Time of War Is a Hauntingly Beautiful Ode to Every Day Struggles (Slightly NSFW)

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All images by Olivier Valsecchi. Used with permission.

Olivier Valsecchi was born in Paris in 1979 and after taking the plunge into photography has been published and exhibited around Europe, the US, and Asia. After winning a Hasselblad Masters award for his portrait series Dust, he created Klecksography in 2012. His new Drifting series is a journey through art history where each picture merges the tradition of the reclining nude with the still life painting genre from Flanders.

His series called “Time of War” is an ode to the struggles that we go through every day and how we battle against it. At first we thought the images featured powder, but we later learned that it’s all ashes. It builds on the dust series and involves religious symbolism as well as creative expressionism about our times.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you first got into photography.

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Olivier: When I was a teenager, I used to compose and record a lot of songs, I actually wanted to be a singer. I would take some photos for the sleeves and hopefully for your ears, I realized the photos were better than the songs. So at the age of 27, ten years later and after making a lot of self portraits and trying a lot of jobs that I wasn’t fulfilling myself in, I decided to enter a photographic school to improve my technique and see where it would take me. I shot the Dust series that kind of made the rounds in the magazines and on the internet, and that was the starting point of my professional career : publications, exhibitions, selling prints.

Phoblographer: What made you specifically get into portraiture and strobist work?

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Olivier: It’s a natural tendency to include people in my photos. I like to create atmospheres, and watch a model diving in it, the story he or she tells, what we have in common. Photography is also about sharing an experience with someone and connect with each other.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the inspiration. What inspired the series and the specific poses?

Olivier: Time of War is the second episode of the I am Dust body of work. It was originally inspired by Ovid’s definition of Chaos – a confused mass of liquid and fog, order and disorder, light and darkness, moves and stillness – that exploded and gave birth to Planet Earth. I enjoy mythological stories. When I started this project I remember I wanted to tell about wearing Death and undressing from it, and the further I was working on it, the clearer it appeared that it expressed my own renaissance, my chance for a second life. Incarnation.

Time of War chapter is more telling about the strength it takes to stay alive, once born. It’s also a kind of social diary of our times. We are experiencing hard days because of crisis, social conflicts, and I felt a lot of tension especially in France, that I had to get out of my system.

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As for the poses, I often get my inspiration from paintings and illustration of gods and superheroes.

Phoblographer: Why powder and the specific poses each model has?

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Olivier: The powder you see is actually ashes from the ashtray, in reference to Ash Wednesday and all the spiritual beliefs that ashes convey in terms of reincarnation, purification and disembodiment. Ashes also whiten the skin. I love white skin, always have. There is something very ghostly, even morbid about it.

Phoblographer: How did you go about explaining the project to your models? Was there storyboarding involved?

Olivier: At first, I would just say “you’ll be naked and covered with ashes.” But it didn’t work so well and people would frown at me like I was some kind of crazy. So as soon as I had the first picture of the series, I would show it, and that was worth a thousand words.

“Do you want to be part of this ?” was enough.

Phoblographer: What was the cleanup like for these photos?

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Olivier: Hours of cleaning up. That was the worst part. After a 5 hours shooting session, the last thing you want to do is cleaning up the mess.

Phoblographer: Your lighting for these images is very deliberate and specifically about coating the exposed parts of the models while also coming from above. Why did you choose this? What made you want to light the scenes this way?

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Olivier: Keep in mind that the series is about life and death in a same image. The paradox. The question : are they alive ? are they ghosts ? We’re talking about a mystical dimension here and our general belief is that Creation, and God, come from above. There are some religious references in those pictures, and it wasn’t intentional, I’m not a religious person, it’s just that they were the strongest pictures because they refer to art history. Religious art is a huge and very interesting heritage, and it’s impossible not to include that heritage in a body of work that talks about reincarnation, life after death. You see, ashes often symbolize the remains of a human being. Therefore, someone wearing those ashes could be interpreted as bringing his or her memory to a second life.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the technical setup for these images and what gear you used.

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Olivier: It’s not that spectacular a setup. I use only two softboxes, it’s only a question of how and where you place them.

Phoblographer: Besides in Time of War, you’ve got lots of photos of subjects that play in powder. What attracts you to using it in your shoots so much?

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Olivier: They don’t play in powder. They fight with/against it. The reason I like it so much is because it surprises me.

As much as I can control the model, I can’t anticipate what the dust is going to do, that’s why each shot is a surprise. We can try to force luck – and the more I work on this project, the better I am to almost tame the dust – but in the end there is no recipe for a great shot. Magic happens, or not. When it happens, you feel blessed. That’s why shoots take four or five hours. The longer they last, the better the models understand how it works, how you can trick the dust to force it make something unexpected, etc… It really does involve the models’ will to make a great shot. They really fight for it.

Phoblographer: What do you want to do with the series?

Olivier: First I have to work on the last episode, which might be very different from the previous two. This is a trilogy. Then, I’ll probably want to make a book.

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