Photographer Carmen Yahchouchy Visits Your World as You Sleep

All images by Carmen Yahchouchy. Used with permission.

“I was only a visitor to their ‘safe’ space, and they were eager to go back to ‘dreaming’ as well,” says photographer Carmen Yahchouchy. Carmen has an inquisitive mind. A tremendously intelligent photographer, she communicates her view of the world through compelling visual storytelling, as we see in her series, Vulnerable Visits. On a much deeper level, the place in which we rest can be something sacred, and Yahchouchy recognizes that. She took something as simple as men sleeping and turned it into an exploration of anxiety, dreams, and vulnerability. The work is simple in execution, but complex in its meaning – naturally, we found this intriguing.

The series also cemented Yahchouchy’s photographic voice. Through seven frames, she received the confirmation of where she belongs. “I got the affirmation for my vocation in documentary and storytelling.” She’s exceptionally well-spoken, and at several points during our conversation had us thinking and reflecting on the meaning and role photography can play in everyday life.

Phoblographer: Hello, Carmen! Please begin by telling us what first inspired you to pick up a camera?

CY: Since I was a little child in Mali, my father was always using his film camera. I remember when he used to put it down for a few minutes, I used to come and request if I can use it while he’s resting. I sensed I had to take his place. I felt important the presence of loved ones at a significant event or moment that prompted the taking of the video or image. I was constantly taking pictures of my family life, at times when I acknowledged my relationship bonds and social achievements. They were moments I want to hold onto, emotionally and visually. What my Father used to tell me was, “When you see the red light it means it’s recording,” and I was so excited that sometimes I used to record moments over some others and it would delete them and my dad used to go furious. When I was 13 years old, I got my first camera for my birthday, a Sony DSC-T70. Since that day I knew I wanted to become a photographer. It was obvious that I was a dreamer, I wanted to travel the world and take pictures.

“I saw myself in my subjects’ intimate spaces. There are teaching me stuff about myself…”

Phoblographer: What is it about visual storytelling that got you interested in documentary photography?

CY: By listening and telling the stories of others, we come to understand that there are no stereotypes and we stand as individuals. In storytelling, I feel empathy with my subjects but the most important part is them to feel empathy with me capturing the emotion they transmit and their surroundings. That’s why photography often seems to sit at the intersection of skill and humility. No matter the topic, or how distant it seems for you, it’s not until you find yourself or examine your motivation to tell a story, that your story becomes compelling with others. I am a very emotional person and I discovered that while doing all my photo series with time, without knowing, I saw myself in my subjects’ intimate spaces. There are teaching me stuff about myself, they are showing me the world, they leave me their energy inside myself for the rest of my life and I think that’s the power of storytelling.

“I felt I needed to take the risk as the project itself started courageously…”

Phoblographer: When you were developing the concept of  Vulnerable Visits, what were the potential issues when trying to execute the idea?

CY: I was working on a series called ‘Mediterranean” for a five-day workshop with Giulio Remondi. As we were doing the selection I couldn’t just see ‘Vulnerable Visits’ along 30 other photographs. I felt I needed to take the risk as the project itself started courageously and make this series of only seven photographs. So I separated the series into two different ones.

Phoblographer: When putting the series together, what did you hope for the viewer to think and feel when viewing the photographs?

CY: To allow the punctum effect, the viewer must reject all knowledge. Most of the time, life is not actually every lived experience, but it’s what we keep in our memories, it’s the parts that we remember. Photography plays an integral role in this sentiment. That’s what I try to express: the importance of emotion and subjectivity while looking at a photograph. You may find yourself in their own story, in their emotions or it will remind you of someone. It is not the moment, but the photograph that was taken at a given time that creates the memory. It’s a moment in time that now echoes with mine, but that will one day fade altogether

Phoblographer: In terms of getting caught, were you ever concerned for your safety during the project?

