In Conversation with Laisa Maria

Interviewed by Timothy Frazier
Photos by Laisa Maria

TF: How did you get into photography?

LM: When I was studying cultural anthropology, I felt like I was reading more about the world than seeing of it. I had longed for faraway places as long as I can remember, but I did not want to be one of those backpack parody’s. So I went for a year-long exchange with Peking University in Beijing, China, where I started courses in Mandarin and Chinese culture. The experience positively overwhelmed me in so many ways, I wanted to dissolve into in everything Chinese. I started speaking with everyone to practice my Chinese, and that’s what made me end up in the biggest adventures. Before leaving for China, I purchased my first camera. I used it before on occasions, of course, but I only fell in love with photography after I ended up being invited as a guest to a wedding in Tianjin. It was the strangest yet most extraordinary event I ever witnessed, and I photographed the entire thing. From that moment on, I knew photography would be speaking for all that my anthropological mind could not expres. I pursued a career in photography ever since I returned from China.

TF: Tell me about the work you made following Robbie from Spangen in his daily struggles to get off the streets and become legitimized as a Dutch citizen.

LM: Robbie’s story is part of an ongoing project about poverty I started in my hometown Rotterdam, about three years ago. The project is about the way poverty manifests itself inside the homes of people living in Rotterdam, aiming to observe the experience of poverty itself from the closest local perspective using anthropological methods.

LM:  I believe inequality is one of the major threats we face in Europe, and I found Rotterdam to be one of the developing cities where unequal economic growth was starting to show. As growth enables segregation, I became curious to understand the lives of people falling behind in the proces of speeding up and moving forward. So by using visual ethnograhy, I started documenting people who survive on a daily basis and suffer from longterm (financial) poverty often maintained by the very system itself. I followed most people, except for homeless Robbie, in their own homes where they hide and struggle to survive within the margins of the system.

LM: I chose to add a story to this project of a homeless person trying to find his way back into the system, because it shows how unimaginable the entire process is. It took him about over 5 years to leave his days in the streets behind. It was a tough and long road, which I followed for about 3 years. Last month, Robbie finally found himself a home. He became a different man, a calm one. He says that no single person can break his spirit after going through all the trouble to get where he’s at right now. He wants to find a job and enjoy the rest of his days in peace. When I first met Robbie, he had no documents. All he carried around was a bottle, sleeping outside or with befriended addicts. His story is one of five stories I am documenting about poverty. The other stories are about families, single mothers and elderly people whom all live on the fringes of society. My work is a co-creation with my subjects and continues to expand. I don’t think I know if or when this project will ever be finished, because it feels like its becoming a document of our zeitgeist.

TF: What's it like being a 90's Dutch kid based in Rotterdam?

LM: I enjoy my life here in Rotterdam, and I feel very blessed with all that life is offering me here. This year I am turning thirty, I feel grateful for being close to my family and for being able to raise my daughter in peace and freedom.

TF: In 2015 you obtained a masters degree in cultural anthropology, how (if in any way) has this influenced the way you photograph?

LM: During my master degree I conducted fieldwork for three months using both writing and photography as ethnographical methods. It was the first fieldwork I ever did. I guess I am still using the way ethnographical methods shaped my mind to enhance my images. For example, anthropologists take endless amounts of time to study a specific cultural setting. As a photographer, I adopted these ways entirely. It feels like we live in a time where slow photography is less appreciated, because of the pressure to publish. It’s a kind of pressure that used to numb me for a while, but I can admit confidently now that I prefer the proces of documentation to be slow. It allows me to see so much more.

LM: Also, as a photographer I learned to be much more aware of ethics because of my background in anthropology. As a white photographer from the west, I realize that most stories of places I do not belong to are not really mine to collect. In the past, I have made portraits of people in China during travels that I used to better my career while I had given them nothing in return for their photo taken. In retrospect, I have the same problem with photos I took in Morocco while on work trips. But I still share these photos to spark debate among fellow photographers or amateur photographers who for example travel a lot. Ethics are relevant when it comes to the visual appropriation of many places or people. I have come to believe it is important to let (indigenous) communities tell their own stories. This is the reason why I decided, after finishing my master degree, to merely focus on telling the stories of my own communities for my future photography projects. That is when I started the project about poverty in Rotterdam.

TF: Can you talk a bit about the importance of community?

LM: Most communities these days are imagined. They are no longer bound to a physical place. Imagined communities do not even have to exist of people that met before. Most of these communities gather online in social spheres, for example. I myself happily engage with such communities, for example with the photography community that has spread all over the world and connects us individually through our devices. However, I do believe it is vital that we start revaluing physical communities, especially in a world so detached from local life. We spend so much time interacting with online communities, but also consuming our foods online or shopping for clothes or products. If we desire to promote and sustain local communities, local shop owners, local foods or the overall local way, we must start with actually living a local life. It is very interesting to see how the current pandemic is changing our entire perspective, as it now becomes very clear how we depend on healthy local communities to care for our people.

TF: Where is a place that you've never been that you'd like to travel to?

LM: My daughter (11 months) is of Congolese, Siera Leonean and Nigerian decent and I would love to travel to the country of her ancestors one day. But, I am also trying to calm my adventurous nerves to preserve our planet and seek my travels inward and locally. I was already nourishing this ambition way before COVID-19, but the current pandemic has further fueled this belief. Luckily for me, Rotterdam is the most diverse city of the Netherlands. The entire world lives around me, which makes me feel rich.

TF: Future plans or upcoming projects? What's next?

LM: Yes, I am very excited to tell you about my upcoming project. Currently, I am living in a deprived neighborhood at the outskirts of Rotterdam. A common issue for developing cities like Rotterdam, is that we are facing shortage in housing opportunities. As a result, many low-income families end up in the suburbs where living standards and prospects are low. The ascendency of housing prices in the city centre will drive other citizens to this area, where an entire new neighborhood bordering the harbors will be constructed right next to our community.

LM: It will be another classic story about the territorial expansion of a more wealthy community into a disinvested neighborhood. After learning about this, I found that there were hardly any decent information services available for citizens here to inform them about these far-reaching future urban developments regarding their community. With the help of a community-coordinator, I decided to create an online visual platform for the community. The website will display information, news updates, critical articles and visual stories designed for them like interviews, portraits, video stories and documentary work about their own neighborhood. At this moment I am finalizing the budgets needed to start this project of mapping a forgotten neighborhood. If you want to be updated, please follow @mathenesseaandemaas on instagram. The website will be launched soon, containing the first photographic publications.

Laisa Maria is an autodidact photographer with a background in anthropology, who combines analog photography with ethnographic methods. She is based in Rotterdam where she works and raises her daughter. Her autonomous work focusses on cultural diversity, humanity, and street life with the intention of growing community and equality. For the past three years she worked nonstop on a research project about poverty.