In the summer of 2022, I spent three months making Mystery Street, a body of work centred on the theme of childhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. The 300-year-old city’s past was partly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, before this new generation of children were born. Like the children I photographed, it is a city whose future is greatly threatened by climate change
Composed mainly of portraits set under the burning sun of Louisiana, Mystery Street works both as a conversation with the real and an escape into multiple narrative possibilities that echo the freedoms of child play. I was in New Orleans during the summer; school was out, it is that moment of the year when time expands. I met the children in their spaces, making pictures with them, at their level, to ask: how do children play? How do they engage with their environment? What is their body language in the searing summer heat of the American South? What is it like to grow up in a city that has endured both manmade and natural disasters? The participants in Mystery Street were all between eight and twelve years old, emerging from childhood, but not yet teenagers. I gained the trust of each child on an individual basis: some opened up to me and accepted the presence of the camera within a few days, others within a few weeks. Once I gained the children’s trust, I was accepted, but in a particular way because I was both an active and a passive participant: sometimes the children sought me out, and sometimes they forgot about me completely.My photographs offer a glimpse into the everyday of childhood: its routine, its repetitiveness, its micro-events. Each photograph provides a minimum of information about space, time, or place, to counter the burden of representation often ascribed to these Black communities, and to focus on the humanity of this transitional time in these children’s lives. This is an age that marks the end of a certain innocence and the beginning of integrating social codes. It is also the beginning of strong emotions and friendships. Long hours spent with the children enabled me to see the repetition of their gestures. For example, when a child puts their hand on a friend’s shoulder, it is always the same gesture and yet the gesture always varies. This is one of the great beauties of photography: it reveals things that somehow remain invisible to the human eye. Moments of everyday life that seem insignificant, or that do not retain our attention, can acquire a meaning once transformed into a still image. I see myself as a storyteller when I shoot, and I become a narrator when I edit, and Mystery Street is a fable. The photographs are both a fictional account of a fleeting summer and an insight into the fragility and resolve of humanity.
About the photographer
Grenoble, France, 1985
Yogananthan, born to a French mother and a Sri Lankan father, is a self-taught photographer who started taking analogue images at the age of sixteen. He was strongly influenced by photographers making pictures of the human condition, especially Paul Strand and Chris Killip.
His first major project was Piémanson, a series shot over five summers (2009–2013) on the last wild beach in France. His seven-book project, A Myth of Two Souls (2013–2021), inspired by the Indian epic tale The Ramayana, received solo exhibitions at the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne, Switzerland (2019); the Chanel Nexus Hall, Tokyo (2019); DECK, Singapore (2020); and the Belfast Photo Festival, United Kingdom (2023). The project was also exhibited in the group shows Illuminating India: Photography 1857–2017 at the Science Museum, London (2017), and Body Building at the Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai (2019).
Yogananthan has received several awards, including the Prix Levallois, Paris (2016) and Emerging Photographer of the Year in the ICP Infinity Awards in New York (2017). In the same year, he was selected for the Foam Talent programme, Amsterdam. His books Dandaka and Amma were awarded respectively the Rencontres d’Arles Photo-text Book Award (2019) and Jurors’ Special Mention at the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards (2021). In 2022, Yogananthan participated in Immersion, a French-American photography commission by Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, Paris, in partnership with Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, and The International Center of Photography, New York.
In 2014, Yogananthan co-founded the publishing house Chose Commune in Paris.
Hoda Afshar, Speak the Wind, 2015–2020
Gera Artemova, War Diary, 2022
Ragnar Axelsson, Where the World Is Melting, 2013-2022
Alessandro Cinque, Peru, a Toxic State, 2017-2023
Siân Davey, The Garden, 2021-2023
Federico Ríos Escobar, Paths of Desperate Hope, 2022
Gauri Gill, Notes from the Desert, 1999-ongoing
Michał Łuczak, Extraction, 2016-2023
Yael Martínez , Luciérnaga (Firefly), 2019-2023
Richard Renaldi, Disturbed Harmonies, 2022-2023
Vanessa Winship, Sweet Nothings: Schoolgirls of Eastern Anatolia, 2007
Vasantha Yogananthan, Mystery Street, 2022