French photographer Floriane De Lassée has travelled across some of the world’s most rural landscapes, from East Africa to South America; in search of subjects for her ongoing photo series, How Much Can You Carry?
Beginning her journey in 2012 in Ethiopia, the series has so far taken the 37-year-old around 14 different countries across four continents, where she has photographed 70 subjects. Her set was published in 2014 into a book, available in both English and French. As part of the shoot De Lassée travelled with her boyfriend, Nicholas Henry, from Ethiopia to Rwanda, Madagascar, Namibia, Turkey, Nepal, India, China, Indonesia, Japan, Bolivia and Brazil.
The first question has to be; how did this idea come about? When was the moment you realised you wanted to travel the world, shooting pictures of things people balance on their heads?
I wanted to give another breath to my ongoing work, Inside Views , which was mainly located in megacities. I was seeking something new. In 2011, my boyfriend asked me to travel with him around the world for 14 months. I thought, why not?, and said yes; without really thinking about where we would end up, and whether it would be interesting for my photography. Our first stop was Ethiopia, where I was struck by the sand and blinding sun — it was the exact opposite of what I was expecting or looking for.
Yet being somewhere completely new and unexpected, forced me to open my eyes and really find a decent idea for my photography, an idea that was far away from my past projects. I chose some of the destinations we visited, including Istanbul, Kyoto, New Caledonia and Bolivia, while some were Nicholas’ choice. But I didn’t realise that Ethiopia would be totally outside my artistic reference. When we started our African tour [four months through Ethiopia, Rwanda, Madagascar and Namibia], I was pretty lost.
So this series, How Much Can You Carry? , initiated in Ethiopia, is totally different from what I’m used to shooting. Because I had no idea of where the project would end up, I decided to go for a run every morning. On these sandy roads, I passed by courageous women who were carrying heavy loads to or from the market. Exchange is their only way to survive, and I wanted to pay homage to these women, who display such impeccable strength and balance.
Were you inspired by any other artists in the way you shot the portraits?
No, it came from a scratch in my mind, and from what I saw with my own “tourist” eyes. Though later on, after I put the series together, I discovered these images of Nigerian truckers and their trucks [by Roberto Neumiller]. Those spoke to me a lot.
What would you want people to take away from this set?
At first sight, How Much Can You Carry? is a tribute to the bearers of life — those whose lives are heavy, and where smiles and laughter become the keys to a liveable existence. But it can be read on two levels. The first refers to these modern caryatids [sculpted female figures used as architectural support, in place of a column or a pillar].
The second, more metaphorical, talks about the various weights we all carry, whether they are physical or psychological like the weight of tradition, legacy, education, family, or of social difference. I feel the series can be understood by all, ranging from those on the deep roads of Africa, to trendy art collectors in the big cities. Everybody can be inspired, because everybody has a weight to carry. Now that the series is completed and a book has been published, I’ll take a step back — and see that this is not so much the “burden” that matters, but the way we have to carry it and who can support us.
Travelling the world for this shoot, what did you learn that surprised you?
I think everywhere in the world, people carry things. They carry wood to keep warm, water to drink and to keep clean, animals such as goats to eat (meat, milk and often blood too) seeds (like wheat or quinoa) — and even children on their shoulders. As I understand it, the ratio of men to women in Africa (and in a lot of places around the globe) who carry these big loads, is around one to eight.
In most cases, did your subjects understand what it was that you were trying to achieve with the images?
It depended on the level of education in each region. But ultimately, it’s not important that everybody understood; at least if they had fun, it was already a pleasure for all of us to share the moment. The kids, who were less shy, approached first, and then the parents followed. It’s very uncommon for them to have crazy people like me coming into a village; and setting up a backdrop in the middle of nowhere — before shooting images like the one with four goats on the head, for example.
My local assistants received good remuneration, and my models were “paid” with essential goods. As the photos are in digital, I could also give all of them a small print, to keep in their homes. Few tourists ever offer that sort of moment and souvenir to them. In opposition to the tourists who pass by and “grab their soul” with a photo, I first spent some time in each place. After few days, most were happy to see that I was doing this for art. And that most of all, I was seeking to give them dignity. They looked proud to take their own images away with them
Did you get any sense that the act of carrying something so immense on your head might be become extinct?
No, I don’t think so. People will always carry things, for many decades more, because in a lot of remote areas there will never be roads.
Which of your photographic subjects do you remember the most? Do you have a favourite?
Anga from Indonesia, [left] is one of my favourites. She looks like she has a gigantic girly dinnerware set on her head. But if you look closer, you can see she’s got such a strong and sad gaze. That seems to signify the weight of responsibility she may have in her numerous family roles, cleaning the dishes or clothes. She was so brave.
I would imagine many of them asked if you wanted to try balancing what they had to balance on your own head! How did that go?
Of course, I could not carry what they carry, for sure — but they had a lot of fun, with me trying to carry water jars. To tell you the truth, in some cases, I helped them out with a rope, and then I’d delete the string digitally. My aim was to give them back their pride for a time — but certainly not to break their necks.
How did your shoot make you reflect on your own world? It’s hard not to look at your photos and think, “If I had to limit my possessions to those I could physically carry, what would they be?”
A great question! I had a friend in Germany who had a tiny car, and each time he moved to a new place, he had to fit everything into his car. It was hard. Then he had a girlfriend and he had to remove more and more each time, to fit her in too. Maybe somehow my inspiration came from him too. We are consuming more and more in our modern world; but at the same time, at least now there are so many websites for sharing and exchanging goods and services instead of buying new ones. Generations before us, you would buy something for life — now you buy, then exchange, and these objects can have hundreds of lives
What were the challenges of this shoot, in terms of setting up your shots and communicating with your subjects? Did you want them to look completely natural or posed?
Their backs were bent sometimes, but always with a straight neck and a concentrated gaze. But mainly, I wanted them to look proud of themselves. The project is universal, we don’t need to speak the same language. As long as I could show them the results in the camera or on my computer, they were happy. In person, they couldn’t always appreciate the results, because I used flash lights. So they needed to come closer to my computer to see.
What gear did you use? Was it tricky to decide on the kind of equipment, and whether to say, shoot in black and white versus colour?
I used black and white between the ages of 14 and 24 years old. It’s essential to attain this knowledge, and to feel the balance and construction of an image. But for me now, to “see” in black and white is a tool. My final result will always be in colour. Concerning the choice of camera, unlike a lot of projects where I still shoot with a large format camera, in this one the results had to be seen immediately by my models and other villagers, so a digital camera was naturally the right choice.
I love the shot, of the child in the red sweatshirt balancing cords of wood — and a baby goat! How did that shot come about?
Aru was the first image of the series, and also my first ever portrait. I was shy at the beginning of the series too, and worried that my photographs were looking nothing like they had in the previous 10 years.
Then I posted this image on my Facebook page, and it was met with such enthusiasm. So thanks to my social networks, I was given the courage to continue in this direction. Thank-you to my friends and followers! Aru is a young Ethiopian girl who makes a living from selling goats and goat meat, milk and blood to the market. Wood is essential for the family to boil, cook and to heat the home. There is less and less wood in their area — and they have to go increasingly far to get some.