In this stunning project titled I Am Dust, photographer Olivier Valsecchi has created powerful images that embody the essence of creation and the will to survive. Currently, the project is divided between two series: “Dust” and “Time of War.” While both series depict models frozen in dynamic poses as ashes erupt off and around their bodies, there are slight thematic differences. “Dust” explores creation using Ovid’s definition of Chaos as “a crude and indigested mass, a lifeless lump, unfashioned and unframed” (Source) — essentially, an embryonic ball of matter that explodes into being. Valsecchi likens this concept to the Big Bang theory. What fascinates him is how these preexisting, scattered elements eventually fuse together, despite having once existed elsewhere in another form. Thus, in his work, he seeks to explore the reincarnation and infinitude of matter:
“What I looked for in the ‘Dust’ series was to curve around the timeline like a circle and capture, in the same image, something and its opposite, like endings and beginnings, dead and alive, floating in water and flying in dust, so in the end the viewer can never know when it starts and when it ends.”
The models in “Dust” capture this atemporal moment of creation perfectly. Their bodies are frozen in time and space, but with their eyes closed, they become expressions of pure energy. The ashes erupting off their skin resemble particles of their physical bodies being sent back into Chaos as matter lost in the violence of creation.
Ashes, of course, often occupy our imagination as symbols of death and a return to the earth. These associations make their explosive presence doubly significant in Valsecchi’s second series, “Time of War.” Inspired by the photographer’s fascination with Time, these particular images explore how Time is a circular phenomenon, and that we, as living beings, always seem to be fighting against it. As Valsecchi writes:
“I wanted pictures that would blur the viewer’s perception of before and after, and maybe, think about [the present moment]. Thinking about now, about our impermanence and our urge to live, in regards to our environment. Wars, conflicts, power, money: it is a struggle. That’s why ‘Time of War’ […] was more about surviving, standing up to the tests, [and] going forward.”
Demonstrating survival, the models twist and turn against an unseen threat, pushing against the darkness that surrounds them, while ash signifying their own material death sheds from their skin. Valsecchi has made powerfully visible our eternal struggle against mortality.
Curious about how Valsecchi created these dynamic shots, I asked him about his creative process. Not surprisingly, his method was just as interesting as the philosophies and perspectives driving his work. Each photo session was a ritual achieved in stages of inspired motion, mimicking the slow-but-accelerating process of creation itself. He describes the method as such:
“Before anything, I would explain the intention and say: ‘The ashes symbolize Death and it wants to [cover] you but you have to get rid of it.’ Or: ‘Close your eyes, you don’t want the ashes to blind you, plus you will focus on your energy and forget you’re naked.’ […] Then the model would undress and kneel down. I would shower him or her with ashes. […] Then I would stand in front of the model and show what kind of movement I’m expecting to shoot. […] The model and I are gradually sharing a trance, because the process is three or four hours long, and in the end, due to the jumping, swirling, and the closed eyes, you kind of lose your marks and only [feel] the energy.”
At this point, the challenge would be to capture the ashes before they diffuse into the air. But it goes without saying that the results are remarkable, and each dynamic photo captures the body’s struggle amidst and against Chaos.
Valsecchi hinted that there will be a third chapter in the I Am Dust series, which he will be working on this summer. Check out his website and follow his Facebook page to keep up with his compelling and thought-provoking work.