I Believe Myself To Be A Storyteller With A Camera | A conversation with Eddie Saint-Jean

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—Interviewed by John Vincent Chizoba

Eddie Saint-Jean

Eddie Saint-Jean is an artist who combines his background in moving image and photography to produce original works all influenced by Freudian theories of the Uncanny, which relates to how homely, everyday items and subjects have unhomely, eerie or uncanny elements. His main focus is the urban uncanny and the cinematic uncanny. He believes both of these provide striking imagery layered with elements from the unconscious. Often these two concepts combine – as they do in this latest work Vertigo which is currently in an exhibition at Gallery 54, Mayfair, London.

  • Hello, Eddie. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

And I am honoured to be interviewed by Libretto Magazine.

  • What prompted you to become a visual artist and when did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?

I can’t pinpoint the exact transition but I went from a promoter of art to a creator. I have always been fascinated with creating in some form or another but I actually started off running a gallery in North London and doing artist PR as well as writing art reviews for magazines. But also, all the while I was a part of the London filmmaking community, writing and directing experimental films. These art films evolved into my art practice, as I began to produce video art and video installation, as well as photographic works.

  • In relation to your career as a Filmmaker and Photographer, what inspired your choice of career?

My fascination with moving image and still image evolved in different worlds. My love of cinema led to a desire to understand all elements of film aesthetics, practice and theory. Directors such as Jean Luc-Goddard, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Tarantino and Spike Lee were a major influence. My early photography was in part an offshoot of my video art. I sought to manipulate the moving image – freezing, layering and digitally manipulating it and incorporating photographic processes. Aside from this I was curious about the differences between moving and still image. I wanted to examine the composition, framing and aesthetics of both.

  • What do you like most about being a photographer/filmmaker and how far do you imagine yourself going with your craft in the nearest future?

For me a creative photographer/filmmaker is essentially a storyteller. It’s up to you how much of the story you want to be easily understood. That’s what I love about it. The creative freedom and the mysterious layers you can apply to your work. I enjoy floating between the realms of neo-traditionalism by subverting Baroque, Rococo and Byzantine art in my practice and then going full-blown experimental, sometimes within the same piece. Essentially, combining the familiar and unfamiliar to an ‘uncanny’ degree. In the future I will continue to have exhibitions of my video art, video installations and photographic work but also continue to direct feature films with uncanny themes.

  • How does Photography and Filmmaker help you relate with your immediate environment and the society at large in terms of passing information to a larger audience out there?

I am lucky enough to work as a journalist, writing mainly about arts and culture but also politics, the environment, history and community. My job involves video reports and also photography and the essence of this work is clear factual information. It’s important that communication is never artsy or vague. As an artist it’s the exact opposite, but you are still a communicator. I enjoy both of these worlds but have learned there are different ways to convey the messages depending on the audience.

  • What makes a good picture stand out from the average and what roles do color grading, composition, and the choice of camera or lens play in this?

Gut instinct for a good shot is more important than all the lenses and gear in your kit box. How many times have you seen a randomly taken but creatively inspired snap that makes you gasp in awe but the most well prepared shot can leave you dry because of its lack of originality, power and passion? But you definitely need knowledge of composition and framing – your gut feeling will only get you so far if you don’t know the basics of how to handle a camera. Colour grading is important in digital art and photography for evoking certain sensory responses from your audience – it’s the same with moviemaking. Horror films and thrillers, for example, have a distinct colour grading palette for these purposes. It’s an art within itself.

  • If you were asked to pack your gear impromptu for a trip (depends on the kind of photography involved) what will be the gear that would go on that trip with you?

My type of art is very raw and visceral (even though it has ironic intellectual elements). I work from my unconscious (or as close as possible) so only travel with a skeleton kit so I can grab an idea from the ether free from the confines of tripods, lenses and such like. For example, I’m more likely to capture something randomly on anything from a Super 8 camera to a mobile phone and produce abstract digital imagery from that. So it really depends on the idea I am working on.

  • How does being a photographer and filmmaker enhance your interactions with the society, nature, and the environment, especially as it relates to humanity and the act of creation?

Themes about the environment and nature are common in my photographic and film work. My ‘Uncanny’ series of photographic works show a model wearing a strange mask and is shot in London’s idyllic secluded nature spots. It’s a comment about the ironic abundance of nature and the environment during the Covid crisis and also how the Covid face masks are a metaphor for the masking of ourselves in society. The pandemic was a testing time but it also made society go through an uncomfortable upheaval that made us reconsider our attitudes to those closest to us, the wider global community and the environment.

  • According to Roger Deakins, there are some ostentatious shots or lightings on set that draw attention to itself, how do you manage to get this kind of ostentatious lighting to create the perfect shot?

I’m glad you mentioned that because I have always sought unusual but natural light sources or even lens flares or vignettes of natural shadows that add a timely focus to my subject. I have done this because as mentioned earlier I believe myself to be a ‘storyteller with a camera’ and therefore committed to highlighting my characters accordingly and offering only subtle pointers as regards the ‘story’s’ plot or purpose.

  • As a photographer and filmmaker, whose work has influenced you the most?

Stanley Kubrick was both a filmmaker and photographer and I admire the eerie grandeur in his work. He is the director I most associate with psychologist Sigmund Freuds’ theories of the Uncanny which look for uncanny or eerie elements in everyday subjects.

  • Among all your works, which is your favorite? The one you can go back to see several times and why?

