Oumayma Ben Tanfous
I don’t really have muses in life — I’m fascinated by people
Oumayma B. Tanfous - a Tunisian-Canadian photographer who currently creates in Montreal and NY. Oumayma believes that the model in the shoot cannot be fake. The idea is to capture the moment that comes as close as possible in resemblance to the individuality of the person. What the viewer gets is a feeling of in-between fashion, documentary - the memories caught in a frame. There is a feeling of nostalgia, a contemplation about the present or the past.
In this conversation, we discuss the Project Akrav Kids and a photo session with the new muse Cheb Yassine. Special, honest, captivating. Photography is about people, and people are the element that makes art special. Oumayma worked for brands like Lancôme, Aldo, Next, Maison Birks, SSENSE, Frank & Oak.
Hi Oumayma, what was your first thought this morning?
To wake up ahah… I’m having a bit hard time waking up with the seasonal change at the moment.
Why did you choose photography? Tell your story, please.
I used to go to photography exhibitions by myself as a teenager, and it was the first time (except for movies) that I was feeling all sorts of different emotions.
I also started seeing photography as a way of meeting new people.
I used to be a shy and introverted kid ( I still am in a way), so photography gave me that opportunity to get out of my shell. I started shooting strangers when I was 15 y/o, finding random models on Myspace, it was fun!
You were born and lived for several years in Tunisia. What is the most captivating memory of the scenery, language or people?
I lived in Tunisia until I was 10 years old, I remember everything but with a very naive eye which makes me beautify every story and every detail of my childhood. It’s interesting how the memory works, the smell and the taste of something is so strong, it’s unforgettable. I miss my grandparents mostly, the amazing food my grandma used to make and the incredible stories my grandfather used to tell us. I sometimes buy random products that smell like jasmine just to remember a little bit of the jasmine flowers you find walking down the streets in Tunis.
Instant photography, that happens on the spot, when no set is structured, what is important to make a good shot and catch the mood of the moment?
The connection with the model and the light are the two key things for me.
Being a female photographer among the majority of guys representing this profession, what is the main difference in managing the set?
I’m rarely on set with male photographers, so I don't know if there’s a specific difference. It’s still very subjective and personal to every one of how you manage the set, I don’t think it’s related to gender.
What is the movie that you will never be fed with and that you can watch again even if it is your 5th time?
Many movies that were directed or written by Christophe Honoré. 'La Belle Personne' is one of my favourites.
How do you think your personality shows in your works? Is there a certain mood that communicates from your personal understanding of the world to the photographs you create?
I’m very honest, which sometimes gets me in tricky situations but also very gentle. My color palette and my light are really soft, and my portraits are all about the model. I always try to make them look how they really are or how I perceive them, I don’t like when it feels fake.
What is the lesson you learned from traveling the world and working in different environments?
What I love about travelling is the people you meet, the type of person that you would never talk to in your day to day life. Travelling for work taught me to be more organized. I still need to learn to control my anxiety when I’m travelling for shoots, it’s a work in progress...
What do you hate the most?
Ignorance is something that makes me angry. I shouldn’t, but it’s hard to not feel frustrated when you read the news. People should read more and travel to places they’re afraid to go, meet new people, get out of their comfort zone. They’ll understand what and why things are happening around them…
What is your favorite breakfast?
I’m Tunisian, so eggs, tuna, and harissa are always a win-win.
Tell about this project AKRAV KIDS and your moving idea behind shooting the artists. (Akrav is a Hebrew word for a scorpion).
I’m really interested in small communities and fascinated by teens, so this was the perfect project for me. I found out about Akrav Agency on Instagram, and I didn’t think twice before reaching out to them. We shot at the beach which was inspired by Rineke Dijkstra 'Beach Portraits' and at their HQ which is also where some of the Akrav members live. In the end, I’ve photographed and met over 20 kids, I wished I stayed longer in NYC because this series could have been extended for a longer period and these kids are really fun to shoot.
What is your favorite spot in Montreal to relax and process the day?
"I like walking a lot, so I end up walking for hours by myself around the city, listening to music, and watching people passing by — I usually end up taking notes or taking pictures of random stuff, it’s always a good way to find inspiration. In the winter, when it’s calm and snowy I like to walk up to the Mont-Royal, it’s a mountain in the middle of the city".
You relate to Yassine, a model in a recent photo session, as your muse. Coming to work with unique people or fresh, strong new faces in the industry does it happen by chance or how do you meet the ‘muse’?
I used the term muse for Yassine because he inspired me that entire series. I met him through a friend, and we hung out 1 or 2 times before shooting together. I don’t really have muses in life, I’m fascinated by people. I usually meet these type of people through friends or at shows or just by infinitely scrolling through Instagram. Yassine is very fun to shoot and to talk to, he’s not the typical 20-something kind of a guy, I feel he’s from the 50’s and has been shipped to 2018.
Did you have a moment when you thought you would not make it in this profession? How did you manage to break through and move forward?
Ouf... This type of moment happened many times and to be honest I don’t think it will stop. It’s hard, but you have to tell yourself that if it’s the only thing you want to do, well there’s no choice then to continue to work harder. Photography is slowly teaching me to be more patient and to take one day at a time. It’s always good to stay creative, go to museums, visit a new place, meet new people, try something new, change is always good.