An Elvis tribute artist from Wigan hits Memphis: Clémentine Schneidermann’s best photograph

‘I have been photographing John Paul ever since I saw him at a festival in Porthcawl at the age of eight, dressed in a beautiful white Elvis suit’

I have come to know the boy and his mum in this picture quite well. I was studying documentary photography at the University of South Wales in 2013 when I came across the annual Elvis festival in the small seaside town of Porthcawl. I went back the next five years running, inspired and intrigued by how much Elvis resonated in people’s lives.

On my second visit, I ended up in this room behind the bar at one of the venues, where artists were getting changed. I saw this little boy who was performing there at only eight years old, wearing this beautiful white Elvis suit. He was concentrating, taking his job very seriously, and I asked if I could take his portrait. His mother, grandmother and grandfather were there as well. His name was John Paul and, at that time, his stage name was Johnny B Goode. I’ve been documenting his Elvis work ever since.

The following year, I returned to the festival and that back room where, again, I caught John Paul getting changed for his act. His mum, Alison, told me they were off to Memphis to take part in a competition, and I told her I would be travelling in the US around then and asked if I could join them in the city.

So in August 2016, I met up with John Paul, his mother and his grandmother, Margaret. John Paul was taking part in a youth competition in a big theatre on Beale Street, the main street in Memphis. He also went to record his album at Sun Studio. And then the family visited Elvis’s grave at Graceland. It was a very emotional moment because John Paul’s grandfather – who was also a big Elvis fan – had died the year before.

I’d had this random point-and-shoot camera for ages, more like a snapshot camera, and I took it with me because I wanted less controlled images. Images that felt more like holiday pictures, in a way. I managed to take a few pictures that were all right, including this one. Normally I would use a medium format camera, which is higher resolution. This camera is more grainy and just different.

I don’t remember exactly where this was taken but I do remember that his mother’s tattoo was a fake one she’d got on the trip. I think it was probably a car park outside Graceland. John Paul’s suit was made by his grandmother, who has since died, too. She had a room in her attic with a sewing machine and she made all his outfits.

John Paul started being interested in Elvis when he was two and he sang as Elvis for the first time – If I Can Dream – when he was four. He’s been singing ever since. He’s 16 now, at college studying music, and I’m still in touch with him. He has gained a lot of confidence on stage, his voice has matured. It’s been very emotional to see him becoming a man and hear his voice evolve. His mother has been very supportive and encouraging. I went back to the Porthcawl Elvis festival this year, in September, and saw him again. He’s aiming to be a professional in the entertainment industry and is currently giving concerts in local social clubs as well as care homes and other venues in his native Wigan.

After my degree, I decided to stay in Wales because I was feeling so inspired and making lots of work there. Then, in 2016, I did a a practice-based PhD, working on a project with youth groups in the Welsh valleys for which we created pictures and ran workshops. We exhibited that project in 2019 at the Martin Parr foundation in Bristol. For my project Laundry Day [two pictures from which won the Taylor Wessing portrait prize], I photographed my nextdoor neighbour during lockdown, doing daily chores and resting in her garden.

I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, in a small and quiet town. In retrospect, I can see that the little things that take place in a suburban context are what informs my interest in finding original stories that might otherwise get overlooked.

Clémentine Schneidermann portrait

Clémentine Schneidermann’s CV

Born: Clamart, France, 1991
Trained: CEPV, Vevey, Switzerland and the University of South Wales
Influences: Lisette Model, Julian Germain, Bruno Dumont, Lise Sarfati, Alessandra Sanguinetti
High point: “Winning the Taylor Wessing prize last week felt surreal.”
Low point: “Social media pressure and anxiety for creatives.”
Top tip: “Be curious and passionate about the smallest things, even if they seem insignificant to others.”

Contributor

Interview by Amy Fleming

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