Layers of meaning: using double exposures to connect people and place

Canon Ambassador Aline Deschamps explains how blending portraits and urban landscapes enabled her to capture the strength and resilience of an Italian community.
A black and white double exposure of an elderly man in a hat and a cityscape of old stone buildings.

Canon Ambassador Aline Deschamps combined portraits of the residents of the Sassi district in Matera, Italy, with images of the ancient cave dwellings that the area is famous for. The unique stone structures, built on the bones of prehistoric settlements, provided a striking visual background. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Aline Deschamps

The story of those who inhabit the Sassi, a district in the Italian city of Matera, is one of resilience. The warren of stone dwellings dates from prehistoric times but in the early 20th century its inhabitants – mostly peasants and refugees – were living in extreme poverty. It became a national disgrace, and in the 1950s, thousands of residents were forcibly relocated; settlements were bricked up and the district was left to decay. The turnaround began in the 1990s, when the Sassi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now tourism has injected new life into the area and the community has reformed.

In 2019, French-Thai documentary photographer Aline Deschamps was one of many photographers invited to Matera for a three-month artistic residency, sponsored by Canon. The opportunity to document the region's transformation resulted in her creating Fiore di resilencia, a double exposure project that combines urban scenes of faded structures and plants clinging to life in what looks to be an utterly inhospitable environment with soulful portraits of the area's inhabitants.

In one sense, Aline's layered photographic approach is a visual representation of the district's complex history. The project blends several photographic genres into one: portraiture, urban landscape and street photography. But for Aline, it all comes under a single umbrella. "In the end, I'm only doing one genre, which is documentary," she says. "Whether it's by posing someone, or capturing life on the street, I'm just telling the stories of these people."

Here, she shares five lessons she learned from using double exposures to document life in the Sassi.

A black and white double exposure of a man with a moustache and a stone archway covered in wild plants.

Plant life is abundant in the Sassi, despite the harsh conditions. "It's something that really strikes you when you walk through the area," says Aline. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Aline Deschamps

A black and white double exposure of a seated man holding bunches of flowers and a field of wildflowers.

It's possible to create double exposures in-camera with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, but Aline used Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® to combine her images, adding or removing opacity with the Brush tool to create effects such as the path running through this subject's head. © Aline Deschamps

Know what you want your photographs to say

Aline's first double exposure project came about by accident, after she mistakenly mixed two rolls of travel film from Paris and Bangkok. The resulting series, Sérendipité, was exhibited at the Rencontres Photographiques du 10e in Paris, in 2016.

She shot all the images for Fiore di resilencia digitally on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and experimented with different compositions in post-production rather than deciding which images she would blend in advance. However, the message she wanted to convey was clear in her mind from the start: how the stone roots of the town and the plant life that has flourished despite the hostile environment mirrored the strength and tenacity of the Sassi's inhabitants. She spent her time searching for scenes and compositions that might lend themselves to her story, such as the skeletal branches of a tree that could form the backdrop for a portrait.

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"Matera is made of stone, so you'd think there'd be no life in the Sassi, but there are wild plants everywhere." she says. "Even though the soil is not fertile, plants still manage to thrive. The inhabitants of the Sassi were completely rejected; everything was done to deter them from living there, and yet they remain. Using the double exposures as a metaphor, it was this resilience that I wanted to portray."

A black and white double exposure of a man in a flat cap walking beside a wall and a close-up of a small tree in bloom.

Aline focused on capturing street scenes and fleeting moments as well as more formal portraits – note the additional figures to the right of the frame. © Aline Deschamps

Connect with your subject

The residents were happy to participate in Aline's project, which meant she could experiment with different compositions. Her portraits vary in form: some are dynamic street-style shots, while others feel more personal.

The project taught her the value of intimacy, even under difficult circumstances – Aline doesn't speak much Italian, and yet she was still able to forge a connection. "Even now, I think, 'How did I do that? How did I communicate?'" she says. "It gave me the confidence to not be afraid of meeting new people."

Aline was welcomed into people's homes, and invited to share family meals and attend religious ceremonies, but connecting with a subject can also be about smaller moments, as she discovered while shooting street portraits. "Sometimes there is a moment where you take somebody's photo; they see you, and you exchange a smile," she says. "You end up talking to that person, and you think, 'Okay, let's do a second photo now that you're aware I exist,' and it becomes a portrait."

Use a camera that supports your creative vision

Aline shot the project on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, in large part due to its dependable and easy-to-use autofocus. "You can focus with one finger and capture the image," Aline says. "It helps you to be super versatile. I think it's my favourite feature of this camera."

The EOS 5D Mark IV's ability to move seamlessly between shooting stills and video also proved useful. When Aline was capturing videos of the Sassi's residents and found the perfect moment for a portrait, it was very simple to switch modes. "You don't have to go through the menus. You don't have to waste a few seconds – that are actually very precious – to change from one to the other," she says.

A tourist, wearing a coat, a backpack and a hat, pictured from behind facing an old cobbled street at evening with lights twinkling on a dark hill in the background.

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A black and white double exposure of a man with glasses leaning against a wall and a religious procession through stone streets.

Aline was permitted to join the town's religious processions and ceremonies – no small thing, as the community is quite divided over the significant increase in tourism it has experienced in recent years. © Aline Deschamps

Ensure your lenses suit your needs

Aline needed a flexible setup for her style of documentary photography and chose two lenses, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, to cover the focal range she needed.

"The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is definitely the lens I prefer for portraits," she says. "I can get a blurred background and really sharp details – I just love it. I use the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM when I need to be more versatile – when I'm in a small room, for example, and can't step back far enough to use the 50mm."

Both lenses are relatively compact, which was useful when discretion was key. "A larger lens might have scared people," Aline says. "I don't think anyone would have spoken to me if I'd had a bigger lens. I think they'd have thought I was spying on them. People noticed me with my small lenses, but I'd end up talking to them and usually be able to shoot a portrait."

A black and white double exposure of the silhouette of a man standing behind a fence and a field of wildflowers.

The regeneration of the Sassi is an ongoing process, and many people who live in and around the area are uncertain of what the future holds. Aline's images are imbued with a sense of mystery that reflects this sense of an unfinished story. © Aline Deschamps

Use post-processing as a chance to experiment

Aline created her double exposures in post-production, keeping an open mind and embracing opportunities to experiment. "Other people may do it differently, but I like to try things out," she says. Once Aline found two complementary photos, she worked out which parts of each image she wanted to be most prominent in the final version. Using Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®'s Brush tool, Aline painted the sections she wanted to stand out, such as faces, and then adjusted the opacity of each image in different areas.

"You can select the parts you want to erase," she explains. "It becomes like painting, enhancing the parts you want to show and removing those you don't. It's something I really enjoy. It's similar to developing film in black and white: only the parts of the photo that you put the chemicals on will be developed. There are no rules; it's just a different creative process."

Jon Stapley

Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Aline Deschamps' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Aline Deschamps' kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is a beautifully engineered and thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. Aline says: "You can focus with one finger and capture the image. It helps you to be super versatile."


Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, the super fast EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a consummate low-light performer. "It's definitely the lens I prefer to use for portraits," Aline says. "I can get a blurred background and really sharp details – I just love it."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This L-series lens has a reputation among professional photographers as being the go-to zoom lens, thanks to it’s sharp optics and ability to be used in almost any environment. Aline says "I use the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM when I need to be more versatile – when I'm in a small room, for example, and can't step back far enough to use the 50mm."

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