Lens On: Rosaline Shahnavaz

Ahead of its release, the relationship exploring photographer talks all things Fern.

To flick through Fern – the book composed and compiled by London based photographer, Rosaline Shahnavaz – is to be transported momentarily to the most intimate moments shared between a photographer and her subject. In front of the camera is Fern, Shahnavaz’s friend, model, and muse. After meeting at a shoot, the pair developed a close relationship that has since been translated by Shahnavaz into a year’s worth of dynamic imagery.

Shahnavaz has devised a way of bringing the intangible essence of friendship and the youthful spirit of womanhood into visual representation; her photography does not simply represent a model posing in front of a camera, but rather, a rollerblading, cartwheeling, vivacious young woman who considers the person who is taking the picture as her ally. Fern thus serves as a condensation of a friendship – it captures the in-between moments that are all too often missed by the photographer who doesn’t take the time to get to know her subject.

How did you first get into photography – was it a skill that you developed at a young age?

The truth is, I was really into maths at school. My dad handed me down his camera when I was a teenager and I was really fascinated with it as an object; I’d never used 35mm or an SLR before so I was intrigued by the whole process. I took it to the photography teacher at my secondary school and he showed me how it worked and taught me how to use the darkroom during my lunch breaks. I loved it in there. You’d lose sense of time, and it all became quite obsessive yet in the same way therapeutic.

I’d sort of said to myself that I’d do a Foundation at Central Saint Martins to get photography “out of my system” and then go on to do maths. I guess that didn’t really work, as I chose to study photography at LCC and before I knew it I was a photographer. I have to say, I do miss algebra and a good equation, but I guess there’s still some math in what I do, sometimes.

A crucial element of the images that you create is your relationship with your subject. How do you try to establish that relationship?

I’ve gathered that I have a knack for making people feel relaxed, but it’s even in my day to day encounters; I seem to make people feel comfortable in my presence. I wasn’t really aware of it until I started shooting and thought, “Hey, this is cool.” I’m not sure what it is. It’s funny, I was on set the other day and the talent was giving everyone a really hard time by refusing to talk to anyone, to wear the clothes, to make eye contact…it was pretty bad. Everyone was panicking and thought they’d have to call it a day. I went over, we had a chat one to one and before we knew it he was dancing, laughing and we got shooting. No one could believe it. But thank fuck for that.

You’ve previously described yourself as a fly on the wall, that your photography provides a means of documenting the intimacy of your relationships. How do you think intimacy manifests in your photographs?

I think being ‘a fly on the wall’ was how my photography style developed, and also marked the starting point for my interests and subject matter. My early photographs have this naivety to them, and I get nostalgic looking back at them. It was all a bit unintentional, I just always had my camera on me and was just observing those around me whilst documenting it. I loved photographing my friends, my then boyfriend, and the closeness of my relationships. These are the images that got me noticed, and I started to get requests from magazines to shoot artists or models in the same manner. It was pretty wild, I would have an hour to shoot a story with a total stranger, and it had to be intimate?!

Whether or not it’s to the same degree, it’s still more or less about building a trust between myself and whoever I’m photographing, easing them to reveal themselves to me and my lens. It’s a two-way thing though, I think the portraits I shoot communicate a lot about me as well.

Can you describe the journey that you had with Fern?

I first met Fern when I cast her for an ad campaign I was shooting and it was love at first sight. She showed up wearing the thigh high PVC boots with about 600 buttons holes (God speed to our stylist) and she’d texted me the night before to see if she’d need to shave her armpits because she’d been growing them for 4 months. We had this special dynamic straight away and I couldn’t stop casting her for every job. I told her I wanted to make a book about her and that’s when this all started.

I guess I initiated the project but then there was this role reversal, and Fern would text me whenever she was at her boyfriend’s house which is up the road from mine, and we’d make some time to hang out. We’d always say we’d meet for a quick catch up, and before we knew it we’d spent 24 hours together.

What is it about the in-between moments of a person’s life that speaks to you?

Here’s the thing, I always get people asking me how I want them to pose or what they should do and I rarely give direction, if any. The camera feels secondary, I would rather share an experience with them and snap something every now and then. It would be my idea of hell to have someone sitting in a rigid pose for an hour whilst I find the right angle. I would rather photograph them mid-sentence, or even asleep than do that.

What about the coming of age element to your work; how does that component reveal itself?

It’s a pivotal period in life, and as a teenager it’s the first time you really feel the uncertainty and change. It’s extreme. And it doesn’t stop with age, but I remember at the time feeling particularly like I was in limbo between girlhood and womanhood, with relationships and sense of place. Over the duration of the book, both of us have gone through lots of experiences and in the process found answers in each other. It’s inherently evident to us when we’ve looked at the photographs together, and I hope it resonates.

What is it about Fern, or any of your other subjects, that has compelled you to photograph them/her? Is there a certain spark that you look out for?

I’m not sure what sparks my attractions. I can’t put my finger on it. It may be what I don’t know that fascinates me – perhaps I’m subconsciously searching for answers through photographing.

Ahead of Fern’s release, TCO London is holding an exhibition of Rosaline’s imagery: full info here.

Rosaline Shahnavaz
Rosanna Dodds
Lens On: Rosaline Shahnavaz

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