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What is love? Angela Fama set off in a 1977 motorhome to find out

Vancouver photographer Angela Fama’s latest art project, What Is Love, took everything she had. “I lost my home, my savings, my partner,” said the Vancouver artist and photographer. “I've got nothing left. But I still have Debbie.”

Vancouver-based photographer's art project pushed her to the very limit

Debbie, the 1977 motorhome. (Angela Fama)

Angela Fama's latest art project, What Is Love, took everything she had.

"I lost my home, my savings, my partner," said the Vancouver artist and photographer. "I've got nothing left. But I still have Debbie."

Every person that I connected with was so individually beautiful. And the more I looked into them, the more I got lost in it.- Angela Fama , Vancouver artist, on her project What Is Love

Debbie is Fama's yellow-and-white 1977 motorhome, the vehicle that took her on a two-month journey across North America last year to create the project.

Fama stopped in 20 locations — from Edmonton to Albuquerque and places in between — where she invited strangers into the studio in the back of the RV and photographed them while they talked about love.

She came back with photos and audio recordings of over 300 people — and a radically changed perspective. What had started out as a "naïve vision" of a fun road trip, she said, turned into a transformative experience.

The artist sets up her portrait studio. (Angela Fama)
 

"It was kind of like being caught in a snowstorm," she said. "Every person that I connected with was so individually beautiful. And the more I looked into them the more I got lost in it. And then somewhere along the way I realized I'd forgotten to wear a coat and I was freezing. Like, I basically was dying."

The project took Fama to emotional, physical and financial extremes. The costs of the trip mounted as the old RV struggled on the highways and broke down repeatedly. What's more, she split up with her partner upon their return. But she believes the project was worth the price.

"It's given such beauty in exchange," she said.

Tzui. Montreal, Quebec. (Angela Fama)
Tammy. St. Roch, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Angela Fama)

Fama has worked as a commercial photographer but turned back towards art a few years ago after a life-changing accident.

"I had a pretty hot, black '76 Firebird and I got t-boned by a bus and I had a brain injury," she said.

Her recovery was both physical and spiritual. She confronted the abuse and trauma she had experienced during her teenage years and began exploring it in artistic projects.

"I got really close to finding out what's really important, which I think is love and the heart, and people and connection," she said.

Terry. Ottawa, Ontario. (Angela Fama)
Tammy. St. Roch, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Angela Fama)

This latest project came from a feeling of dissatisfaction with her grasp of the meaning of the word "love." Dictionary definitions, Hallmark and Hollywood depictions as well as her own experiences left her with the sense that she was missing something.

"Because, for me, love had been a pretty painful thing beyond just the usual heartbreak. I just kind of didn't really know what it was everybody was talking about," she said.

The exhibition includes a video installation that combines still photos from 65 of the portrait sessions with audio from those conversations. There's also a book full of the portraits and a display of 100 photographs from the road trip itself. Eventually the full project will be available to view online.

Vancouver artist Angela Fama and 'Debbie', the 1977 motorhome she drove while working on her latest project, What Is Love? (Angela Fama)

Fama said she was humbled by her subjects' willingness to open their hearts to her. And she found joy in the unexpected answers she heard. Although she believes herself to be a good judge of character, her portrait sessions consistently challenged her assumptions about people. She hopes the exhibition will do the same for viewers.

When it comes to love, Fama ultimately learned that there's no single, definitive answer to her question.

"All 300 people — each one of their answers has been and will continue to be, at different points in time, the right answer for wherever I'm at. It's such a shifting thing. It can't be nailed down."

Angela Fama: What Is Love. Exhibition April 7 to May 14 at the Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery as part of the Capture Photography Festival. 108 East Broadway, Vancouver, B.C. V5T 1V9. Artist talk: Saturday, April 9 at 2 p.m.

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