Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Hola Mi Amol

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2019 by Self Publish, Be Happy (here) and ECAL (here). Hardcover, 152 pages, with 76 color photographs. Includes texts and captions by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. Designed by Pauline Brocart. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A close up of a man’s back covered with sticky golden grains of sand reflecting the sun takes up the entire cover of the photobook Hola Mi Amol. There is something arresting about this image – it immediately transports us to the warmth of the beach, and the opening sky blue endpapers reinforce this feeling of escape. Hola Mi Amol is the first book by the young French-Dominican photographer Karla Hiraldo Voleau.

Voleau was born in France and grew up there, but the Dominican heritage of her father has had a strong influence on her. Every summer, she would visit Santo Domingo, but was forced to stay home most of the time, as “everything was rough for my precious little French foreigner self.” While the capital is quite dangerous, Voleau is confident that her parents were actually more worried about her being seduced by local men. Yet their restrictions on dating Dominican men made them only that much more desirable and attractive in her eyes, and she decided to explore this forbidden relationship through photography. As an artist, Voleau is interested in narrative imagery, and this is the approach she used for this very personal master’s thesis, which has now been published as a photobook

In April of last year, Voleau spent about three weeks in the Dominican Republic. Hola Mi Amol documents Voleau’s return to the country as a curious adult woman, one who is eager to explore and interact with local men, casting her gaze on their ripped bodies. Through photographs and short writings, the book immerses us in a voyeuristic journey, as Voleau introduces us to various men, many of whom work in the island’s tourist economy.

The pages of the book are hosted between two cardboard endpieces. The photographs vary in their size and placement on the pages, creating a dynamic sense of constant movement. Most of the images are snapshots taken with a phone, and as a result seem rough and spontaneous, but this aesthetic choice also brings us in closer.

The book begins with the caption “What I crave most on my way to the Dominican Republic: the humid and heavy first gulp of air outside the plane. Within a second, I feel sticky and whole.” It immediately sets an atmosphere of sultry adventure. The opening image is a close up of a man’s torso covered with beach sand as he leans on his arm. We don’t see his face, as the muscular curves of his body take the main focus. An aloof caption on the other page indicates the man’s name is Alejandro Bavaro, and that Voleau met him on 3 April 2018. This is then followed by images of him standing without a shirt as he lights up a cigarette, and going down some stairs for a swim in a cave. Paired with Voleau’s comments, these images begin an intimate inventory, a kind of travelogue of vacation partners.

Voleau playfully, and rather quickly, moves from one man to another. We learn that Julio is “a walking sculpture,” and there are many shots to prove it. Carlito, who is thirty-five years old, is a grandfather (Voleau’s parents warned her about getting in relationships too early). And Yancarlos writes her “the most passionate poems on Facebook Messenger.” Voleau shares a number of nudes of these and other men who eagerly pose for her, usually outside. There are also photographs of Voleau and her new acquaintances relaxing on the beach or in the motel, riding a bike, and hiking. Throughout the narrative, Voleau quotes her subjects in Spanish, bringing in their voices but also setting up a language barrier. Occasionally, she turns camera on herself in a selfie, showing us the surroundings and the men. These shots look rather vulnerable and less playful, her interior thoughts and emotions momentarily coming to the surface.

While on her trip, Voleau visits a local witch who gives her a love potion, saying that she would meet a tall elegant brown man and they will fall in love. She actually met him two days later – his name was Denichel. We see them in a car, in the water, in a cafe, and in the bedroom. She listens to his voice messages twice because she likes his voice. “Four days with him felt like weeks,” she writes. Yet as we turn the page, the story ends with the realization “but four days were just four days.”

The last photograph in the book shows Voleau in a red dress seductively lying on a bed in her hotel room as she looks straight into the camera. The text under the photo reads “Do you still believe me? Have I been transformed into the character I was pretending to be?” This confession upends our understanding and makes us go back through the narrative with her questions in mind. What do we see and what conclusions do we draw? Voleau’s photographs create an atmosphere of playful seduction, sexual tension, and romance, yet she never reveals how far these relationships with the men actually go, or if they were really even relationships of any kind. Was she a female sex tourist, or someone in search of love, or was it all an artistic performance, the narrative cleverly constructed with visual allusions and assumptions?

Perhaps Hola Mi Amol is partially a reenactment of childhood memories and desires and an escape from the restrictive rules of family, yet it goes much further in the sophisticated construction of its narrative. It explores the powerful potential of the female gaze, as Voleau turns the camera on men, inverting and rebalancing the usual male/female dynamic. Her images tend to empathize rather than to objectify – they are tender and respectful, rather than leering or transactional, which may be a clue to their fabrication. In the end, Hola Mi Amol is exciting and unexpected, ultimately asking us to reconsider how we see.  

Collector’s POV: Karla Hiraldo Voleau does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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