OKS-lab fragt… Alexa Vachon

Ein Gespräch mit Alexa Vachon, Meisterklassen-Absolventin der Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie (OKS), über ihre Arbeit Grounded, die kürzlich mit dem „Portrait of Humanity Award“ des British Journal of Photography ausgezeichnet wurde.

Franziska (FK): Personally, I became aware of your work when you showed it at the Ostkreuzschule annual portfolio review. Shortly after, the winners of this year’s Portrait of Humanity Award from the British Journal of Photography were announced. Congratulations on that! What is your work Grounded about and over what time period did you photograph it?

Alexa Vachon (AV): Thanks! And thank you for asking me to be a part of this. I always try to take advantage of opportunities from OKS and the Bildredaktionsklasse. I’ve met a lot of great people that way in the years since I did the Meisterklasse and it’s nice to feel connected to the community as it grows. 

The work Grounded is the culmination of five years of research, experimentation and creation with and about the experiences of international women football players. I first met the Berlin-based NGO DISCOVER FOOTBALL in 2014 when I volunteered to photograph a conference they organised for 15 international players and activists. The women there that week shared intimate stories of their experiences playing football and working in their communities and I was immediately hooked on the topic. I played sports a bit in school but never seriously since photography took over as soon as I went to high school. But I was a professional dancer as a teenager and there was a lot of overlap in terms of using our bodies as a means of expression, power, strength, and rebellion.

I started working more with DISCOVER FOOTBALL, meeting players from around the world, learning, listening, photographing, and building relationships. Eventually, through their football festivals in Berlin and internationally, I photographed over 350 women from over 40 countries – women from various religious, economic and cultural backgrounds, each with her own unique experience. I came to see the common thread through all of their stories – the fight for their right to play football and to be recognized as equals in their communities, no matter their race, religion, gender or class. The images shown here are a piece of the project, featuring players in Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Lebanon and Pakistan. The photographs were made from 2015–2019 but I only put them together as collages in 2020.

FK: You photographed in very different regions of the world. Did you make a special selection or did the shooting locations result from other circumstances? 

AV: Initially the locations were dictated by where DISCOVER FOOTBALL was organising their festivals and tournaments. I was at two week-long tournaments in Berlin, and also joined them in Lebanon and India. But I quickly began making work separate from them, eventually making RISE, a project and book that followed a local team for migrant women in Berlin, run by CHAMPIONS ohne GRENZEN. Women’s football only happens because of the dedication of the (mostly) women who run these organisations and who show up week after week, rain or shine, while writing grant applications and fighting for training space on the side. It’s a huge commitment and I was so lucky to connect with people in Berlin who are on the ground, making these programs possible. 

Over the years, through DISCOVER FOOTBALL and CHAMPIONS ohne GRENZEN, I met a lot of players. Eventually I was able to get funding from the VG Bild-Kunst and the Canada Council for the Arts to continue the work, visiting players in their homes around the world. In 2019 I went on a nine-week trip to Afghanistan, Cambodia and Pakistan to photograph and interview the players. I chose those locations based on existing relationships with players I had met in Berlin. For instance, I wanted to go to Cambodia after meeting a fierce and fast team from Battambang province called the Mighty Girls. I wanted to go to Pakistan because I met an amazing woman from there who wasn’t only a player but also an activist and organiser in Karachi. And I wanted to go to Afghanistan to meet the teammates of the players I knew so well from RISE. Then of course, once I get to a place, I end up meeting many other players and organisers which is how I ended up in the mountains of Hunza in Pakistan, meeting young players who live cut off from much of the world. 

FK: One thing that immediately stands out about your work is that it is collage, a form of design that is rarely seen at the moment. How did this come about?

AV: This came about for a few reasons. I’m currently in The Hague, doing my masters in Photography & Society at the KABK. It’s a completely different education than I’ve experienced before and the Dutch approach to photography is in stark contrast to my background at places like OKS. So much of the work here is research driven and comes from a theoretical approach rather than a medium driven approach. It often drives me crazy but it’s been really good for me to reconsider the potentiality of photography and what the possibilities of the medium are. There is a big emphasis in our program on “impact” – on how we “activate” our work in the world, i.e. how we put our work out there. I tend to photograph a lot and I’ve been photographing women football players for years so I have a massive amount of content. My dream is to be able to build an online platform for the images, interviews and texts and I was exploring ways to get funding for such a huge project. At the same time, I was stuck at home because of Covid-19 and wanting to get this work seen to bring attention to the topic and to highlight the range of stories and experiences of the players. I started playing with collage as a novel way to share the work, and to illustrate the chaotic nature of making a long-term project like this in so many disjointed locations, and to mirror the fractured experiences of the players, many of whom can’t play freely. I’m using a lot of analogue collage techniques in my new work, inspired by the success of these visual experiments. 

FK: Only at second glance does it become apparent that the images are always of young women playing soccer. Which location seemed the most unusual to you?

AV: Many of these images were made in 2019, long after I began working on the theme of women’s football. They were made when I was being funded by grants rather than jobs or working with NGOs so I had a lot of freedom in terms of what and how I wanted to photograph and what I wanted to show. At this point, football for me is the catalyst, not the main topic. I don’t feel the need to focus exclusively on football itself, but rather consider at it as the connective tissue between a massive group of women around the world. Football becomes the conduit to explore themes of agency, freedom of movement, bodies, class, conflict zones, gender identity, sexuality, religion, education and integration. I like putting aside the most obvious images in favour of those that hint at the radicality of the sport and what role it serves in these people’s lives. Sure, some of them dribble a ball every day, but most don’t. I’m not on a quest to find the world’s greatest player, I’m much more interested in the daily lived experiences of the players and activists and their families and communities. Football has become the gateway for me to meet incredibly interesting people who tend towards activism and rebellion.

FK: Are you currently working on a new series?

AV: Yes! I’m currently working on a project that at first seems really different from my work about football. Visually it’s so different – it’s black and white, it features a lot of nudity and intense, intimate moments, all photographed in Berlin. The new project is about bodies in revolt, as a site of pleasure and pain, rebellion and oppression. But the main theme is agency. Most of my work revolves around the themes of agency and identity, and those themes are so strong in each of these projects, even if the topics and outcomes seem wildly different.

FK: Alexa, thanks a lot for your time and the detailed interview!

Alexa Vachon wurde in Kanada geboren und machte ihre Ausbildung zur Fotografin an der School of Visual Arts in New York. Sie verbrachte zehn Jahre in Berlin und lebt derzeit in Den Haag, wo sie ihren Master in Photograph & Society an der Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (KABK) abschließt. Sie arbeitet kommerziell als auch für Redaktionen und an eigenen Langzeitprojekten. Ihr Fokus liegt dabei auf Menschenrechten, Identitätsfragen, Familienstrukturen und der Verantwortung von Künstlern heute. Sie fühlt sich dabei zu Themen hingezogen, mit denen sie persönliche Erfahrungen gemacht hat und fühlt sich denen verbunden, die oft nicht in die Schubladen der Gesellschaft passen.
Alexa ist ein Mitglied bei Women Photograph.