Photography isn’t always the first medium you think surrealism would flourish in, but it most certainly is. Photographers who specialise in the weird and inexplicable often come up with some of the most visually arresting images in the genre. One particular artist i’d like to focus on today is Lara Zankoul. Just a note as well, the image above is not a piece of her work, I couldn’t get permission to use hers but you can find her website here and on Google of course.
Zankoul began photography (or as she puts it, “born photographically”) in 2008, using 2009 to complete her 365 project in which she produced a picture every day for a year in succession. Although she’s a relevantly contemporary artist she’s won numerous awards including the 2011 Shabab Ayyam and in 2013 her work was auctioned at Christie’s Dubai. An initial look at her work shows you why. Every image is something that needs to be unpicked, not necessarily because it’s complex, but because the subject is placed oddly – there’s a distinct ‘wait what?’ moment with her work. It’s a purely surreal moment, and the result is that an audience becomes fascinated. Much of her work feels like it shouldn’t be possible – not just because of the content of the image but just the angle at which someone is sitting or the way in which their body turns. It’s absolutely mesmerising.
Take some of her images as an example. One shoot she did called ‘The Unseen’ (2013) provided a series of images in a water tank with a glass front, but on a huge scale. Zankoul stated that she wanted to explore the idea of what was ‘underneath’ the water, the duality of everyday situations in what we show on the surface as people and what lies deeper. The over-water shots show the overt nature of these specks of society she chooses to explore whereas the underwater scenes reflect a “puzzle” – a covert nature of the same element. It’s a montage of the dual voice within common society, both what is spoken and unspoken. Immediately the scene of a man and woman drinking tea, wearing animal masks and neck deep in water demands your attention. Her images seem almost playful and ‘wonderland’ like in their simplicity but nonetheless it’s an image you can’t help but stare at for longer than you’d expect. The textures of the water brings an added definition to the image, a wondrous addition that makes the whole scene appear magical. The same goes of the other images ‘The Noone’, which contains multiple motifs of a woman moving through the water with a trail of bubbles and foam behind her twirling in her wake. It highlights those in society who are forced to conceal their voice. The subject obviously has power of some kind in the overt puzzle but has no affect above water, for in society their power cannot be heard. It’s a simple but beautifully executed idea.
Zankoul often sees photography as an escape from everyday life (having studied economics in Beirut originally.) She admits the surrealist influence in her work, and states that it forms…
“contemporary fairy tales that explore the charm and mystery of the human psyche”
She goes on to describe her work as “whimsical” and “playful” and it does show. Another memorable image includes a teacup face down in what looks like a Victorian playroom, with a leg sticking out of it. Her work feels distinctly escapist and so each image blossoms as you try to consider any deeper layers to the art but find yourself to caught up on the fact that there’s a huge teacup with a person inside of it. She seems to have the keenest eye in spotting little moments to capture in the mundane of everyday life – her work to me seems very concerns with the magic of everyday moments. Creating a new lens through which to explore them and therefore a fresh perspective with which to view them. It reminds me of the playful nature of surrealist works by Marc Chagall or Joan Miró – that she picks an element from the society around her and plays with it both physically ad metaphorically – a kind of ‘what if?’ approach to art that creates a fairy tale narrative within a single frame.
That same idea of fairy tale narrative is interesting considering the moral nature of some of her pieces. The image ‘Telling Lies’ focuses on a woman attempting to push balloons down underwater. It represents the futility of pushing down lies inside yourself or repressing trauma, for what you repress will always resurface with even more ferocity. Despite the playfulness of much of Zankoul’s work, their is a distinct moral edge, in the same way as fairy tales. The image is always simply surreal but has a kind of message woven into its fabrics, her work visually demonstrates and imagines an idea beyond what you first think.
Photography and surrealism marry perfectly in expression, it’s a medium that can provides challenges and therefore it provides a new perspective through which to demonstrate the surreal in a visual sense that’s distinct from other forms. Lara Zankoul demonstrates this with her playful, fairy tale style, fused with a joyful complexity and moral undertone. I believe that Zankoul herself put it best –
“I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them”.