As a mother, I wanted to pass on to my children this belief in dreams and the importance of holding onto one’s values.
Fables go back long before the written word, shared in each retelling, shaped by what was remembered, by what was felt to hold true. Insights fashioned by the passage of myriad tongues as a pebble is smoothed by the endless ripple of a stream. In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, fables were an important part of a student’s education. Narratives on which they cut their teeth in the arts of prose composition and public speaking. The essence of the fabulous lay in the memorable use of metaphor, painting pictures in the mind that deftly evoke a word to the wise.
Such stories involved reimagining the world from an unfamiliar perspective. To consider, for example, how things would seem if one was very small. The very first fairy-tale printed in English recounted the adventures of a young man called Tom who was no bigger than his father’s thumb. A century later, Jonathan Swift chronicled Gulliver’s travels among the giants of Brobdingnag and, a century after that, Hans Andersen published his tale of the diminutive Thumbelina who must resist the matrimonial overtures of toads, moles, and beetles before she finds her equally tiny true love.
For the Peruvian artist Talia Duclos, such radical changes in scale open onto a world whose unfolding scenes each encapsulate their own maternal maxim. Robed in red, her daughter shrinks like Alice in Wonderland until she is small enough to hop aboard a folded-paper boat. A vessel that will sail on to new adventures, as long as she is not scuppered by the tide of other people’s negativity. Later, with the advent of Covid-19, the images relocate from these enchanted landscapes to a claustrophobic quarantine cell and the themes become more pensive, though never quite lose hope.
We begin our conversation with work that explores another transformation, that of time. Here once-proud buildings that had thronged with life have returned to an eternal nature that outlives the ephemeral hubris of humankind. Their fate sealed by cataclysmic events – earthquake or economic collapse, the destruction of war or the devastation of landslide. Each, a sad but honest story beautifully told. And this is the lyrical talent of Talia Duclos, to see dilapidation and decaying with a fresh eye and enfold wisdom in the fabulous.
What draws you to photography?
I am an introvert. For me, talking about and understanding my true feelings is hard work. I have found the camera lens to be a liberating instrument. By making images I can develop my thoughts better, let go. In this way I have managed to express the things I feel inside me; even things that go back to my childhood that I had forgotten until I began making images.
The first series I would like to discuss is called ‘Abandonment’. How did this project begin?
The series began when I discovered a deserted town in the middle of the Namibian Desert. It had been constructed in 1900 for the workers in a nearby diamond mine. What began as a makeshift settlement grew until it had a school, clinic, recreational areas… Over the years the mine was exploited until no more gems were left. The miners moved on and the town was abandoned to the desert winds and sand.
I was attracted by the ghostly aspect of these lonely buildings. Each room has a different personality. Some are warm with soft colours, others still have hand-painted murals, and everywhere the sands have invaded the houses creating an alien interior landscape. It was exciting to enter these spaces, to explore the light and the textures. To think about how life might have been in these rooms before the desert winds and sand overwhelmed them. To feel the way nature reclaims its place over the greed of us humans.
What other abandoned places have you photographed?
From then on I started looking for other places that had been abandoned. In Italy, I visited Apice [about seventy kilometres northeast of Naples], which was damaged by an earthquake in 1980 and is now a ghost town. And the town of Craco in Matera, which was built on a hill of sand and clay. Eventually earthquakes and landslides made it too dangerous to live there.
Not all of these places were destroyed by natural events…
No. In France, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane was the site of a Nazi massacre intended to intimidate the civilian population of Haute-Vienne during the WWII Battle of Normandy. Few villagers survived, and many of the houses were wrecked and set alight. After the war, on the orders of President Charles de Gaulle, the ruined village was maintained in this state as a permanent memorial to those who perished, and a warning against the horrors of violence.
[Left] © Talia Duclos ‘Apice’ 2018 from the series ‘Abandonment’
[Right] © Talia Duclos ‘Rubble’ 2019 from the series ‘Abandonment’
What is it draws you to these abandoned spaces?
Finding these places is often quite a challenge. It takes a lot of adrenaline. In Apice, I had to clamber over the perimeter fence. Once inside, I try to find beauty in each environment. These are places that have, in many ways, ceased to exist – at least they have ceased to be whatever they were originally built for. What caused that change of fortune may be a natural disaster, the effects of climate change or as a result of war or economic collapse. It is fascinating to document the way time and nature claim their space. And it is salutary to see that what is built in the belief it will be permanent will eventually crumble and be forgotten.
I hope these images might remind us that we must work harder if we are to leave a true inheritance to our children – a planet that continues to live. The traces of the former human presence, the objects and architecture, capture the imagination and, I hope, motivate the viewer to question why these dirty, faded, and now ruined places fell into disuse. They are at peace; their previous life can only be recreated in the imagination of those who visit. Inevitably, there is a feeling of nostalgia, a reminder than nothing is eternal. That what I rescue in these places is the knowledge that, in the end, everything is temporary. We should enjoy every minute of the present because tomorrow everything could be reduced to rubble, literally and metaphorically.
In contrast to ‘Abandonment’, the other two series I would like to discuss explore the limitless worlds of childhood imagination. What is your approach here?
At its foundation, my passion for photography is expressed through portraiture, a seemingly simple genre that offers enormous expressive and creative potential. Creating a portrait is a complicit and spontaneous process in which everything is possible. As a portrait photographer one has to learn how to recognise and capture one’s understanding of a person within an image. It is a two-way thing… as if the lens becomes, at both ends, an instrument that liberates feelings.
