You may not know her work. But you must have seen her face at least once, somewhere. With her bushy eyebrows, faint mustache and tropical kerchief, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has became a worldwide icon. She is also a great source of inspiration for countless people around the world. Maybe because of her tormented biography, filled with tragic events she overcame with intensity and dignity. Or perhaps it’s because of the singularity of her surreal paintings. Or because of the way she tackled the most universal questions regarding identity, sexuality and love.
Wix photographer Camila Fontenele is just one of the many that was struck by Frida’s lightning. In her art, she found the strength she needed to follow her dreams. So she decided to pay tribute, using her lens rather than a pen. The result? A monumental project, where she photographs random participants, wearing the attributes of the Mexican icon. Old women, little boys, couples… all in front of her camera, more than 6,000 individuals ‘became’ Frida Kahlo. Today, Camila tells us the story behind Everyone Can Be Frida.
When a photo saved my life
Hi Camila. Glad to meet you and welcome to the Wix Photography Blog. Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?
Hello, my name is Camila Fontenele, I’m 26 year old, and I am a Brazilian photographer and visual artist. I would define myself as a person who believes in the power of art and community to stimulate changes and reflections.
When and how did you start your photography career?
In 2012, I decided to abandon everything and dedicate myself to this new path, my path. I believe photography came into my life to “save me”, in the sense that each person has a mission to fulfill and is struggling to find what exactly that mission is. Mine is to photograph and create bridges between people to connect and to reflect. I believe that photography brought me closer to my own truth.
Do you practice photography as a professional?
Yes, photography is now my job. My biggest fear when I started this is that I would quickly be confined to only one genre, because it seemed like I had to belong to this or that. Luckily I realized that I could dedicate myself to many things, so now, besides working on artistic projects, I also photograph weddings, portraits, events and more.
Frida on my mind
Can you give our readers a taste of who Frida Khalo was?
Frida Kahlo was a great Mexican artist. She was a revolutionary woman who wasn’t afraid of occupying spaces determined by society as “masculine”. In many of her paintings, she portrayed herself showing her love, colors, dreams, but also the painful reality she experienced. Frida was married to Diego Rivera (a Mexican muralist), with whom she had a rocky relationship, this also involved other women and men, and died at the age of 47. Her story is really incredible, and her intensity still inspires a lot of people. I think she was really brave for living with such strength: she had no fear of experimenting to be different.
How did you first hear of Frida Kahlo?
I learned about Frida in an art class during college. First, I fell in love with the colors, but then I found a strong, almost spiritual connection with her. I started reading a lot about her life and work, until the moment I plucked up courage to make something that was inspired by her. I felt it was like a mission, because I needed her in my both my personal and professional life.
Why is Frida so inspiring for you?
In many interviews, I replied that Frida Kahlo showed me the possibility of dreaming and being strong. Even when she was keeping so much pain inside she still used vibrant colors in her paintings and clothes as a string of hope. However, the inspired feelings by Frida are too deep to put into words, because I do not know their names – so I photograph them instead.
And this is how the project of Everyone Can Be Frida was born…
Exactly. At the time I imagined Everyone Can Be Frida (Todos Podem Ser Frida) in 2012, I was working in advertising – photography was only a hobby. Very little was said about Frida Kahlo in Brazil. So before everything, I did a lot of research, trying to find works inspired by her. But most were related to fashion, and I didn’t want something purely aesthetic. I was looking for my own interpretation of her life. Back then, I already knew that Frida used to wear men’s clothes, and also that there were rumours about her bisexuality.
So I had an idea to shoot men dressed as Frida, each one of them interpreting five fragments of her life. The production was made in collaboration with visual artists. In the beginning, I didn’t know where this work would take me, because everything was only based on a special relationship that I felt between me and her, and my intention was to communicate artistically, in order to discover myself. After one year dedicated to the first part of this project, I had the courage to leave my job, become a full-time photographer and take this journey to the next level.
And what does the project look like today?