CY: We were in a workshop; all were hiking together toward the same places. We were all taking the same photos but of course differently as each one has, their own way of seeing things. A man was sitting outside of these homes, I asked him if other men were inside their habitats, he told me “yes” but they are asleep and I can go see myself. That’s how I felt I needed to be somewhere else, rather than just following. I needed something intimate to get closer to these men sleeping. That’s how I went in. Without asking myself any question. These working men were sleeping but I still managed to get into their homes. I managed to convince and reassure them that someone like me means no harm. I was only a visitor to their “safe” space and they were eager to go back to “dreaming” as well; so, they went back to sleep.

“We need the past and our memories to dig into missing pieces of our anxieties…”

Phoblographer: Our place of rest can be quite sacred. What is your relationship like with the environment in which you sleep and how did it contribute to you wanting to create this series?

CY: This is a very interesting question. I grew up in Bamako and I was always at my friend’s place, from morning till night. I used to feel better being far from my place, I used to feel free. Breaking the rules and sneak to go out until late mornings. It was when internet and messenger was just becoming cool. When all I had to do was show up to class on time and make good grades. I was crazy, my own family couldn’t understand me and my big brother is the opposite of me. I was living the African dream in public meanwhile at home I was living the patriarchal Lebanese life. I used to hate this combination; it was like playing with the same weapons. I was blaming them and I didn’t want to change. It’s only when I resettled in Lebanon and through my studies in documentary photography; how personal this tool is. We need the past and our memories to dig into missing pieces of our anxieties, how does it affect me, that I realized how important my family was in the person I am now, and home is where I should be to find myself first.

“We all become vulnerable. We all sleep with our anxieties. Our hopes. Our dreams. Now, like every dawn we have to wake up courageously.”

Phoblographer: Do you think it’s fair to say the conditions these men are in are not the best? Was part of your motivation to highlight the struggle they may be facing?

CY: I was born and raised in Mali. For 18 years I got to see that African families and kids need not much to be happy and I felt myself where I needed to be. I always thank my family for living there, you get to see conditions people are living in but it reminds you that we are all the same and you live simply. That’s why my motivation wasn’t to show their struggle, in the contrary I was searching for my homeland between each house. That simplicity that we all surrender when we come to sleep at night. We all become vulnerable. We all sleep with our anxieties. Our hopes. Our dreams. Now, like every dawn we have to wake up courageously.

Phoblographer: You’ve referenced Shakespeare, highlighting the connection between the dream state and the afterlife. Can you tell us why and how you wanted to incorporate that into this documentary photography series?

CY: Usually the camera freezes movement, isolating a single moment in the endless flux of reality. Here, on the contrary, the stillness of the image is of its essence. Through the mystery of sleep, life itself – like the photographic image – is seen as static, as if in suspense.

This series is complemented with an audio, a man and woman speaking the words spoken by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy in Act III, Scene I “To sleep perchance to dream” found in William Shakespeare’s play. The frequency of the movie shows a heart monitor at its vulnerable state when the human is asleep, confused by the sound of Hamlet where he explains that if death is a kind of sleep, then it might entail its own dreams, which would become a new life, a new world where these dreams are the hereafter, and the hereafter is a frightening unknown: here the time is suspended as the electric wire. The sound is a call for sunshine that express to the sleepers to wake up courageously, Apostrophe those sleepy again and invective those who refuse to get up.

Phoblographer: In terms of getting the shots, did you get in and out as quickly as possible or did you prefer to spend as much time as you could in their sleeping environment?

CY: Before getting to these rooms I felt some adrenaline but once there I wasn’t thinking of being quick, I was just focused of doing that respectably that’s why I asked a man first if I could go there. I actually hoped that some wake up so that I could meet and talk to them more and actually some did and they just smiled at me and went back to sleep or some just invites me for a tea while his roommate is sleeping. I felt safe.

Phoblographer: Finally, how do you feel the project went as a whole; are you satisfied with it?

CY: I want to thank the presence and knowledge of Giulio, he made me trust my intuitions and make my emotion a force to give my subjects a voice. When I look back at the series, I would not change or do a thing differently. It was lovely and vulnerable.

You can see more of Carmen’s work by visiting her website.