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Interview with Documentary Photographer Neus Solà

Neus Solà is a documentary photographer from Barcelona, Spain. She fell in love with photography at the age of 15 when she was gifted her first camera. Since then, she has studied humanities, philosophy, fine arts and anthropology, and has worked as a freelance photographer for NGO’s and social movements.

These days, she makes an effort to spend more time getting to know her subjects and researching the stories she wants to tell. 

Her photography projects focus on issues of identity, gender and ethnic minorities from an anthropological perspective

Her latest photo project “Poupées,” which looks at the population of young gypsy girls living in one of the poorest districts in Perpignan, France, was selected as one of the two runner ups in the Bob Books Photo Award.

We asked her a few questions about the project and her upcoming photobook.

What made you want to tell the story of these young gypsy girls in France?

I’ve always felt a special attraction for the gypsy world, I suppose for the romantic idea of ​​freedom, their nomadic way of life, gift for music and dance and their strong personality.

I had the idea of ​​working with the Gypsies of Perpignan years ago during my first visit to the photojournalism festival of Perpignan where I met this gypsy community. I was very surprised that two cultures - the French and gypsies – could live in the same area yet be so disconnected. What impacted me the most was the feeling of being a stranger when walking those streets.

A few years later, I settled in the gypsy neighbourhood of Perpignan and began to work in the suburb of La Cité, on the outskirts of Perpignan.

At first I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but I felt there was something powerful there. The topic of women has always interested me and considering that the Gypsy community lives in a rather extreme patriarchy, I found that to be an interesting starting point.

Through the theme of the transition of women from childhood to maturity, I wanted to look at the concepts of identity and freedom in the gypsy context. The title “Poupées” means dolls in French, and makes a double reference to the innocence of the infant universe and to the idea of ​​the woman-object.

What did you enjoy most about working on this photography project?

The truth is that this project has been a bit of a struggle between light and dark. At first I felt insecure since the personages of Poupées live in La Cité, a peripheral district of Perpignan that is exclusively gypsy. Non-gypsys don’t go there, unless they are social workers or doctors.

But it’s been interesting to feel this evolution in my relationship with the people. Little by little we got to know each other and now they’re very dear people that I continue to visit. So what I liked most was the experience of immersion and the satisfaction of being able to carry out a project I’m satisfied with.

I learned a lot, as from a non-gypsy perspective, surprising things happen in the Cité. There are cockfights, handkerchief testing, evangelistic masses, baptisms and communions, where the child or girl in question is the king or queen with sequin dresses and carriage included.

The gypsies are able to subsist with very few things, but their celebrations are sacred and they can spend all their savings on it. I learned what life in community and solidarity means. I love how they feel and live their identity, how alive they are, and the relationship they have with the public and private space.

What sort of reaction have you gotten so far to this photography project?

I’m very happy with the reception that Poupées has had. I think people like it because it has a touch of colour that is not common in this context, and because the subject is treated with much affection.

Being a finalist in the International Women’s Photographers Award (IWPA) has made possible for Poupées to be part of a travelling collective exhibition, and the fact that it’s held in countries such as United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, or Egypt, where women's rights are small, brings me comfort.

"Poupées" will also be exhibited in Toulouse, Gijón and Barcelona from September, and thanks to the Bob Books Photobook Award my project will also become a photobook. So I can’t complain.

What story will you be looking to tell with your photobook?

What I want to tell through my book is my personal look at the particular world of Gypsy girls in La Cité in their passage from childhood to maturity. I want to illustrate the pre-maturity of these girls in contrast to the restrictions they will have to assume once they lose their virginity and become women.

At the moment the project is quite advanced, but I need more pictures and documents to be able to realise my photobook. This summer I will be searching for more metaphorical pictures, including landscapes and resources to create a particular atmosphere for the project.