Change Face Photo Project

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How did you get involved in travel photography?

I started photographing at the age of 12. My uncle, who was at that time at the School of Architecture and an amateur photographer made me discover this. My first experiences were made with a Olympus OM10 and I used to develop my photographs in his improvised blackroom. Only later did I start travelling. I had always wanted to travel but had hardly time to do it as a naval fire-officer in Marseille, and later as a paramedic at the Strasbourg SAMU. In 2007, I had been thinking over changing job for a few months, I wanted to see life and people in good health, which was not the case while I worked as a paramedic. I had never ceased taking photographs but had not ever thought either of doing it as a job. As I was coming home from work one evening, I got a phone call from a friend who offered me to take photos of French institutions abroad. There already was a photographer but he was completely overloaded with work. So I immediately accepted and I have now been working with my camera since 2008.

A lot of your photos are portraits. How do you find willing subjects for your portraits when traveling?

This is quite odd because at the start I would not take any portrait at all. As a matter of fact, I was quite shy and although being very attracted by this form of expression I would not manage to make a proper use of it. I used to be completely fond of Steeve Mc Curry’s works ! It was not a matter of technique, but rather of relationships. In my previous job I would always deal with people in dire straits and had no trouble whatsoever in approaching them. But with photography, the relationships to the people is so different. My first portrait was of a young Bedouin girl. I had been walking all day long in this immense and superb archaeological site in Petra. I was sitting on a rock and this girl came to me to sell me some postcards. I replied to her that I actually made them myself as I showed her my camera. I tried to convince her to take a picture of her, but she said no, so I did not insist. She also looked exhausted. She sat next to me and we started a little chat : what is your name? Where do you come from? etc. She told me her family had been pushed off their home because of tourism and now her only source of income was to trade with tourists. Before she left, she asked me to take a photo of hers… My project is to go back to Petra and give her this portrait of her.

This portrait triggered something in me. Since then this is absolutely what I prefer to do : meet the people, talk to her, share thoughts and then shoot them. When I have less time at my disposal I appeal to guides which enable a much faster contact, and help with translation ! It is quite easy to find my subjects, I walk around and leave the rest to chance, and sometimes one single contact can lead to a whole project like Change Face. The idea is to let time for ideas to mature and not to hurry too much.

How do you overcome obstacles such as language differences or suspicion of foreigners?

I have never faced strangers’ suspicion, distrusting strangers is a very western thing, so I think. I have always been welcome by people, although there was sometimes some slight mistrust because of my camera, but nothing really serious actually. Generally speaking, people are friendly, you need to take the time to talk to her and not shoot them just as if you were on a photo safari tour in Tanzania. When the situation looks tensed, because it sometimes happens, you need to defuse it as soon as possible, even before the person has had the time to express his or her discontent. Let’s say you are taking a photograph of somebody on the street and you see he is not liking it. Do not pretend that nothing had happened. Go to him, show him the photo and tell him you are happy of the result. The person is very likely to soften his attitude seeing your being so friendly. As for the language barrier, you only have two solutions : either you take the time to cope with the words you have in common, and you add gesture, drawings, etc. or you can appeal to an interpreter or a guide. This last solution prevails for photo orders or bigger projetcts.

Traveling to a distant location is one thing, but given that most people can only spend a short time of the year doing this or not at all, what about the idea of travel photography in your own area?

It is hard for me to answer this question. I travel all year long, so when I am at home, in Alsace, France, I hardly ever take the camera out of my bag. It happened to me not to have taken any photo for months ! I live in a touristic area. It is very picturesque, with half-imbered houses and a rich history, but this does not inspire me… I have been living here since I was born, and I am used to this environment, hence probably the trouble for me. Perhaps I should once jump in the shoes of a traveller in my own city, I would go to the hotel, have the same touristic activites, that could be an interesting experience !

What are the characteristics that a good Travel Photographer needs to have?

Undoubtedly you need to be patient, sympathetic, you must be able to adapt, to rebound, etc. You can make a very long list !  More than all, I think that one was born a travel photographer. I mean, you have to have a specific mind, you cannot pretend things or learn to act a certain way otherwise people feel it, and it becomes visible on the photos. I remember all the people in my photos, all the stories about the portraits I have made because I love people, and loving people is the first quality of a travel photographer.

Please share 5 quick practical tips for travel photography?

Five, that’s a lot ! Well, let’s start with one, ok? Do travel alone, or with a person who understands what motivates you and who wants to experience that with you. Travel photographing is a demanding job and is much time consuming. You cannot stay at your hotel, on a recliner at the swimming pool (although I have to confess I sometimes also indulge in that). You have to constantly walk in order to find things and photography them, meet the people, talk to them so that they show you how and where to go off the beaten tracks. You have to be curious. While I was touring around Benin on my motorbike I had seen "goldmines" on the roadmap. Nobody could tell me what they were, so I went there with my guide who helped me localize these mines and I have made one of my best series of photos so far.

Is there any particular technique that you could share? 

I have no specific technique to recommend. To shoot successfully, all the more if you are travelling, you need to have a perfect command of your equipment and of all the different factors that may alter your picture. You have to be able to shoot on the spot and most scenes will happen only once. Hence to be fast if fundamental. As for the technique itself, I am more and more interested in long exposure : photo enables to freeze a moment, while long exposure enables to freeze a much longer time lapse on one picture only. Sometimes the result is outstanding. It is not feasible with all the subjects, but sometimes the outcome of a test could be interesting enough.

What equipment do you use now? And what did you start with?
How did a change in equipment help you in your photography?

