In Conversation: Janice Reid and Stéphane Alexis
To welcome Stéphane Alexis to the FFOTO roster, we invited fellow FFOTO artist Janice Reid to lead a conversation with him via Zoom. Both of these artists make work that explores aspects of their Caribbean diaspora backgrounds, producing photographs that suggest the resiliency and histories - and futures - of the Black experience. The resulting conversation is a fascinating exchange of ideas about the approaches and inspirations that drive these talented emerging artists’ photo-based practices. Reid and Alexis offer insight into how their experiences and communities inform the themes they explore through their work, and where they see their practices heading in the future.
Craig D’Arville, Co-founder, FFOTO
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Craig D'Arville Welcome, Janice and Stéphane. Thank you for agreeing to connect over Zoom for this conversation about your art practices and what it's like, from your perspectives, to be emerging artists whose careers are on the rise. Janice, why don’t you start things off?
Janice Reid Yes, thank you so much for this opportunity. I was thinking about it, and I’m really thankful that you’ve invited Stéphane and me to have this conversation about identity, about our practices, and how we connect socially with our audiences.
I’ll start with a bit of an introduction about myself: I'm Janice Reid. I am a portrait/fashion photographer, based in Brampton. I was originally given the opportunity to showcase my work through Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue (BAND), and then FFOTO, which began about two years ago. I would say that becoming involved with BAND and FFOTO has strengthened me as an artist and provided me with greater opportunities. Stéphane, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Stéphane Alexis Sure. Thank you, Janice. And thank you, Craig, for connecting us. It’s always cool having a conversation about photography.
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but moved out to Ottawa when I was pretty young, and where I’ve lived for about 25 years. I've been doing lens-based work for the past two years. I focus primarily on communities I relate to; projects about the healthcare industry, and projects based on the Black experience. I also make projects based around men's experience as well. Through my work I share perspectives on overlooked aspects of the communities I’m surrounded by.
Janice Reid What attracted you to do series on healthcare or about masculinity? Did you do start these for self-healing or was it because you noticed something that was not being discussed openly?
Stéphane Alexis Good question. There are multiple facets to that; self-healing is definitely one of them. I grew feeling fairly alienated as a kid, experiencing my life within the healthcare system as well as my brother, and having special needs. That molded a lot of my views on life and how I see the world. And masculinity – I think that's becoming a bigger topic these days. As things start to shift in the world, I see a lot of men trying to find their space and that can be a challenge, plus the related mental health issues that aren't talked about, like higher suicide rates … I don’t think that’s something that we address. And my perspective on life, in general, is that we need each other, and community is important. When a few of us are stumbling, we’re all stumbling. I’m starting conversations about bringing us closer together, and seeking mutual understanding.
Poultry No. 5, from The Collection, 2021 by Stéphane Alexis
Janice Reid I definitely see what you’re saying. Within, specifically, the Black community in regards to masculinity, and with mental health – or any issues regarding Black bodies and how we take care of ourselves, those are not conversations that we have too often. I think also, maybe, we might perceive health as a luxury. You know, time off is a luxury. You can't really tend to yourself because you have all these … you have life, basically, you know, and tending to yourself and making sure that you’re checking in with yourself, might be deemed as being weak. I come from a Caribbean background, and my parents' generation, and beforehand, they never had that. So, I think what you’re doing is important.
Stéphane Alexis Right. I think you’ve nailed it, Janice. When you mentioned “living life” – that’s part of where I get my inspiration from. I'm just living life. And I'm paying attention. I’m looking at people in my immediate circle; I'm looking at the broader community. I'm looking internally and asking, “Are there parts of myself that need to be remedied in some way, that are coming from my experiences?”
Pride of Jamaica, from Fanny Eaton 2021, by Janice Reid
Janice Reid Regarding your photographic practice, how do you take the steps that tell you to translate those ideas into something photo-based? Like, for me, I feel that it's like a pull, like a burning need to create a finished vision with my camera. I need to just shoot; I need to do it. Do you relate to that?
Stéphane Alexis If I get that sense, and it's constantly pulling me, and I can't seem to shake it, then that's usually the first hint that I need to act on an idea. I have a little book that I jot down ideas in every so often. And some of them take off, and some of them sit for a bit until the spark hits.
Janice Reid That’s how it was with my most recent project, my Fanny Eaton series. And I looked back at the notes I made and thought, “Oh, I have to make this happen.” But I believe in timing, and I do believe that sometimes an idea is not ready, or I need to experience life a little bit more, hone my skills, in order to properly pursue an idea. And paying attention, being a watcher or an observer, with our notebooks – that’s still participating in life but sort of from the back seat.
THE ROLE OF ARTISTS IN SOCIETY
Craig D'Arville You’re both circling that idea of the role of artists in our culture, and how they hold up a mirror to society, or ask big questions, through their work. Is that something either of you think about, and do you feel a responsibility as artists during this time in the world?
Stéphane Alexis I do feel like it is our responsibility, as artists, to be curious about the world. I find that most artists I talk to are introspective observers. I think it’s a unique skill to translate those observations into art, even when it comes to music and other media. I think these questions that we ask help us shape minds without trying to “big ourselves up”. It helps the culture think about what's going on around us. It helps us shift our perspectives and helps us grow as a society.
