A Polaroid Story"
Words Nina Byttebier
Pictures Alexander Popelier
Hair and Make Up Stefanie Lisabeth
Elisabeth Ouni, the driving force behind “No Balls, No Glory, A POLAROID STORY” (APS for short) is both a stunning and head-strong lady who made a lot of people jealous, almost by accident, but mainly by not taking no for an answer. At five years old this summer, APS has proven not to be just another photo story. It's the story of Ouni -who has proven not to be just another average groupie- and the how and why she captured an incredible number of the world's biggest hip hop and RnB shots, on the world's most ephemeral photo medium.
Since she can remember, Elisabeth was always into everything hip hop, r&b, funk and jazz. Growing up in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend (a city formerly dubbed as the Queen of the coast), Elisabeth left home at 15 and went to live on her own. At that time in Belgium there wasn't really an interest for the music genre she loved the most – everything was more mainstream, rock and electro - and it was really hard to find hip hop parties, so she sought out the MTV The Lick parties and places like City Queens in Ghent and got more and more involved in the whole scene.
Modelling had been her main gig for a while but when someone gave her the -maybe rather harsh- advice that “If you can't buy a house off your modelling career, you better quit and get some real job experience “ it kind of stuck. Mainly out of peer pressure and people telling her she'd end up on the street without a degree, Ouni tried studying again but the challenge of juggling school, modelling, bar work and taking care of herself wasn't very rewarding. “I felt everything was too forced, so I just thought 'Fuck it!'”
Elisabeth got the opportunity to work as a public relations showroom assistant, from there on grew into traditional PR and eventually moved into content creation, marketing and digital PR. She currently works as a freelance Digital Media Consultant with specialties in Digital PR and Content Creation. As a Social Media expert, Ouni explains it is a great way to reach and engage with an audience that likes and supports what you do. "Especially for the blog, It gives the opportunity for my stories to be read by different type of audiences. For me it’s a work tool. I try to be conscious about it and acknowledge both the strength and downside of the social medium.”
Her main passion, APS, obviously heavily relies on Ouni's online skills. But it all started out very analogue, when she found a bunch of cheap old Polaroid cameras in the thrift store under her house. “ It was around the time when they were going to stop producing film, so I just bought up all the film they had in store and started experimenting. You know, taking random pictures of the Ostend beach. Once in a while they got published but I didn't have any ambition to go somewhere with it.”
"Then one day I had tickets to go see N.E.R.D. at a Belgian festival called Lokerse Feesten and said to some of my friends: “How cool would it be if I got a Polaroid of Pharrell?!” They just laughed it away, as a lot of people do when they believe something is unreachable. Just the fact that people were so dismissive about this gave me that extra push. The idea just got stuck in my head; I needed that photo, one way or another. So, long story short, at some point I found myself on the side of the stage during the concert and a guy from their entourage gives me a little push towards Pharrell yelling "come on girl, go get your polaroid then". So I had to go on stage in the middle of his performance in front of a huge crowd and kind of go tap him on his shoulder and be like 'hellooo, can I ...' So I got the shot! That was the time of the song ‘Everybody Nose' from the Seeing Sounds album and the gimmick was to get all the chicks on stage since that was their last song. So all these girls climbed on stage and all of them went backstage with the band as if it was nothing. I was completely overwhelmed and impressed by the experience that it triggered a whole new fascination for this whole world behind it."
"Two weeks later there was another concert, The Roots with Black Thought and Questlove, same spot, and I thought I'd just try it again. I remember that I was crawling under the stage with Black Thought, because he had too many fans behind him so we kind of ran away from the crowd and at one point we looked at each other and I just went for it: 'Can I please take a polaroid?' He was super sweaty and surpirsed 'Oh, ok, yeah sure.' Then when I finally got in the backstage, I opened a door and saw Questlove sitting there, playing on his phone with something called Twitter -this many years ago, I had never heard of it. He was talking to Zoë Kravitz and I asked him, what's this? He said “This is Facebook on steroids.” So five years ago I created a twitter account because of him. That was a whole new world for me, but so many artists got onto that super early. Getting on the platform in that early stage did help me get a better insight in the artists' hangout places, secret gigs etc. It was -and still is- a good social media tool to help spread my stories and let them travel faster on the world wide web. Artists re-tweet and follow up on the stories. It once happened that in response to my Blackstar story Talib Kweli started a discussion via Twitter and later by email about my perception of him where he did not agree on. He is very active on Twitter, saw my story appear and landed at my first APS feature about him where I explained that my first impression of him was a bit disappointing. And he wasn't really happy about that..."
Ouni started uploading her polaroids on her MySpace account and got a lot of feedback “I mean, a lot in MySpace terms meant ten to twenty likes!” She then started putting them on Facebook and when people were asking who took those photos and where she got them, Elisabeth realised she never really explained the stories behind them. She found out about Wordpress, figured out how it worked and overnight A Polaroid Story was born. With some help from digitally savvy friends and advice on digital presence and content, APS started gradually growing and became what it is today.
2014 holds a lot of exciting steps for Ouni and A Polaroid Story; a brand new website is scheduled to be launched end of February and she is currently getting funding together for a series of exhibitions touring several cities such as London, Berlin and Paris, each directed by a different curator. Ouni hopes to do at least an APS x LONDON edition in 2014. For those who can wait a bit longer, there are plans in the making for an APS book – which will look into the photographer's personal development throughout the years (without sounding too heavy here). “I've changed a lot and have a whole different approach now. I'm a lot less naive and organise things a lot more professionally and strategically. I really know the ins and outs now, I take assistants with me, a photographer to document the whole thing and I'm starting to do more and more video. I used to queue up 3 hours before a gig started and go stand front row, trying to get the attention of the artist, the girly way. Today that's different. It's pretty funny actually because fundamentally I'm not at all the groupie type of girl. I'm actually very shy and so in awe of the artists I meet. Some years ago when I finally was face to face with some of my idols and the time to say my classic line “Can I please take a polaroid picture?” had come, I couldn't even get the words out of my mouth.”
When I ask her which artists she'd like to capture in 2014, Ouni replies: “Too many to mention. But I hope to finally capture Kanye in 2014. Drake is on my wish list. I would be very happy to capture the entire Wu-Tang Clan as it exists today. And Dr Dre. and Grace Jones, and….”
Sometimes of course, Ouni's brave attempts don't work out the way she wanted to. She can spend days of preparation and hours of waiting and not get a single shot. Those stories also get published online and it's exactly those 'failures' that make APS such a powerful medium that is very human and very honest. 'That's what makes people read and come back. I have a steady community of about eight- to ten thousand regular visitors and I notice they're all very enthusiast. They really read the articles, they're early adaptors, know a lot about the music and I don't have to pretend to teach them anything. Actually a lot of the time they teach me; introducing me to new shit and keeping me going.”
The fact that the blog is real is also appealing to the artists. She is not the typical press person, photographer nor groupie; her personal and sweet -but persistent- approach have proven very successful. “Even though I got kicked out of plenty of backstage areas before, people got to know me as 'that chick with a cool blog'. I overheard managers say to the artist like “You gotta do this, this is real.” It's small and it's real and that's what they like about it.”
Ouni currently takes Polaroids with Impossible Film