Everyone Can Be Frida is a two-stage project. In the first stage, we have a photography exhibition with the five fragments I’ve mentioned, which are:
“Frida, Entirely” (“Frida por Inteiro”), which deconstructs the historical environment to bring the intensity and strength of being Frida Kahlo to the contemporary.
“Frida’s Love” (“O amor de Frida”), which describes the stormy relationship between Frida and Diego, and their intimate connection with love.
“Frida’s Colors” (“As cores de Frida”) shows the peculiar and delicate influence of the colors of her life and art.
“Frida’s Pain” (“A Dor de Frida”), which exposes her wounds and the pain the experienced throughout her life.
“Frida’s Abortion” (“O Aborto de Frida”) uncovering the feelings she experienced after she had an abortion, using colors and male figures.
And what is the second stage of the project about?
The second part is a social experiment, which I call “artistic intervention (or performance)”. For each exhibition of the project, we create a mini-studio with a team of photographers and makeup artists. Every visitor of the exhibition is invited to dress up as Frida Kahlo and to be photographed. Of course, people can feel free to participate, to decline or just to talk about the project. The whole process (impersonation and photography) takes about 15 minutes. For me, the magic happens right before taking the shot, when the person realizes that they are walking through a self-awareness path. I called the project Everyone Can Be Frida, but actually my intention is more to empower people to be anything they want, to practice empathy and not to be afraid of knowing others with intensity, and on a deep level.
Everybody needs Frida
You use models of all genres, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation. Would you say there’s a Frida in everyone of us?
Not only a Frida Kahlo, but we can channel virtually any person, feeling or even place. I have a lot of wonderings of this kind: Who am I – behind the money that I own, the surname that I was given, the house where I live, the clothes that I wear? What is left over when you put everything aside? And what gets damaged? I also ask these questions mentally to the people I photograph, because I believe that when we find in us the self that is not damaged, we have more respect for others, because in the end, we understand that we are all connected. Frida taught me to seek my “self” in this world, and I want to do the same for others through my project.
On your project’s Facebook page we see a lot of people dressed as Frida. How many “Fridas” do you already have?
I have about 6,000 photos of people dressed as Frida Kahlo. This growing number always baffles me. I never set a specific goal, because the project has always expanding organically – and I would like to keep it that way.
And you’re not stopping here: we see that a book is about to be published!
2017 marks the fifth year of the project. It has already been shown in 24 Brazilian cities and three other countries (Italy, England and Mexico) and I would like to continue to showcase the project. On top of the project, in 2014 I started to write a few stories on my computer, in a simple Word doc. I realized that this could become an Everyone Can Be Frida book, and since many of my friends encouraged me, I decided to pursue it. The book is ready, but I still need some money to publish it, so I created a dedicated Crowdfunding page – I hope to have the support of the people to make this great dream of mine come true.
Anyone can contribute starting from just R$20,00 (around 7 US dollars), the book will be bilingual in both Portuguese and English. I have until July 7th 2017 to reach my goal. If this does not happen, the supporters will receive their money back. However, I really hope and believe that I will be able to publish and send the book to the people that have contributed. This book is my connection to people in one place. This book is where I narrate my creation process, it includes my fears, insecurities, inspirations, surprises and everything that I could learn with Frida Kahlo and the people that I have been photographing and working with. To me, this work comes from deep inside of me and I want people to know that.
How did the admirers of Frida Kahlo and the art critics welcome your project?
The reactions were always surprising and very positive, even from people who knew Frida’s life and work very well. The same went for the press, there was very good coverage! Last year, articles about the project were published on amazing websites like the Huffington Post, Follow The Colours, Fubiz, Quartz, El País, etc. I’m very proactive when it comes to promoting my work. I send my materials to many people, some respond and some don’t, that’s how life works.
What equipment do you use for your photos?
I use a Canon 6D camera, a Canon 50mm 1.4 lens and a Canon 430 flash. I believe that when we know our equipment well, we can make ourselves better, so I reduced my gear to only these three items.
