Ever wondered what it’s like to spend a few hours backstage with some of today’s biggest names in Hip Hop?
Just ask Elisabeth Ouni who, back in 2009 decided to take a simple Polaroid picture of Pharrell Williams, and has now shot some of the biggest names in the industry for her blog A Polaroid Story. Here she shares her tips to get backstage, the time Wiz Khalifa turned her portrait session into a Polaroid-weed party and how to dare to fail by staying away from people holding you back from what you want in life.
I have read that you left home when you were 15, why did you leave so young? How was it to be independent at that age and do you think it forged your character ?
I won’t elaborate on the why. I left home because I had no choice and, probably, it was my destiny. When I left home at that age I didn’t really grasp the seriousness of the situation. When you are 15 you think you can jump from a cliff and survive without a scratch. I learned very fast that leaving home would have enormous consequences on the rest of my life. Both good and bad. I was judged instantly as a social case at school, I would be destined to the gutter, nothing would come of me but disaster. I was so disgusted by people reaction, at some point, I lost all my girlfriends because they couldn’t hang with me anymore. I started working in a bar and quickly found peace being in and seeing real life in front of me. Realizing that anything was still possible. I developed a fighter mentality because I was forced to look at life from a very real perspective and I had to take control of it. But to be honest I was pissed off by the easy judgment of some people and wanted to prove everybody and their mommas wrong. So it definitely molded my character in the best possible way.
What is your main money-making gig these days ?
I have my own (small) company, working as an independent/consultant specialized in Digital Media (PR orientated). Mostly for fashion, music and lifestyle clients. My specialty is creating content, spreading it or pushing it. Depending on what clients want or need.
How did you come up with the idea of A Polaroid Story ? How and when did it all started ?
I used to live above a thrift store. I found some Polaroid cameras for a couple of euros, brought them home and started experimenting with it. That was right before Polaroid the company decided they would abort their own product. I started to stock up film, played with portraits of friends and photographed a kite series in my hometown Ostend. One fine day I wondered how cool it would be to have a Polaroid from Pharrell Williams. People told me it would be impossible, which triggered me to try it out. One day I had an opportunity at a festival and after a long battle I ended up with my Polaroid. It was the beginning of the APS.
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How the hell do you get to go through security and backstage ? What are your tips and tricks for fellow groupies?
In the very beginning security and backstage policies were the challenge. The minute I started to grow I had to deal with labels, managers, promoters, venues, and so on. With every new story, I explain them with technical detail how everything would work. So if you really want to know, you just have to read each story. The ‘groupie angle’ felt played out really quickly to me because if you go in with that energy you channel the wrong intentions, at least for me, because in the end I just wanted a simple Polaroid and nothing more. I’m sure the groupie angle is part of the artist life, but along the way I learned and experienced that some artists and their crew are straight out bored on tour sometimes and just want to hang with fun, nice and interesting people. So not every girl hanging backstage is necessarily a brainless groupie. But if you really want to play that groupie game then I guess standing strategically front-row might be a good place to start.
Why rappers ?
I think the question should be ‘why hip hop’ ? Music has been my source for motivation and solace in my life. Hip Hop in it’s core can be very uplifting lyrically. The bling association many have is, I think, related more to the ‘From rags to riches’ journey. It’s about trying to make something for yourself. I basically started portraying all the genres that merge with hip hop, like soul, r&b, gangsta rap, funk and jazz. Belgium is more a rock and electronic music orientated country and Hip Hop is not embedded in the culture like in the US. So me portraying only artists from that genre stood out I guess.
Why use Polaroid vs a mobile phone and apps like Instagram ?
Instagram wasn’t out when I started. There was Myspace and Facebook. The social/mobile revolution was at its baby steps. I just loved the instant aspect. You can’t force the outcome. Also the outcome fickle based on the environment, light and temperature. The fact that it turned into a rare object, something you could hold is what interested me the most. In this digital era, we don’t print out pictures like our parents did. So holding a picture that displays a certain moment you had with an artist you normally would have never met, made everything more magical.
Your tagline is “No Balls, No Glory”, how does one grow balls like yours ?
