Chasing hip-hop, soul and jazz icons around the globe, Elisabeth Ouni captures fleeting moments with musical genius on film.
interview ciara bird // photography elisabeth ouni
You photograph hip-hop, rap, soul, r&b, blues, and jazz artists. How did this love affair begin? Music has been very important throughout my life. I raised myself on 80s MTV videos on one side and Elvis Presley & Nat King Cole on the other. When I started working in a bar at age 16 where the playlist was strictly soul, jazz and funk music, I learned that the music I listened to (80s and 90s hip-hop & r&b) came with a history, which triggered my already-curious and adventurous nature.
Who was the first artist you photographed? Pharrell Williams at The Lokerse Feesten Festival in Belgium.
Why polaroids? I started to experiment with Polaroids after I bought a camera from the thrift store that was right under my apartment. I started to work out a little series of my friends, the beach and the city I live in (Ostend, Belgium) on Polaroid. On my birthday I went to watch N.E.R.D. playing a local festival in Belgium and made it my personal mission (im)possible. After that one, I tried another festival to portray The Roots. I went home with a Polaroid from Questlove & Black Thought. At one point, I had to tell those stories over and over again so I started a blog so people could read it. The rest is history. I got addicted to chasing moments that are brief and slightly epic at the same time along the way. I’m probably an adrenaline junkie for the rush and contempt you get when you realize you reached your goal and you alone can tell an amazing story.
Anyone you’ve been chasing down for a while now? Kanye West has two failed attempts on his name. D’Angelo one. Wiz Khalifa one. Missy Elliot one. Nas has one. Busta Rhymes. I’m still patiently waiting for artists like Timbaland and Ludacris to come to Europe too. I would love to catch the remaining Wu-Tang members all in one series. Last time I tried that, Method Man, GhostFace Killah and RZA missed their plane from Moscow to Belgium.
In that moment of haste, how do you get an artist to take a picture? My pitch is something that I adapt with every artist; my time is so little sometimes that I have to focus on getting the Polaroid rather than keep a conversation going. Mostly, I approach them, ask them if I could take a Polaroid picture and guide them through my Polaroids of artists I captured before them. Mostly that does the trick because they quickly understand they are part of something conceptual and mostly they agree. However, sometimes I don’t have the opportunity to ask nicely and if Snoop Dogg passes by you with a handful of bodyguards and you have been waiting for hours to grab that moment, the only thing you can do is… well, you know.
Once I have the agreement, if I have the opportunity, I ask them to give me two different expressions or poses. We wait until the pictures come out and I specifically ask if they are happy with the pictures.
What is one of the most ‘ballsy’ things you’ve done to get a picture? Sneaking into Method Man’s poorly lit backstage; walking in the room and acting all confident – which completely failed – and asking Method Man for a Polaroid while the sweat was still dripping off of his body from the performance he’d just finished. And, fighting a bouncer who wanted me to leave the backstage, even though I had permission to be there. I was hustling my way to a Rick Ross Polaroid.
Have you ever been star struck and froze before getting a shot? Pharrell Williams might be a good example. However, after chasing him 3 stories down, by the 4th I was completely over my ‘star struck–ness’ and the only thing I was focused on was putting the man against a wall and not messing up my shot; because once again, my time was limited and I swore to myself that the Pharrell story ended right then and there and my shot better be good.
Method Man took away any ability to speak like a normal person. I stuttered, could not finish a full phrase. It was terrible. Then again, try to act normal when a man the size of Method Man is tearing up a white towel with his teeth while you are trying to explain what you want with your little Polaroid camera.
Where have you traveled? I traveled to New York, Miami, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam for this blog. I’d love to combine a story set in Vegas or Abu Dhabi. I HAVE to go to Texas and LA. I’m so curious what I can bring home from events like SXSW and Coachella. Every time I travel for the blog I try to prepare as much as possible. If I don’t come home with a Polaroid, I probably have a pretty good story to tell about it.
Would you share your favorite story? My favorite story is probably the one with Gil-Scott Heron because it’s so simple and sweet. I saw him walking out of his hotel in Belgium, and while he was crossing the street, I introduced myself and he asked if I could accompany him to get some food because there wasn’t any in the hotel. So we went to get some fries. After Gil-Scott, my encounter with D’Angelo was a pretty amazing experience.
Many times when we do things for the love of it, it doesn’t pay off financially. Do you have a day job? Yes; I work as a Digital Media Consultant for a PR company in Belgium specializing in fashion, lifestyle, gastronomy and luxury. I also work as a creative and do freelance production and art direction jobs in fashion and music. From time to time, if I’m interested, I do little writing jobs.
Until this day I have not made shoeboxes full of cash out of this blog, but I have broadened my network, started to travel more, learned more and more about music, made new friends, fell in and out of love, etc. When I’m old I probably won’t be counting my money, but I’ll definitely have plenty to reminisce about and entertain my senior girlfriends with my wild stories.
Your world is filled with many different roles. In what ways has your multi-faceted life been rewarding? I build up experience and contacts in different fields and worlds. I learned to stay frosty about all things culture, music, technology and fashion. Don’t be mistaken, it might seem like I do what I want, but you have to work very hard to make a decent living out of the things you love doing the most. Is quoting “you need to crawl before you ball’ lame here? When you start something, you need to finish it too. Being focused and disciplined also comes with the fun stuff. I battle with that every day. With every dream job comes an excel file. You can’t escape the boring tasks.
You take such big risks. What have you learned from your failures? That they always come with a big learning process, and sometimes I really don’t want to hear that crap when it’s right after I failed in something; but with time, looking back, failures made me wiser.
What is your most recent success/failure? My most recent success is definitely D’Angelo who I photographed last summer at the Ghent Jazz Festival in Belgium. My most recent failure or disappointment must be my trip to the MTV EMA Awards. It turned out to be a very popular story though.
Do you have any plans for your photos in the future? I just finished my very first A Polaroid Story exposition last October in Belgium, which was a huge success. I hope to get the expo to other countries in Europe and who knows, the States in the course of 2013. That would be amazing. And yes, I’m slowly looking out for a publicist who might be interested in bundling my stories and Polaroids in my first book. However, with the expo, which I completely financed myself, I do realize now that I’ll have to partner up with the right sponsors to support me on this.
What have you learned about yourself from this journey? That if I focus hard enough I can reach, do and experience many things— some sad, some good, some exciting, some hard, but always interesting enough to keep me going.
Follow Ouni’s journey at: apolaroidstory.com
*This interview was conducted late 2012.