Clarisse d'Arcimoles (8)
Naddy Photomaton (grand-mother) 1929 – 2009
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

Text and photographs by Clarisse d’Arcimoles.


Un-possible retour is a project in which I am reconstructing and re-photographing selected family photographs in the attempt to reconnect with the past. Drawing from a collection of family snapshots, I focus the attention sharply on the concept of aging while ensuring a consistency of location and use time as a collaborative partner, accepting its discrepancies and playing with the results.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (7)
Contact sheet (mother)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

I re-examined the familiar scenes and landscapes that I have grown accustomed to seeing, and which have now become part of my past. Looking at these childhood images again, I felt as if I were seeing them for the first time. The fresh look I had on them made me uncover clues and notice details I had never paid attention to. I was interested to see not only what was photographed, but also why it had been photographed, and what had on the other hand not been photographed. I started building up my own renewed, adult vision of my childhood images. As new pieces of information emerged from the frozen past, my own mental image of them came into view, and I decided to materialize it by reconstructing the past into the present. Since then, I have been photographing exclusively my family, that is, a small ensemble consisting exclusively of my parents, brother and sisters, and of course my grandmother.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (6)
Camille (sister)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

Family pictures are supposed to tell you a story about a happy, unanimous moment. They can be a way of reflecting one’s past and identity, but the pictures conceal just as much as they reveal. On the old snapshots we might not be more than five years old, and our spontaneity and naivety are striking, while on the day of the re-shoot we play artificial roles, posing as the candid children we have grown out of, for the sake of the image. I grew up partly in French Guyana so in the photos I was re-staging, the location sometimes had changed or become inaccessible and the objects and surroundings could not always be found or re-made. The moment when the original picture was taken happened naturally in a snap, with minimal control and no planning at all, while its re-creation can take several weeks of planning and several hours of shooting. But while the people had grown up, aged and changed, ageing is an ever-changing process by way of which familiarity and permanence may also be found.

The facial expressions I asked my family members to reproduce in order to evoke the child they once were, often proved to be their own and not just those of a child: this role play made them rediscover their self.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (5)
Carnaval (brother)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

Every single detail is important and takes time to be checked carefully when comparing the two photos; the gap between young and old is not to be visible.

However, while un-possible return is a way back to childhood, by adopting the same position and facial expression, we unavoidably fail. We have to fail; there is no return in time.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (4)
Legos (Self-portrait)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

This unfeasible return does not reproduce the past as such, but introduces a necessary dialogue between before, now and after, a confrontational dialogue that unveils the core of the pictured event, while ridiculing the unimportant, unnatural elements of that event. I re-shot an old fashioned photo of my mother as a child, taken in a professional studio, as it was the fashion to construct an artificially perfect memory of the beloved first child. By recreating this awkward situation, by obliging my mother to wear that theatrical precious smock dress again, by having her go to the hairdresser as her parents probably did back then, I re-contextualised all the ridiculousness of the old cliché. As my obsessive reconstruction went on, it became clear that the only real thing left was my mother’s sincere reaction to such a situation.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (3)
In the bath (Mother and sister)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

In my parodic restaging of the near sacred family archives, the simple truth of the persons stays, while all the staged elements of the original cliché, which we thought were the truth themselves, find themselves disintegrated by comic effect. This confrontation of the glorified past with the sharp realism of present time uses ridicule to somehow clean up our memories from all their fakery.

I understood I would have to be extremely organised, as each photo restaging would take weeks of preparation. I grouped the photographs I wanted to re-shoot according to location. I had to plan my schedule around the availability of my protagonists, to book flights and train tickets between London, Paris and south of France, to make costumes and props; and most of all, always make sure that nothing would be missing on the day of the shooting. It was a crazy time. To achieve the photographs I had chosen, and especially the ones that pictured me as a child, I had to innovate with the relation between model and photographer. Indeed, I became the model and my inexperienced family members had to become photographers, under my instructions. Not only was I in a slightly uncomfortable position trying to reconstruct my identity as a child (both physically and emotionally) but I also had to teach my family how to use digital and manual cameras, trigger and flash kits!

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (2)
Petit roi (Brother)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles

Most of the photos I restage were taken in the 90s; my brother, sisters, and I were the last generation photographed with film cameras and to have family albums. Now everyone uses digital, and we don’t really print photos anymore. My project will probably have a different meaning and impact in a few years time because of this. Technology also has changed so much that I often had to retouch colors or image qualities on Photoshop. My choice of lenses, format of cameras and films were dependent on the original image.

Un-possible retour is a way back to childhood, even if it is just for a short instant. Having the ‘very’ picture of being back in the past makes one feel so good! We were all children once, and that is something that always current within us.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles (1)
Religieuse (Self-portrait)
© Clarisse d'Arcimoles