It’s a bit ironic that I used it as my tagline, because in all honesty I’m such a puss. I tend to speak out my fears and goals so it forces me to overcome or reach them. But, in the beginning years of APS, where I had nothing to show for and had to get in from scratch, the only thing that proved results was having that ‘balls’ mentality. Over the years I dropped the ‘no balls’ part, APS evolved into something more than just a ‘balls mentality’.
You certainly don’t take NO as an answer. What’s your secret? Are you immune to rejection?
I take no when it comes from the artist or management. It stops there and then. I’m not a paparazzi and I respect artists and their freedom of not having their Polaroid taken when they don’t feel like it. Jay-Z said no. But I certainly don’t believe in the ‘No you can’t do it, it’s impossible” or when somebody says “I’m sorry, we can’t help you.”. But sometimes you also have to respect the outcome because the NO that you accepted gracefully can turn into a YES when you don’t expect it anymore. It’s more about trying, daring to fail and saying NO to naysayers and people who hold you back from what you want in life.
Can you tell us one or two of the most memorable moments you had with an artist ?
One memorable moment is going to L’Archiduc (famous jazz bar) in Brussels with Mark Ronson and his backing vocalist and having a classic jazzy night out. Or eating fries with Gil Scott Heron who was starving and looking for something to eat in the area around his hotel. Or that time with Wiz Khalifa that turned into a Polaroid-Weed party. But the most memorable was the time I spend with T.I and his wife in his hotel room in Brussels. He’s quite a personality.
Is there any artist that surprised you when you met him/her in person ? Why ?
I was blown away by T.I and his energy. I became an even bigger fan after I met him. Kendrick Lamar energy is very calming. I also had a very different idea about Ferge for some weird reason and he turned out to be a very interesting person.
Who would you like to shoot next ?
Prince, Drake, Kanye West, Dr Dre, Eminem, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Lil Kim, Mary J Blige, Faith Evans, Foxy Brown, Mariah Carey. I want to portray more of those classic women in music. They don’t travel that much or are too big for this world, so it’s harder for me to get close to them. I would love to do an entire story with Erykah Badu again too. Also people like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Melly Mel. I could fill my days with traveling and looking for artists for APS.
Now that you will be touring with your exhibition and becoming better known do you think it will take a little of the fun and excitement of the beginnings ?
Absolutely not. What did change is my perception. I learned to ‘fan out’. I’m still not a pro in mastering it, and sometimes it’s just also super awesome to feel like a true fan. But in terms of work it conflicts with what you want to portray. Having an artist opening up, inviting me to portray or even document something on video is never not fun or exciting. My last story on Pharrell Williams also shows to my readers that doors are not necessarily wide open for me just because I was so lucky to portray some of the biggest in the game. Doing APS resulted many times in a very humbling experience. Every story and its execution will remain an exciting challenge. I’ve learned with APS to not take moments and encounters for granted, because that is when the fun stops.
What are the future plans of APS ?
My goal for APS in 2015 is having my expo tour up and running. It’s very challenging because my first expo was entirely funded by myself, which almost ruined me. I have to find the right partners to support me in that. I’m hoping/dreaming for 3 expos in Europe (Berlin, London and Paris). I want to better my videos during 2015. Telling genuine, no gimmick video stories is very challenging because it involves a lot of trust. If I can reach that in 2015, even hitting two cities, that would be already amazing. Meanwhile, I’ll just be telling new stories, one by one.
Who is the woman that you find the most inspiring ?
Every woman who sets goals for herself; doesn’t give up and tries to be independent, takes her responsibilities and accepts the challenges in their life, whatever they may be.
Can you tell us 5 Fun Facts About you?
Not sure if they are fun but here we go.
- I have huge hands and feet.
- My sign is leo.
- I love to act.
- I lick off my chips one by one before i bite in them (gross).
- I love dark rum.
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If you could have dinner with three people (still alive or not/ real or imaginary character) who would it be and what would you talk about ?
Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & Beyonce. I Imagine us spending time in the kitchen, cooking meals and talking how music evolved over time since they each stand for a musical period that will never come back. And then there would be like a crate digging session where everyone would shows hidden tracks that haven’t been released and discusses them. Then of course we would have a Polaroid Mojito party. Seriously, how cool would that be.
See all portraits and read all the stories on A Polaroid Story