Conversations with friends - Chapter 5 : Chiara Glionna
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I had the sweetest chat with Chiara Glionna, a young Milanese photographer.
I am always a little anxious when it comes to interviewing people, especially if they are people like Chiara, who with every picture brings a new world to life, telling a meaningful story.
But what’s amazing about Chiara was her capacity to put me at ease with her smile, just like we were two old friends meeting for a catch-up coffee. And just like that we ended up talking about university exams that make you discover your life path, empowering photoshoots, sustainable brands, panties, a not anymore underage Lolita, body hair and stretchmarks.
What follows is what we made of this conversation with an inspiring friend.
When did your passion for photography start?
My passion for photography started when I was in my first university year: I studied fashion design at Milan’s Politecnico, and one of the classes I attended was fashion photography. The final exam consisted in designing two fashion magazines, one shot inside and the other outside, in a location we could choose. That instantly seemed to me a super interesting project, so I put myself to work and organized everything in detail like a real shooting, from makeup to clothes to casting hours. When the exam day came, I was happy with the two magazines I had put together, but it was thanks to the words of my professor that I was able to see the potential and suggested that I try and keep going with photography.
That was also a way to reconnect with myself. First, because I picked back up an hobby I had when I was in middle and high school, where I used to take Facebook's profile pics for my friends, but also ‘cause I found with photography a space not only of creativity but of calm: for Chiara of the times, who suffered from severe social anxiety, it was so beautiful to be able to stay at peace in a crowded room, ready to concentrate on the shoots, my favorite way to communicate.
How did it become a job?
This too happened during university: due to a few problems with exams, I found myself, in second year, with plenty of time in my hands to use and so I decided to dedicate it to photography.
I started calling friends that work in fashion, creating moodboards to propose shootings. We ended up with such beautiful pics that I decided to send them to fashion magazines, who, to my surprise, started publishing them.
Thanks to word-of-mouth, fashion students started contacting me for their graduation projects, and then brands, influencers, musicians started to contact me too. So came the first payments, and from an amateur I became a professional freelance photographer.
Have your photos always been political or did this trait come later?
No, it is not an in-progress ad, but something that always has been there. Political messages - or rather “social”, as politics are difficult to discuss in these times of uncertainty, but social battles aren’t, Chiara tells me– have been the fil rouge of my pictures from the start, since that first university photoshoot where I decided inclusivity would have been my aim.
Socially engaged photography has always been a big interest of mine: while studying fashion photography, I realized that I was especially drawn by engaged photographers that used their shoots to deliver a social, collective message. I think fashion is an extremely important communication channel, as it reaches so many people, so not using its potential would be such a waste!
This includes my criteria for choosing the people with whom I collaborate: I accept collabs only with those brand or artists that share my same values, otherwise I would see it as self-betrayal.
Among all the beautiful shootings you have done, do you have a favorite one? If yes, which and why?
Yes! There’s two actually, but they are dear to me for the same reason and are also both personal projects that started from ideas I wanted to bring to life.
The first one was shot in 2019 and is about censorship and sexualization of the female body, while the second, shot a year later, is a project I dedicated to survivors’ stories.
When I shoot personal projects, I usually open casting calls on Instagram: I post a story with the main details and those who would like to pose slide into my DMs to know more.
The shooting about censored female bodies was a dare, as I asked for women to pose naked, as so to free their bodies from patriarchal censorship and make them feel beautiful, at ease. I especially stress the “at ease” aspect, not only in freeing them from the stigma, but also on the set: my aim is to make the people that pose for me feel happy and safe, as to go along with the messages we want to deliver, in contrast with the judgmental gazes of daily interactions. And I’m extremely happy that they felt like that thanks to my camera!
The second shooting, dedicated to survivors, was touching, another occasion to create a safe space: my idea for this project was to picture the girls before and after telling us, me and the other girls, respecting the privacy of everyone ofc, their story of abuse and sufferance. You can see from the pictures how their faces, after sharing their story, were relaxed and relieved, as if they had finally lifted from their shoulders a weight that they have been carrying for years, maybe alone, maybe blaming themselves for what happened: to see those girls meet with one another, all together to talk and share deep, hurting stories, made me understand how powerful that meeting had been, and how strong they were, as if they were taking care of one another, in a cathartic experience of connecting, every girl with her different level of awareness.
