Strangely Familiar: Guia Besana's fictionalised women

Canon Ambassador Guia Besana discusses her latest series, Strangely Familiar – a project inspired by personal illness and the true story of a 19th century female freak show performer.
Framed through a crumbling doorway, a model in a bearded silicon mask holding a transparent yellow balloon looks forlornly downwards.

Canon Ambassador Guia Besana's latest series, Strangely Familiar, uses stylised fiction to examine very real discrimination against women who are judged to be different – both in centuries past and today. Photographed in October 2020, this image of a model in a bearded silicon mask was inspired by the heartbreaking true story of Julia Pastrana, a 19th century freak show performer. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.2 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

Having breakfast one morning with her daughter, Italian photographer Guia Besana took a sip from her mug. Hot coffee spilled down her. "There's something strange about you, mum, it's your mouth," her 10-year-old daughter said. Sure enough, when she checked in the bathroom mirror, one eye was gaping open, her mouth drooped down on the same side. Terrified she was having a stroke, Guia jumped in a cab to the hospital where the doctors explained she was suffering from Bell's palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles.

Over the next three months, while her condition was at its most acute, the world appeared to her in a new way. "I had to use a straw to eat and tape my eye closed in order to sleep," says Guia. "It was a nightmare." Suddenly she found herself conscious of other people's gaze – voyeuristic glances from strangers; concerned looks from her family. "I wasn't privileged anymore, and it made me realise what it means to be privileged," she remembers, two and a half years on, and almost completely recovered. "That change of perception interested me."

The Barcelona-based photographer began to research 19th century freak shows, coming across the figure of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born with a genetic condition that meant her face and body were covered in hair. Exploited and ridiculed, Julia appeared in a show, The Ugliest Woman in the World. Here, Guia discusses how her latest project, Strangely Familiar, is inspired both by Julia's story and her own experiences, and how it fits within a wider approach of using fiction to reflect on the realities of being a woman today.

A group of men and women in smart, 1950s-style clothing peers through a ruffled green curtain.

In this complementary image to the photograph at the top of the page, a group of smartly dressed men and women peer gleefully through a ruffled curtain at the out-of-sight bearded lady. "The goal of a photographer is to detach yourself, let other stories in and provoke something in other people, which is not always positive," says Guia. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/10 sec, f/4.5 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

Although staged, Strangely Familiar has two points of reference based in reality – your experience and Julia Pastrana's story. What made you want to weave them together?

"I can't compare my experience with her life, but it was the spark. I wanted to explore her isolation, her solitude and also her resilience. For me, that experience made me a better person. I remember sitting on a bus where everybody was looking at me. One woman in particular seemed disgusted. This inspired a picture in the series showing a group of people in the fog, which is about the randomness with which you're born into a situation. There is no justice. I wondered about the lives of these other people, of this woman. Freak shows existed to make people feel better by seeing that someone else's life was worse than theirs. That still exists today – in the way we judge each other on social media, and on that bus."

Do you think that this says something bigger about how women are treated visually?

"Yes. Women have this pressure to be perfect, aesthetically. But these are the different ideas that you can bring to the image. My work always starts from me, from a personal situation, and then I slowly universalise it. I don't have one audience or one meaning in mind – it's about creating discussions around the topic."

The images in the series are quite unsettling. Tell us about the emotions you wanted to stir, and how the silicon mask worn by the model contributes to this?

"It's that eeriness. You are disturbed when you see those pictures. But there's something real in there that I lived. I didn't have the budget to have someone made up professionally for every shoot, so I commissioned the mask from an Italian special effects studio. I asked them to keep something about Julia Pastrana in the hair, but to mix it with something more contemporary. From the first pictures, I felt there was something uncanny about it that I didn't like. But because of that, I wanted to go with it and see what happened. That's the uncanny that people felt when they saw me."

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Who's the model cast as Julia Pastrana?

"She's a Russian friend of mine who's posed for me before. I needed someone to be available as I was shooting this whenever I could fit it in between assignments as a portrait photographer. The other models are street cast. When you use a professional model, they only give you one thing and that's it. People who aren't models can give you much more. Or they give you something less and that's interesting in a different way. Photographically, you become more creative because there's an exchange, they are participating in your creative process."

Two enormous green leaves and a single leg in pink tights poke out through tears in a large white sheet.

A photograph from Guia's LEG IT! project, a series of self portraits illustrating the shared urge we all have to escape physical confinement, evident now more than ever thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. "Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you. I need to walk to think, evolve and create consistently. Lockdown froze my legs, making them numb," says Guia. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/8 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

A dark-haired young woman holding a small bouquet of flowers peers out from behind a thin pink curtain.

Guia started out in photojournalism but made the move from fact to fiction after the birth of her daughter in 2007, and the consequent internal conflict she found herself facing as a new parent with professional ambitions. This image – from Guia's series A Rummage of Flowers – was taken as part of an EOS R shoot for Canon. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

How do you develop ideas – and how does your choice of kit help you?

"Often it starts with the location. I see a place I like that matches up with an idea in my mind and I start working around it. These pictures aren't scenes taken directly from the life of Julia Pastrana; they explore the things that connected us. My process is about composing. It's about trying to find things in the real world – locations, costumes, people, props – that best express my thoughts. I shot these images on a Canon EOS R5 and a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens, using a tripod. The focus on the R5 is incredible, and the RAW files are huge, which is important for fine art photography, especially as I like to print my work large-scale when I exhibit it. I also find it to be such a customisable camera – you can set it to follow your way of thinking, which makes the process run smoothly. It's like a best friend to me!"

A pair of woman's legs in pink tights poke up from the undergrowth.

Another image from Guia's LEG IT! collection, which examines through self portraits the unseen effects of lockdown. Guia describes the photographs in the series as "metaphors of conflicting feelings and the need to recover from unnatural captivity". Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

You started out in photojournalism, often making work about women's experiences. Was there a moment when you became disillusioned with the genre and turned to fiction instead?

"Even when I was doing reportage, I would look at work by Gregory Crewdson and Stan Douglas. Those people have always represented the kind of photography that I liked. I would never change the position of objects, but I was looking for frames that could be read in different ways. When I became pregnant with my daughter, my priority was motherhood. I had this conflict where I wanted to be the 'good mother', but at the same time I wanted to be the photographer and I was ambitious. I decided that motherhood and conflict would be my next subject. I started to create scenes that described what I was feeling, what my friends were talking about. This was 2007 – talking about the baby blues was taboo then.

Katya Mukhina with her Canon EOS R at a frozen lake in Russia.

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"I showed the work to an Italian photo editor, who encouraged me to continue, and then I won the 2012 Amilcare Ponchielli GRIN award. That recognition showed me there was space for this kind of storytelling that came from reality but was fictionalised. I'd also started to feel that travelling around the world and telling stories of different cultures was problematic. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, big photographers would have the budget to spend months covering these stories, understanding them. Now, this is rarely possible. If you're travelling to different places, it's hard to truly understand the situation. By telling stories in this other way, I could be honest. I felt freer."

Is there something about 'fictional' photography that you feel makes it suited to capturing women's experiences in particular?

"No. There are photographers that are men who do this. It's more about a need to expel something. My focus on female experience is because I'm a woman. Then again, if I'd been a man, I wouldn't have gone through pregnancy so maybe I would have continued with my journey as a photojournalist. Is it because I'm a woman that I make this kind of work or because being a woman made me see things in a different way? This is up for discussion. If you ask me, 'Do you consider yourself a feminist?', of course I would say yes, but that wasn't the point when I started. The point was to explore the things I was feeling and express them."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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