Woman Crush Wednesday: Leda Costa
By Mariajosé Fernández-Plenge
Mirror, Mirror is a project where Leda Costa photographs people's expressions as a response to six questions. She uses a double sided mirror where each subject is forced to look at their own reflection rather than the photographer or the camera.
You are a recent graduate from the Photojournalism and Documentary Practices program at the International Center of Photography. Although you have classic documentary work, some of your latest projects are conceptual. How do you define yourself as a photographer?
I don't. I have wasted a lot of time trying to define myself and when I finally decide on a coined term, I get inspired by something in the opposite world and get the impulse to make different work. Studying at ICP opened my eyes to so many forms of storytelling, and I'm not quite done exploring them all.
Mirror, Mirror is a project where you photographed people’s expressions as a response to different questions. How did you come to the idea of starting the project? What is it really about for you?
Trial and error is really how I came about this idea. I knew I wanted to do something completely out of my comfort zone, so staged portraits in a studio was step one. The idea to photograph people through a two-way mirror really came from my interest in the psycho-analysis of portraiture and the challenge of photographing someone distracted by their thoughts. After several discussions on who the subjects should be, I settled on photographing my colleagues. And in the end, that decision played a huge role in answering your last question - what is this really about for me? This was a bizarre and intrusive way for me to get to intimately know my peers without knowing any personal details about them. You have to be willing to be vulnerable for at least five minutes to be a part of this project, and I learned a lot from watching and photographing. There are those willing to be completely vulnerable and those who kept walls up they didn't even know they had.
I have been one of your subjects and I believe that it was a really intense experience. Memories that I have not thought of in years came to my mind and I felt like I was naked. Why do you think of memories are so important to us?
At the end of the day, all that really belongs to us is what's inside of our heads. All of our thoughts, our memories, our insecurities and fears. These are all things that get shoved to the back of the closet when we're running around the city like chickens with our heads cut off trying to balance a coffee, a metro card, two phone calls, and four homeless people all while running late to who-knows-where. Until we can all find that sliver of our day to meditate and spend time with ourselves and only ourselves, these memories and feelings don't get much attention. I think it's important to nurture our brain and go over the things that make us human. I like to think of this project as a small exercise in self-awareness.
The setup that you use for the project is very specific. Can you tell me about the process of choosing the elements and why?
The first step was the realization that this would have to be a 100% do-it-yourself project, since purchasing a real two-way mirror would be far too costly and time consuming. So I purchased a 16x20 picture frame, kept the class, and adhered a roll of reflective privacy film (thank, Amazon Prime) to it. I quickly learned that in order for this makeshift mirror to be truly two-ways, we would need to be in a pitch black room. Naturally, the next obstacle was lighting. I chose continuous lighting for many reasons, but mainly I didn't want my subjects to know when I was taking the photograph - a strobe would be a dead giveaway. The final setup was a pitch black studio with one stool placed inches from a 16x20 two way mirror clamped to an arm attached to a c-stand. I fixed a flashlight over the mirror pointing directly at the stool and stood on the other side.
Some of the portraits strongly stand by themselves, and some are more enjoyable in a series of the same person. Did you think of this when you first started Mirror, Mirror?
I did not, it was an interesting discovery. I didn't have any set expectations when photographing my subjects, so it was interesting to see these portraits as individuals or as a sequence of thoughts.
What did you base your questions on?
I wanted to ask simple, thought-provoking questions that trigger memories that are specific to each individual. I settled on six meditative questions, but only asked a random three to each person I photographed. What is the loneliest you've ever felt? What is your sexiest memory? When was the last time you cried? What is the biggest secret you've kept? What is your proudest memory? What is the one thing you would change in your life?
In the book of Mirror, Mirror the viewer can read: “We are only made of masks and we just choose to reveal certain masks to different people.” Do you truly believe we are only made of masks? Why?
After completing my project, I decided to anonymously interview my subjects and ask about their overall experience and thoughts on the matter. This is a quote pulled from someone's interview. Personally, I would have to disagree with the statement, but I find it so interesting that we all have such strong ideas about our personas.
As the photographer you are always on the other side. Have you been through the process yourself? If not, have you considered it?
Of course! I don't think I could ask people to do something as intrusive and bizarre as this without first trying it myself. My husband helped me behind the scenes through every step, he was the very first to be photographed so I asked him to photograph me and ask me any three of the six questions.
How is it for you to be on the other side of the mirror?
It was uncomfortable, and intense. Everything I pictured it to be in my mind when I came up with the idea.
The WCW Questionnaire
How would you describe your creative process in one word?
The longer I sit and try to figure out my next steps or what my next project will be, the less productive I am and the more frustrated I become. My projects never start from square one, they always start as one thing and morph into what they are with a sudden "aha!" moment that can come unexpectedly at any stage of the project. This project, for example, started out as a documentary project for millennial veterans. If you tried to map out my train of thought from beginning stages to final project, you might go insane.
If you could teach one, one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
I would teach a class to kids about the importance of visual storytelling. If I'm only allowed one class, we'd go outside and shoot for half of it. As a kid, I wrote stories and I doodled but always saw my camera as a tool to take photos with my family or friends. It wasn't until college that I really saw the role photography played in storytelling but by then it was for the school paper and not for conceptual, creative reasons. I believe that if you get kids thinking about photography as a form of storytelling at the age where their curiosity and imagination are at an all-time high, they could make some really great work.
What was the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
Not quite a film, but I just finished watching the Netflix original series Stranger Things and I still think about it daily on a visual level. It's totally conceptual, but I was inspired by everything from the typography to the filming.
What is the most played song in your iTunes Library?
Sweet Disposition by the Temper Trap.
How do you take your coffee?
With milk and sugar... and chocolate on a good day!