“I tried to create a game where they could express themselves and who they are through their clothes,” says Magnum photographer Lua Ribeira of her new series of works in collaboration with TOAST. Capturing the freedom of self-expression through clothing, Lua has photographed her subjects in nature, allowing their movements and gestures to be the focus of each portrait. “My intention was to make dynamic images where the clothes are not rigid or the main protagonist, but are instead integrated into someone's activity,” she explains.
Born in Galicia and now based in Bristol, Lua uses photography to seek new encounters and question structural separations, establishing new relationships between people. Ahead of the exhibition opening at TOAST Shoreditch on April 5, we speak to her about her approach to photography and creating space for her subjects to play in this new series of portraits.
Tell us a bit about your background – where did you grow up, where did you go to school and how did you first get into photography?
I grew up and went to school in As Pontes, an industrial town in Galicia, in the north of Spain. I didn't grow up with direct references of people who worked as artists or photographers, so it took me a while to figure out that this was an actual possibility. I discovered photography as an artistic medium in Barcelona whilst doing a course in graphic design. It was 2011 and I took an elective class in the last semester where we had to translate a short piece of literature into images.
What equipment do you like to shoot on and why?
Currently a medium format digital. A single fixed lens, always 50mm or equivalent. And in general just equipment that is simple to work with, that I can somehow forget about whilst shooting.
Where are you based now and how does this environment influence your work?
I am based in Bristol, UK, but have been working mostly abroad during the last few years. I have been returning very often to Galicia and Spain to work. After so many years away from home I realised how rich and interesting it is there. I think living in the UK for so long has allowed me to get this distance and appreciation.
Would you say there is a theme that underpins all your work?
My work is a constant search guided by the intention of getting closer with people, beyond social codes and what has been established. Probably the need to have encounters with a certain intensity, a space to play, exchange, to know and be known as something that can be transformative.
For the last few years I have been working mostly with people or communities that, for different reasons, may experience some kind of exclusion. The works always start with a motivation that is political and then they turn into a more poetic, absurd, or even theatrical.
What were you interested in exploring with this series?
The briefing was based on people expressing themselves through clothes. I think that somehow we all do this, so my intention was to make dynamic images where the clothes are not rigid or the main protagonist, but are instead integrated into someone's activity.
I was looking at the work of French photographer [Jacques Henri ] Lartigue, who managed to capture this energy of movement very well. Finally, the series is a collaboration between TOAST and myself, and they were keen on still portraits, so the final selection is a balance of those two outputs.
How did you go about finding the subjects for this series? What were you looking for exactly?
They are friends and also friends of friends. It is people who live locally who I thought would be comfortable being photographed. I did not have in mind a particular profile – in fact, I thought the wider and more diverse the talents, the better.
How did this idea of self-expression manifest through each subject, and did anyone surprise you?
Susie, who has been included in the selection, was great to work with. She has an old TOAST coat for tending to her garden and I thought that it was meaningful that she still loves to wear this coat whilst working in the garden.
"This small communal garden in The Polygon was neglected for many years but I have worked hard to re-shape the garden, populate it with naturalistic planting and create habitats for urban wildlife. Not only has the garden brought our small community of 12 houses together, we have created a peaceful place very near the city centre. The ritual of gardening is an expression of care, much like darning a jumper, which is my other passion. Mending rather than discarding beloved garments that have become worn with use is an intimate and loving thing to do for another person."
Susie, pictured above.
"Born and raised in the slums of the Philippines, I am a Bristol-based artist in tune with my femininity and masculinity – I like to express both sides through the use of fashion and clothing."
Xyzelle, pictured below left.
"I’m a multidimensional storyteller who uses fashion movement and expression as an emotional technique to connect with others. My inspiration comes from defining moments in life like love or loss but also the needs and wants for more unheard voices to be heard."
Ade, pictured below.
Your work is often collaborative – could you tell us how you worked with each subject to capture these images?
I tried to create a space for play. This is something that comes with my personality, I guess, to try and have a good time in order to make interesting images. I invited people to run, to jump, to relax, so that I could try and capture how the clothing fits. This all becomes part of our natural expression.
What were you drawn to most when selecting the subjects for this series?
Firstly, the people who were most keen to take part in the project. The participants each selected a TOAST item for the shoot and certain pieces, such as the yellow quilt, gave us a lot to play with. I was excited to work with Ade, who is a dancer and performer, so is used to expressing a lot with his body movements and does not stay still in the images. I enjoy that.
"As a multidisciplinary artist, I express myself through music, writing, making and movement. I hope to spread joy and create opportunities for racial equality and the community through my work. I also make skincare products from natural ingredients derived from Ghana that connect me to my heritage. I love to express my various sides through what I wear, often changing my style to match how I am feeling but generally sticking to my authentic self."
Josephine, pictured above.
“After ten years of exploring plant-based culinary arts, I moved out of the city to start a new path in woodworking. Belonging to a community and having access to open space are important inputs for my creativity. Art can be a way of living. I now not only have the time for learning new skills and developing my own practice but also reconnecting with nature. The way I dress reflects my emotional state – from wearing colours to feel empowered to hiding in the comforts of plain colours when I feel more vulnerable.”
Maria, pictured below.
"My life revolves around different art disciplines such as sound design, music production, visual art, food and illustrating. I consider myself a curious human always looking for new challenges in life that feed my soul. Every day is a unique opportunity to learn something new and I need to trust my clothes are durable and functional."
Jose, pictured below left.
Why is this immersive approach to subject matter so important in your work?
I think it is simply my way to make work. I figure this out through making, instinctively.
And what do you find really important for a portrait? Do you pay attention to the clothing, the composition?
I think somehow a good portrait is one I have not seen before. For this, there is a search that is a little uncertain, accidental and far from being concerned about composition in a strict way.
I pay attention to the energy that we are creating and try to propose and share ideas to keep pushing the work forward. The images reveal later, often a few days later, after you take some distance from that dynamic.
Do you show the subjects their portraits, and what kind of reactions do they have to them?
They often like the images, and the general comment is that they are peculiar, exciting, not what they expected.
What else are you currently working on?
I have just released a book called Subida al cielo (Ascent into Heaven) with work made since 2016 that I published with Dalpine last month.
This is a very important book for me because it compiles five different bodies of work and is the first time I have stopped working to focus on making a book to share with an audience.
Some of the main bodies of work are made in Bristol and back home in Galicia. The book includes a general vision of the work I have been developing with no separations between projects, so it becomes like a dream where you change location progressively, almost without realising. The book also includes some of my process, the images and sketches I make in order to make images and an essay titled The Fragile Look by Argentine author Carlos Skliar.
Interview by Andie Cusick.
All photographs by Lua Ribeira. The Magnum Photography exhibition is on at TOAST Shoreditch from Wed 5 to Sun 30 April.
Lua's new book, Subida al cielo is published by Dalpine.