Text & Images: Monica Uszerowicz
Cover Photo: Tristan Still
Images Courtesy of Su Cassiano
Su Cassiano’s images have a regenerative quality—breathing life into the discarded, paying homage to the unheard. Though she snapped photos of her friends growing up, the French-born photographer started taking her work seriously during her travels through India, Indonesia, and Cambodia, utilizing photography as a means of connecting with those she met along the way. Cassiano’s various series, like No Trend: Women and Trans* in Punk and its counterpart Men in Punk, are intimate portrayals of friends and strangers; Cassiano invites them to represent their own strength and experiences. In both Trash Diary—a close look at discarded objects and emptied apartments— and It Could (Not) Be You, Cassiano’s homage to a deceased lover—objects are the storytellers, carrying with them the memories of places and bodies therein. We spoke to Cassiano over a few emails about her earliest interests, her inspiration, and finding healing and catharsis in creating her work.
Where did you grow up? Did you make art as a kid?
I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. As a kid, I would spend hours drawing and writing stories or reading. Later on I would photograph my friends with disposable cameras. I love these and still use them today.
Were you always interested in photography? I ask because you majored in cinematographic studies.
Not really. I was more into literature and poetry. I wanted to become a writer. Music was really important as well; I surrounded myself with words and music. It’s not until my early twenties that I started to dig into cinema. I discovered art movies and fed myself with them. I felt that moving images were less limitative, less finished than words. I studied at university because it’s basically free in France, but it was just theoretical. I wanted to hold a camera and learn to shoot films!
I became a movie critic for a while and specialized in East Asian film. I got quickly fed up with it, as it was an old man’s world, really closed unto itself. I decided I wanted to experience the world through my own eyes and to express myself instead of commenting on other people’s work. I started to photograph more, but I always wanted to shoot video as well. It’s films that inspire my photography, mostly—the work of directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Wong Kar-Wai for example, especially his still photographer, Jupiter Wong.
What brought you to India and eventually Indonesia and then Cambodia? You began working as a photographer in Cambodia.
I was not satisfied with my life in Paris and its consumerist nature. I was seeking answers, alternatives. India had fascinated me since my teens. Still, it was a shock to land there; everything I knew seemed pretty useless and I had to relearn it all. I had a hard but magical time, meeting women especially. India is a really inspiring country on so many levels and it’s visually mind-blowing. I did some street photography when I was there; I was obsessed with women’s faces. I wanted to know their stories. I would end up in weird situations, dancing with elder women in temples, and these memories I cherish and will remember until I die.
From then, travelling became like an addiction. I would try to figure out how I could work a bit to travel more. I wanted to meet more people, to connect. Going back and forward, I travelled for around three years, from India to Australia. Cambodia has a really special place in my heart. I settled in Kampot for a while and had my own business that my partner and I created, a DIY three-wheeled hot dog cart. In Cambodia I photographed people in my daily life and in the streets, but now I struggle a bit to photograph people I don’t know at all. I like getting to know people and see them transform, grow up, get old. That’s around when I started feeling serious about photography, and learning by myself. It took me awhile to get to be where I wanted.
I feel that photography is a longing for connection.
Your projects include subjects you may not know personally—such as No Trend and Men In Punk—but there’s intimacy in your work. How do you develop a relationship with your subjects?
For No Trend, I spent a lot of time contacting people I was interested in working with. A lot of these people became friends. I went to Berlin for a week with one contact and stayed six months. It’s also a characteristic of the punk community that I’m involved in that people help each other out. I met Martina through friends and then shot her portrait and recorded her voice. We got along pretty well and she asked me if I needed a place to crash. A few days later, I was sleeping on her couch and would photograph her daily life.
I feel that photography is a longing for connection. I cannot take portraits of people I don’t respect. It doesn’t agree with me. Shooting portraits is also like a personal diary, a reflection of myself. For me there is no line, no objectivity. There is no barrier between the people I photograph and me—except the language sometimes.
I was deeply moved by It Could (Not) Be You. Is there an element of catharsis or healing in sharing work like that?
It’s definitely been part of the healing process for me. After I went back to Australia for my lover’s funeral, I thought I could not survive the pain, the emptiness. I felt completely lost and I was on the other side of the world, in his hometown full of memories, without him. My survival instinct drew me to photograph his absence, where he grew up, where we used to hang out, his old house. It was a way of keeping him with me for a bit longer, I guess, because I was not ready to let go. I documented our relationship, so I had to continue in order to keep a symbolic connection. I felt conflicted between my need to share the work and the potential it might have to hurt people who knew him in a different way.
You also seem interested in the stories told, almost accidentally, through what’s forgotten—trash, abandoned buildings.
I guess it has to do with death again. I like finding letters, discarded objects that are traces of people’s lives, of what used to be. I once found discarded make-up, birth control pills, and other personal items in the street, like they had just been thrown out of a window. I photographed it and felt like it was a break-up, like someone threw these personal items in the street. I think objects can tell a lot about people, who they are, what they’re longing for. It opens a door to the imagination and is a way of getting to know people when meeting them is impossible.
The punk scene can be notoriously hypocritical in its treatment of some parts of its community. Tell me about No Trend and Men In Punk, and how you got started on these projects?
Years ago, being involved in the punk scene in Paris, I wanted to document a squat that had a special place in my heart before it disappeared. It was called La Miroiterie, and I spent a lot of time there, photographing and interviewing people about the meaning of being a punk in this particular environment. The initial project quickly shifted as I realized how much more important things women and gender-diverse people had to say. They were so infrequently heard within the scene.
So the project became about femininity, gender, sexism, and queerness in the DIY punk scene wherever I would go. I wanted to hear stories and build a visual diary of powerful women and gender-diverse people focused on these issues. I also wanted my own voice to be heard through the project. I think punk carries ideas of empowerment and respect that should help in fighting the patriarchal-normative images of women and the gender role bullshit. Punk is an affirmation of raw energy, of life. But as non-cis males, we have to fight for our space, whatever path we choose. Unfortunately, reality in the punk bubble can be brutally misogynistic, even though you would expect people to be more aware of their privileges than those in the outside society. I wanted to deconstruct these behaviors by giving voices to those less heard. As my friend V said, “99% of the world is open arms for white cis men. So being a woman in this scene is already challenging the status quo.”
Punk is an affirmation of raw energy, of life. But as non-cis male, we have to fight for our space, whatever path we choose.