Throughout March, we highlight initiatives dedicated to women in photography in our Lomography Magazine. We decided to talk with the team of Polysème Magazine. This multidisciplinary magazine showcases many different forms of artistic expressions, page after page we discover analogue photographs, drawings, texts, embroideries or ceramics for example. La Fille Renne who is a photographer and Raphaëla Icguane who is a writer, created Polysème Magazine in order to legitimize the art practices, not only of women but also of transgender and non-binary artists. Each issue of the magazine has a different theme and people can submit their creations to open calls to get their works published. We discussed with the magazine team in order to know more about their approach:
Hello Polysème Magazine! Who are the persons behind this project?
Hello Lomography! We are the two co-founders of Polysème Magazine: La Fille Renne, photographer and artist for over a decade, and Raphaëla Icguane, writer and feminist activist. We are in charge of the editorial line of the publication, of the choice of contributions and of the themes, of communication, social media, mails... it's like our baby. We've quickly been joined by Chloé Thibaux who's in charge of translating English contributions. It's very important for us to have a magazine completely available to French-speaking people. More recently, Morgane Tiroir joined the organization. She helps with graphic design and illustrations. It's a great team!
How did it all started? Why did you create Polysème Magazine? A need for a new space of representation for women?
Yes, first and foremost, it was a need for a new space. Not only for women but also for trans men and non-binary people too. When we met with Raphaëla, she was already very committed against inequalities and cis-masculine domination. Part of her activism was expressed online. She was very angry, very disappointed too. And La Fille Renne too, she was mainly taking pictures of women, queer people, sex workers, people we would say are on the sidelines. We became friends and our friendship led to our will to create a space that won't be owned by cis-males, that's why we don't publish them. Whether in photography or in literature, one thing was sure we did not have a place in traditional media. We were conscious to not be the only ones making this observation. So we created Polysème Magazine in order to fight against the cis-men hegemony in the artistic and creative fields. In the beginning, we were thinking to do a small fanzine but in the end, the project got bigger. We wanted to show that's it's possible, when you are woman, a transman or a non-binary person, to be exhibited, to exist, without having to deal with sexism, misogyny, and transphobia. Our commitment is inclusive, at the convergence of struggles. And we also created this magazine for us, it did some good at a time of our lives, we initiated it at a decisive moment of our personal lives.
Why did you decide to mix the mediums like analogue photography, illustration, and literature?
With La Fille Renne, photographer, and Raphaëla, author, it was out of the question to choose one media over the other. It was very important for us to treat them as equals. And, in the photo as in literature, being published is a struggle. Naturally, we decided that all visual arts forms have their place on our pages. The aim of Polysème Magazine isn't to be a photographic or literary magazine, it is multidisciplinary. We are very proud of its variety: it contributes to the complexity of the magazine, it allows artists to address issues in a very personal, intimate and innovative way. We have for example magnificent textile contributions that give another dimension to our themes. It's very important for us to have a diversity of materials, mediums, and in this way of voices.
In your own opinion, how does (analogue) photography liberate women photographers?
Women, trans men, and non-binary people experiment a lot when they have a camera in their hands. Analogue and instant photography allows this reinvention, you can play with norms and codes. We can see that analogue photography allows them to have another gaze on their models, on their subjects. We think it gives a lot of possibilities for female gazes and queer gazes. We really appreciate the work of Linda Trime, who takes pictures of the naked body, of sexualized bodies but with a gaze that has nothing to do with the male gaze. It's a respectful gaze, trying to innovate, looking to consider sex and nudity in another way. It's also a female queer gaze, non-heterosexual. She plays with colours, creates really particular universes. And precisely, the emancipation of sexists norms can be notably done through reinvention. It's surely very personal but it moves us a lot. There's something feminist in the use of old creation processes that were traditionally used by men. Women, trans men, and non-binary people reappropriate them in photography but it's also true for others forms: embroidery is coming back, sewing too. We are looking for what has been taken from us, and this since the beginning of photography, with the first cameras.
