Categories : Narration, Photography

19 Feb

«When lots of different experiences suddenly come together»

David Dufresne, the investigator/director of Prison, interviews Philippe Brault, the photographer/director of Valley. Variations on a single theme – the web documentary, itself a series of variations on and blends of our jobs (photographer, reporter, video director). A strange exercise:

Interviewing your alter ego and mate, asking him the type of questions you would in conversation, continuing the work of more than a year by inviting him in for a discussion. ‘I’ is a different person – Prison Valley.

Well, mate… You’ve been a photo-journalist for the last 17 years… How has this first web doc changed the way you work?

A lot! A photographer usually chooses his position and his distance from the subject -  and at the end you only use one photo. For Prison Valley, I had to stop thinking in terms of single pictures and more in terms of photographic sequences. That meant taking a greater number of shots from a greater number of different angles. And accepting that some of the pictures used to edit the film would be “weaker” than those I would have chosen if I were just using them as photos. That was a completely new way of working for me.

Bent Jbeil, southern Lebanon, 2007. Mohamed used to live in this house in the centre of Bent Jbeil. He lost two sons in August 2006 during the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel. Guatemala City 2008. El Rosario quarter, Zone 18. Gerson Lopez Chavarric aka “El Catracho” (“The Honduran”), a 22-year-old gang member, is shot by security guards. Kosovo 2008. Radojka Maksimovic lives with her son in Strpce, a large Serbian enclave in the south of Kosovo. Her husband was decapitated after the 1999 war. His murder has never been investigated.

Bent Jbeil, southern Lebanon, 2007. Mohamed used to live in this house in the centre of Bent Jbeil. He lost two sons in August 2006 during the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

All the more so since you’ve been working for the last few years in an entirely different format from the last century or maybe even the last two centuries, my friend…

That’s right. In 2006, I put away my reporting gear, changed my working methods and started working with a view camera. It’s heavy, but it seemed to suit my rhythm and my own ideas better. I changed the way I approached a subject. I didn’t act like an ‘image stealer’ anymore; I staked my claim to be a real photographer, with a tripod and a dark cloth, old-style (I think of Erin when I say that, one of the characters in the film, who taught us a lot and made a great impression on us – you’ll see!). My position changed. This new approach to photography made it easier for other people trust me. It helped me approach violence situations, like in Lebanon, Kosovo and Guatemala, more calmly. With a view camera, you only allow yourself a couple of shots for each scene. To use it properly you have to know exactly what you want the picture to say. Every picture you take has its relevant place in a series of photos. Digital photography is just the opposite – there are no limits. There’s a danger of spreading yourself too thin if you take too many shots.

But for Prison Valley, you went back to using “faster” equipment. How did that change the way you went about your work? Have you changed the way you frame your shots for this web documentary? And if so, how?

Not fundamentally, I don’t think. Whatever the story you want to tell, you are always faced with the same choices. What do you keep in the frame? What do you leave out? It’s like writing – you’ve got to have a certain style, culture and savoir-faire. But our decision to shoot in ‘cinema’ format (quite like cinemascope) often forced to take an extra step back so that I didn’t cut a crucial piece of information out of the final picture. Since you don’t actually see the ‘cinema’ format in the viewfinder of a photographic camera, it forces you to use your imagination and to anticipate a lot, like in the movies where you film with black masks at the top and bottom of the picture, or else without masks but imagining that there are black strips there.

Cañon City, Colorado. June 2009. Extract from Prison Valley

Cañon City, Colorado. June 2009. Extract from Prison Valley

Before we set out the first time, I remember us having long and impassioned discussions about formats with Upian’s development team and in particular Sébastien Brothier, who loves photography, and Alexandre Brachet, our iconoclastic producer. It’s very technical and it’s very important. Tell us a bit about that.

It’s true, we had quite a few questions, with the team from Upian, about which format to use for the final broadcast version – 4/3, 16/9 or panoramic! It was essential that we all agreed before we left for Colorado. We had to take account of the most widespread format of computer screen whilst also demonstrating our wish to differentiate ourselves from the most common visual styles you find on the Net, in particular by choosing a more ‘cinematic’ format. For Prison Valley, we decided to shoot in 24×36 digital, a very dynamic format, a good one for reports. I must admit I hadn’t used that format for quite a while.

You changed your methods quite a lot between the first shoot in Colorado (June 2009) and the second (September 2009). The first and most obvious thing is that you started shooting more videos. How did you deal with that?

