Hélène Amouzou has become widely known for her distinctive self-portraits that explore the contemporary issues of people in exile and those who have been invisibilised. Drawing on her experiences of migration and a two-decade-long journey seeking safety and citizenship, Amouzou’s highly technical analogue processes are integral to her research and artistic experiments.
In this conversation, the artist speaks with curator Bindi Vora, on the occasion of her first UK solo exhibition Voyages at Autograph in London. They discuss her deeply personal work within the context of migration, perseverance and the politics of (in)visibility.
Bindi Vora (BV): It is a huge pleasure to be in dialogue with you Hélène, having spent time with your work and of course the privilege of curating your exhibition Voyages at Autograph. Your work is personal and deeply emotive, and I wanted to begin this conversation at the beginning of your journey to seek refuge. Would you be able to describe the geographical movements you endured to reach Belgium?
Hélène Amouzou (HA): My story is complex. I’ve come a long way and it has taken a long time. We were forced to flee Togo in 1992 as my husband was politically active at the time, despite trying to find a way to stay it wasn’t possible. From Togo we ended up in Benin and from there we went to Germany. In the mid-nineties, there was a service called Caritas, a social service where you go to register regularly as an asylum seeker, and if they found your names on a central list, it was more than likely you would be deported – this happened to my husband. Germany wouldn’t renew our visas. He was taken and never came back. My young daughter and I left our home in Germany and we went into hiding for almost six months, without showing ourselves to other people. I eventually left Germany and went back to Benin to look for my husband, but I couldn’t find him. At the time, I didn’t realise that the German authorities ended up sending him back to Togo, but I couldn’t go back to Togo. I had to make the decision to make another journey to Europe. My struggle began soon after I arrived in Belgium in autumn 1997. My journey to Belgium had taken almost ten years by this point – a decade of waiting. In 2009 I was granted residency in Belgium. I enrolled my daughter in school, I had a lawyer and I managed to find financial ways of earning a living or staying with families. I cleaned homes or workplaces to make ends meet.
BV: A decade of waiting! Your story is incredibly powerful and so resilient. To keep persistently pushing forward for such a long time takes so much energy. When did you begin taking photographs?
HA: Around 2000, I met a Nigerian woman at church who came from the UK to Brussels to work. She introduced me to video recording and editing, and I became curious about making images and wanted to learn more. She taught me the basics and lent me some equipment, and from there I looked into classes or schools so I could train. In 2004, I went to the local art school called the Académie de Dessin et des Arts visuels of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. There, I met a tutor Thierry Zéno who advised me to choose photography in addition to video. That’s how I started taking photography classes. He took me under his wing, I signed up and he encouraged me to keep taking photographs and develop my practice. Nicolas Clément was my photography teacher and he guided me during my training. It ended up being nine years in total with access to training and learning. I could go on my own outside of the class every day, and print images and develop my film.
Photography has helped me - and continues to help me - escape, to think about something other than my everyday life. Sometimes it's an inner call or a need to act. It takes energy to externalise personal experience and stories, but it also helps you to move forward. Even if it's not the same as therapy, it helps.
Thierry was influential, he would guide me and offer feedback, and helped me personally too: once, I was travelling back with my daughter outside from Togo, and upon our return the immigration officers refused to let us back into Brussels. Thierry stayed at the airport from 8pm to 3am, asking if there was anything he could do to help. At this time, I didn’t have an identification card or passport, which is why I had left the country to renew it.
BV: So, the Togolese government didn’t give you a passport and nor did you have your Belgium passport at this time, so you were in limbo and essentially made stateless – that’s a fundamental breach of human rights.
HA: I had no status until 2009. I had no citizenship. Eventually in 2015, I was given my Belgium passport. It was very very complex. I was a non-resident for fifteen years, spending fifteen years trying to survive, working whilst my daughter went to school, I had to learn Dutch before I qualified. The sad thing is that you lose sense of being a human being you know, you just wake up and you live, you breathe, and you go where you get to go, and you come back. You become a shell, as you are no longer the person who you used to be, or you want to be right. I look at my passport and identification cards and sometimes think, “all my life for this”, I don’t think I could do this again.
BV: We’ve touched upon your lived experiences and journey, but I wanted to delve into the autoportraits you made between 2007-2011. A number of these self-portraits were made in an attic. Where was this and why did you feel it was a space in which you wanted to begin photographing yourself?
HA: This apartment was the first place my daughter and I lived on our own in Belgium, on the first floor of the building. We were still waiting for my papers to arrive. I remember I was looking for a place to take a photograph, and I went up to the attic and found this room. I tried a few shots and came back and cleaned it up later. For me I felt I'd found a space that suited me – an unoccupied space with a past.
