​documenting the muse: rosaline shahnavaz and aleko

The young photographer’s new book, Aleko, is a hymn to the intimacy between artist and muse, turning the relationship into a scene of female empowerment.

i-D Staff

i-D Staff

The relationship between artist and muse is one of the most fraught and fought over in the history of art. Since the Ancient Greeks, the muse has always been a woman, depicted by a male. On the one hand, it is the male gaze owning the vision of a woman, on the other it is a cipher for an artist to express themselves

These things are both explored in Aleko, a new photobook by Iranian-British photographer Rosaline Shahnavaz, documenting her one year photographic relationship with the titular Aleko. A study in knowing, seeing, intimacy--we're voyeurs in Aleko's life through Rosaline's lens, and her poses, though referencing classic depictions of women, a reclining Venus and Olympia, sit uneasily between provocation and self-assurance. It's a study in intimacy but also the uncomfortableness of the viewer intruding into it.

How did you meet Aleko? When did you decide you want to start photographing her?
I first met Aleko through a friend and she immediately compelled me. She was so lovely and interesting. Shortly after, I was asked to shoot a nude portrait for an exhibition and so I approached Aleko. She was against the idea of being nude but I didn't mind, I wanted to photograph her anyway. After that I asked if we could meet up to take photographs on a regular basis, which she agreed to.

What were the first shots of Aleko like?
We first met up on Clapham Common, we spoke for ages but I only took a few photos, which seem timid now in line with the others taken over the year. Ultimately, the camera initiated our relationship and we became more comfortable with each other each time we met up. The intimacy becomes really apparent when I look at the photographs chronologically. I can now go around and chat to Aleko whilst she's taking a shower and she wouldn't be phased by me shooting. It's great when it's so natural.

What interests you about the relationship between photographer and subject?
As much as these photographs are a documentation of Aleko through my eyes, they are also really about our relationship as photographer-and-subject. It's definitely a two way dynamic. She was just as excited and interested to know why I was taking the photographs. I'd always let her know as soon as I'd got my film processed and show her prints straight away.

What does Aleko particularly embody for you?
We're so similar but very different at the same time. Aleko represents a wild sense of freedom, which I would panic about. I could list what I'm doing everyday for the next month (which I won't bore you with), whereas she could be moving to a new house or travelling the world the next day. She just goes with it.

The muse and artist relationship is historically one of male artist and female muse, what's the difference for you?
There are the obvious differences such as gender and sexuality, but for me the muse is someone who inspires me and excites me. There has to be a lot of trust, which occurs with time. Aleko trusts that I can bring out the best of her. She is confident of her beauty when I'm photographing her and she's happy to do anything with me.

More generally is there a feminist / female approach to your photography that you think comes across?
There is definitely a lot about female relationships. I feel like a lot of my photographs wouldn't have been possible if I wasn't female. They could seem overtly sexual or might be read in a different way. Even on commercial jobs, I see a difference in how my subject behaves when I have a male assistant.

Should this affect the way we approach your photography?
Not really. Art is subjective and I'm happy for people to interpret my work as they please. There's no right or wrong.

Your photography often documents the naked bodies of your subjects, what draws you to that?
I first got into photography by documenting my friends and boyfriend at the time. I was like a fly on the wall, and I'd just be there capturing whatever was going on. Quite obsessively. I guess nudes just naturally occurred as a part of it. There's something really honest and vulnerable about being naked but it can also be quite confrontational.

What kept you photographing Aleko and made you want to make a book out of her?
The photographs kept getting better so I kept on visiting. Then it just became routine. I always saw the project as a book. It's personal and intimate and the book form allows for the photographs to be viewed this way. It was integral for me to spend time making sense and sequencing the hundreds of images.

Do you return to the same subjects often in your work?
In an ideal world, I'd like to get to know all of my subjects really well before photographing them. The slower place and fluidity of personal work allows for this. And the strength of the relationship comes through in the photographs. I try to translate this into all of my work, even if I only have a couple of hours with a model. It's fast paced, but there's always a strong bond, and we'll both take something away from it.

Aleko is self published and handmade, edition of 100. Each copy comes with a print on the cover.



Photography courtesy Rosaline Shahnavaz