What are your secret tips to shoot great portraits?
You have to show some connection and respect to the person you’re photographing. Technical issues are everywhere, but they can be solved much faster, so it would be a little pointless for me to talk about them now. Affection and observation is something we learn only when we really put our best into what we do.
We feel a lot of tenderness in your pictures, especially in your portraits…
Thank you, I’m really happy you see it! Yes, for me portraying people is something spiritual and should express the mutual respect between two individuals.
Do you think photography can help challenge cultural or social prejudices?
Yes for sure! I hate the image of “glamour” and “pure aesthetics” that photography often carries, because for me, this art will always mean something deeper that can’t only be seen from the outside. Actually, the same could be said for any other art – everything we do has an inner purpose that everyone of us has to define.
Some people could compare Everyone Can Be Frida to carnaval, due to the exuberant colors, but it carries a lot of very deep questions with it. Other artists and myself on the project, try to tackle serious issues such as diversity, especially when it comes to genders. We live in a world where some people have more privileges (financially, but also in terms of inclusion, rights and respect), just because of their gender. Another issue is accessibility. In Brazil unfortunately, art doesn’t reach everyone, and for me, photography is not only a job, it also has a social significance. So we made sure to give access to everyone, also to homeless people, who were photographed as Frida.
Who are the photographers, from yesterday and from today, that inspire you?
I’m inspired by many different things and people, not only photographers. Sometimes, taking care of my garden and realizing that my basil grew leaves can yield reflections and incredible works. However, if I have to think of inspiring names, I would cite Henri Cartier-Bresson, Antanas Sutkus, Platon, Nair Benedicto, Vivian Mayer, Gisele Freund, Anka Zhuravleva, Mariana David, Francesca Woodman, Julia Salustiano, and Fernanda Magalhães.
Which dream would you to make happen next?
I’m always on the move and I have some projects underway: Far Is a Place Near Me, an autobiographical project where I investigate maternal and paternal memories ; and A Tea: Stories and Records, where I explore with words and pictures the invisible roads that connect us to colors, smells, forms, accents, etc. I’m also thinking of visiting Mexico soon, to get the courage to continue my trajectory as a photographer, and of course, to fulfill my most recent dream: publishing the Everyone Can Be Frida book.
You use Wix for your personal website, as well as for the site of Everyone Can Be Frida. Can you explain your choice?
I chose Wix because it gives me the mobility and freedom that I need. Just like for my personal work, I like to do research and to experiment, and to adapt things when I feel like I need to. Wix gives me the amazing ability of doing it very easily, uploading and changing my content whenever, wherever I am.
How important is it for you, as a young photographer, to have a good photography website?
I believe that the Internet is a democratic environment where we have a chance to reach people from different places. Someone can search about certain types of photos on Google, find your website and contact you. For example, my Wix website brought me new clients and valuable contacts. So for me, the answer is: having a website, even if it’s simple one (and I strongly believe in simplicity), is very important for any photographer!
Thanks a lot for your time and kindness Camila. The final word is yours. A dazzling thought to share? A quote to savour? A love declaration? A photographer manifesto? You have carte blanche!
Thinking about the community, I invite people to support my Crowdfunding initiative. Every contribution will help me in the process of publishing a book independently. All the information can be found on the page in Portuguese and in English. I have until July 7th 2017 to raise R$ 58,750.00 (approximately 17,965 US dollars).
And a final word (or sentence): “We can’t help but wonder how much difference one person makes in the world. We look inside ourselves, questioning if we have the capacity for heroism and greatness. But the truth is, every time we take an action, we make an impact. Every single thing we do has an effect on the people around us. Every choice we make sends ripples out into the world. Our smallest acts of kindness can cause a chain reaction of unforeseen benefits for people we’ve never met. We might not witness those results, but they happen all the same.” That quote was taken from a series called Touch and whenever I feel too small to change the world, I remember it. So, do not forget, your actions are important to someone!
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