Artist Spotlight: Jamil Hellu

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com June 08 2013 3:00 AM ET

With Jamil Hellu's series “Guardians of the Golden Gate,” he invites his subjects to create fictitious superhero characters, providing them the opportunity to express themselves led by their own imagination. By putting together specific costumes, each individual constructs a unique character inspired by personal ideas around mythology and archetypal superheroes.

This work is about creativity and role-playing as much as it is about manifesting interpretations of identity, particularly as it relates to self-representation in photography.

As each individual invents a distinctive character to be photographed, the camera becomes an instrument of escapism, offering people to opportunity to create their own fantasy self.

Click through from more of Hellu's Guardians.

The Advocate: You have so many models, how have you found them, are they your friends? Did you advertise?
Jamil Hellu: The great majority of them are my friends. The project started with two of my closest friends and it kept on growing. I put a call on Facebook a couple of times inviting anyone to participate. I posted few examples of the work and people started to respond with positive feedback. I have been photographing more people lately and the project continues to expand. The project is open to anyone who wants to be part of it, no discrimination whatsoever. And the more creative people get with their ideas, the more interesting it is.

Has anyone dressed in a costume that you would not shoot for some reason or objection?
Not really. As long as the costume sticks to the concept of Guardians and superhero characterizations, people can dress up any way they want.

You often pose your subjects in very public places. It is San Francisco, of course, so people are more accustomed to that, but has anything out of the usual happened during a photo shoot?
One of my subjects is a transsexual who wanted to be photographed in front of the Transamerica building in the Financial District of San Francisco. We scheduled the shoot for Presidents’ Day, hoping fewer people would be around. It was cold and very windy. As soon as I setting up my camera on the tripod, someone heading to the garage asked us if we worked in the building. I said yes. I knew then I had to work fast before getting into trouble. I saw the security guard getting out of the building and walking toward us. I told my friend, “We gotta do this now! Put your mask on and take your jacket off.” I quickly took two pictures. When I turned around, someone said to the security guard, “Look! It’s Spider Woman!” I nodded and that was it. It was the fastest photo shoot I have ever done in my life.

Tell us about what you would wear for your own photo shoot — or are any of these self-portraits?
I had my photograph taken already and it is part of the series. Some people recognize me, some don’t, which is nice. I like the double take result. I don’t look at any of the work as self-portraiture. The photographs are expressions of people’s ideas and of the collaborations that emerge between us in front of the camera. [Editor's note: The picture above is not necessarily Jamil Hellu. He did not tell us if his image was included in the portfolio.]

See more about Jamil Hellu here.