A heavy grey sky hangs over a former mining town in South Wales. This brooding scene lends itself as the unlikely backdrop to an Alice in Wonderland-esque banquet, both its guests and the street decked out in a riot of purple tones. This fantastical context is the product of a hive-mind: the imaginations of photographer Clémentine Schneidermann, stylist Charlotte James and a handful of children from two local youth groups, who are modelling their own creations. It’s Called Ffasiwn, currently on view at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, is far from your ordinary fashion shoot. Produced over the course of three years, it’s a fashion-cum-documentary-cum-participatory community project that challenges the static way the region has been portrayed by the media through celebrating the creativity of its younger inhabitants.
James is a Valley-native, born and raised nearby in Merthyr Tydfil, who works locally as a creative director on shoots revolving around participation and collaboration. Since moving back in 2014, she has been committed to reimagining monolithic perceptions of her hometown and its surroundings through casting the vibrant community she was brought up in. James now mainly works with friends, family and local residents who live in the scattered towns interspersed between the hills and mountains that make up the Valleys.
Following the decline of the coal mining industry in the 1980s, the region suffered greatly, and is currently one of the most deprived in the UK. It is mainly pictured as so, trapped within a frame of negativity and working-class stereotypes that do little to paint a full picture of the experience of its residents. Without denying the lasting impacts that deindustrialization has had on the region, It’s Called Ffasiwn looks to the Valley’s future generations, seeking to nourish their creativity and use it as a means of interacting with their surroundings.
Born in Paris, now based in Wales, Schneidermann crossed paths with the stylist during a residency in Abertillery in 2015. Building on shared interests, the pair embarked on the long-term project in a bid to reimagine the region visually, setting up a series of fashion workshops in a couple of youth centres. Aged between 8 and 14, participants got a taste of the wondrous universe of the fashion industry. James taught sewing, the customization of second-hand clothes and styling, while Schneidermann took care of those keen to explore what goes on behind the camera’s lens. Flaunting their colourful homegrown looks in a series of staged tableaux, the micro-‘ffasiwn’ (which is the Welsh word for ‘fashion’) team created their own take on the fashion shoot, transforming the elite and exclusionary practice to bring it back home.
LensCulture: Charlotte, this project is part of your wider practice of participatory fashion work that engages with the local area your grew up in. What first sparked this approach, and how did it develop?
Charlotte James: Merthyr Rising, shot in collaboration with photographer Tom Johnson, was the first time I met and worked with a photographer who was able to visualize the kinds of images I wanted to be making. These images focus on challenging stereotypes in my community, representing them in a positive light. It confirmed that this is the way I want to continue working on community-based projects. My approach has developed a lot while working with Clementine, as it was the first time I worked with a photographer who was interested in long-term projects. She was never interested in sharing the work too much, which I think is rare these days, since people feel a perpetual urge to put work out as soon as possible.
LC: How would you describe the core missions of the work you are making in the Valleys?
CJ: My upbringing has had a big influence on my work. Growing up in the Valleys, there wasn’t anything available in terms of culture and art, but there was always a strong sense of community. I think that has stuck with me and made me want the people I’m working with to get something out of it too. I am inspired by creative projects happening outside of the big cities, exploring communities in an immersive way. There are so many small towns that nobody really looks at. I’m interested in crossing boundaries between artistic and social practice, as well as challenging stereotypes so that my work regularly features family, friends, local people from my area, and the working men’s clubs I went to as a kid. I enjoy playing with the idea of what can happen in these spaces.
LC: Clémentine, photographically these layered images are much more than fashion photos: there’s collaborative portraiture, documentary, and landscape in there. What kind of image of were you looking to make?
Clémentine Schneidermann: The work is an hybrid of different forms, touching on documentary photography, but also fashion, performance and landscape. My approach was not so different from a documentary photographer; you still need to gain trust from the community, build a relationship in the long term, and do research about the area. It has taken me a few years to feel ‘accepted’ and trusted by the children and the parents, which is what most documentary photographers seek out when they work with communities.
The approach could be described as participatory, since we try to involve the children as much as possible in the project through workshops. It’s a creative and very subjective portrayal of a region and community, playing with various layers of reality. Having lived in the Valleys for two years, I was often struck by how the region was portrayed in the media. Without denying reality, we wanted to challenge the way these communities are often represented.
LC: This work seems to be quite a pivotal step in taking your practice in a different direction. Did shooting fashion allow you to approach anything that you hadn’t previously explored in your work?
CS: The collaboration with Charlotte changed my way of working. Charlotte is a creative director, and she often challenged me to push the imagery further. Without this collaboration, the project would probably be more traditional.
Working with fashion has been liberating in a way, as it allowed me to really explore the depth of my imagination and create images that I wanted to see. In my previous project, I Called Her Lisa Marie, I was already fascinated by the construction of identity through costumes and style. I see a real continuation with this new work. I think that the two series are simultaneously socially driven and interested in vulnerability, playing with imagination and fantasies. Fashion is a tool that allowed me connect with the people I was photographing.
LC: Can you tell me about the title It’s Called Ffasiwn, which has a great attitude in it, and what it means to you and the spirit of the project?
CJ: When we did the color black for the Halloween-themed shoot, it was the first time we had worked with that particular group of kids, and they were so excited. When they first walked out onto the estate dressed up, the boys from the youth group were teasing them saying: “What are you wearing?!” and “You look like you’re going to a funeral.” The one girl who introduced herself to me for the first time as ‘Sassy Keely’ shouted back: “It’s called fashion…look it up.”
I absolutely loved that self-confidence, attitude, and how they didn’t give into the teasing. They put the boys in their place, and then continued to be a part of the project, which was a new experience for them.
Editor’s Note: It’s Called Ffaswin is on view at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol until the 25th of May.