We talk to Viviane Sassen about shooting Liya Kibede in Ethiopia for 3.1 Phillip Lim’s SS16 campaign

It isn’t often that an advertising campaign speaks to an authentic experience but that is exactly what Viviane Sassen has achieved for 3.1 Phillip Lim this season. The world-renowned fashion and art photographer accompanied Liya Kebede to her native Addis Ababa to shoot her with her family for SS16. Kebede is famed not only as a model and actor but also as a maternal health advocate and champion of ethical trade in Africa. As a long-time friend of Lim, she opened her home to allow he and Sassen to capture the warmth and spirit of Ethiopian hospitality.

This year Lim celebrates the 10th anniversary of his brand with a concept he calls Stop and Smell the Flowers. It’s his way of appreciating the moment and the simple things in life. He and Sassen express this through images that “romance reality” and shot his previous two campaigns in Morocco and Bhutan in a similarly raw, real way.

Having lived in rural Kenya as a child (where her father ran a polio clinic before the family moved back to the Netherlands), Sassen has been consistently drawn to shoot in Africa since her career began. Her playful use of bright light, dark shadows and graphic shapes create alluring dreamscapes, which crystallise in personal bodies of work shot on the continent such as Pikin Slee and Flamboya. This latest campaign is a rare glimpse at her work in Africa in the commercial realm. Here Sassen talks to Nataal about her time in Addis with Lim and Kebede.

What does ‘romancing reality’ mean to you?
It is really special when a client decides to take a risk and let creativity prevail over commerce. Phillip contacted me a few seasons ago, telling me he wanted a change. As he was especially drawn to my fine art work, I suggested we challenge the concept of a fashion campaign and produce it in a very different way. No big crew; no hair, make-up and styling teams, so we could be as flexible as possible. This way we could be inspired by what we encountered in each location and be able to create images on a very intuitive level.

How did the idea to shoot Liya Kebede with her family come about?
Since the theme of Phillip’s 10th year anniversary celebration was 'Stop and Smell the Flowers', I was thinking about the concept of going home, where you come from. I proposed the idea to Phillip and knew he and Liya are friends. I also knew she is a human rights activist and highly respected both within and outside of her country of origin – a true ambassador for Ethiopia. I like this concept of mixing romance and reality, both documenting and staging, as a lot of fashion photography doesn't connect with the reality of our global contemporary society. And most fashion campaigns are a bit too focused on the Western world. I've been thinking about photographing models in their home countries and family homes all over the world for a long time now, and hope to realise that project one day.

How was the trip?
Upon arrival in Addis Ababa we spent a few days roaming around town and then Liya joined us. We were received so well and had a lovely time with Liya’s brother and parents. One of the highlights was a visit to LemLem’s weaving workshop, the clothing brand that Liya set up. It’s a beautiful place where they produce the most amazing hand-woven cotton fabrics. My fondest memories of the trip are of sharing lovely traditional food together while chatting away.

What were your overall impressions of Addis Ababa?
There is a special kind of elegance and pride in the Ethiopian people and that reflects in the city. Addis is not as big and busy as, for instance, Nairobi. The landscape is beautiful, especially the very first morning light when the atmosphere is still hazy with small wood fires and the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans. Simply breath-taking.

"Coming to Africa always fills me with a feeling
of ambiguity; it is like coming home, so familiar
and yet so strange and magical; you always
expect the unexpected"

How has living and working in Africa shaped your artistry?
I'm an addict, that's all I can say. Coming to Africa always fills me with a feeling of ambiguity; it is like coming home, so familiar and yet so strange and magical; you always expect the unexpected. It is like another sun is shining there.

What new narratives do you hope your images paint of Africa?
Oh I don't know how to answer that... It is very complex. Africa is so huge and versatile. I always try to stay away from the political, or the obvious stereotypical ways of looking at the continent. My images are deeply personal. And although I am very much aware of the political and racial debate - and the question my images sometimes raise - I still try to look with my heart rather then my brain. In the Western world, we have many preconceived ideas about what Africa is. It irritates me when people react overly paternalistic when it comes to Africa. Usually, it turns out they have never been there themselves.

When I just started photographing in Africa, around 1999, I only saw either grainy black & white images of hunger, Aids and genocide, or the romantic images of nature and 'the noble savage'. And almost everything I knew was documentary style. While in my personal memory and current experiences, it was so much more. That is what I try to capture. I have also discovered something else; why wouldn't I be allowed to stage my pictures, just like I did while working in Europe? At the time, I didn't know of any other photographer who did that; who added an element of surrealism. As I said, it is a very personal and intuitive process.

What are you working on now and next?
That is still a secret, even to me!

Photography Viviane Sassen
Model Liya Kebede
Words Helen Jennings

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