I am I met Anna in a bar in El Raval, Barcelona, in 2003. I am from Naples and had just arrived in the city after a decade living in London. I had that energy that you get when you are in a new place and everything is a surprise. When I saw Anna, I felt compelled to photograph her.
El Raval used to be called Barrio Chino, Chinatown. It is a slightly steep part of the city, with people from all over the world and 24-hour city life. You can buy milk in the middle of the night at corner stores. Raval is always alive.
When I’m outside and someone gets my attention visually, I have no difficulty asking if I can have their pictures taken. Thankfully, Anna is in the theater and is accustomed to the people asking her to stand up. She said, “You’re lucky.” “I don’t always say yes.” At the time, I didn’t realize her striking appearance was partly due to her albinism. Once someone stands in front of my camera, they are simply and wonderful just someone, whatever their status, race, or cultural background.
We set a date to shoot and she came to my apartment. It was a cloudy day. I set up shimmer on my balcony, and decided to use a fan to create movement with her hair. As I got older and matured, I began to include more context in the photos I take. But at the time, any element of the background or context that I included was just a way to emphasize the feelings the sitter stirred inside me. It was on the minds of Piero della Francesca, Bellini and Vermeer, painters who put their subjects in the foreground to fill the frame.
I work intuitively. I like to give my subjects freedom just to be. I don’t really style them other than ordering clothes that are somewhat neutral, and they have a great look anyway. She’s brought a pair of different T-shirts to wear, and she always wears this shade of lipstick.
I want the Gleesy to relax and forget about the camera, so it pays to shoot with Hasselblad – which is a large medium size camera – because they often don’t recognize the equipment. “Are you really shooting?” They will ask. The weather and tension in that sky were a coincidence. I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted, but I knew I wanted to capture how I felt when I first saw Anna. She exudes beauty of a different kind, a certain isolation, and a sense of being an outsider. It reflected what I felt at the time.
As a result of Anna’s interview, I made a whole series about albinism. I am fascinated by the difference. Of course, in Spain and the rest of Europe, people with albinism do not experience discrimination as they do in other parts of the world. Mistreatment.
I wanted to focus on the art of portraiture, not on the problems that people with albinism could face, but on their beauty. I consider it a sublime beauty, because it comes from pain, suffering, and acceptance as well. Here is the poetry in this image – in resilience and tranquility. Anna seems comfortable with herself. This, to me, is very beautiful.
As I learned about albinism, I changed photography. I stopped using the flash, because it can be really irritating to the eyes of people with this condition. And it removed all sense of drama in my photos, because it felt disrespected. Me and I meet on the street sometimes, but we haven’t worked together since then. As with all of my photos, this one was a stolen hug, a fleeting moment.
Biography of Paula de Grenier
born: Milan, 1971.
trainee: Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Art, London.
High point: “I can get very little and find stimuli.”
Low point: “I’m not a good salesperson. I struggle to gain enough emotional distance from my work to target the right customers.”
The most important tip:Trust your instincts. “
“Extreme organizer. Problem solver. Passionate web buff. Internet expert. Devoted travel nerd. Professional troublemaker.”