French-born photographer Jocelen Janon is intrigued by theoften yawning chasm between how New Zealanders are typically represented, bothinternationally and locally, and his own experiences of the people who maketheir home here. Where the conventional narrative sells the culture as one ofrugged pastoral tranquillity, Janon, like most New Zealanders, can't identifywith that image at all.
"Even in The New Zealand Herald they talk about NewZealanders like they're all Fred Dagg, with the singlet and the gumboots,"the photographer chuckles. "I don't know anyone like that."
This odd national duality has been the starting point for anumber of Janon's personal projects, which attempt to represent a side of NewZealand that feels more authentic, both to the photographer and his subjects.The longest running of these is The Entertainers, a behind the-scenesdocumentation of Auckland's burlesque scene.
The idea behind the project is to capture the bustle anddrama backstage among performers getting ready for a show in the dressingrooms. For Janon, the backstage area represents an interesting transformativespace in which everyday life and theatrical fantasy collide.
"I really like being backstage; it's a bit grubby, andthere are naked people crossing here and there, and usually something is notworking, and it's dark. It's a sort of frontier between real life and theshow."
Burlesque has undergone a popular resurgence in recenttimes, and now the colourful striptease shows are a common, fashionableoccurrence throughout the city. But Janon says that was not the case when hefirst began working on The Entertainers four years ago: at that time, it wasstill perceived by the mainstream as something naughty, and his decision to gobackstage was "even naughtier than naughty".
He got his foot in the door at a Dr Sketchy event onKarangahape Road, where burlesque dancers perform to a room of artists making lifedrawings of them. That forum gave Janon his chance to pitch the idea -"middle-aged Frenchman wanting to go backstage, nothing wrong withthat" —to a producer, and ask if he could come along to a full show.
"The deal was, I would shoot the show for her, and shewould let me go backstage. So I did that, and I spoke to everyone and explainedwhat I was doing and why. From there, because I was quite well behaved, I'vebeen allowed to go to more shows. And now they know me and I can more or lessgo anywhere I like."
The performers' ease in Janon's presence is unmistakablethrough his collection of candid images, as half-dressed bodies flurry about inpreparation, with makeup and costuming frozen mid transformation andprovocative jokes shared in front of— and sometimes directed at —thephotographer.
"It's kind of bizarre - sometimes I find I'm the onlyperson dressed. I'm trying not to look, but it's almost impossible [not to];there are naked bodies and mirrors everywhere."
The expressive black-and-white images produced by thephotographer would not have been possible without the huge amount ofpersistence and respect he has invested in the community over the years. Withburlesque's rise in popularity has come a swell in the number of photographersalso attending the shows, not all a whom share Janon's reverence for the art.
"You go to some of the shows in town and there are,like, 12 photographers - I used to be alone. And you've got people who areworking with flash; I even saw a guy with an LED panel at the show. It's sodisrespectful to the punters who paid for the show, the guy who did the lights,and the girls.
"I don't go to those shows anymore; it's not worthit."
Janon now searches for the more obscure, less-attendedshows, where the performers are there out of passion rather than the trend.They're also not too difficult to find now that he has built so many strongrelationships with the people in the scene. In fact, when asked what he haspersonally got out of working on the project, there's no hesitation in hissimple response: "friends".