Janice Reid Yeah. I do agree that it’s a social responsibility. To take what’s going on and put it into digestible language. I think it's also ok to not have answers, and just to asks the questions from an observer’s point of view. I don’t want to berate people, but I also believe that it’s everyone's responsibility to question and do a bit of research to learn about the world that we exist in today. And even if like I produce an artwork that someone finds informative or educational, I would have the expectation for them to do for the research. Because, if something resonated with me, like if I came to your show, and you taught me something through your work, and it resonated deeply with me, then it is my responsibility to figure out what that was. What is it inside me that made me feel the way I felt when I viewed your work?
Stéphane Alexis Those are some great points. But sometimes, people don't know how to question, or know that they should be considering their reactions to art. I try to look at people’s day-to-day lives and how hectic that can be, and draining, and the general chaos. And your work is visually beautiful; it invites people into your space without too much of a buffer, or a need to overthink it at first glance. And that’s great, too.
Box Braids No. 3, from Chains and Crowns, 2020, by Stéphane Alexis
HOW PERSONAL IDENTITY INFORMS ART PRACTICES
Craig D'Arville Janice, when we talked a couple of days ago about the topics and questions you wanted to ask Stéphane, you mentioned the importance that the role of personal identity plays in your art practice, and I think we’ve been almost covertly talking around that idea just now. Would either of you like to delve deeper into that?
Janice Reid I’d like to talk about identity a little bit more, Stéphane, and how it plays into your artworks around masculinity and healthcare. Do you feel that when you are creating this work, are you saying, “I'm creating this work because I am an artist”, or is it, “I am creating this work because I am a Black artist”? Because for me, I don't see any difference between the two in my own practice.
Stéphane Alexis I would just say that I'm a human, you know? Like, I'm a human being; I'm multifaceted. We’re all multifaceted. We’re sons, we're daughters, we're siblings, we're healthcare workers, we're bus drivers. It’s hard for me to focus on one perspective, all of the time.
Janice Reid Looking at it another way, how do you handle when people choose to perceive you first as a Black artist? When the work you're making seeks to connect with all people, is it something you consider or do you dismiss it? Do you feel that people are attracted to your work because you are a Black creative making that particular work? I’m asking because I do battle with that idea, and I think that the work that I do is commenting, and putting in the forefront, a view of Black people as human beings. I feel that a lot of times we are commodified; we are objectified. And I think the whole premise of my work is restoring humanity to Black people and Black experiences. And I think that this is also a gift of being a Black creative. And you've done it too, in your work; extending humanity to Blackness through your series Chains and Crowns.
Rows No. 2, from Chains and Crowns, 2020, by Stéphane Alexis
Stéphane Alexis I think, first of all, that underrepresentation in the art world, especially in gallery spaces, is very prominent right now in Canada for Black points of view. And I think part of the reason why Black work is currently booming is because we haven't seen a ton of it before now. We hadn’t had an opportunity to normalize Black experiences within the art world. As a Black artist, you shouldn't feel like you have to pigeonhole yourself because that's what people expect. We need to normalize Black artists creating art, Black artists being creative, Black artists showing our creative diversity. Because in reality, white artists who dominate this space, don't have to worry about creating white work. They just create. So we need to just be out there more, creating what we want to create and make it as powerful and wonderful as possible.
Janice Reid I would like to go a little bit further about Chains and Crowns. The photos are gorgeous and impactful portraits without faces. The viewer doesn’t get distracted by the individual; you’re putting the focus on the hair and what the hair can signify. Your artist statement for the series talks about how you felt at the time when you were creating this body of work. Can you talk a bit about those emotions, and the outcome of having those very powerful emotions and the work that you produced from it?
Stéphane Alexis It was gruelling; I'm not gonna lie. Um, it was very gruelling. I went into it with a very optimistic perspective. I was like, “I'm going to find all these beautiful hairstyles. I'm gonna get to connect with people, it's gonna be great. I'm gonna learn so much.” And I started researching because I needed an inventory. I needed an inventory of these hairstyles so I could photograph them. And as I was doing that research, I started reading up on where these hairstyles came from and even the eras to which they were attached to, you know, and I started reading up on human zoos, and what happened, in Canada; our part in the slave trade.
As I kept reading these horrific histories and this dehumanization of Black people, I thought, “Why am I even doing this?” I got to a point where I was thinking that it doesn't seem like we've gotten progress – we take a step forward and then something terrible happens. Oh my goodness. But ultimately I had to pull myself out of that. I really had to pull myself out of a funk and be like, “Okay, well we're sharing information. The point of this is to share information and this is information that not a lot of us know.”
Transforming Fanny, from Fanny Eaton, 2021, by Janice Reid
Janice Reid Right. Because people get sent home from work, or fired. It's another way how Black bodies and Black people are policed and hair is a major factor of how we can’t be our own individuals because … I have to worry about not putting in box braids because my boss is gonna say, “What is that?” Or I can't be free to wear my afro because people are not used to my 4C texture. Even talking about it brings in a lot of anger and frustration for Black people. And there is actually a history behind cornrows. They were used as maps, maps for freedom, or to hide rice grains inside the hair. So these hairstyles are not just visibly pleasing, but tools for survival.
