In Conversation with Angela Fama

Angela Fama, over the past two years, has seen deeper into the souls of more people than most of us will in our entire lives.

These explorations into the human mind and soul began with Mirrorface, a project for which Fama invited her peers to her studio and took their photos while asking them about their inner egos with a mirror tucked underneath her camera. What's the face you give yourself in that last glance in the mirror?

After that came Profileface at VIVO Art Space, which was an interactive evening with Fama's peers and their communities; and How Are You, a day long project on Main Street's Car Free Day in which Fama delved deeper into the faces we put on everyday. How are you? No, but really?

Over her later photographic projects, with an intense and intimate process, Fama has wedged herself into some of the most uncomfortable and some of the most brilliant places in the human psyche–and it's only now, several months out of What is Love that Fama is again beginning to resurface.

To speak with Angela is to begin to recognize what a person looks like when they work with the world and with their passions rather than against them, or in parallel to them–you get the sense that every day, Fama is precisely where the cosmos wanted her to be. After only a few minutes, it's easy to understand why hundreds of people have been honest with Fama while sitting alone in a strange trailer that's been outfitted as a traveling studio.

With the insight earned from How Are You, Mirrorface, and Profileface, and now, What is Love, Fama is preparing for her April 7th opening of What is Love at Burrard Arts Foundation in collaboration with Capture Photography Festival.

SAD Mag: Where did What is Love come from?

Angela Fama: I’ve done a few projects in what I suppose would be called comparative portraiture. It’s funny to see what themes I’ve chosen. When it started, I had just come out of a really crazy car accident and I was basically questioning the career I’d chosen. I’m an artist, but I was a commercial photographer, so I was trying to figure out how I could use the skills I’ve gained but also mesh my art world and whatever is going on in my mind.

For Mirrorface I asked people, show me the ego you think you need to be, and I featured my intimate peers–my friends, my neighbours, people in my community. Then the next project I worked on was called Profileface, which involved my immediate community and their community. That was concerning the profile that you present to the world. Not the private stuff you keep to yourself, but your “profile” in the digital sense.

The first group was such a new thing that I had to make sure they felt safe and comfortable. For How Are You, it was on Main Street’s Car Free Day. I got a little trailer, and I parked it in front of The Acorn. So that involved my peers, their peers, and the community around us. I was asking them while their eyes were closed to think past their immediate response and tell me how they were doing. In reality, though, not the standard “I’m good.” Past that.

That kind of spun out from there. I keep thinking that each project will be my last, but then the next one is even bigger, and my questions keep getting bigger, too. Even the amount of energy the projects have demanded from me has grown and grown and grown. It was intense. It wound up being way bigger, like a snowball that grew and grew and took me down with it.

I’m still in the process of it of coming back. It’s shocking. But as Mirrorface and Profileface progressed, the next project sort of came from them.

I did the trailer project, and then I decided I wanted to get the fuck out of dodge. I wanted to get out of Vancouver. Initially, I just wanted to pack up and live in a motor home, because I’d always wanted to. It wound up kind of correlating with another project that I won’t be releasing for a few years that involves feeling at home on the road, finding stability and comfort in yourself while your surroundings continue to change and shift.

However, I knew I would get bored if I was just driving around all the time. Then I realized, I’m gonna do a project where I ask people a question that involves communities interacting and building with communities! How does the individual interact with the community? And how do communities interact with communities?

Then, looking inside myself, the question was–past “how are you”–what is this base emotion that we build around? What is this core that I keep finding in my own personal relationships? I had plenty of my own questions about that.

SM: Did you–I hesitate to use the word answers–but did you find an answer to these questions? Have you become better acquainted with the forms of these emotions, in the Platonic sense?

AFYes. Yes. And shockingly, in very different manners. The first few projects took just about the same amount of energy from me. Mirrorface was very internal, and ego based–so it was easier to go, this is what I am! With How Are You, I felt like the deeper I was getting the more challenging it was getting. After I did that one day at Car Free Day, I was kinda messed up for the following week. It took all of my skills. I’d been a server for a long time, I’d been a photographer for a long time, I’m really interested in people, and now I’m going into counselling. My skills are well integrated. But it still messed me up.

It took all of my skills in one space. And then, it got really exciting. I was tapping into all of my resources, and what I can give to people. But it took a lot out of me. Those first big questions surprised me. I kept expecting people to tap past their base response and give me a lot of variations–but instead I found a really beautiful parallel. Everyone was kind of tapped into the same thing. There was a really beautiful sharing there. It was like, okay, that’s the answer. I get it.

So then, with What is Love, I expected them to show me something different. I really did. But that's not what I got. However, I learned a lot of really beautiful sentiments that made me feel far less alone. It made me feel very connected.

When I set out, I thought I had it figured out. It was always like, okay, I’ve thought about this, and I’m strong enough to share–what does everyone else think? With this one, I thought it was four things: trust, respect, sharing, and a natural physical love–like a body chemistry. And that goes to all things.

The dictionary defines love as a feeling of strong and constant affection. So lame.

So when I started this, and I got into it, I was under water for a bit. I was drowning. It was incredibly overwhelming. It was like I got stuck, I got totally caught off guard. I was expecting everyone to be touching on the same thing. But while everyone would be answering around the same four pots, every single one was so different.

I’m quoting my younger brother here–I’m still learning. I’m learning what love is. Through this, I found that was the most I could learn about life. It’s always changing.

Whenever someone suggests that I decide on an answer–I say, no, because this is the way it needs to be. In this day, in this hour, what does love mean to you?

It shifts. A lot of people have finished our sessions, and then gotten in touch and said, “it’s changed! I need to answer again!” It changes as people continue to think about it, potentially a little more deeply than they were before.


SM: Those people are going to see your name come up and be reminded, and they’re going to check in with themselves and ask, how do I feel about this now?

AF: If that’s what happens, like–I’ve got chills in my feet. I love that.

SM: I think probably the second you find an answer to those questions and you stop looking, you stop growing. The answers to those questions are always changing, because we’re always changing. In posing those questions to people, I feel like you’re saying, this might be a little weird to think about at first, but it’s going to benefit you to understand what this means to you.

AF: Exactly. I listen back to the audio recordings of each session, and I get all excited, because I can hear people reflecting and trying to sink deeper into what they actually think and feel about love. The project changed as I went on, too–at first, it was like, what do you love? But then I realized, it’s more about what is love? You love your family, but what does that mean?

A lot of people, across North America, would stop and say, “I’ve never thought about that. That’s a great question.” I’d hear that and think, my job is done here! I don’t care where this goes–that’s the root of the project.

SM: You came away with a tangible work that can be exhibited, but the real impact of the project was in each of those people–

AF: Exactly. I’ve touched all of those lives now, and they will take that with them forever now. Even if they spend one more minute thinking about that experience in their entire lives, that is worth so much more to me than something hanging on someone’s wall in the living room.

They’re taking it with them.

Images from Fama's How Are You (2013). This interview has been edited and condensed.