On our second trip, we both knew exactly which pictures we needed to tell the story of Prison Valley. Sometimes it only took one photo to give a glimpse, to show or tell something. Sometimes we just had to use moving pictures. Both for the narration and for the rhythm. And that’s when I really took the plunge into this new multimedia adventure. I got as much pleasure from taking care over the framing and light when shooting in video as I did from taking photos. And it allowed me to revive some technical skills I’d learned as an assistant on movie and documentary film shoots twenty years ago. It was as if lots of different experiences all suddenly came together.

Out there in Colorado, I sensed the excitement gradually mounting in you with each passing day. I figured it was because you were relaxing and because the project was taking you somewhere else, allowing you to use different methods, experience different constraints – and give you extra freedom.  Like a whirlwind. Did I dream that?

That’s right… I felt I was learning something new every day with Prison Valley. And that’s great. This project is all a result of teamwork. One person working on his own would never be able to produce this kind of thing. It’s a very new experience for a photographer, as we are generally loners. Lots of rich discussions about new narrative forms, the possibilities that the Web opens up, etc. About the new prospects for photography too. And also I felt once more that photography was leading me to do things that I would otherwise never have done. In the course of twenty years, I’ve gone deep into some incredible places and met some very unlikely characters. This current adventure undoubtedly marks a turning point in my profession.

Exactly… You went to see several prisons in France before we left for Colorado., What’s the difference between working here and out there, just in terms of the photography?

They were two completely different experiences. With Prison Valley, we thought about things and worked for months and months before we could enter one of the prison town’s penitentiary facilities. We couldn’t stay there for days, but we knew exactly what we wanted to show. I prepared myself psychologically for those moments. In France, I’ve had the opportunity to do several reports on prisons for the French press (Libération, L’Express and Panorama). But each time I only went there to take a couple of photos and the next day I was somewhere else doing something completely different. Yet, whichever country you’re in, taking pictures in prison always makes you feel pretty uneasy. What I mean is that you suddenly sense this huge power we have over these individuals behind bars and under surveillance, who can barely tell us that our presence disturbs them. Or maybe it suits them, because it’s such a change from their normal routine. Taking someone’s photo is always an act of violence. But in prison that violence is greatly amplified. Over the years, you become immune, you learn how to focus your emotions on the picture. The camera sometimes acts as a shield; it protects you. On certain reports I did in the past, I don’t know if I’d have coped if I hadn’t had a camera between me and the hard facts.

Cañon City, Colorado. June 2009. Extract from Prison Valley

Cañon City, Colorado. June 2009. Extract from Prison Valley

In this case, we took a joint decision, from the very first photo inside one of the prisons we visited. I remember it well. There was a prisoner cleaning a visiting room. You took his photo, I held out the sheet to sign authorising us to use the picture, we looked at each other and we said, “That’s it – we’re not taking any photos of faces”. We kept to that decision. My dear Philippe, it’s time we talk that through. Why did we make that choice?

First, the choice sometime ran contrary to what – some prisoners thought! Some prisoners absolutely wanted us to film or take photos of them. One of them told us, “Hey, I wanted to be a star in France!” We wanted to respect the prisoners’ anonymity come what may. We were also thinking of their families and friends. Showing only places, silhouettes or parts of people’s bodies left us time to hone what we wanted to say and, in the end, use all our footage without having to blur or blank out people’s faces.

The idea was also – I think – to remain true to our central premise: to show a system without judging anyone. Dissect an industry, the prison industry, and not lapse into what could be qualified as a sort of voyeurism. At the same time, the world of the prison is – how should I put this? – deeply aesthetic, with its straight lines, blocks, bars and, in this case, the striped uniforms and corridors we know so well from the movies. Did you think about that when you were taking your photos? Did you think to yourself that there were some ‘visual traps’ or clichés?

Quite honestly, no I didn’t. I let myself be swept along by the prevailing atmosphere in those places. When I’m taking photos, I don’t talk. I listen, I focus completely on the pictures to the point that I disregard everything I might have read about the subject.

A few days ago, Le Monde published an article about ‘Photographing prisons’ with the title ‘Restricted freedom’. It said that, in French prisons, “photographers are totally banned from showing inmates’ faces”, which isn’t the case in the United States. The journalist, Claire Guillot, went on to say: “This strict ban has incidentally helped to make ‘prison photography’ a genre in its own right. Empty cells and corridors, inmates that appear only as shadows, symbolically charged patterns such as bars, fences, locks, sealed windows… Humans are entirely absent from prison imagery. Pretty rich considering that everyone’s always talking about prison overcrowding.” What do you think of that?

