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Felipe Orellana, “Gabriella and Pedro”, Swords
Felipe Orellana, “Gabriella and Pedro”, SwordsPhotography Felipe Orellana

These photos disclose their subjects’ darkest secrets

Felipe Orellana’s new photo series pairs young Lisbon creatives with ancient weaponry, a symbolic gesture of resilience and confronting past traumas

It was only a couple of months ago that the photographer Felipe Orellana moved to Lisbon and met “Vallechi”, a musician who already lived in the city. Connected through a mutual friend, the pair instantly formed a friendship based on an appreciation of one another’s artistic practices. That very same day that they met, “Vallechi” played Orellana his techno track “Emotional Patches”, a song that the musician says “symbolises the strength and resilience we draw from within, even when everything around us is constantly changing". From here, they decided to collaborate on a photo project inspired by the song, capturing creatives from the Lisbon scene and reflecting on experiences of trauma that they’ve boldly overcome.

When I spoke to Orellana about the photo series, he was extremely mindful that they approached the topic with care. Each person that he captured shared a story of past trauma, with quotes like “kids used to beat me, and I don’t know why” dotted in a simple, white typeface across the final images – however, Orellana was careful not to push his subjects past their comfort zones. “As the photographer, I wanted to capture their vulnerability while being respectful and mindful of their boundaries”, he says of the process, adding, “I wanted them to feel at ease and share as much as they wanted to.” It’s a method that undoubtedly paid off – whether it’s a defiant stare into the camera or a calm look of serenity, each subject exhibits a composure that suggests the experience had been truly palliative.

In order to further emphasise the resilience and strength these traumatic experiences can produce, Orellana decided to photograph each subject alongside a sword. Whether brandished in the air, held at their feet, or set down beside them, the photographer allowed each person to decide how they would display the weapon. “The swords serve to represent the personal struggles that each individual carries”, he explained, “and how they navigate them in their own unique ways.”

Although primarily symbols of strength, both Orellana and “Vallechi” were keen to emphasise the dual nature of the weapons as well. “In our planning discussions, we explored the concept of carrying a weapon that can be potentially harmful.” The photographer elaborated, “But also serves as a tool to overcome our darkest moments.” In this way, the swords are displayed as both threatening and empowering, a visual manifestation of the effects of trauma on our everyday lives.

Another way in which Orellana set out to depict the resilience of the human spirit was through the surroundings in which each individual subject was photographed. The initial plan was to capture each person in their own home amongst their personal belongings, but the concept was soon adapted when some subjects expressed discomfort at the intimate setting. After searching for a backup location, Orellana remembered the Palacio do Grilo on the southeast coast of the city. Despite what the name may suggest, the palace provided a run-down aesthetic that he felt worked perfectly for the theme of the shoot. “While the palace still offered some extravagant and ornate areas, I deliberately selected the ones of raw beauty and genuine authenticity,” says the photographer of the chipped plaster and grassy knolls he set the shoots in. For Orellana, the locations “represented a contrast between the external appearances and the inner strength of the individuals. It was about highlighting the resilience that can emerge from challenging circumstances”.

While Orellana’s pictures attempt to “normalise the presence of trauma as a natural part of life”, the photographer understands that there can be room for misinterpretation with this particular series. He explains, “One potential misunderstanding could be that the series portrays trauma as sexy.” While the photographer does acknowledge that “there are elements of flirtation and sensuality in my photographs”, he holds that these choices “automatically create an intimate space, establishing a sense of closeness and understanding”. It’s this sense of shared understanding between subject and audience that emerges as the purpose of Orellana’s work: in sharing such vivid portraits of conquered trauma, Orellana allows us to ultimately face our own.

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