Polysème Magazine works with a call for entries system, how do you choose the themes?
At the beginning of Polysème Magazine, we already had a long list of themes we liked. We fine-tuned it and completed it. We chose vast subjects that allow different interpretations and that are also political. We can't imagine Polysème Magazine without that dimension. Anyway, art is political, so is the space we occupy too, so it would be hypocritical to not do a political publication. We created Polysème Magazine to have many layers. We are also careful to have themes we both like, that are significant and inspiring to us.
Do you feel that gender is important in art and culture? Do you have some positive or negative experiences to share with us?
Of course! It would be illusory to think it doesn't. We are going to point out the elephant in the room, but at the moment we are answering this interview, Roman Polanski just won best director at César awards ceremony for his movie J’accuse. Actress Adèle Haenel and the team of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu movie (but not only) left the venue when it was announced. Aïssa Maïga talked about the lack of representation in cinema and also left the room. All of this is revealing and representative of the problems art meets with gender: you need to be a man to success. And more precisely a cisgender, heterosexual, white, privileged and able-bodied man. The Polanski case is insightful. Of course, he's Jew and suffers from anti-Semitism, he's insulted in the discussions and denunciations of the sexual assaults he's accused of - and for some of them, he has been codenamed by the North-American justice. The insults against him are deplorable and obscene. But he is also a cisgender man in an extremely sexist field (and racist, ableist, transphobic, classist, etc.) who enjoys privileges related to his gender. In front of him, women struggle for their place. Women and queer persons have to fight against many factors, in the art field: their gender, the art gaze on them, but also the prejudices and discriminations. In arts, we are only good for posing, to be muses, to give inspiration. It's very tiring and it restrains our creativity. A lot of people stay convince that their productions are less valuable than the men's ones. It's not very surprising when we see who gets the funding, the subventions and awards. Only 15 women received the Nobel price of literature although the price is over 100 years old. In the same way, in cinema, one female director earns averagely less than 40 % that a male director; in Hollywood, an actress wins one million less than that an actor according to a study led by three researchers who studied salaries of 250 actresses and actors between 1980 and 2015 — You can read The Guardian article about this. It's outrageous. In 2017, Marta Gili, the director of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, estimated that only 10% of the monographs were dedicated to women — in Fisheye Magazine (article in French). Le Jeu de Paume now shows 45% of women's but is quite an exception. In 2016, at Angoulême International Comics Festival, no women were nominated for the grand prize. However, they are many to write comics, and there are trans authors too. We could enumerate so many similar figures and facts in all domains. And we are not even talking about representations but there's a lot to say about the way we show women and trans persons' bodies in art. There are passive bodies, looked at, fantasized, damaged, abused, massacred, judged, codenamed... It's rare to see bodies that act, free and emancipated bodies. The way that cinema treats the lives of trans people is a catastrophic example. The majority of films fantasize about transgender identity, make it despicable, terrible and when movies talk about the lives of people who existed, it's scandalous and tragic, with a lot of stereotypes, such as the movie Danish Girl. What's terrible, is not being trans, it's the society we live in. Moreover, cinema doesn't want to cast trans actors and actresses to play characters that are trans, as it doesn't want to cast people with disabilities to play characters who have ones. Many say that we should not imprison them in these roles, and solely them. Certainly. But we should at first of all give them roles because trans actors and actresses who are disabled, racialized, exist but we don't look for them for other roles than stereotyped ones (the proof with their roles in movies). Moreover, giving them the floor develops an incredible richness. If we come back to the gender question, we can see in the United States the rise of even more mixed writers rooms or without cisgender men. It's the case of the writer's room of Steven Universe which is only composed of racialized women. It's an incredibly caring and joyful show, with a strong political discourse. We can see that when these people write, direct, produces or even integrates institutions such as the Nobel prize, more women and queer people are rewarded, their stories and characters are better written and their stories' contents are different than the usual ones. In the same way, when they occupy leadership roles in museums or media, they contribute to diversity. But in fact, if we wait for these institutions, we would never be published. Amandine Gay is a good example. She financed on her own her documentary Ouvrir la voix about black women because nobody believed in her — You can read the French article published by the Huffington Post about this. And also, the sanction was doubled for her, her black woman identity is unbearable for these big institutions giving subventions. The situation is complex and the solutions are difficult to find.
