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Elisa Iannacone artfully turns the colour wheel on imagining social injustice

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Mexican-born cinematographer, Elisa Iannacone, whose career traversing over 40 countries in service of breaking news and war photo-journalism, is a rare mix of documentary and fictional cinematographer, of war correspondent and fantastical realist, of artist and journalist.

Iannacone first came to public prominence with a photographic and multi-media installation at the Oxo Tower Bargehouse Gallery in London in March 2018. The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath is a monumental exhibition on rape and its aftermath. The 24 photographs in the series each stretch over 1,5m and were constructed into an experiential journey through five floors of the Oxo Towers. They included photographs, soundscapes, oral testimony and holographic images of two dozen men and women – their brutal stories depicted in striking, glossy images that cover vast fantasy-scapes. Each work is a composite real/unreal mise en scène depicting one person’s private journey beyond their sexual violation to a place of creative reconstruction and re-creation. Evocative and gut-wrenching, each piece took months to complete as the subject/co-author and Iannacone traversed each personal journey, emerging with one encapsulating image depicting their triumphant transition from pain and devastation in a single dominant colour drawn from the 24-colour wheel.

Staying Afloat, from ‘The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath’ exhibition. Photo by Elisa Iannacone

The Kingdom, from ‘The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath’ exhibition. Photo by Elisa Iannacone

The Climb, from ‘The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath’ exhibition. Photo by Elisa Iannacone

The exhibition was due to be mounted in Cape Town in 2020, in time for the 16 Days of Activism campaign. Covid-19 has delayed the exhibition, but the story remains too vivid not to be highlighted at this time. Iannacone drew her inspiration – and Spiral project – from her own rape and the long and painful journey of self-healing, which included a combination of art therapy, narrative discourse and visual representation. It concluded the endless months of darkness, inarticulate silence and incomprehension. For years, Iannacone envisaged her violation in an image of herself, naked and vulnerable with broken wings. When she began speaking to others, she realised that each person experienced their own assault in very different terms; each evoking a unique image which she then set about capturing evocatively, artfully and whimsically, leveraging her considerable skills as a cinematographer. She brings into the ‘documentary’ moment a tale of transcendence and light, almost mystical. Totally encompassed in the best of artistic filmic manipulation – crossing the boundaries between hard realism and almost magical realism in the Latin American narrative tradition, Iannacone’s own portrait is the 25th image – a monochromatic hologram. Each of her subjects are defined by the totemic colour that emerged during the process and they come from across the globe, including South Africa. One image (‘Yellow’), shot at Ponte Towers in Johannesburg, is of a woman wearing a yellow dress strung across the centre of the concrete structure.

Circus, from ‘The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath’ exhibition. Photo by Elisa Iannacone

Big Bonnie, Bicycle Thief, from ‘The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath’ exhibition. Photo by Elisa Iannacone

Under Iannacone’s expert cinematographic hand, images of brutality and horror are rendered as baroque floral studies, or set in fairytale castles or funfairs, in rich magentas, cyans and violets. For her, it is all about reframing convention and changing the dialogue or imagery from disempowered and violated, rape or war victim or victim of systemic injustice, to empowered and self-actualised, narrator and activist. Hence the title of her new venture, Reframe House, which “emerged as the collision between art and social justice” and continues to take on assignments that fall between these polarities. “Where so often war and rape take away agency, here, the ‘victims’ not only tell their own story and gain agency through co-creating the image (versus being objects of depiction and pity), but the subjects/authors/actors regain/renew/reinforce/recreate their identities as they narratively and visually compose their biographies, mastering the image and even exorcising their pain. They take control of the image that is depicted of them.” This hybrid style, Iannacone acknowledges, is convention-breaking. When it comes to depicting reality, brutal grainy realism is and has often been the dominant medium. Black and white imagery for so many decades was seen as “real” and the medium to master as documentary, news and war photographers, largely because the technology had dictated this convention, while fashion and fiction filmmaking dominated the colour palette. “When I started using the techniques of fashion or dramatic filmmaking for sexual violence, it hadn’t been seen before. My cinematography professor in school told us that ‘when you shoot drama or fiction, you learn about technique. When you shoot documentaries, you learn about life!’ “I take my inspiration from Ellen Kuras, ASC (acclaimed cinematographer whose work crosses over the conceptual silos).” For this contradictory crossover, she takes her inspiration in both her Mexican roots and South Africa’s current reality: vibrant, colourful, lively, passionate, warm, generous, friendly – and yet there is the underbelly of deep social schisms: violent crime, human distress, poverty. It is from Mexico that she borrows the spectacular tradition of magical realism. “Literature-based, it paints pictures in your mind. In ‘Water for Chocolate’, she cried so much that the living room flooded and everything floated away…” Iannacone was born in Mexico to Mexican-Canadian parents and studied filmmaking at York University in Toronto. It was on her first assignment, on a 16mm film project, that she was designated cinematographer. She had found her metier. On graduation, she and a fellow graduate built a business producing corporate films which financed their social justice work. It was on a trip back to Mexico on an assignment that she was raped by an extended family member. The rape derailed her career and Iannacone withdrew from the light, working in telesales for a theatre group in Canada, her wings broken, struggling in the dark. In 2012 she tackled a Masters in International Journalism through City University, London, specialising in conflict, and set about forging a career as a foreign correspondent and documentary cinematographer. She spent the next years covering some of the most explosive stories on the planet for global behemoths like BBC World News, Newsweek, National Geographic, including the devastating 14 August 2013 Rabaa massacre in Cairo, Egypt, which was recorded by Human Rights Watch as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.

Humans of the Forgotten War series, photographed at Constituion Hill, by Elisa Iannacone.

Behind Scenes: Elisa Iannacone at work on Humans of the Forgotten War series, photographed at Constituion Hill.

In Jordan, she documented the story of Syrian refugees, followed by assignments in Iraq, the Sahara and Mozambique, while also working on the Spiral project; evolving the process of therapy and visual reconstruction over that time. That process took five years and was funded from Iannacone’s war journalism and cinematography. Now she hopes to bring The Spiral of Containment to South Africa for exhibition in late 2021. It was in South Africa that she met her husband. And it was here, during one extended stay aimed at testing the budding relationship, that she photographed five of her subjects. None of her African subjects ever managed to visit London for the Oxo exhibition. Brilliant, brave and multi-talented – skilled at photography, cinematography and the spoken and written word – she is also a sought-after speaker on cinematography, creativity and social justice. This year she branched out into podcasts with fellow resilient visionary, Candice Mama. Her new TedX talk on fear is quietly powerful. While in South Africa, Iannacone is working on another project committed to exposing the little-told story of the war in Cameroon. The series features English-speaking Cameroonian exiles now living in South Africa. The narratives are constructed visually from their stories, remastered in her signature evocative style with a touch of explosive colour. Her locations vary from the historical Constitutional Court to a suburban garden – all made mythical in her unique way. DM/ML To learn more about Iannacone’s work, visit the following pages:;;


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