Elisabeth Ouni isn’t your average music fan. Not content with sitting at home sifting through zip files, forums, and the nether region of the YouTube comment section, she heads out into the world, looking to meet her idols. Sometimes Elisabeth gets shot down but often she succeeds. So far, she’s hit the bong with Wiz, spied on Kendrick taking a nap, and taken Gil Scott-Heron out for lunch.
Each time it goes right, and the walls between fan and artist are shattered, Elisabeth takes a polaroid. Pusha T, D’Angelo, ScHoolboy Q – they’ve all been snapped in Elisabeth’s six year journey which started back in 2009, after taking a chance photo of Pharrell. Turning stalking into a fully fledged art project, her photos have been displayed on the site A Polaroid Story - which features the tagline No Balls, No Glory: a mantra that should be taken on by every spam-heavy struggle rapper – and her story is now being turned into a documentary, which can boast appearances from Cypress Hill, Dizzee Rascal, A$AP Rocky, Erykah Badu, Grace Jones and many more.
I caught up with Elisabeth to hear her stories, which are bound to push even the most pedestrian of music fans into sweat-balled envy.
Noisey: Hey Ouni! So, what spurred you to chase down rappers with a polaroid camera?
Elisabeth Ouni: Hip-hop has always been the music I took to. I’m half Tunisian, so maybe it’s in my blood. At its core, hip-hop is very motivational, in its essence it has always been about the struggle of being somewhere in life and trying to hustle to another better place. I left home at 16 and the genre helped me to stay motivated when needed. It was the music that lifted me up and inspired me.
Deep. I thought it might just have been because you had a crush on Pharrell. How do you get access to stars?
I always have to explain the project first. At the beginning it was so hard for me, because I wasn’t a journalist. The first few times I did it I had no idea you even needed a press pass. I was super naïve, it came purely from a fan point of view. I was so awkward, asking people if I could get a polaroid of them.
Do you have some sort of prepared speech for people now?
Yep. I’ve got the same thing that I fall back on, I’ve got it down to about four lines of explanation. It’s pretty useful, because in some situations you literally have no time. It’s got to the point now where artists are giving me advice on how to approach other artists - I had J Cole telling me how to speak to Jay Z, because he’d door stepped him before too.
What’s J Cole’s professional advice on how to approach Jay Z? I’m interested for the next time I try to do it.
He told me to really prepare. He once stood outside Jay Z’s studio and tried to give him his demo, and he had a pitch prepared for him, so I’ll take his advice.
What else stands out?
There was a festival in Brussels. I guessed which hotel artists would be staying at and I was waiting for my assistant when I saw Gil Scott-Heron in the street outside. I went up to him and asked him if he was who I thought he was. He replied, “Yes. I can’t find any food in my hotel. Can you please get me some food?” I asked him if he wanted to get some fries, and so we went for really modest, typical Belgian food. I felt pretty bad asking him for a Polaroid after we’d eaten together.
It’s pretty lucky he liked you. Has it ever not gone well? Has someone told you to fuck off?
Yeah, I was in a backstage area once, and some DJ’s wife was super mad that I was there. It was really early on in a Polaroid story, and she just came in and was like “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE”. I think it was the wife of one of Cypress Hill. She wanted to throw beer at my head.
She sounds like a villain.
It’s rarely like that. Most people are relaxed and normal. I went out with Mark Ronson and his backing vocalists in a jazz bar in Brussels once - it was a super cosy, normal night. It wasn’t a night out with friends; you’ve got to remember that these people are not your friends. But it’s nice to have normal nights with people like Mark Ronson - he gave me the space to ask all my questions. That’s what I look for in a story. I try and get people to be as normal as possible. That way, you really get something out of them that you might not expect at all.
You’ve managed to get really intimate pictures with some huge names - Diplo with his shirt off, Pharrell without his hat. Has anyone made you feel uncomfortable?
No. I try and be in the moment as much as possible. It’s crucial to realise I am in their space - you have to be respectful. If they’re trying to be themselves, then I like it. I don’t want them to be extra nice to me; I want them to be real as possible. If they’re grumpy that day, then great. It’s playing with energy a bit. You try to adapt to their energy. I’m always like “Yo. You have to tell me if I’m making you feel uncomfortable”.
Who did you think was going to be an asshole and then turned out not to be?
I’ve got to emphasise that I’ve never had rude people. I’ve been doing this too long that I’ve got too much empathy, though I have to say I was blown away by Wiz Khalifa, and the way he is. He’s one of the most unexpectedly warm people. We ended up having some sort of weed fuelled pyjama party with him backstage at a music festival. I did not expect to have a bong session with Wiz, or for him to be totally into shoes, or for him to be so into the different cameras we were using.
So, who is on the hit list in 2015?
I’ve really been feeling like I want to do Kanye.
You’re not joking. Do you think it’s possible?
Definitely! The road towards Kanye is a bit unclear. I’ve tried a few angles that I know, and I can’t commit myself to them again. It’s a different kind of hustle. Then it’s like, what will I see? I’ve seen his interview with the guy from the BBC. It’s super intense. As the person asking the questions, I’d be like “fuuuuuuck”. I don’t know how controlling he’d be about certain things.
I think we can make a good guess at what level of control he’d want.
At the end of the day, if I could just get a story and the polaroid, that would be insane. To get that with Kanye would be awesome.
Thanks Ouni. Keep hustling. Hustle hard!
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