The fearless French photojournalist talks about her motivation, and the skills and techniques needed when photographing dangerous groups of people.
When Ilvy Njiokiktjien and five other women photographers joined VII Photo Agency in 2017, the now seven-strong female group decided to turn the tables on men. "At our first meeting, we said, 'men have always been making pictures of women, so now we have to turn it around and do projects about men and masculinity,'" Ilvy says. "We wanted to make these projects a visual reflection of what masculinity is, but also to challenge and reframe it a little."
Ilvy, a Dutch photographer and multimedia journalist, was well-equipped for the task. The Canon Ambassador has tackled a range of subjects during her 12-year career – everything from documenting the right-wing South African organisation Kommandokorps (for which she won a World Press Photo award) to a project on the empty spaces left by people killed when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
Although Ilvy's projects are all different, she says they still have elements in common. "I like to be with people and let them share their stories with me and to show what their lives are like," she says. "My projects are all about people, their day-to-day experiences and big life questions such as love and loss.
"I think what I'm trying to do is to also show [at a time when people in many parts of the world may feel politically, socially or economically divided] that these are things we all experience, wherever we come from."
For her project on masculinity, she decided to explore what it is like for a single man to raise children by himself, using the Canon EOS R System to document the subject. Is a father able to take on both parents' roles? Ilvy was curious to see if a man felt he had to be both feminine and masculine at the same time.
Initially she thought of focusing on divorced fathers, but found that the men she approached usually had a new partner in their life. So instead, she decided to document fathers whose partners had died and were raising their children alone. This would also give a different kind of story, because the children had lost their mothers.
Ilvy found the subjects she needed for her project by posting a message on Facebook asking for widowers to reply. She got just four positive responses, so decided to work with all four of those families.
She told them she would need to photograph them during a part of their week when all the family would spend time together, for example going out for lunch at the weekend. She wanted to take a fly-on-the-wall approach, working as inconspicuously as possible around them as situations played out. She decided to shoot in black-and-white to create a uniform feel to all the images, despite all the variations in the settings and circumstances of the different families.
Inevitably, it took some time for the families to get used to having Ilvy around at family occasions. "It could be hard, because sometimes they wanted to be guided and I didn't want to give them any guidance," she says. "I told them they could talk to me or ask me anything, but asked them not to pose or look at the camera. I said, 'ignore me, just relax and pretend I'm not here.'
"After a while, I became more invisible to them, so I could take better pictures.
"I'm quite patient, so I can sit around and just wait to see what happens. But with some of the families, after about four hours I'd notice that the kids would start to get bored. When I had the feeling that people needed their rest, I'd usually just go away and return later. But like most photographers, I know when I'm going to get a really nice shot and I'd never leave before that moment."
Although the main camera Ilvy normally uses for her work is the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, this project on widowers and their families was the first one she shot on the Canon EOS R. She says the full-frame mirrorless camera brought a number of features that helped her in her work.
"I love the fact that you look through the electronic viewfinder and see what the image is going to look like," she says. "The camera is so easy to use. Technology has moved on and we don't have to do things the hard way any more. Because of that, I didn't miss a single shot."
She used the new RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM lens, which she says is "small and super-sharp", plus her existing EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and other EF lenses, attached seamlessly to the EOS R with a Canon EF-EOS R Mount Adapter.
The camera's completely silent shutter was another plus point when Ilvy was trying to be as invisible as possible. "So many times in recent years I've been shooting in a theatre or at a conference and people have asked me to put my camera on silent mode," she says. "And I say, 'I can't, there's a mirror in the body.' Now I'm just so happy I can put the EOS R on silent mode."
Ilvy found the EOS R's low light capabilities especially useful when working in people's homes. "The last family I went to had quite a dark house, and I went at night because they couldn't meet at any other moment of the day," she says. "The images that came out of the camera from that shoot were lighter than what I was seeing with my eyes. The shots were still super-focused and sharp, and I was really amazed. Afterwards, when I was looking through my files, I found I could use any of them.
"I really love the EOS R – it's compact, especially using the 35mm lens, and from now on I'll shoot many more projects with it. I see it as an important addition to my existing set of cameras."
Although the EOS R brought significant advantages, Ilvy's project wasn't without its challenges. Some of the families had children around the ages of 15 and 16, who were sometimes less enthusiastic than their fathers about being photographed. "Some of the boys were a bit bored and were saying, 'Can we go now? How many pictures are you going to take?'" Ilvy remembers.
However, when some of the images were shown at the Photoville festival in New York in September 2018, in a joint exhibition with other female members of VII titled Her Take: (Re)Thinking Masculinity, any discordant notes were forgotten. "The families all loved them," says Ilvy. "They were thrilled to have their pictures on show. So in the end, it was all fine."
The intimate images Ilvy has created show the families grieving for their lost mothers but also carrying on with life as best they can – shopping, playing, cooking and generally leading a normal life. Ilvy plans to return to photograph each of the four families again, perhaps more than once, to show how they change and develop as the children grow older.
But what did Ilvy herself learn from the project? "From all the families I learned a lot about how to handle grieving people," she says. "The men would tell me things that helped them greatly; simple things such as neighbours making meals for them.
"I also learned while shooting that lots of these children have completely different bonds with their fathers than they ever had with their mother. It's not something the fathers can replace. The mother is a totally different thing from a father, and the children agreed with that."