With me, it’s usually my most recent creation because of the soul-wrenching nature of the work and emotional attachment. I do not decide to do any new work lightly so I believe every new work is almost a part of my soul. This latest photographic work is called Queen and is a digitally manipulated photo of my sister holding a photo of herself as a beauty queen in her twenties. That work says so much; it shows her evolution from a bright-eyed young model to a middle-aged mother and NHS administrator who was on the frontline during the Covid 19 pandemic. It has many depths and layers and I have created an almost collage-like surrealist mix of imagery to show these layers. It has been selected for the I Matter exhibition at The Babylon Gallery, Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK, in May 2021.

  • What has been your greatest success story practicing filmmaking and photography in the UK?

I have written and directed a thriller feature film called Blackout which was screened at international film festivals. But to be honest my proudest success was something smaller but just as significant in other ways. I combined my photography and filmmaking skills for my Vertigo video installation and photography exhibitions in April 2021 which reworked a famous disorientating zoom used in Alfred Hitchock’s movie Vertigo. I went to a local rooftop car park in Stratford, East London and recreated this Vertigo zoom from this new perspective. The Vertigo photography was on show at The Space In Between exhibition in Mayfair, London April 2021 and the Facade exhibition in Hackney, London, April 2021 on the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s death. As previously mentioned, he is one of my favourite directors.

  • In every career, there is a need for advancement, to follow up with the trends of the moment as technology improves or evolves. In this regards, what are the most advanced skills you have acquired as a filmmaker and photographer?

Actually, I have learned that even though technology gives you a big leap forward in one sense, it’s not the be all. Over the years, I have discovered you can make something technically perfect – yet it can still be dry, bland and meaningless. The greatest skills I have developed have come through failure and repetition rather than any particular technological advance. Film director Robert Rodriguez made many short films before finding success with his self made feature film El Mariachi but he later produced a 10 Minute Film School where he said that everything you need to know about filmmaking can be learned in 10 minutes. It’s just not true. Did his numerous short films where he learned his craft take 10 years or 10 minutes? The ugly truth about this glamorous craft called filmmaking is that it takes years, is hard and gruelling with little signs of success for most people even when your craft is mastered.

  • How would you describe your kind of photography and filmmaking? What makes it stands out from the rest in terms of aesthetic and appearances?

Both my films and photography have an Uncanny element. I am not being big-headed here by referring to my work as Uncanny with a capital U. This refers to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Uncanny in aesthetics which sought out the eerie and uncanny in the familiar and homely. All my work follows that philosophy.

  • Art in its totality is not perfect and it can be viewed differently by various people in terms of its form, intent, and appeal. How do you handle it when critics and the audience misunderstand your artistic vision?

I totally get that and accept it. You know why? My full-time job as an art critic was to do just that. I criticised (and praised) all kinds of artists but those at the more experimental end will inevitably get the worst stick because their creative visions are boundless and ignore common tastes and conventions. Installation artists are open targets in this respect and my work involves video installation so I guess I am going to get criticised or misunderstood too.

  • If you had to pick a picture from all the pictures you have taken, which one describes your entire life in one shot?

The closest to that would be a photograph I did for my Vertigo series which shows a black male at the top of a stairway looking down. It has an almost spectral element. It reminds me of someone who has reached some sort of apex or milestone in life – he may just have got older and had kids. He’s expecting some sort of enlightenment – to see God at some point. But he realises it’s just him up there – and he doesn’t quite get it. Maybe one day he will see God. He needs to understand the ‘why’ behind his existence to give his life and death meaning but life just seems to be an ongoing staircase with different floors

  • What are the moments you look forward to capturing in your lifetime through your art and those you are proud to have captured?

I am planning some neo-classical Byzantine style imagery featuring manipulated photos of members of my family and I am looking forward to this for both personal and creative reasons. As regards those I am proud to have already captured, I generally appreciate the crazy courage involved in being a creative photographer – going out at times when people prefer to be snuggled up at home watching TV and travelling to unusual or special locations. So in that regard, it’s the ones that bring out the adventure in me that I appreciate the most because they live long in the memory. My Uncanny series of photos in Hampstead Gardens and Pergola, London, which was once the property of a bohemian aristocrat, and the same photoshoot at the gothic ruins of St Dunstans Church, Tower Hill, London stand out because of this. But moreover, those photos captured a moment in British history – London gripped by the Covid19 pandemic so that gives them extra importance and relevance.

  • What’s the one advice you would give to someone who wants to become a Photographer?

Take loads of photos. I am not being funny. You just need to get stuck in. You soon learn the good from the bad. And also you learn a certain William Shakespeare quote to be true: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair.’ Which basically means sometimes the bad practices, where you have broken all the technical rules produce your best work. On the other hand, the tried and tested, safe, technically sound shot can produce your most stale and tired images. But you only learn this through lucky accidents and the incidence of those accidents is related to how many photos you take. So get cracking!

  • What are things you wish someone had told you when you started out as a photographer and a filmmaker?

I wish there were less people telling you how magical and glamorous it is and more people telling you the years it will take to develop your craft. Yes, I wish someone had pointed out the not so attractive gruelling hours of work involved in creating impactful moving images and still images. No more instant success 10 Minute Film Schools on Youtube. Those film schools only work if you have already shot dozens of short films and want to learn a little extra. My first few films were terrible. I had friends who started making films at the same time as me and their work was similarly so unrewarding that they soon gave up. What they needed was a hard-nosed mentor to warn them they had little chance of becoming the next Tarantino in six months so had better get a good day job to pay the bills while they chased their ambition. But this warts and all creative journey with all its stumbles feeds the soul in a positive way and will prove invaluable to those seeking a life well lived.

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