Gulu Real Art Studio, Passport

Émilie Régnier, Martina Bacigalupo

The process of having one’s identity photograph taken is usually considered a mundane yet necessary chore toward obtaining a passport, driver’s licence, or other photo documentation. It may represent the most creatively void of all forms of photography, each image requiring a close-up view of an expressionless face. But for Martina Bacigalupo and Émilie Régnier, the ID photo provides a rich source of inspiration. In their two distinct yet conceptually connected series of works, they present photographic portraits that reference the techniques and format of standardized images in order to question the ways in which identity is framed and communicated. Both focus on depicting African citizens, especially those from communities living through times of conflict, upheaval, and transition, to reveal their resilience and endurance.

Martina Bacigalupo’s portraits of faceless individuals are taken from the “leftovers” of ID images she discovered at a photography studio in Gulu, northern Uganda. The Burundi-based artist was searching for a way to document this community, which has suffered through violent conflict over several decades, and these studio images offered a direct, unfiltered perspective. The faces were cut out, according to the studio’s method of making standardized ID photos, but Bacigalupo realized that their remains represented a cross-section of Gulu’s society. She sifted through hundreds of “leftovers” to compile Gulu Real Art Studio, focusing on images where distinct markers of self-definition come through in the subjects’ poses and clothing, collectively illustrating the compelling story of this community. Many Gulu citizens have to travel long distances to come to the studio, their identity photographs marking important events, such as beginning a new job or applying for a loan.

While travelling in Africa, Émilie Régnier had to extend her visa, and took notice of the Polaroid mini-portrait camera used by the photographer, which makes a grid of four images at one time. She subsequently purchased one of her own at a local market, inspired by the idea of repurposing this camera, whose small-scale format offered an opportunity for a more intimate form of documentation. The Montreal-born artist began photographing people she met on the streets of Mali, and then extended the project to Senegal, Guinee Conakry, and Ivory Coast, where she is currently based. Working against the stark, standardized format of ID shots, Régnier photographs her subjects as she encounters them, creating images that are full of atmosphere and focused on capturing the uniqueness of each individual. Through Passport, Régnier considers the collective identity of West Africa, articulating the unrealistic desire for a cohesive community that is independent from the borders imposed by former colonial power. While she acknowledges the reality of these regions as ones often crippled by conflict, Régnier moves away from preconceived stereotypes to depict communities that are rich in diversity and contrast.

After passing through various security checkpoints at Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 1, travellers will encounter Bacigalupo’s and Régnier’s large-scale photographs along two banks of moving sidewalks. In this site of constant travel and transition, these images offer a moment of contemplation about the complexities of global migration. The ID photo is a ubiquitous yet essential document for negotiating these passageways, allowing people movement across borders. But it represents a freedom that is not attainable for all. Bacigalupo and Régnier also question what the ID photo actually conveys about identity, allowing viewers to consider the complex life that exists outside of each cropped, standardized image.

Presented in partnership with Toronto Pearson International Airport

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein and Sabrina Maltese