The weather might be cold and the environment harsh and bleak, but not those pictured.Clémentine Schneidermann’s photographs are both lyrical and affirmative, playing against andunravelling the strictures of the documentary tradition. The pictures have been made as a result of a residency for an arts and environment regeneration programme in Blaenau Gwent, Wales. Clémentine worked with Charlotte James, a stylist and native of Merthyr, in making her portraits of young girls in the valleys. The children are all dressed up.

Clémentine has already explored fantasies and imaginings in her earlier portraits of fans of Elvis Presley: a figure of identification that allowed a moment of escape from a distinctly un-ideal ordinary and everyday. The dialectic continues in these new portraits, only she is now involved in
setting up the fantasy. For all the possibilities, the as-yet unfulfilled dreams, we might associate with childhood, there is an unease and disquiet about these pictures— the darkness of documentary’s realism still cuts against the glamour. In one picture, Paige and Lydia, Coed Cae, the girls wear clothes that are too big. It is or has been raining, the valley behind is grey with mist. The girl in pink looks back directly to camera, while her friend, all in blue, hides her face behind a large hat and looks away, hand towards mouth she appears nervous and uncertain. The blunt look of the girl in pink destroys the charade, the cosiness of this little theatre.

Poses often appear strained or come undone in these pictures. The portraits are neither pretty nor sentimental. One is conscious of the weather, a palpable force that breaks up the formality of the poses as faces are crunched up against the wind or hair is blown all over the face. A golden flailing
headscarf breaks the pictorial order as one girl is lined up against a pebble-dash home in a leopardskin outfit. In a number of pictures, the girls’ patterned clothing is played off against the textured walls, a knowing and deliberate formal aesthetic that jars with the context.

Styling and dressing up her young subjects allows a point of connection with these children and the creation of small moments of carnival to be set against the undisguised social reality of deprivation and economic neglect — the barriers these people face and will continue to face. The colourful embellishment in the pictures might only be skin deep, mere surface decoration and offer only momentary comfort and release. But it also allows for these young people to play against and resist the stability of type and of being fixed within categories.

Mark Durden

Professor of Photography & Director of European Centre for Photography, University of South Wales

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Awarded in September 2016 the Leica Oscar Barnack Newcomer Award