— ahorn.

Valerie Schmidt, Figures of Affect

Valerie Schmidt was born in 1982. She lives and works between Düsseldorf and Berlin.

1. When did you first get interested in photography?

Actually it was at a party when I was 17, where I met a girl, that snuck around, taking pictures of the dancing people. I watched her move around, then she approached me, taking pictures of me with an easiness and impertinence, that impressed me.
We became friends and she introduced me to photography as a way of portraying people in all kind of situations. Before that, I drew, but as I wasn’t very good at it, I then started working with photography and found it most suitable to visualise my perspectives. Since then I focused my work on portraits.

2. The viewer’s perception is one of the most important aspects and points of departure for your work. How much do you think about the viewer while working on your series?

During the shooting, I don’t think about the viewer at all, but only crave for a good picture. When I edit my images, the perspective changes and I become the viewer, so I choose the ones, that I find most intriguing and believing, ignoring the making process.
I also ask the people around me for their opinion, because I find it interesting to hear different stories, deduced by the photographs. My images are supposed to address the viewer’s empathetic perception, in order to question any affective logic of dramatic emotion and to describe it. My photographs are not “real” or “true”, but are references to reality. They are merely an outline for the look of emotional instability.

3. Your work is a collection of staged portraits, intense and emotional, sometimes disturbing, because they show us a state of human confusion and weakness. When and how did the project “Figures of Affect” begin?

I was interested in fleeting moments and tried to carry around my camera all the time, to not miss any. I always felt ashamed to take pictures of people without asking and I was unsatisfied with the often blurred photos. In 2007 I started to stage “fleeting and intimate moments”, and realised that I could understand what really happened better while being there, instead of just taking someone’s picture without asking and then contemplating about it. The viewers had their own opinion about the images too, also ignoring the truth behind them, but inventing their own.
In 2009 I graduated with a work about hysteria, because I wanted to explore visual outbursts, relinquished gestures of absolute expression. In the group of works called “Figures of Affect”, I focus on the scope of extreme emotional behaviour, it’s vagueness and the contradictory effects. It is a collection of  loud and quiet moments,  in which mental expressions are fused into a representational form. These images are only exerpts or fixed images of running actions.

4. What do you look for in an image?

I am looking for images, which seem instantaneous and alluring, but are not clear without ambiguity. The images are supposed to be an encounter with an ambiguity of mental expression, rather than function as a likeness of the persons. I like the photo to be close enough to the displayed situation, in order to follow it. Also I prefer pure colours, natural light and a reduced composition. They should keep a natural and photographed look, as they would’nt work as high-end photoshopped images.

5. How do you develop people’s trust?

That works very naturally. Of course, we talk before and get to know each other a little, before I pull out the huge black camera. I speak very openly about what I do and let them decide what they want and not want to do.
I don’t hide behind the camera, but let them see my face once in a while. Through the close distance the whole situation usually becomes very intimate.

6. How do you approach your subjects, how much do you direct them?

There is a starting point which I assign and from there we usually let it run. We mostly develop the outcome of the situations together. I give directions, when I feel I need to, but mostly I switch into the role of an observer after a while. I don’t want to freeze their movements, so I encourage them to move, breathe and blink. Also, instead of putting everything into words, I demonstrate some acting and movements myself, to understand how it could work. It’s a very physical performance in fact. During the shooting, I try moving with them, rather following them. I get quite tensed, while shooting, because I get drawn into the spectacle. Also, time is most important while taking the photographs. There needs to be time to change things around and let loose.

Did you do a particular research for staging your subjects and let them act those states of mind?

Although I research and prepare for my projects, the practical instructions I give are mainly physical ones and often spontaneous. Facial expression gets really dramatic when the body is really in action. Just pretending to look tired often doesn´t really work. When I worked with dancers and actors, I was amazed by their ability to create expression through simple bodily exercises. I got to know some mentally disturbed people, but mostly they didn’t act out. Most of my inspiration I get from just watching people of all ages, but especially children. I am fascinated by extreme behaviour though, like temper tantrums, total exhaustion or laugh fits. I did some research about hysteria and George Didi Hubermann’s “Invention of Hysteria”, Duchenne de Boulogne’s  “Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine” or Fritz Möller’s “Physiognomische Studien” were important books for my research. Also David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks ” is an inspiring collection of hysteric actions.

7. What are you currently working on?

I currently work with children and follow their acts and plays, which are quite bizarre sometimes. I focus on the most exciting and most exhausted moments during the plays. Children are a huge influence for my work. They invent roles on their own and do incredible things, if they want and when you let them. I am very surprised sometimes, what they come up with. Having fun and acting crazy can totally look the same.

All Images © Valerie Schmidt. All rights reserved.

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