“I was respected in Charleroi because no other girl had the balls to do what I had done.” Sarah Lowie’s vivid new realism

With a new solo exhibition of her work currently on show at Brussels’ Centrale for Contemporary Art, we put a few last-minute questions to emerging photographer Sarah Lowie in a Whatsapp conversation as stern and sincere as her artistic narrative. Welcome to Belgium as you never thought it existed.

Visuals Sarah Lowie (c)

Let’s begin by talking about your work. The series of photographs you showed me last week stems from a body of work you started in 2014 right?

Exactly. It’s the sequel series to Sixmille (Charleroi’s post code), an earlier body of work that I focussed on for a year and where I basically followed a local rap group. I found myself intrigued by their lifestyle, mostly because I simply didn’t understand it. It was so different to anything I had been exposed to at the time – that African mentality on European shores. Anyway, after a while we became like family and did pretty much everything together.

When you say that it was very different to anything you knew, what do you mean exactly? Can you tell me a little bit about your own background, your family life, where you grew up?

I grew up in the countryside with my sister, then I moved to Brussels when I was 17 to study photography at Le 75. My family life was rather classic.

How did you first meet the group?

The beauty of it was that I didn’t find them, they found me. We kind of knew each other from a distance – they knew I was a photographer, and the rest kind of happened naturally.

Was it their idea to make a documentary series out of it?

No, I asked them if they’d be up
 for it. At first I’d only see them on weekends, but it quickly evolved into me going over as much as I could. I stayed there because I really liked their mentality, living on 
the fringes. We’d only live for the present, there was no organisation, everything was rather chaotic. But also very real, very spontaneous.

Talk to me about that period,what was your everyday routine like? How did you spend yourdays? How did they perceive you? If I’m not mistaken, you ended up moving in with them?

Hahaha, well we’d wake up around noon, and they would already be music blasting in the studio. By studio I mean the little apartment they’d record their stuff at, and which we were always staying at. Then we’d go to town, as there was always someone we had to see. We’d smoke, drink, fuck – take full advantage of life and the present moment. But I didn’t really move in with them, simply because there just wasn’t enough room. I’d also often go back to Brussels to process my film rolls and scan my negatives, then hop on the train back to Charleroi where I’d work on my images whilst they’d be recording.

And all of this led you to thisnew series, that you’re currently showing at La Centrale. In whatway is this new series differentfrom the first one?

The technique is different: this time 
I worked with digital photography whereas Sixmille was analogue, black and white photography. Sixmille is very spontaneous, documentary photography if you want, whilst CJJSAT consists of photographs that I’d describe as oscillating between staged and documentary photography.

Then we’d go to town, as there was always someone we had to see. We’d smoke, drink, fuck – take full advantage of life and the present moment.

CJJSAT?

Chaque jour, je suis avec toi, which when translated means “Every day, I am with you.”

I have to say that when you came back to our offices last week to show us your new work, the privileged middle-class adult in me was rather taken aback, if not shocked, by the realism of certain photographs. I really asked myself “Gosh, is this in Belgium?”

Hahaha, you’re not the first one to have told me that. I don’t really do it on purpose, seeking out “that” style of photography – life just allows me to photograph these experiences and I believe it is my mission to share them for all to see. I didn’t really answer your question about how they perceived me, what my place was amongst them. There 
were quite a few girls that’d drop 
by the studio, bringing something 
to eat or to smoke. And also to get fucked at the same time. I never really spoke to these girls, or very little, because I wanted to distinguish myself from that. But I also had to prove myself in order to stay there, and I did. I earned their respect and became their equal. I was respected in Charleroi because no other girl had the balls to do what I had done.

That’s a rather in-your-face statement to make. This notion of respect was important to you?

Yes it is in your face, but that’s 
the way it was and I don’t want to downplay that by attaching softer words to it. As far as respect goes, 
it differs for everyone. But there, someone was respected for what they did and not what they said. I’m probably not clear enough, you’d really need to experience it yourself to get a sense of what I mean.

This new series is also decidedly more explicit than the first one, there are much more nudes in 
it for instance. Why is that?

I like being naked. We were a couple, so much more inclined to be naked. Being naked is the basis, you can’t hide behind a style or a brand.

Talk to me about your influences. Who are the people you’d say have influenced your work as an artist?

Anders Peterson’s photographs with Café Lehmitz. A movie by Antoine d’Agata, can’t remember the name. I love the poetry in their images. Rinko Kawauchi, whose work is very soft. Paulo Coelho, the writer. I love literature. The film director Guillermo del Toro. Sebastiao Salgado. But I think my biggest influence is my father. He taught me so many things.

In what way? Was he also an artist?

Not at all, no. But he’s a man 
with both feet firmly planted on the ground, that lives for the present and is far removed from anything remotely superficial that society loves to create. And for me, that’s an essential fucking influence.

Sarah Lowie’s solo exhibition runs until 27th May at Brussels’ La Centrale.  
centrale.brussels