In "Black Box" Phelia Barouh creates very personal, intimate and sensual black and white portraits of people in different constellations – families, couples, lovers, colleagues, friends, pets…
Phelia Barouh is someone who trusts her inner voice and this is very evident in her work. She spent her high school years in Mexico, then studied architecture in Madrid, but ended up devoting her heart and soul to photography. We know her as the founder and curator of the FotoFabrika festival, as well as through her many authorial projects, which always revolve around human images and stories. In "The Strange Other," she puts refugees from Syria arriving here and the Bulgarians who meet them side by side. In "Come in, take a selfie" she invites people into a space where they can take pictures of themselves while surrounded by selfies of her taken in a very personal, dramatic moment. Last year, she presented her first photo book, Palermo. Box. Me., which is a story about the road, about separation and loneliness. Her format "Black Box" is even more popular; in it, as if by magic, Phelia creates very personal, intimate and sensual black and white portraits of people in different constellations – families, couples, lovers, colleagues, friends, pets… That's why we spoke with her about emotion in photography and how she manages to preserve and follow her own style through it and in spite of it.
Architecture introduced you to photography. What are the similarities and differences between these two disciplines?
I think the main similarity is light. It is a key factor in both disciplines. But to "build" something in one of these disciplines requires the kind of patience I do not possess, so I turned to photography. Also because I'm excited about people and their stories.
What is the camera for you – a tool, a cover, a weapon?
A weapon! Hahaha, although actually the photographer is the weapon, not the camera. Sometimes it's a shield, that is, a cover, but I quickly drop my guard. So maybe it's actually a tool.
The human factor, the story behind the image is very characteristic of your work. This requires a lot of energy and emotion – how do you manage to preserve yourself?
I never distance myself. I do the opposite. And yes, it takes a lot of energy and emotion, but it's worth it. I have an abundance of emotion, I think also of energy, so this is not a problem.
How did the idea for your project "Black Box" come about and why did you choose this format –black and white portraits shot in a dark room?
The idea for the Black Box was born in 2016, it was pretty improvised. I was invited to take portraits at Sklada as part of the Angels and Pigs Christmas Bazaar. I need intimacy in order to take portraits, so we set up a small enclosed space within the large warehouse space of Sklada. The dark room creates an intimate atmosphere and automatically breaks down some barriers, and I feel most comfortable in the dark. The famous photographer Ted Grant says, "When you take pictures of people in color, you take pictures of their clothes. But when you photograph them in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
Tell us about the psychology behind this kind of studio work – how do you manage to capture in a frame the most intimate and real aspect of a person, and in such a short period of time?
I don't think I always succeed in this, but I'm certain that I always give it a try. I am the first to remove the barriers. For example, I share something personal. Everyone's approach is different, there is no formula and I never know what will happen. I always serve my customers whiskey.
What did you learn about yourself while working on the photo book Palermo. Box. Me.?
The photography book is the highest form of photography. Making it feels like such a brazen thing to me, but after I returned from Palermo, I was talked into doing this and I do not regret it. Creating the book was more like learning something new, learning a new craft. It was very difficult and painful, and I would change some things if I were to do it again. For example, I would work with an external photo editor. And in Palermo, I learned above all that sometimes it's very scary to be by yourself, that this personal encounter is a complicated process, and it took me a long time to feel OK living alone. I learned to communicate very easily with strangers, to eat pasta and of course, I learned Italian.
You have several projects connected to taking selfies. What intrigues you about this format?
The most popular form of the selfie does not interest me one bit, because it is artificial. There is nothing I hate more than that. I am interested in people and their emotions when they are outside their comfort zone. That's why the projects I have done using the selfie format brought people into an unusual environment, and I made them take their own portrait with the idea of capturing something real about them.
What are your places? Where do you like to relax, take walks, rest, recharge?
My places are where my loved ones are - sometimes in the Zaimov Park in Sofia, or the xChallenge park in Tsarevo, and many are outside Bulgaria. I recharge in the evening with friends while walking my dog or by exercising every day.
If you were to meet yourself as you were ten years ago, for example – what would you say?
"Smile, the worst is yet to come."
When do you find it hardest to follow and be true to yourself, and when does it happen naturally?
The hardest thing for me is when things are artificial, when people are fake. It is very difficult for me to work in such an environment. And vice versa – it all happens very naturally when you are among real people, when there is no pretense, whether it's a matter of fun and playful photographs, or serious reporting work. If things are real, it always works out.
The interview is part of the #followmyself series, which is supported by Fashion Days.