Pink blooms, fluorescent lights blinking in the night, skin vibrating with long exposures and the dust of an analog camera. These beautiful filters and photographs come from the fingers of Noor Datis. With work that has been published in the likes of Marie Claire, UK's Skin Deep, and the US's Fault Magazine, as well as multiple gallery exhibitions in France, Greece and Germany, Noor is devoted to capturing stylistic moments with people and talks more about the process in this interview.
Tell us about your artistic background. How did you get into photography, and why was it the medium that most resonated with you?
Photography wasn’t the medium that initially resonated with me.
Actually, I was persuaded that I would become a sound engineer ever since I was like 14 years old. So, I went to Uni in London and studied Audio Electronics. When I was there, I had that optional course to choose, so I though: why not take photography? And that was pretty much how I learned the basics of film processing, basic lightning techniques, equipment, etc.
At that time I was going out a lot, and I had that small analog camera that I was supposed to use for schoolwork, so I started taking that with me all the time, and started photographing things and people that were around me. I remember going back to the south of France for holidays, and showing my pictures to a friend of mine, and her asking me if I could consider taking photography seriously. I was like, that’s not a job. I never thought of it as a pursuable and reasonable career choice, like most people, I guess. I don’t come from a family of artists, so I was brought up being taught that it’s nearly impossible to make a living out of anything artistic really.
After Uni I moved to Paris and met some graffiti writers. They introduced me to the city, made me grow a deep love for it. So the first like 5 years of me taking photos was centered on that community. It was the first kind of photo documentary I was creating, without even being aware of it. Theses photos, they weren’t my best work but, they made sense in terms of how it echoed my early desire to work on subcultures. To talk about people who take part in stuff the majority doesn’t necessarily take part in.
Then, photography just grew on me. I really started to love the interaction I had with people when I was taking photos. So I just kept going.
Can you talk about how your style has evolved over the years? Who are the artists, photographers, or filmmakers that inspire you?
I went from a very docu-realism, very pared down and almost journalistic photo style to something a bit more conceptual. I’m currently interested in a less and less realistic approach to my photographs. I try to make them more like paintings. I want to be right in the middle between figurative and abstract, if that makes sense.
As for what inspires me, well, I guess surprisingly Photography and Film aren’t what I mostly get my inspiration from. I’m far more intellectually stimulated by books. Sorry if that sounds a bit old ahah. Reading is a thousand times stronger for me in terms of how it helps me create mental images. I’m the most inspired after reading a book. To be honest, it’s so weird to me that you would want to create an image after looking at another image?…As someone who actually produces them, I’m not really interested in other’s photographers' work. I feel like, at best, only good copies can come out of that process. I know I personally prefer to create my own world.
So yeah, there’s this Algerian writer called Yasmina Khadra. His words are truly photographic and always inspire so much. I also love anticipation in Literature: my favorites are Robert Silverberg (The World Inside) and Aldous Huxley (A Brave New World). I’m really into anthropological studies like the ones Margaret Mead did or sociological books too, like the ones of François Bégaudeau or Michel Onfray. And finally, because I could go on forever, there’s this one book that really fucked my brain up when I was a teenager, and that’s The City of God By Paulo Lins. It's incredibly graphic writing, one of the best books ever in my opinion.
I’m also very fond of architecture. I could look at pictures of houses designed by this or that architect for hours. I find it so interesting and relaxing to look at. Maybe it’s because I never really had a fixed home, growing up, I don’t know.
How do you feel the tattoo community and arts communities intersect? What do you think is it about the body covered in tattoos that makes for such powerful portraiture?
I’ve worked for tattoo magazines and shared a house with a tattoo artist for a little while, so, I can say that it’s a community I’ve experienced from the inside.
What I can say is, because it is, in fact, a community, there can be at times, some narrow mindedness. Sometimes, the tattoo world is looking at its own self, from the inside. Outside perspectives can be denied, laughed at or pushed away. Not every tattooist is interested in arts outside of their field, sometimes there is just no intersection with other creative communities at all. On the other hand, some tattooist are multi disciplinary artists, and tattooing is just another medium they use to express themselves, therefore, they are more inclined to work/collaborate/exchange etc with other creatives outside of the tattoo industry. Which I think is always a good thing.
As for the visual appeal of a tattooed body, I don’t necessarily think that a covered body makes a great photo. I mean, it will definitely draw attention to your image, but, if you don’t bring anything else to it, in terms of creativity and interpretation , it will just be another catalogue image of a person with tattoos.
That’s also very important to me: I don’t photograph tattoos, I photograph people.
Can you tell us about how your relationships with your subjects evolves over time? Like, for example, your work with Apro Lee?
It evolves like a normal friendship/relationship would, I guess. The more I know the person, the further we can experiment and the more personal the work gets. With Apro, it’s magical in a way that I’ve been lucky enough to photograph him on three different continents, in 4 different countries, including his hometown of Seoul too. This experience allowed us to bond over a creative friendship that crosses over any description really.
I’m a very private person and people who interest me are either very over the top or very private too. In both cases, photography is the best way for me to get to know them without having to go through all the language bullshit and the usual front we all put up when we communicate with each other.
From a strictly graphic point of view, with people like Apro, who get tattooed frequently, it’s also great to see the evolution of their appearance over time.
Finally, the great thing about photographing someone over a long period of time is the trust it brings. The more relaxed and natural, the best the pictures. Sessions are shorter but more efficient. Trust is what allows the connection between the subject and myself too; and you truly get more of that with time.
How do you create works with such intimacy? How do you work with your subjects in a way that elicits meaningful photographs?
I just pay attention really. Some things you just can’t force. So, I just look at people. With kindness. I talk to them.
I try to go as far as possible in terms of pushing their own introspection. A portrait is good if you manage to feel something coming from the subject. It’s like someone singing a song. If they don’t feel anything...well, nothing happens really.
Honestly, the worst that can happen during a shoot is the person going blank. If they are not present, the photos suck. So, I just make sure they stay focused, and the rest flows naturally.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I always loved loved loved Anthony Bourdain. I loved his general outlook on life, I loved the story telling... He just seemed like such a genuine person. I had hopes that one day I could make a documentary and that he would narrate it... but, yeah. In the next life I guess.
Any upcoming projects, gallery shows, collabs, or travel plans you’d like to share?