When I first laid eyes on Cécile André’s portraiture of Reine Hermione Etalle, I was captivated. It’s something about Reine’s eyes–deep pools of crystalline blue offset by striking skin and hair. This is Moonchild, a photographic series celebrating the beauty of those living with albinism.
This rare genetic anomaly causes severe visual impairment and reduces the amount of melanin produced in the body. It’s melanin that determines the colour and shade of our skin.
20-year-old Reine was born and raised in Dimbombari, in the southwestern corner of Cameroon, before migrating to France. For the first six years of her life, she grew up in a country where some considered her a descendant of God, while others thought her the devil reincarnated. A time I can only imagine as having been terribly confusing and disruptive for someone so young.
“I was lucky to be born into a family where I was not rejected by my parents unlike other people with albinism, who can be seen as monsters by their families.”
When Cécile came across Reine on Instagram, she felt compelled to reach out. “I am very interested in the so-called atypical profiles. I look for singularity in the people I photograph.”
Acting on a feeling, Cécile struck up a conversation, and for over six months, the two forged a close friendship online. Once COVID allowed, the photographer invited Reine to her hometown in Nantes. “I don’t approach my subjects in a conscious way; they impose themselves on me. I’m drawn to themes of femininity, gentleness and strength.”
In their gorgeous collaborative photoshoot, Reine is iconic. But not in an overt way, rather the opposite. Thanks to stunning cosmetology from Antoine Lermite and Alban Pasteau, Reine literally glows–there’s an aura about her. Drenched in soft tones, she appears as an empress or oracle. Shot delicately on a Mamiya RZ 67 medium format film camera, the images leap out of the frame. Cécile does an excellent job of allowing Reine’s personality to shine through, her infectious grin juxtaposed with strong gazes and almost meditative states.
“Reine is a very interesting, intelligent person. Very sensitive too. And with great strength of character.”
When asked about her intentions behind the Moonchild series, Cécile explains it’s all about championing difference. “I just like to show diversity in the bodies I photograph.”
The name Moonchild lends itself to far-away places and again calls back to the legends that Reine explained still exist in her culture. In my mind, the shoot inspires acceptance and promotes self-worth.
In one of the most powerful frames, words of empowerment adorn Reine’s face. Cécile is excited to share that this particular shot has been selected as part of a collective exhibition in Milan.
Horribly, after one of Cécile’s shots was featured via Kodak’s Instagram, social media trolls ridiculed Reine’s appearance.
“I felt really bad for Reine; she’s been hit with attacks her whole life. My Instagram is meant to be a safe place. Getting shared by Kodak was an honour, but I didn’t expect this kind of criticism.”
Despite the malintent of the attackers, Reine’s pictures are unperturbed. And if anything, given more power. A person, embracing themselves entirely and without compromise. Happy on both the inside and outside. And that alone is beautiful.