What Claire Guillot says isn’t only true of prisons. For photographers, France is really a country apart now. Image rights and the threat of being sued mean that it’s easier to go off and work abroad than to try and show aspects of life in France. As with prison photography, there are hardly any pictures of streets and daily life anymore. In the same way that there is ‘prison photography’, a new kind of ‘street photography’ has appeared in recent years, with urban landscapes, still life photos – and no faces. This ‘restricted viewing freedom’ is another challenge for everyone who’s chosen photography as their means of expression.

On our second trip, we took our storyboard with us. And we had to keep a constant eye on the links between shots for the light. That’s a worry you have in documentary filmmaking that you don’t have in photography, right?

Our first trip in June was mainly to do the interviews and the scouting and to write the screenplay. Our plan was to go back out there with our storyboard in our pocket and devote the second trip mainly to shooting the pictures. We used only natural light to shoot Prison Valley. In order to get the same contrasts as in the scenes we filmed in June, we had to skip the ‘burnt’ light that you get in Colorado in July and August and wait until September, when the sun is at almost the same height as it is at the start of the summer. The sunlight strikes the ground at the same angle and produces a very similar type of light contrast. During the entire shoot, managing the light involved studying the sky and shooting at the right moment. We had to scout beforehand to see how the sun’s path would affect the way the light fell on the scenery; what was in shadow, what was lit up, etc. If you remember, we wrote each scene that had to be shot in daylight with the time and then refined it once we were out there according to the changing weather.

Tell us a bit about your gear, even if I know it’s not really your thing. But it’s important in the economics of web documentaries, the miniaturisation of the material… What about the sound? And your Canon Mark II?

I found out all the different things you could do with a hybrid camera like the Canon Mark II only a few months before the first shoot in Colorado. Quite honestly, initially the only thing that interested me about this particular body was that it had manual release and that you could get quite a small depth of field because of its view camera sensor, which is equivalent to that of a 35mm camera. This camera revolutionised video film as well as the history of digital film. For the first time, it was possible to get high-quality results on a small or medium-sized budget.

As for the sound, that’s a different subject – and a different job too. Photographers talk about depth of field and sound engineers talk in the same way about depth of sound – it’s something I have no grasp of. I don’t believe in one-man bands – and yet the current Web economy forced us to do everything ourselves. Anyway, you took care of the sound.

Yes, well… We’ll talk about that some other time, OK. To round things off, could you tell us about the end of the photo agency L’Oeil Public which you were a member of for five years. L’Oeil Public has just closed down. Add Gamma in 2009 and it looks pretty bad. What can you tell us about the end of L’Oeil Public and how do you see the future of your profession?

L’Oeil Public was an independent press photography agency. Each photographer was involved in decisions, and all of us championed a particular style of challenging photography that focussed on reporting rather than simply illustrating. We sold our stories and our library pictures directly via our website and also through a network of agencies abroad, like Grazia Neri in Italy, which closed down last summer as well. After much thinking and a difficult year in 2009, we decided it was better to turn the page. It’s definitely the end of a model. I don’t think it’s possible anymore for a small bunch of people to get together and to distribute their library. It takes too much effort. All the photographers from L’Oeil have gone their own individual ways, some of them focussing far less on the printed press, which is in a bad state. Samuel Bollendorff has already directed two web documentaries including Voyage au bout du charbon. As for Guillaume Herbaut, he’s working on a web documentary project for the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The Web is undoubtedly a field that writer-photographers need to look into more. But we still have to invent the right business model. Web documentaries are in their infancy. As for the future of my profession, I honestly don’t know. It’s always been a battle to go off and do documentary photography, bring stories back and get them published. And it will continue to be.

In an article it published about the end of the agency, Le Monde saw web documentaries as a way-out for photojournalism… It sounds tempting, but it might be a little uncertain just now, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s true, I don’t think that web documentaries can save a stricken profession all on their own. It’s just a new way of telling a story. Incidentally, not every subject can be made into a web documentary. Sometimes a simple ‘slideshow with sound’ can tell a very powerful tale. There’s no blueprint. And no labels either. The Web is a place of enormous freedom. That’s what makes it so exciting.