Text: Ligia Popławska
Spending three months under one roof with her newfound relatives, Valentina Stellino documents their American lifestyle, creating cinematic images charged with psychological tension and unsettling atmosphere. In our conversation, the artist shares insights into her photographic practice and the process of working on Continuity.
Hi Valentina, could you describe your artistic practice? What interests you the most in the subjects you photograph?
I capture moments of in-between, where something and nothing is happening. In the daily rush, I think we are forgetting what is essential for us, human beings. That means being in a moment with yourself, staring into nowhere on a bus station, or simply being alone – what I think people are not able to do anymore. It is very important for me to capture this state.
Can you tell us a bit more about your photographic path until Continuity?
My work evolves with time and is categorised by chapters of my life or specific years. Black Weekends was my first project, where I found myself working from Thursday to Sunday and didn’t have much time between studying and working. Therefore I started taking self-portraits in my work environment. In the next project, Known Secrets, I still focused on my personal life, but took it a bit further, photographing my closest family members. Later on, I went to China and worked on Julia. Being alienated in China as a foreigner, I realised I didn’t have my family there – my main subject to photograph. I started looking for situations and photograph certain daily behaviours which reminded me of them. At the same time my aunt Julia was diagnosed with cancer, and I decided to implement her passing into the story, capturing that way the circle of life.
In Continuity you focused on photographing your family members and relatives in Florida. What motivated you to start this project?
When I came back from Asia I started my MA at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. In China, I gained the confidence to adjust myself to different conditions and work with various people, yet still staying close to the topic of family and daily behaviours. I realised I can go and look for these moments everywhere. My father told me we were having relatives in Florida, holding the same surname, Stellino. I called them introducing myself and when I saw a picture of my grandfather which they shared with me on Facebook, I decided to go and investigate my family tree. I never had contact with them before, so it was very special for me. I knew the situations I would capture will be different from what I use to know. Going to America gave me a fresh perspective.
How did you build an intimate relationship with the relatives, that they allowed you to be so close with them?
My plan was to go to Florida for 3 months. I asked if I could sleepover at their place and to my surprise, they agreed instantly, giving me a room in their house. From then on we went on with shooting. I was very happy that they were so positive about me entering their private life, I followed them everywhere with my camera. The intimate moments – they just happened. I’m always very respectful towards people I photograph and I think they feel at ease with me. I would never expose an image they don’t want me to show.
The visual language of your projects is very coherent. We are looking at interiors of homes or cafes saturated with the aesthetic of the 60’s and 70’s. There is a sense of timelessness. You also seem to direct people in a specific way.
I re-enact at the moment which is actually happening. I never plan or direct in advance. I wait for the moment till the person is alienated from the object – the situation is no anymore natural and the person becomes conscious of what he or she is doing – that enhances the weird atmosphere. I try to make my characters aware of what they are doing, and I think it is important for the viewer to see and really feel this moment.
In Continuity and Cut you include self-portraits, becoming one of the characters in the narrative.
I want to be one of these characters because I’m part of the story. I don’t see myself always as a photographer, I try to adapt myself to situations and to show people that I’m also one of the characters. Sometimes you’ll see my light-meter or self-timer. Every picture has a title at the end of the book. I don’t want to place them under the photographs, but I include them at the end of the book so the viewer can read the story in the end. I’m part of the story, I’m not just registering the situation.
There is a sense of a film narrative in Continuity and Cut. Do you think of it as a film narrative while you’re shooting?
Yes, I think of it as a film, but I don’t think of the before or after moment. For me, we don’t always need to know what’s happening before or after, because we always ignore the moment of the in-between, the moment of a person’s reaction. And that’s the vulnerable moment we forget the easiest, which is the most important one for me. The words Cut and Continuity are both terminologies of film. I’m looking at my photographs as scenes or cuts from a movie, a certain frame, a moment of in-between.
There is a magical element of light in your work translating in an enigmatic feeling. How do you work with light?
I never use additional light, but work with the light that is there. That’s why I only take the picture when I see it, I recreate the scene that has passed a second ago. For example, I look up to the great work of Gregory Crewdson, but he works with a lot of lightning equipment and theatre qualities involved, and that’s not what I aim for. I want to make my work as pure as possible, that people can recognise themselves in the photographed character.
Where did the fascination with tableaux vivant come from?
I never wanted to repeat certain iconography from Dutch painting or such, but I think it came to me naturally that I use certain soft, sculpted lightning which might remind the viewer of the work of, for example, Johannes Vermeer. I tend to spend a lot of time on each image, often using long exposure of 3 seconds. The slowness of the working method is something also familiar to the tradition of painting.
That was the most fascinating and challenging while working on Continuity?
Connecting with my family. I actually didn’t see the pictures until I was back from the USA. I developed them at the lab there in the USA and it was a horrible experience. I didn’t have a scanner with me so I was photographing the negatives and converting them in Photoshop to send the proofs to my teachers in Belgium. It gave me a lot of insecurity to not see the images for the whole 3 months when I was there.
What about your next project?
I would like to continue with Girlhood behind the scenes, in which I expose a lot of vulnerable moments between me and my girlfriends. I started this project before the pandemic and stopped it soon after because I could see my friends anymore. In the project, I am expressing my vision focusing on easily overlooked elements from girls life. I don’t want to make a statement or generalise this topic. I want the viewers still to be guided by their own imagination.