“It all begins by my choosing the female characters who will give life to this work,” says Karen Paulina Biswell, one of BJP's Ones to Watch and now showing her work at Arles
Karen Paulina Biswell spent much of her upbringing in Paris, having moved there with her parents when barely a teen in the early 1990s to escape the political unrest and violent clashes plaguing her native Colombia. It was an experience that shaped the way she looks at life and its “arbitrary nature” but also nurtured “a greater empathy towards others, their circumstances and life stories,” she says. “I hope that through my work I can help create silent spaces for reflection, mirrors and windows that allow questions to be explored by the audience and the viewer.”
Her career began when she was 19, still living in the French capital and studying History of Art, when she met fashion photographer Vanina Sorrenti, who asked to take her portrait. Biswell became fascinated with photography as a medium of expression and went on to be Sorrenti’s assistant, developing negatives in the darkroom. “I had experienced absolute freedom and felt that the world was without boundaries and that I had many stories to tell,” she recalls.
Biswell now splits her time between Bogotá, the capital of her home country, and Taganga, a fishing village on its Caribbean coast, as well as Paris. Her work addresses themes of identity within the context of vulnerability, discomfort and imperfection, but not weakness. She finds her subjects in all these places and more, whether they be indigenous communities living in central Bogotá, or the remains of unlikely objects left on the river banks in Bamako, Mali.
She is now putting together her first monograph that visualises in black-and-white the story of a small Colombian village inhabited by people with a mix of African and Indian heritage. It will be published by Kominek and shown at La Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Biswell’s energies are also channelled into her new project on femininity, “without judgement and without censor,” she says.
Ellas, on show in La Vuelta – 28 Colombian photographers and artists at Les Rencontres d’Arles, is at once a study of power and vulnerability, which is unafraid to flaunt the models’ sexuality by placing them in provocative positions but retains their dignity and mysteriousness. They are, says Biswell, “in the spirit of Manet’s Olympia, imperfect goddesses, strong enough to stir us.”
“It all begins by my choosing the female characters who will give life to this work,” says Biswell. “Authentic human beings within the confines of a system, not conventional or traditional beauties. I’m always very focused and connected to these women. My pictures are not made to entertain; I work with the female body in a very intimate way.”