Stéphane Alexis I think knowing this information can give us the opportunity to not repeat, or at least be mindful of, how we approach people knowing that this is where we came from and understanding that there is a trauma behind these hairstyles. The Black experience, and just people in general, come with their own baggage, come with their own trauma and come with things that are challenging that we don't know.
Janice Reid There is a particular spotlight, and there is a desire to see this work. Whereas, maybe even five years ago, that wasn’t the case. So I wanted to talk about whether you feel like it's timely, or do you feel that it's overdue, for black creatives to have this whole renaissance; this moment of eyes watching us? Let’s speak specifically only to what’s happening in Canada because I feel like there was always a platform and a playing field for African Americans, but I haven’t seen it happening until maybe the past five years here in Canada.
Stéphane Alexis I agree with you on that. I'm sure it goes back to what I mentioned before about the underrepresentation of Black creatives. And I think when the George Floyd incident happened, that opened a lot of people's eyes. Questioning how we perceive Black people, questioning how we address Black people as a culture, questioning how society treats Black people, how policing treats Black people versus other races. I think that that started a conversation and I think the floodgates opened from there and that influenced our visibility within the art community.
Janice Reid Yeah, I agree. I think that goes to shows that people are paying attention and people are curious about the work that we're making, as Black creatives, and that there is an audience that is wanting to learn about our practices and our history.
Snapper No. 11, from The Collection, 2021, by Stéphane Alexis
THE IMPACT OF AI UPON THE FUTURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Janice Reid There’s a big conversation going about AI and photography. Craig and I have had an ongoing conversation about it, discussing whether or not It’s playing a real threat towards photography as an art form, but now we have AI music showing up, too. Stéphane, what do you think about the rise of AI? Do you see it as being a tool for creativity, like Photoshop? Or do you think that it is a threat to artists?
Stéphane Alexis I'm still wrapping my head around it, to be honest with you. I think AI can be used as a tool to help spark ideas. I mean, we already kind of see that happening. I think creatives bring something unique to the table in terms of emotion and feeling, and those little nuances. if we're intelligent about it, AI could help us enhance our practices.
Janice Reid I brought up this question because recently the artist Boris Eldagsen won and then returned his First Prize from the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards using a photograph he generated using AI. You can easily tell it’s an AI image. And now agencies are popping up using AI models, so there goes the human model and the human photographer who’d be normally making those photographs together. So now AI can create diversity without having any actually diverse people involved – and I think that’s where it becomes scary. When the Black creative spark is removed, or there’s no need of true diversity; when no Black artists are needed to perform or create music … the commodification of people – Black people – to sell Black content to consumers can be a setback.
Stéphane Alexis For sure. I think if it does happen that AI becomes more dominant in our culture, I think people are gonna get tired of it, to be honest with you. People are gonna be like, “Where is the emotion behind this? Where’s the human touch. This is kind of dry.” So I don't think we're indispensable when it comes to creativity. I expect that we might get folded into that as AI makes it cheaper to create work. We humans really do bring something important to the table.
Craig D'Arville Following that train of thought, and thinking about how humans have been making art since before we had written language, and the urge to make art is hardwired in us, do either of you think that AI might benefit artists by creating a separate stream of creative expression? Much like the development of photography introduced in the middle of the 19th century?
Janice Reid AI will force us to think of new ideas and not become repetitive because, well, that's what AI needs. It needs us to be predictable. It needs for us to give the data that can recreate and reflect our existence. AI can reinforce the need for artists to make impactful, thoughtful work that a computer can't easily dredge up.
Stéphane Alexis AI will ask us to consider important questions, like: Are you creating because you want to be a superstar or are you creating because this is an undeniable part of who you are? I think that conversation will encourage artists to really get in touch with themselves because if you are an originator and not following trends, then the work will stand out. Ultimately, my wish is for us to be able to support ourselves through our art practices, and we can use AI as part of that. But that leads to a discussion about capitalism, and that's a whole other thing.
Fancy Dress, from Fanny Eaton, 2021, by Janice Reid
Janice Reid That seems like a good place to wrap things up. Save capitalism and the art world for our next conversation – Part Two. Stéphane, thank you for sharing your time and your thoughts. I’m going to think about the things we discussed and take them in.
Stéphane Alexis We touched on a lot of topics, which is cool. We were listening to what we were both saying, and I feel like we left each other with lots to think about. Let's do this again sometime!
Stéphane Alexis’ two series Chains and Crowns and The Collection are available through FFOTO via special arrangement with Abbozzo Gallery, Toronto. These series are official programming in the 2023 SCOTIABANK CONTACT Photography Festival.
Janice Reid is currently continuing work on a new series of compositions inspired by Fanny Eaton, an important historical figure from the Victorian era who became a muse to member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle. A portrait from that series, Transforming Fanny, available via FFOTO, was recently acquired by the Art Gallery of Hamilton for the museum's permanent collection.