These are moments I deeply cherish, because shooting pics for me is sharing something with the people that I picture, enriching one another thanks to human connection, acquaintances that many times have become friendships!
Let’s talk about another part of your job. You are a photographer but also one of the founders of Soraya The Label. What’s Soraya and how was it born?
Soraya is a brand that was born a year and a half ago, almost two, founded by me and Elisabetta Creuso. Me and Betta met in university (she, too, has studied fashion design) and suddenly clicked: Betta had the desire to start a brand where she could design clothes, and I had the dream to shoot fashion campaigns my way.
And just like that, during our last year of university, we decided to bring Soraya to life, being it, at the beginning, just a side project of our lives, but now, more and more, an actual project we’d like to call our future job, making collabs with people that share our same goal.
If we were to describe Soraya in one clothing item, the statement piece that comes to mind are our boxers: coming from men’s dressers, we have decided to take it into a genderless piece (as with all the other ones we make) and also one to wear in many different ways, from underwear to beachwear.
This is the spirit of Soraya for us: a brand focused on underwear, intended as “the clothes that are in contact with our skin”, in a gender-fluid fun game that mixes sexy and childish elements together. For the genderless thing, making a little spoiler, I can say that in our next capsule there will be a set of panties and a crop top: instead of a panties and bra set, too feminine, we chose to play with panties and a crop top, easier to style, freer, something to play with.
Regarding the sexy-childish vibes, it is something that incarnates the underwear vibes that me and Betta have always been searching: underwear brands, especially women ones, tend to be extremely sexy or extremely basic, in colors and fabrics, so our idea with Soraya was to create underwear for a “legal Lolita”, something in between a super sexy and super caste girl. First of all, for us, Soraya must be fun!
How do you choose models for your shoots?
For Soraya’s pics I follow the same philosophy I use with my personal projects: Every body that exists is valid!
We usually opt for street castings, where every person that feels confident enough to pose is welcome to join us, no matter the size, the gender, the skin color.
When you start a brand, and choose the values you wanna follow, you have to do concrete actions to prove those values. You can’t cast people with the aim of doing just a politically correct campaign about diversity: we want to make inclusivity your goal and so we choose what for us it means to do so, being it picturing so many different and unique people, not reducing them to categories. If you picture real bodies, you send real messages!
What are the other values behind Soraya?
I’d say that sustainability and sisterhood are never-without ones for us.
For sustainability, it is the values that lay behind the making of our items: Betta’s designes are produced, with the help of seamstresses and other designers, with rolls of waste fabric from large industries. Our idea is to recycle cloths that are still in good conditions, so as to reduce the environmental impact of our brand. As a side effect, people who buy our clothes are buying almost unique pieces: one fabric roll won’t last forever, so one same design could be made with fabrics of different colors and patterns, one piece different from the others.
Along with environmental sustainability, we also care about economical “sustainability”. Producing clothes for a small brand like ours is super pricey. Still, we wanted to keep our prices low enough to be accessible for all people who would like to make a change in the way they shop but are not always in the best economical condition to do so. We believe that buying responsibly should be a choice for all, no matter your economical condition, so we keep prices that are almost like fast fashion but have an ethic of change behind.
Soraya for us is a long-term project, a job: we’d rather start with a lower income but build, while doing so, a community that will believe in us and support us through time, creating a new way of doing fashion!
Sisterhood is another keystone, declined in a genderless sense. We have found ourselves many times in situations where, if women helped other women, if people helped other people, a lot of problems could have been solved. We believe that empathy, mutual understanding and help are fundamental to grow together!
During our chat, Chiara told me a few behind-the-scenes of her job. One of them was one where a friend of her and model, on the day of a shooting, told her she had not shaved after she discovered that Chiara would have been the one to take the pics: “They told me there would have been you, and so I was at ease with my body hair as they are!”. And there, Chiara, realized that she had succeeded in doing something important!
[ all pictures credits go to @xchiaraglionna & @soraya_thelabel ]