Inside the “surreal ecosystems” informed by a depersonalisation disorder

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© Chloé Milos Azzopardi

A trip to Shanghai allowed Chloé Milos Azzopardi to open her mind – and image-making – to the fictions and interconnectedness of the natural world

When Chloé Milos Azzopardi was 16, she began to lose her sense of self. A sudden family loss triggered a depersonalisation disorder, an experience of extended detachment from one’s body, actions, feelings or thoughts. “My relationship to my body became blurry, I didn’t know where it started and where it stopped,” says the French photographer, now 28. “I couldn’t recognise my own face. I became a stranger to myself.”

The trauma disorder lasted for more than a decade. Over time, Azzopardi learned to cope by observing her environment and projecting herself into the ‘sensations’ of animals, plants and ephemera. “It was as if I didn’t have boundaries and had dissolved into everything around me,” she says. “I was projecting myself into other beings, so I could understand what defined them to understand what was defining me. It was like working with projections to get back to myself.”

This complex process is brought to life in her ongoing project, the roots of which coincided with her discovery of photography during her fine art degree at the European School of Visual Arts: “I could meet people and discover things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have a camera,” she recalls.

Her relationship to the medium intensified during a six-month research programme in China in 2017. Azzopardi was initially hesitant about travelling so far because of her depersonalisation disorder, but in the suburbs of Shanghai she experienced a strange sense of homecoming. “What struck me in China were the huge changes in the cities and countryside. Everything was construction or destruction. There was no limit between urban and rural,” she says. “I felt that the identity of the landscape reflected the lack of consistency in my body. I recognised myself in it, and I felt comfortable there.”

In an attempt to represent this “spectral” experience, Azzopardi began to hunt for ghosts: a dog in an abandoned building, a dust sheet blowing in the wind, a glint of street light on an old mirror. “The important thing was the sensation of coming face-to-face and recognising each other, of echoing the spectrality of the other,” she says of her subjects.

As her project progressed, Azzopardi’s long-held fascination with animals came to the fore. Edited for colour but never content, her ethereal images dart between planned and spontaneous moments, creating a “surreal ecosystem”. A snake is cradled in human hands, tiny fish appear to whisper in the ear of a swimmer, and butterflies eat sugar off fingers.

The photographs are chapters in her “futuristic fable”, where bonds between different species are formed and vulnerabilities are approached with care.

Sitting somewhere between documentary photography, magical realism and eco-fiction, the project is titled Les formes qu’ils habitent en temps de crise (The forms they inhabit in times of crisis). The crisis refers to Azzopardi’s personal struggle, but also to that of the planet, as she responds to the ‘Capitalocene’.

An alternative concept to the Anthropocene, it highlights the actions of capitalism, rather than all humans, in contributing to this era of ecological crisis. “I’m trying to construct post-Capitalocene imaginaries that we can project ourselves into,” she explains.

“A lot of fiction is about the end of the world, but I want to reimagine the way we behave with other living beings – to recognise ourselves in the otherness in front of us, to not enter into a system of dominance. My disorder opened up possibilities of what our relationship to our surroundings could be if we weren’t so centred on ourselves.