For our latest submission call, we’re asking our artists to consider the idea of portraiture – it could be a self-portrait in oils, a written sketch of life in lockdown, or a fictional story exploring what it means when we really look at one another.
To inspire you, we spoke to Justin Desforges of Upside Photography, a professional photographer who found himself having to quarantine for two weeks after returning from holiday into lockdown. It was the ultimate artistic constraint – how to be himself creatively while completely isolated from the world around him, and with minimal tools to hand.
What emerged was a remarkable series of complex, funny self-portraits, showing Justin attempting everything from swimming in a bath to acting as his own barber. The photos were an instant hit on his Instagram feed, giving his followers a regular hit of surrealist humour in the middle of a deeply unfunny pandemic.
We hope you enjoy Justin’s photos below and that our conversation gets you thinking about your own relationship with portraiture – self or otherwise. We can’t wait to see what you share with us.
Submissions are accepted on a rolling basis, but we will stop reading for this theme on Thursday 3 September.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into photography?
When I was 20, I spent some time in Australia. I went with a small point and shoot camera that used APS film. As time went on, I found myself being more and more intentional about the photos I was taking. And I was taking a lot of photos. When I got back to Montreal, my parents gifted me a Nikon F75 for my birthday. It was a film camera. I still have it.
In the summer of 2006, I asked the organizers of a graffiti festival called Under Pressure if I could volunteer as a photographer. I was the only person who was surprised when they said yes. That was the first time I ever covered an event. It became an annual tradition – I’ve volunteered at that festival for 15 years.
I made the switch to full-time photographer in my early 30s. I was dating a painter who really inspired me to take the leap.
What is it about working with a camera that you love?
I really like the way that the world looks different through a lens. Most of my remunerated work is corporate stuff. I often photograph people who are not used to being in front of a camera.
I couldn’t tell you the number of times people say they’re afraid they’re going to break my lens because they’re so unphotogenic. And then, I show them their photo on my laptop screen and they’re surprised that they like their photo. That always feels good.
I also really enjoy capturing something in time. You don’t get the before and after with a photo. You just get that one moment. When I was creating my self-portraits, that became a challenge. I had to find a way to tell a whole story with one image. Some photos had a bit of extra content, like a stop-motion video.
On your website, you talk about finding the bright side of the world around you. Does the camera make it easier?
I like to find the good in things. I like to make people smile. I think my approach is to create positive images that bring a smile to people’s faces. I realized I was doing that with my self-isolation self-portraits. That was one of the things that kept me into the project.
I like to create ‘bright side’ moments. So the camera gives me a way to show that to people. But I don’t go out looking for it.
Pre-lockdown, did you have any particular favourite places/people/objects that brought out that bright side?
I had been creating portraits with local actors and improvisors in my studio. That was really fun. Not actor head shots, but creative stuff. It’s fun to work with actors. They are used to direction. But they can then build on what I tell them. And improvisors are just an amazing group of people to work with. They are so outgoing and up for anything.
Also, whenever I get a chance to photograph someone’s dog, I jump on that. There’s no positivity like a dog.
Tell us more about the self-isolation self-portraits.
The honest truth, the project started as me thinking about creating an online dating profile. I was on vacation when lockdown started. I was completely unplugged. So I was surprised to find out that I would have to quarantine for two weeks when I got back. I was single and I thought it would be fun to meet someone during lockdown.
As a photographer, I’m usually the one taking photos. So I don’t always have pictures of me doing the stuff I do. So I set out to create images of me engaged in activities that I enjoy, but in my apartment.
In one photo, I’m on my bike, dressed as if I’m riding outdoors. In another I’m simulating rock climbing, wearing my climbing shoes, harness and chalk bag. I was actually kind of doing those things. I was trying to stay in shape in my 850-square-foot world.
After taking a few images, I realized what I was actually doing was documenting my life in self-isolation. But with a bit of humour. So, I decided to post the photos on Instagram. They got a really positive response. Aside from the swimming photo, they were all just stylized and exaggerated versions of things I was actually doing during my quarantine.
Once the quarantine was over, it no longer made sense to continue taking photos of myself in self-isolation. The images had gotten such a great response though. I was getting comments from people saying they were keeping them sane. It wasn’t so long ago, but there was a lot more tension then. We knew so much less about the virus. We had never been through these measures.
I was really enjoying creating these images. I also had lots of free time. So I started a second series that I called ‘Socially Distant’. Those are the ones where I would have multiple instances of myself in the same image.
The ideas for the first few images were kind of obvious to me. Like I said, they were things I was actually doing, just exaggerated. Once I ran out of activities I was doing in my life, I had to brainstorm concepts. Sometimes reaching out to friends for inspiration.