We ideally should organize between us. The César cinema awards only reward men and what's more violent ones? Let's create our ceremonies. Literature highlights the same tropes, over and over, and doesn't give visibility to plural lives courses and the experiences of female, trans and non-binary individuals? Let's create our publishing houses, our festivals, our awards. But it requests a lot of financial, moral and political resources. Amandine Gay often said that producing Ouvrir la voix exhausted her. The writer Laura Nsafou has been rejected on numerous occasions or received modification requests when she was looking for an editor for Comme un million de papillons noirs, her first children's book. The problem? Surely her black woman identity but also the story she told, the story of a little black girl and her relationship to her hair. As she told to Deuxième Page webzine: "When I was looking for a publisher, I've been asked a lot to edit my book, in order to make it more universal, more open... In a way, I had to make it "less black" to sell it, I was very shocked.". She ended up working with the independent and feminist publisher Cambourakis, lucky this kind of structures still exist! These two artists succeeded with their hard work and because they were supported. But a lot of projects are falling apart because of a lack of resources. So, we can't blame all these discriminated persons to wish, after all, for a place in the art and culture fields. After the César ceremony, we criticized Aïssa Maïga or Adèle Haenel because they came, it has been said that they should have better boycott the event. But if we leave the space to the dominants, how should we do, what should we do? Should we really accept to turn our backs on these institutions? It's very complicated and we think there's not really an answer. When talking about racist discriminations in cinema, Aïssa Maïga used her voice and her place. So, her discourse has been laughed at and despised by the media as by people like you and me, but in fact, what she did is very courageous and precisely conscious of the situation of racialized actresses and actors. Should have she not come to the awards and take the risk to not talk on the stage of the Salle Pleyel? We don't think so. We have the right to claim for our space, to fight to get our names engraved in the marble of these institutions whose reputation opens doors, while still being conscious of their indecency. It doesn't legitimize those who choose to work differently and maybe we should disassemble and act in a complementary manner: having one foot in the institutional creation and the other is independent and cohesive creation. But you see, it's not only about gender. It's also about race, class, bodies. Art and culture are not exempted from these sociological analyses to the contrary, they are closely connected domains linked to discriminations and oppressions. We say that art gives freedom, and emancipation, however, we should first know who can produce, write, create, invent. We should also mention these hundred of women and trans artists erased by art history although they were pioneers and innovative persons. Alice Guy is a good example. She's the one who invented fiction in cinema, not the Lumière brothers. In 1986, she shot La Fée aux choux. However, she has been rehabilitated only one or two years ago. We advise listening to the podcast Une autre histoire of Charlotte Pudlowski, part of Louie Media studio, the first season is dedicated to Alice Guy. We also recommend the "Female gaze, ce que vivent les femmes", episode of Les Couilles Sur la table podcast of Victoire Tuaillon in which she invited the author and cinema critic Iris Brey (both podcasts are in French). In photography, we minimize women and trans artists' contributions, we trample their lives. Diane Arbus was only recognized in the Sixties even though her production is monumental and very precious because she documented the questionings and lives of queers in the post World War Two North America. We could also mention non-binary photographer Claude Cahun whose identity is still not respected by the media and whose work is lacking the recognition it deserves. The subject is wide, the inequalities are many and enameled with violence.