I have since built on this dynamic to envision narratives that blend my own experiences with those of others, creating new, often imaginary, landscapes. These arise, either consciously or unconsciously, as a kind of parallel reality in which I build my own unfettered picture of childhood.
The first of these two series is ‘Fables for Daily Life’. How did that begin?
I have been making this series for a few years now. I have approached it slowly, calmly. I am in no hurry to complete it. I take my time… From the beginning, my idea was to create scenes through which to reflect upon those everyday challenges and dilemmas we all face from time to time – the way they feel. But to approach this in an uncomplicated, playful way – from the perspective of a little girl. That little girl is my daughter Tiana. She finds herself in a world that is sometimes intimidating. At that young age, she sometimes felt so small, and yet she was always seeking out new experiences…
How did you go about working with Tiana to create these images?
She was my collaborator. We made it happen together. But Tiana is constantly on the move and would only let me take one shot for each image. So, I had to plan each picture very carefully in advance.
What ideas were you exploring together?
These are visual fables. They share their message through metaphor as our little protagonist interacts with the animate and inanimate in various ways. The pictures aim to question human nature a little; to illustrate the importance of holding on to one’s values in order to find the security and strength to achieve a full life. I have tried to capture those values in a graphic way, inviting the viewer to dream.
Is it important to dream?
Yes! We should fight for our dreams, despite the obstacles, and make them come true. Keeping our dreams alive is an important way in which to overcome fears, face new challenges and, along the way, live more fully, more intensely. As a mother, I wanted to pass on to my children this belief in dreams and the importance of holding onto one’s values. When this work was made into a book, I included a short text with each image encapsulating those ideas.
Be able to understand that sometimes things do not turn out as you expected. Looking for a culprit to blame does not bring relief, it simply ties your hands. Don’t let disappointment paralyse you, but don’t let it make you panic and rush about. Do not despair. Pick up your cup – it is soon cleaned. Drink, and with measured steps, leave the mud and go on your way.
© Talia Duclos ‘Forgive’ 2015 from the series ‘Fables for Daily Life’
What wealth there is in trusted friends with whom to spend time and enjoy life. Even in the deepest silence, their mere presence and mutual affection will say it all. But hold onto your beliefs firmly and do not be afraid to think differently. Friends come and go but soul mates remain always.
© Talia Duclos ‘Make Friends’ 2015 from the series ‘Fables for Daily Life’
Pursue Your Dreams:
It’s fun to travel, you just have to fold a paper and sail away. Your little boat will stay afloat as long as you do not let the wet get in. In the same way, no one can take away your dreams unless you allow the negativity and pessimism of others to overwhelm them. But words will never sink you while you remember that you have the power within you that will always keep you afloat.
© Talia Duclos ‘Pursue Your Dreams’ 2014 from the series ‘Fables for Daily Life’
Live Your Dreams:
Life is a gift, an open book to fill, a lesson to learn. Your story should be filled with dreams to be enthusiastically realised. Having dreams to fulfill gives meaning to our lives. Dream and enjoy all that you do.
© Talia Duclos ‘Live Your Dreams’ 2014 from the series ‘Fables for Daily Life’
When the Covid-19 lockdowns began, you started another, closely related project: ‘During Quarantine’.
I started this project while we were in lockdown and unable to leave home. I made the images in my studio using a wooden cube as the basic structure into which I montaged images from my archive.
In making this work, I wanted to express my uncertainties, my fears, during quarantine. But I also wanted to put myself in other people’s shoes, imagine how they felt. Not everyone experienced lockdown in the same way. So, these images speak about various different feelings people had during this period of enforced confinement.
For many, time passed differently during quarantine. It brought us closer to illness and death and reminded us of the importance of valuing the present. I recalled a phrase from Shakespeare: “On the great clock of time, there’s but one word – NOW.” But time dragged in lockdown making us somewhat desperate. When I created the image of the clock with knives for hands, I was thinking of something Gabriela Cortes wrote: “In the uncertainty of waiting, time is your executioner.”
Yet, as with your fables, you also found things to be more hopeful about…
I think that being in quarantine made us realise that we have the ability to reinvent ourselves. In the picture of the girl entangled in a cocoon of wool, she has forgotten what she is looking for, bound up in routines, fears, and doubt. And yet, if we look inwards, we will remember that we have the power of our own transformation. You learn that the world does not fall around you, that everything passes in time. Where life blocks our way with a wall, conviction and persistence will open up a way out.
What have you learned about yourself in creating these projects?
I identify a lot with the imagination of a child. They have no restrictions, their minds run free. I think that’s why this concept of photography as fable excites me and has become my principal mode of expression. The things the fables talk about are true. I know. I have lived them myself.
Talia Duclos was born in Lima, Peru, in 1972. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Universidad de Lima (1986) and a bachelor’s degree in education from the Universidad de Alas Peruana, Lima (2003). Her work has featured in three solo and thirty-seven group exhibitions across Peru and in Argentina, Dubai, France, Iran, Italy, and the USA. Her photographs are regularly published in a range of magazines and journals in South America. She has won a number of awards including first prize in the 2010 Interval World competition and first prize in the Brand Peru contest 2015. In both 2019 and 2020 she was chosen to represented Team Peru in the World Photography contest and in 2020 and 2021 she was named in the top one per cent for conceptual photography at the 35Awards. She lives and works in Lima.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.