Over the years, you have created a large body of work dedicated to the traces of war - images brought back from Okinawa, the Chemin des Dames, Bosnia, Romania and Kosovo. What drove you to these places, one after the other? Did you know from the onset that this subject would take on such proportions in your work?
I never had a plan; the only thing I did was to not miss landscapes, countries and people. I took the time to walk around, not knowing what I would be looking for. The mainstay of my work is the quest - paths that lead nowhere, roads that stop at the end of the world and where there’s nothing to be found. That’s what I’m interested in: the fact that you never get an answer.
And when occasionally the process is more explicitly militant - as was the case for my trip to Sarajevo – that doesn’t mean there’s a set purpose. Going there was the result of a personal revolt against the position taken by France and Europe, which left a country under siege a mere stone’s throw from here. From 1993 onwards, I travelled there regularly, prompted by a feeling of revolt which preceded photography. Once there, I stayed off the beaten track and followed less trodden paths. I saw the horrors, of course, but my way of “saying” was something else. What I tried to achieve was an image that truly reflected the state of siege.In this picture of Sarajevo, everything seems muffled.
It was in the old Turkish quarter of Sarajevo, in the old market. This photo was taken in January 1994, at a time of heavy bombing. I went there every night, in the pitch black; I wandered through the ghost town, with all its lights off. Being under siege is something you can feel very strongly, but it’s difficult to express in an image. It’s not a question of photographing the destruction, but rather the almost palpable feeling of confinement. I tried to say things otherwise, with an image that contains a kind of muted violence.If there’s a militant commitment, is the image still a document?
All images are documents, but militancy doesn’t necessarily generate good photography. In my film about Paul Rebeyrolle, who is often described as a militant painter, I focused more on the fact that he was a painter first and foremost, and a great painter too. In my pictures of Bosnia, as in those I shot in other barbaric locations during the fifteen years I worked alongside NGO Médecins du Monde, there are very few scenes of war or humanitarian action. There are places, figures, details and lights. What drives me is a desire to take a photograph: it’s almost physically satisfying when you are alone, facing a landscape, composing a mental image. And naturally, the same desire exists in places of great suffering, such as a besieged city. You walk alone at night, nothing’s happening, and you experience a form of elation, you feel at one with the shadows, you want to see the night, to express it; you make contact with the elements, and with the tragedy too for sure. The photography I’m looking to achieve always has a deliberately streamlined, simplified composition; it’s not there to show or demonstrate. I prefer to let people catch a glimpse and imagine the rest.
How did you end up on the Chemin des Dames, another extreme location?
I wandered along the Chemin des Dames, but also across the Argonne, Verdun, in Flanders, in the North of France. I had been exploring this terrain for quite some time, but it took on a whole new meaning in 1981, when I met writer Yves Gibeau, the author of “Allons z’enfants”. This was a man whose entire life had been disrupted by war, including by the “Chemin des Dames”, and who ended up physically returning there when he died, choosing to be buried in the abandoned cemetery of a village that was destroyed in the war. I had thought about starting work on the Chemin des Dames in 1995, after Gibeau’s death: I had already gathered lots of elements, but this was right in the middle of the war in Bosnia, so it took longer than expected. And then the project gradually changed. I became the de-facto caretaker of Gibeau’s house, a former rectory; a dying house, a decrepit library, his world exposed to break-ins and the passing of time… all of this gave the project a new dimension. It was as if my subject had caught up with me: my vision of the rectory became a kind of vanity. Whenever you open a door, another opens after it, and you could spend a lifetime working on it. Photography allows you to converse with the centuries, with history.
There are strong presences pervading your work: durable and loyal friendships, with Gibeau, with Rebeyrolle…
I have met a great many artists and writers, because I spent 25 years working on a series of portraits for daily newspaper Le Monde
: the last portrait of Nathalie Sarraute, one of Louis-René des Forêts, great American artists. It so happens that sometimes, you meet someone who really moves you. I try to live my life as a dilettante, to take time to learn from every person I meet. This happened with Rebeyrolle, as with Gibeau or Bernard Frank. These transmissions are the result of relationships extending over many years, sometimes even decades.
Ultimately, I would say that the common denominator in my work is not my companionship with artists and writers (besides all my portraits): often, absence is what truly characterizes many of my photographs.Your photographs express a very powerful form of plasticity. What materials do you use to fashion your landscapes?
Film photography allows you, contrary to what painters like Delacroix thought (and they quickly revised their judgment), to express much more than merely reality. Photographers have this obsession - like architects and painters - with light, space, foregrounds and backgrounds. What I love about photography is the pleasure of imagining how film can react to materials such as light, angles, speed – which I often tend to keep a bit slow - and how the resulting blur helps to add substance to an image, to depart from accurate representations and come closer to a meaningful feeling for the place. Everything happens when you are shooting, including solid areas of black, white and grey. Very little is down to chance. Portrait photography taught me to see things quickly and decide quickly. Between the location and the landscape I create from it, or the person and the portrait I shoot, a kind of digression very quickly forms in my mind; to me, the instinct, the spontaneity are essential.
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