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Words Maria Giorgia Lenzi

Photography Cocoa Laney


Cocoa Laney’s project Belle provides intimate viewpoints through images and letters, ultimately rejecting the stereotypes around southern American culture and reflecting on the implications of power and religion on the communities in Alabama.

Giorgia interviewed Cocoa and discussed the project, through an honest exploration of religion, gender, shame and sexuality in the context of her native state of Alabama.

Your project Belle explores the lives of young women and non-binary people in the context of Southern culture and the impact of religion in your native state of Alabama. How did this project originate and what were the motives behind it?

The motives behind the project were deeply personal. I grew up in northern Alabama and, although I was raised religious and even attended Christian schools for a good part of my education, there was not a lot of discussion about it at home. In my late teens I found out that my parents had never actually been religious; instead, they raised me as such to avoid upsetting the family and to fit into the community. The result was that I grew up with a lot of questions and shame around my own belief system. Those questions became even more complex as I got older and I am still unpacking much of that today. Belle was my attempt to connect with other young women and have the frank discussions about religion, shame, and sexuality that I struggled with when I was growing up.

Focusing on the area you come from, this series seems to have intimate connections to you and I‘ve found it especially interesting that a self-portrait is included in the series. Could you tell us more about this process and the challenges that a photographer can face when so personally involved in a project?

For the first time in a big project, I had a personal stake and involvement in the issues discussed, so the interview process was very different. It was cathartic yet daunting to get to the point of honesty and openness that the project required, but I would not recommend doing anything like that in the time span I gave myself. I spent months planning and researching, but the images themselves were made over the course of six weeks (not nearly long enough!).
I also wanted to make it clear that, although I am implicated in many of the issues that the book discusses (particularly around religion), there is so much I cannot speak for. This is especially true when it comes to race. I was wary of positioning my experience as universal to Southern women; instead, it’s one component in an array of different issues that women in the South face, and I have a large degree of privilege. Rather than dictate everything through my limited viewpoint, it was important to make space for the participants, especially participants of colour, to narrate their own stories (hence the inclusion of the interviews and letters in the book). The point of the project is that there is no “ideal Southern woman” or universal experience, and the archetype of the Southern belle is an outdated, racist, and classist construct.

From Belle ©Cocoa Laney
From Belle ©Cocoa Laney
From Belle ©Cocoa Laney

Questions of faith and belief arise in the project, suggested through images of symbols like a neon cross or signs claiming that ‘God is real’ and ‘God is only good’. Did you consider your own religious view in any way when approaching these issues?

I did! Though I haven’t identified as a Christian in years, I spent the summer reconsidering my own views towards faith for what felt like the millionth time. I think faith, Christianity included, can be deeply healing and beneficial on an individual level; however, I am deeply skeptical of the kind of institutionalised religion seen in the South. Especially after the research I did for the project, I can’t separate the religious teachings from the way Christianity has been used as a tool to control and shame communities and maintain political power. This is true both historically (IE the Southern Baptist’s convoluted biblical justifications for slavery) and in the present day (Alabama’s attempted abortion ban in the spring of 2019, which led to the idea for the project). I spoke with a multitude of people who were harmed by organised Christianity’s teachings and made to feel ashamed of core parts of their identities. That said, I also spoke with people whose views challenged me in ways I never expected. The best example of this was a queer feminist pastor in Tuscaloosa, who approached Christian teachings with a completely different (and far more radical) interpretation.

Tell us about your process to discover subjects and landscapes. Are the images the result of wanderings or are these places that you were familiar with and have been to before? 

I met participants for the project in a variety of ways. Some of them were friends or acquaintances, but most were found through other ways. I connected with some people via the website couchsurfing, with some via callouts on social media, and with others through recommendations from previous participants. Once, I found a place to stay by talking to strangers in a coffee shop. Many of the participants opened their homes to me for the night.
The landscapes were all things I saw along my drives or in people’s homes. There were some familiar scenes, such as the sign reading ‘Go to church or the devil will get you’ (it’s infamous among Alabamians and I was terrified of it as a child). However, most places were found by chance. The image of the glowing cross over water was something I stumbled upon during a midnight drive from one place to another.

From Belle ©Cocoa Laney
From Belle ©Cocoa Laney

The letters in the project offer another layer to the story and provide the connection of strangers through a dialogue of encouragement and hope. How did this idea come to mind?

The function of the letters was to create unity and solidarity between the participants, all of whom were strangers to each other. One of the best parts of the project was presenting a new participant with a letter from the previous person I’d spoken with, because it created a link between each person and their individual experiences. However, in reference to the #MeToo movement, there is a great quote from Jia Tolentino: “they have made feminist solidarity and shared vulnerability seem inextricable, as if we were incapable of building solidarity around anything else. What we have in common is obviously essential, but it’s the differences between women’s stories— the factors that allow some to survive, and force others under— that illuminate the vectors that lead to a better world”. Commonalities in stories are apparent in the letters as well as the interviews, and each letter expresses respect and solidarity with its recipient. Still, the differences in perspective from woman to woman make them stark. The letters facilitate connectedness and support while also enforcing the suggestion that there is no universal Southern experience.

Looking also at your past projects, it seems that text is often a significant element in your practice. What are your thoughts on the written word used with images in this way?

I’ve always been fascinated with the possibilities of image and text and how their combination can create a layer of meaning that can’t exist using either medium alone. It’s fun to explore these possibilities, which is why I tend to gravitate towards phonebooks as the final output for my projects. I also tend to find equal inspiration in writers and visual artists. Rebecca Solnit’s writing has been hands-down the most influential for my photographic practice (and my worldview as a whole). I also find a lot of inspiration in fiction; most recently I read Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. It wasn’t yet published when I was working on Belle, but it touched many of the subjects that were integral to the project and it is even set in my hometown.

From Belle ©Cocoa Laney
From Belle ©Cocoa Laney
From Belle ©Cocoa Laney

Holding an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary photography, what do you consider the most valuable aspect of creative education?

I learned so much about the importance of creative research and how to approach image-making in a considered and ethical way. Beyond making interesting photographs, knowing the history and theory around your chosen subject is crucial, and this is something the MA instilled in all of us. Additionally, given the extremely divided political atmosphere back home in the US, the visual literacy I learned on the course is a life skill applicable beyond my personal photographic practice. I also found so much value in my MA cohorts as we were an extremely supportive group. Having a creative community is invaluable and it’s the thing I miss the most since returning to the US during the pandemic!

If you could picture yourself in five years from now, where would you like to be at?

As is the case with most people in creative fields, the pandemic has thrown everything into complete chaos, and I’m reconsidering what I wanted my life to look like post-graduation (in a creative, professional, and personal sense). Beyond making images, I’m passionate about creative collaboration, writing, and education. I hope that in five years I will have found a stable and sustainable way to unite these interests, hopefully through a combination of professional work and ongoing personal projects.

Maria Giorgia Lenzi

Maria Giorgia is a documentary photographer with an interest in telling stories through an intimate approach. Her work also focuses on writing, poetry and book making.

Cocoa Laney

Cocoa is an American documentary photographer currently based in the Pacific Northwest. Born and raised in Alabama, her work focuses primarily on issues related to gender and identity. She holds an MA in documentary photography and photojournalism from London College of Communication and is the recipient of the 2019 Royal Photographic Society postgraduate bursary award.

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