Karla Hiraldo Voleau turns heartbreak into empowerment as she reclaims her story

Following the shocking discovery that her partner was leading a double life in another relationship, Karla Hiraldo Voleau created a raw, honest work that delineates intimacy and desire, and frees her from her former lover

Honesty is so important in love and desire,” says Lisa Taddeo. “But we tend to button a lot of things up because we are afraid.” The American author, whose work serves as a searingly honest document of 21st century sexual politics, is on a mission to instil the complexity of women’s sexuality into our culture. In her book, Three Women (2019), Taddeo takes a forensic look at desire and how it is entangled in every aspect of life. “Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, we’ve been able to talk loudly about what we don’t want, but not about what we do want,” says Taddeo. “People, including other women, don’t want to hear about women’s desire.”

Taddeo’s work illuminates the culture of shame that imprisons women, whether they are owning their desires or addressing their sexual trauma. She describes women’s urgent and necessary need to communicate without fear of retribution. Like Taddeo, Karla Hiraldo Voleau harnesses the messy and challenging aspects of her life experience as personal and collective therapy. The French-Dominican artist has spent the last five years investigating the complexity of love, sex, desire and loss across various cultures from Japan to Italy. From gender dynamics and gaze to sexuality and break-ups, Hiraldo Voleau blends performance and photography to build a site of action and exploration.

In her latest work, Another Love Story, premiering at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in June as part of its Love Songs season, Hiraldo Voleau reveals her most personal work to date. Initially, the project was conceived as a romantic tribute to love, describing how the artist and a previous partner (known as ‘X’ for anonymity) found their way back to each other after a four-year separation.

The project was then radically reimagined when she discovered that X had a double life and was living with another woman. The revelations prompted a profound disruption of her inner and outer world. She was left confronting the difficult reality of finding herself dispossessed in her own story.

“Things were starting to not feel right,” explains Hiraldo Voleau. “Cracks were showing. Lies were emerging. This led me to call his ex-girlfriend, ‘A’, out of the blue. It was one year after we got back together, and I wanted to ask her why she was still in contact with my boyfriend. She replied, ‘Well, he’s my boyfriend too. I live with him. I’ve been his girlfriend for four years. We are trying to have a baby’.” Hiraldo Voleau was shocked. “We realised we were each other’s ‘other woman’. In a seven-minute conversation, we found out that X was a master manipulator and someone with deep troubles.” Hiraldo Voleau immediately booked a train to Paris and the two women met. “We both broke up with him in a dramatic way on the same day. After we discovered everything, he denied my story and tried to silence me.”

In an attempt to reconcile this trauma and reclaim her story, Hiraldo Voleau metabolises the break-up by retelling it. Using a combination of original images and re-enactments created with an actor, she visualises the transformation from the couple’s initial explosion of love and sensuality, to the painful distance and tension as things fall apart. Together these fragments of the relationship become proof of its existence. Hiraldo Voleau initially worked with an actor for legal reasons, but the act of making the work together ultimately emancipated her from her former lover.

“Discovering that your partner has a double life makes you question everything. You start wondering who’s who? Who was this man? What was real? My only way to move forward was to reclaim my voice and my narrative by making this project”

“Every image where you see X’s face, I remade,” explains Hiraldo Voleau. “The images where you don’t see his face are the original photograph. It’s about 80 per cent reconstruction, 20 per cent true. It was important to include the original images as it further blurs the notion of a double life and multiple fictions and realities. Discovering that your partner has a double life makes you question everything. You start wondering who’s who? Who was this man? What was real? My only way to move forward was to reclaim my voice and my narrative by making this project.”

Another Love Story is presented chronologically in 13 panels of images, one for each month of the rekindled romance. Mimicking an Instagram feed, Hiraldo Voleau reflects upon the staging of love and photography’s slippery role as the unreliable witness. It lays bare the social contract to memorialise our relationships online, the pressure to perpetuate perfection and the chokehold of keeping up appearances. In the spaces between each panel, we gain access to Hiraldo Voleau’s dramatic and revelatory conversation with A. Presented as a script, it complicates and contradicts the images while reinforcing the performative nature of romance.

On the surface, Another Love Story is about unlikely personal transformations and what drives people to heal, reclaim themselves and bounce back after heartbreak. But the project’s real work teases out the visceral and vital agency of women’s desire and pain and how talking about it is perhaps the primary way to survive it. Hiraldo Voleau sits alongside a generation of cultural storytellers – from Michaela Coel, Abigail Bergstrom, Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Lisa Taddeo – who use their art to unapologetically centre the lives of young women in all their complexity.

Another Love Story is on show at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie from 17 June to 21 August 2022.

Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher is a freelance writer who contributes to publications such as Aperture, Foam, The Guardian, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and An0ther. She is the host of The Messy Truth podcast - a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. You can follow her on Instagram @gemfletcher