Raphaëla Icguane: Regarding my experiences... At one time, I often participated in short stories contests. One day, I choose to write about rape. I did not win but I received a letter from the jury: my short story was the best but the theme was too sensitive to be awarded, so I was given a consolation prize. Of course, the jury was only composed of men... It's an example among hundreds. Men paternalism, the flirting attempts in professional and artistic contexts, the sexist and misogynist violence... And me, who was writing since I was little, I could see men winning all the prizes, taking all the space in libraries, I thought that my writings had no values for a long time, that they were only dust compared to the cis-masculine creation. I decided to not read cisgender writers any more with a few exceptions. Since I've done this radical choice, I'm feeling better. I recognized myself in many books, I have more pleasure reading them, it relieves me. It heals me too. However, I think it's important to underline that more and more feminist media are created. I'm also a writer for Deuxième Page webzine. It's a breath of fresh air, a space for creation and emancipation, like Polysème Magazine, is.
La Fille Renne: Regarding my photography practice, it's certain that no being a cisgender man is negative to me. It's been more than ten years that I show my photography work on the Internet. Since the beginning, I've received unsolicited advice and criticisms (constructive or not) about all the aspects of my work, almost all of them were made by cis-gender men and I think they are so many because I'm not one (yes, I'm not part of the boy’s club). These discourses are often very paternalists, and the approach in itself is sexist. Women, transgender men, and non-binary people don't or sparsely impose themselves when it's not solicited. I've been also a victim of very insistent flirts because I'm seen as a young female-male photographer, and in this case, it was again done by cisgender men. I can imagine that my gender also closed some doors because the men are the ones taken seriously in art, they are the ones who are published and exhibited the most (you can read the special edition #3 of Fisheye Magazine, "Femmes photographes, une sous-exposition manifeste"/ Women Photographers, an undeniable underexposure which is really meaningful with a lot of key numbers.). Finally, a lot of models and artists with whom I work continue to do it with me because I treat feminist subjects and because I'm not a cis-gender man. Of course, it's flattering in a certain way, it means these people are feeling at ease with me. But in reality, it reveals how the photographic field is problematic. A number of cis-gender photographers take advantage of their power granted by the practice of this art to take advantage of models, and to develop sexual predator behaviors (I can't even count the number of testimonies I've heard in ten years – all the female models I know who do nude in France have been confronted to this kind of behavior at least once with one man or multiple men). And then, with the male gaze, not a lot of bodies are celebrated, it's very transphobic, fat-shaming, ableist...
What message do you want Polysème Magazine to leave to the younger generation of female creatives?
That there's a place for us. That we deserve it. That we have to be supportive. We have to create collectives, associations, to show the work of others, to not stay alone. And that if the cisgender men, the institutions, the jury members don't let us express ourselves, we will do it anyway. We want Polysème Magazine to show that it's possible to write, to photograph, to paint. What animates our thoughts or bodies should be expressed. First and foremost, we have to legitimize: were are legitimate.
What's new and what's the future for Polysème Magazine?
The fourth issue is in pre-order at the moment. It's about sexualities. It's our more fruitful and dense issue, it's the most political too. It was very important for us because it's a theme with a lot of prejudices and violence. We put forward different and multiples voices. This issue talks about racism, fetishism, ableism, misogyny, slut-shaming, trans-shaming. It addresses the most experiences possible. Exhaustiveness is, of course, impossible but we made every effort to create a plentiful issue. We are also already working on issue #5, Origins and Identities and we can already reveal the theme of #6: Nature and ecology. Again, a broad topic, both aesthetical and political. We can't wait to talk about it on our social media channels. We also work on our second format, Mini Polysème, an A5 format of 44 or 64 pages dedicated to the work of a woman, trans man or non-binary artist or to a material or a medium... We can say today that it will be soon about literature and that very great collaborations will take shape.
A huge thanks to Polysème Magazine! You can find Polysème Magazine's publications on their online shop. To know more about the magazine, you can visit the Instagram, the Facebook and the Twitter of Polysème Magazine.