Where We Belong by Spanish photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra is a series of photographs about the so-called Janeites. “The Janeites are a group of like-minded people who share a strong passion for the English novelist, Jane Austen, and are part of the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society” Alejandra explains. “The members of the group come together to celebrate the work of the writer at house parties, picnics, balls, site visits, and Austen-related events. During their gatherings they dress up in full Regency outfits, perform music, dance, read books and organize Austen-related games.” This body of work has been originally commissioned through the Jerwood / Photoworks Awards, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks, and will be on view at Belfast Exposed, starting next 1 November, as part of the Jerwood/ Photoworks Exhibition Tour. One of the photographs will also be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Photograhic Portraiture Prize starting next 18 October.
Alejandra first learned about the Janeites on one of her first weekends in the UK: “I was visiting Bath and ran into a group of people having a picnic in traditional 19th Century clothes. After chatting with a couple of them, I learned that they had attended the annual Jane Austen Festival (a festival that brings hundreds of Austen fans to Bath). After that day, I spent several months doing research until I came across Sophie Andrews, the co-founder of the society I was to follow for the next two years. At first, I was intrigued by this community and their efforts to adopt a female identity that was defined within a dominantly patriarchal society.”
Where We Belong mixes staged portraits, documentary shots and close-ups of the women’s hands. “My photographic approach has changed a lot since I first started. At the beginning I followed a more documentary approach, photographing what I found with little interruption. This approach allowed me to slowly get closer, familiarize myself with the group and gain their trust. Once I felt that I had a place in the group, I started making images that were more collaborative—involving the sitters in performative ways, altering elements in the scene and finally sketching and directing the whole photograph. I am interested in exploring the threshold between reality and fiction. In combining both documentary and staged photographs my intention is to invite the viewer to question where the performance starts and ends, and to challenge where the limits between reality and imagination lie.”
With this work, which draws a lot of inspiration from pre-Raphaelite painters, Alejandra aims to “disrupt the viewer’s preconceived understanding of the group and their identity by playing with the boundaries between revelation and mystery, and ultimately making them question what constitutes reality. Ultimately, my goal is to invite viewers to question their own sense of belonging. In an exhibition, I intend to take the viewer through a journey where they first get a feeling of what they’re looking at, and then little by little start finding clues to help them reveal layers of meaning and establish connections between the photographs. The hope is that by the time they leave, their visual and conceptual senses have been awakened. Or at the very least, that something about my work stays with them.”
Alejandra’s main interests as a photographer are “to explore the human desire to belong, and to challenge preconceived ideas aimed at defining an individual’s identity. I am particularly interested in examining stereotypes associated with individuals who are part of a group with a strong group identity.” The influences on her practice are “pretty broad and depend on what I’m working on at the moment. Conceptually I get a lot of inspiration from literature and films, and visually mostly from paintings, photography and video. A couple of examples are Artemisia Gentileschi, Caravaggio and other baroque artists, Sofia Coppola’s films, and Junot Diaz’s books.” Some of her favorite contemporary photographers are Collier Schorr, Sharon Lockhart, Alex Prager, Taryn Simon and Torbjørn Rødland. The last photobooks she bought were Billie by Ofer Wolberger and The Earth Is Only a Little Dust Under Our Feet by Bego Antón; the next she’s going to buy is Rayon Vert by Senta Simond.
Alejandra’s previous series The Bears will be exhibited at Fifty Dots Gallery in Barcelona from next 15 November (read our interview with her about that series). Her #threewordsforphotography are:
Observation. Perception. Pause.