on Paper, 60x40cm.

Although these young people play an important role in the community, their talents and achievements often stay under the radar. Through these photographs I hope to let them briefly stand on a stage that rises up from the unpolished background of the township.

Each of the people featured in these images is strong, proud, and self-confident in a unique and authentic way. These young people are the future of South Africa and they are making a change. They might even be an inspiration to all of us.

Isabel Corthier, ‘FREDDY JAYY NYEZI,’ from the collection “Free yourself,” 2018, Digital on Paper, 60x40cm.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

Photography started for me as a way to connect with people and a motivation to explore our world and the way we’re living.
It leads me into the lives of others, while still keeping some distance. Susan Meiselas couldn’t describe it better: “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.”

I love creating– initially I was an architect– but the beauty of photography is that I create out of something that is already there. I see photography as a kind of collaboration between the subject and myself. Without the people photographed, the sun, the nature, the buildings… there wouldn’t be a photo. There needs to be trust. That’s why respect and dignity is very important in my work. I am grateful if I’m granted permission to take a photo; I don’t take it for granted.

For 7 years, I’d been working mainly for humanitarian organisations, and at one point I realized that photography became much more than a way to connect and explore. I see it now as a powerful tool to bring out a positive change in the world.

Isabel Corthier, ZIMKHITHA PLAATJIE, 2018. Digital on Paper, 60x40cm.

What does photography mean to you? What role do you think it can play in the world?

With photography I can tell stories and transmit emotions so that others will understand the situations other people live in. Captions have become an important part of my work. It pushes me to delve deeper into the project while trying not to judge.

Through social media, photography has the power to make us aware of certain situations and practices that might stay unnoticed otherwise.

Isabel Corthier, ‘LINAMANDLA DELIWE,’ 2018. Digital on Paper, 60x40cm.

Even though for me taking a photograph is an intimate connection with a person that takes place on a small scale, once it is taken into the world, it can cause a big change. Since this series was published in National Geographic, it has already attracted people who were touched and are helping some of these youngsters to build their future. That makes me incredibly happy.

I am at the same time very aware how harmful pictures can be. I hope the younger generation who grew up with photographs and social media is aware of this and uses their camera or phone consciously.

You can see more of Isabel Corthier’s work at the Singulart booth at Photo Doc. Paris, May 10-12, 2019. Photo Doc. is held at the Halle des Blancs Manteaux, 48 rue Vieille du Temple in Paris’ 4th arrondissement. You can also check out her dedicated artist’s page on Singulart.

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