Obviously lockdown has been this strange collective and yet entirely unique experience – was it important for you to keep creating despite the restrictions?
Before lockdown, I felt like I was hitting my stride in terms of creating. I’m lucky that I get enough work as a photographer to keep me busy. It’s usually not the most creative work. But it does fill up my schedule. Photography isn’t my only creative outlet. But when lockdown started, it was the only one I really had access to. When I discovered that I was inadvertently starting a project, it was really exciting.
I also kind of turned it into a job. While the whole world was put on pause, I found a reason to work. Something that I have found challenging about the lockdown, is that it robbed me of a bunch of things that I think make up who I am.
Having a project like that at a time when there was no photo production work going around was very fulfilling. I committed to posting a photo a day for my quarantine. So I had to create stuff. After that, I was on a two photos a week schedule, but the photos became more complicated.
Did you discover anything about yourself creatively as a consequence of having to make art under constraint?
It unlocked something in me, for sure. Lockdown gave me the time and space to explore photography in a way I had never done before. I usually have a full schedule between work and extra-curricular activities. I was dabbling in improv and stand up before the lockdown. I enjoy performance. So this project really scratched an itch for me. It combined photography with performance.
There was also something interesting about working in a space that is already furnished. I usually shoot in my studio, which is an empty box. This made me want to explore space a bit more. It also created a weird process for brainstorming ideas. I had to work backwards from a location to a concept. It was a fun way to work. To think, “OK, you have a bathroom. What can you do in there that would be appropriate for Instagram?”
Can you tell us a bit more about some of the more complex images?
The simplest answer is everything was shot with a tripod. And then layered in Photoshop and blended together. Finally, some shading would be added to make it look as real as possible.
The skateboarding shot was the most complicated. I did not actually soar through the air in my living room. The original photo of me on the skateboard has me precariously balancing on an upside down bucket. Then I had to take a shot holding the skateboard in place with my hand to get rid of the bucket in the original image.
The barber photo was also a lot of fun to make. It’s a subtle detail, but I shaved my beard and left a moustache for the barber character. The planning for that shot included taking my shaving paraphernalia out of the bathroom before I started shooting so that I could shave without disturbing the equipment that was set up.
Do you have a personal favourite?
If I have to choose one, it’s the one where I’m swimming laps in my bathtub. It’s so silly. It came from me brainstorming with some friends over a video chat for new ideas. Someone suggested taking a bubble bath. And I was all set up to do that. The tub was full, bubbles and all. Then the idea of swimming in my tub came to me and I had to start over.
That was the messiest and most painful. I had to bend my legs up behind me to fit my body in the tub, while twisting my spine to look like I’m swimming. My back hurt for nearly a week after that. But it was worth it. Something I really like about that one is that it’s one shot. Almost. I used a second shot to remove my legs from the left side. But all the water splashing is real. It took a few takes.
I also really like the one of me sitting on the floor of my kitchen eating ice cream from the carton with a bottle of wine and a filled glass and some chips and salsa, wearing a bathrobe. It captured so much of my reality at the time in one image.
Now that restrictions are easing, has the experience of lockdown and the photos you made changed your approach to your other work?
Because 2020 is so full of surprises, when restrictions started easing, I got taken out by a car while riding my bike. So I’m dealing with post-concussion headaches. It has really slowed down my approach to work. I can’t spend too much time in front of a screen. And that’s a large part of digital photography. So I’m doing the work I get. But I’m not adding to my screen time by creating stuff for myself at the moment. Hopefully my brain will be back to normal soon enough and I can get back to where I left off.
I think it also got me to dream bigger. My website has very minimalist portraits. Pre-concussion, I was geared up to build set walls in my studio and start creating more elaborate scenes.
The self-portraits also, for the most part, have very simple lighting. I was limited in the equipment I had access to. And it was fun to see that I could create nice images with a very basic lighting kit. Going forward, I’ll have that in mind.
What kind of reaction have you had from the photos?
The reactions were positive and instant. It was amazing. It helped keep me positive and sane though my quarantine. It created an outlet through which I could communicate effortlessly with people. It made me feel less alone in my apartment.
People needed different things at the beginning of the pandemic. One of those things was entertainment. Tiger King only had eight episodes. People could watch that in a day. I spaced my images out so that people had something to look forward to. As well as to give myself time to create new images. Some of them took a few hours. I think people recognized the effort that was going into them.
I eventually ran out of ideas. Nothing lasts for ever. I actually have one last image shot. But I haven’t had a chance to get to editing it.
All images reproduced with Justin’s permission. Copyright: Justin DesForges.