Revealing yourself to others is never easy. For me, self-portraiture was a way to free myself from the weight of exile and to externalise certain thoughts without using words or making noise. I felt like I was on an endless journey, and no one could see me. The feeling of dragging my daughter into trouble was also a burden. Experiencing this, the nostalgia of home, and the quest to preserve my memories became so strong that self-portraiture became my project.
As a space the attic, for its part, had emerged as a place that surpassed my expectations and my needs. When I discovered the attic, I allowed myself to dream a little. It was an abandoned place full of stories filled with all kinds of furniture and even clothes. I cleaned them and they suited me well. In this isolated space, I finally had the opportunity to escape a little and to get back in touch with myself. I spent many hours in this attic, whatever the season. I didn’t photograph myself every day, but I went there every time I felt the need. For a while, the attic was my secret place.
BV: Throughout the photographs that you made in Belgium you are dealing with this idea of invisibility which is often signified through the long exposures, motifs of suitcases and other objects. Would you be able to talk a little bit about this and why you chose this way of talking about your story?
HA: When I discovered the B pose technique, I didn't hesitate to use it because I found it very difficult to represent myself in photographs. The theme of the course at the academy was self-portraiture and I knew I had to work on it for three years. The long exposure seemed like the obvious choice for me. With B exposures – low-sensitivity film, and shutter speed – I could take pictures of myself (if I moved) without being recognised. Once I'd figured out how to do it, I started to express my despair, my nostalgia, and the long wait for a residence permit.
For me, it's the most interesting way to tell my story, the ideas that were running through my mind. The recurring objects of the suitcase and traditional clothing are part of my journey and my memory, they are both symbols of my state of flux and transit. I wanted to use the suitcase to express - or in some way symbolise - my journey through Europe: containing my story as an immigrant away from home but representing my traditions through my clothes to keep in my mind the traditions that are disappearing and fading from my memory.
BV: The psychological weight is so poignant within your work, what does it mean to be able to share your story through your photographs?
HA: At first, it was very difficult for me to share my images outside of my class. Also, I was not familiar with the artistic field at that time. I was just very apprehensive. I dreaded the judgment of others, and I was especially afraid of sharing my story. I am naked in some images, so it was paralysing to share them. Compared to others, I didn't have a prescribed goal for my photographs; the process was a way to escape. It was not easy for me to let my photos out of their boxes. However, as I started learning about the history of art, I talked to other artists, I met more people, and thanks to all these experiences, my fears and my prejudices have dissipated. Today, it means a lot to me to share my photos with people. I've discovered that even on the other side of the earth our stories are similar. It is greatly enriching to share your deepest experiences and to also realise that you are not alone.
BV: You were recently able to revisit your motherland, Togo, where you made a self-portrait of yourself and your mother. What was the dialogue like as you were making this photograph?
HA: You know what? I had not seen my family for almost twenty years when I returned to Togo for the first time in 2011. I left the country as a young woman, and I returned as a mother. I had changed. My mom had also changed, and she’s now very old. It's very complicated but every moment with her is a special moment. To this day, every time I go to Togo, all I want is to reconnect with those I have left behind. I always ask my mother the same questions: how was it for her when I was gone? did she miss me? did she sometimes talk about me? I also ask her to sing me songs from my childhood. Most of our discussions are simply about life during my years of absence and we share common memories. In a way, nostalgia, and my dreams of all this time away have taken me away from them. Taking photographs of us together helps mend that.
BV: Process is so important in your practice, you made almost all of the prints we are surrounded by in the exhibition in the darkroom. What attracted you to these ways of working?
HA: When I started photography, I was quickly drawn to black-and-white photography. This way of working helped me to discover many things. I have loved working in the darkroom from the start. It’s a place where magic happens, it’s a place where time stops. It’s very important for me to follow the process, from shooting to print. I can’t get enough of it. When I am in the darkroom, the outside world no longer exists, and I allow myself to think, to reflect. I love that I am learning every time, that I am still getting better. By now, I could not work without the darkroom. I think it’s linked to the context in which I learned the art of photography, that’s why I am so attached to the darkroom.
BV: What do you hope audiences might grasp from your photographs?
HA: Here I share my story, my thoughts, my feelings, and my memories but it is also the story of many people who have been in the same situation as me. I would just like to ask the audience to remain open-minded, to share a moment with me. Even though my story is personal, I hope it will resonate with others. That’s what matters to me.
Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list