I am using Nikon. When I used to shoot with films, after using my uncle’s Olympus, I bought a Canon, an incredible camera body whose autofocus function was steered by the eye! That was mere science fiction at that time! When I turned to digital in 2006 I chose the brand Nikon, since the camera body seemed steadier… That means I am not attached to a brand, the camera is actually a tool serving the photographer, nothing more… I have good contacts with Nikon in France and that is why I am sticking to them still now. Whenever I feel some backache, I start looking at hybrid cameras, but I haven’t came across the dream one so far.

Overall, I am not in favour of changing one’s equipment. You need to know your camera by heart in order to be reactive in front of a scene you want to shoot. 

Yet I recently acquired a battery-powered studio flash, a Profoto B1, and I saw a dramatic change in the way I exercise travel photography. The photos are so different, and so is the relationship to the people. As soon as I start using my lightbox, people come on their own initiative and start asking me questions. People are used to seeing regular cameras, but this huge flashing device triggers their curiosity.

What is your greatest achievement to date? Can you name a collection or a single work that you have created, and which, in the most emotional way corresponds with you? Why is it this collection or just this single image so important to you?

My favourite photograph was shot in Ganvié, a lacustrian town close to Cotonou, Benin. It was early morning, I was strolling on a pirogue looking for some fisherman to take some photographs. In Benin, the harmattan wind is strong yet supple in December. This dusty wind whips from Sahara, in the North, and completely obstrucates the heaven. The sun beams cannot make it through. With the morning humidity of the lake the scenery becomes incredible : the sky is white, and the smooth water reflects the white colour of the sky. Many times was I asked whether I had retouched this photograph. No ! Some colour and contrast correction, but nothing too exxagerated, this photo is a perfect reflection of reality. It is important for me, because where it was shot, Benin, is a country I cherish. It is also an echo of purity, which I very much appreciate. I am fond of Vincent Munier, an animal photographer’s work, Our works are not in the same vein yet his work is a great source of inspiration for me. 

What do you hope people take away from your photography? 

I hope that people who watch my photographs feel sympathy, so as I do. I used to be a fireman in Marseille, and then a paramedic in Strasbourg. I like people. Sometimes the daily routine makes me forget it, although it is important for me. So I watch my photographs and I remember. I hope that people who follow my work will experience the same feelings. We all wish the same on Earth and we shouldn’t let a minority dictate our fears and isolate ourselves. Present times are blur but there are many good people, and we need to highlight and leverage this.

Change Face Photo Project, would you care to elaborate on that?

Change Face is a truly important project for me. In 2012, I started touring in Bénin, as I said earlier. I met surprising people, especially in the North, in the Betamarribes tribe country. This group of people scar their faces. The first tribe’s representant crossed my own road. I asked him my way, since I had just rode on 150 km tracks, was exhausted. I hadn’t seen the scars on his face. The man told me where to go and asked me what a yoyo like me (a white man) was doing here. I explained him my project and told him I was a photographer. He then asked me to shoot him, which I did with great pleasure. But it was only once I had reached my hotel in the evening, and had looked at the photograph on my computer that I discovered the scars. I blamed myself for not having been able to shoot a better photo! I then stayed in the North one more week and met many other people with this feature.

Three years later I thought it would be a good idea to go back there with some better equipment in order to photograph these people. During the summer 2015 I was in France for the birth of my son and I started working on the Change Face project. My idea was to go and photograph people who scar, tatoo or piere their faces. Faces fascinate me as they very often have a story to tell. Scars mean that you can not only write the story of a single person, but write the story of a whole tribe. Scars are incredible! So I decided to deal with the first part of my project in Benin and meet the Betamarribe agian. I tried to find the man whom I had asked my way, but couldn’t find him… With this project, I worked for the first time with a studio battery-powered flash. I wanted to highlight the scars in low-angled light. It has been my biggest project since I have worked as a photographer. It is quite tough: you need to find fundings, new tribes to photograph, check out the locations beforehand, but I love that. This way of photographing, so I realised, is something that corresponds me.

Things that that inspire you and make you happy besides photography?

Undoubtedly, beside photographing, what I prefer is travelling, discovering, meeting people. I have been on the road since 2008 and a nomad since 2013. Travelling is a true drug for me.

I will soon change my way of life again, go back to a more traditional way of life in order to match my professional life with my family, as my son was born last year. Yet I won’t stop travelling, it is vital for me, and it my main source of income, too.

Have you considered turning your talent to any other areas?

I would love to try video, not necessarily to meet orders because I am sure many people do that much better than me, but to be able to make interviews and making off regarding my job as a photographer. I am a perfectionist, I always want to get the best possible picture, and the best possible sound. But you need to be equipped for that and equipment takes a lot of room ! I am trying to figure out how I can travel with this huge equipment. Since my Change Face project I also have a battery-powered studio flash, stored in an anti-shock suitcase, fortunately it can also deal as a backup light source for video, but still, this takes a lot of room!

How do you promote your work, and is it important part of your photography?

To promote one’s work is really capital for a photographer, especially nowadays where you must stand out in the crowd to get orders. Ideally I should have an agent or be integrated in a photo agency. To comunicate is a job in itself and it is so difficult to do it by oneself. I can cope with it but I think it could be done in a better way. This part of the job is very time demanding, as for eg. Answering this interview is time demanding too, but I think it could be positive to get awareness on the English speaking network which I still don’t reach enough.

Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you so much for having me in your community and having given this interview to me. Camerapixo is a very valuable comunity and it is a honor to be part of it !
I would like to thank Sophia for the English translation of this interview.

Thank you Julien for taking the time to do this interview.
We are happy to welcome you on board among other photographers.
Your photography is very valuable in this community and very beneficial for our readers.
Camerapixo Team

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