Born in Montreal, Canada, Emilie Regnier was raised in Africa, mainly Gabon, and recently relocated from Ivory Coast to Paris, France. Regnier uses portraits taken during her travels throughout Africa and elsewhere to document each subject in their intimate details, eschewing common stereotypes and showing African identity in all its diversity. As a freelance photographer, Regnier has worked around West and South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. Her work has been featured in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, Courrier International, Le Monde Magazine, Libération, Der Spiegel, Le Journal du Dimanche, Journal La Croix, Elle Belgique, Elle France, Jeune Afrique, l’Actualité, and Chatelaine, among others.
Photographer Emilie Regnier spent most of her childhood in West and Central Africa, and situates her photo series Hair in her then home of Ivory Coast. The project was inspired by hair salons in Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan, each of which has a homemade book featuring images of local women’s hairstyles. Many of these women wear bleach blonde or red wigs, and their images are taken on the street informally. Regnier observed that the hairstyle books were consistently slapdash—with images spliced two-to-a-page and scotch-taped together, a style she sought to replicate. Befriending a local hair photographer who taught her his techniques, Regnier set out through Abidjan herself to photograph and learn about these women and what hair meant to them.
Her resulting Hair series digs at this sociological question behind identity and hair in African women, and emerges with an ode to Beyonce and Rihanna. However, these women, in searching to embody American pop stars, forge their own inherently personal interpretation. It’s this diversity, this power, that defines Regnier’s work. A defiant portfolio of Abidjan’s women, Hair elucidates cultural beauty standards versus chosen identity, as filtered from Africa through North America and back.
Where are you from?
I was born in Canada to a Haitian father and Canadian mother. I spent most of my childhood in Central Africa.
When did you start making art?
It was never my intention to make art. It somehow began when I was in Mali and purchased a Polaroid camera. I was there to cover the French intervention in northern Mali—it had been under jihadist occupation for almost a year when the French government decided to send in the army to help the Malian forces recover the territory. After an assignment in Gao, Mali, I realized that I was not built for war. When I got back to Bamako [the capital], I sought to photograph beauty to make up for the horrible things I saw.
Who influenced you growing up and who influences you today?
As a photo student, I was influenced by Diane Arbus, who remains to me one of the greatest photographers of all time. Now I am also influenced by African photographers such as Seydou Keita, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Samuel Fosso and Malick Sidibe. On a more contemporary level, I really love the work of Namsa Leuba and Johanna Chomali.
How would you describe your style?
I love portraiture and am very inspired by old ways of photography. Each African country has its own relationship to traditional photography, and I try to mix this with a more contemporary way to take photos.
“Each African country has its own
relationship to traditional photography,
and I try to mix this with a
more contemporary way to take photos.”
— Emilie Regnier
How and when did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
Growing up, I always had a camera. When I was eight or so, my grandfather bought me a Polaroid. When I was 16, I worked for a week and managed to buy my first semi-professional camera. It became clear to me that I wanted to become a photographer when I was 15, but it took me few more years to make that decision.
What’s your story of getting started as an artist?
Like I said, I never really considered being an artist. I just managed to do things that are considered art.
How does it feel to have accomplished this body of work? What was the process like?
It feels like it’s not enough. I am always thinking of what’s next. I want my work to show a better side of society and help people relate to those from whom they feel alienated. I think we are much more similar as individual human beings than we think we are. My current and upcoming projects are about how much I can help us feel related to each other.
“I think we are much more similar
as individual human beings
than we think we are. My projects are
about how much I can help us
feel related to each other.”
— Emilie Regnier
What’s your favorite book, film and music right now?
I think my favorite book of all time is the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. My favorite movie is The Godfather. My favorite musicians are Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Leonard Cohen and Nirvana, to name a few.
What’s next for you?
To give birth to a leopard.