In Conversation With:

GUILLAUME GILBERT

Interviewed by Hannah Green

There’s a beautiful immediacy to your street photography, your subjects are often unaware they are being captured, and there is a real sense of vulnerability and humanity to them. Is capturing this something that comes naturally to you, or something that you’ve developed over time?

 

Definitely both. It comes naturally, though I'm unsure to what extent your inner self echoes what you capture. I can't fully understand why I will decide to shoot this subject rather than that one. Light and composition -in other words, pure coincidence- play their part, but there must be a cultural construct in the equation too. We are probably drawn to people who somewhat look like us, attract us or intrigue us. Exposing somebody's naked truth in broad daylight without their consent is something that can be pleasantly revealing but also brutal, especially in an era where mass surveillance has become the "new normal". Is it wrong to take a picture of a man asleep in the subway? Do I compromise the right to privacy of someone who probably gave it all up to Facebook and Google without realising it? Everyone is vulnerable in front of a camera, and it's understandable to get defensive. We no longer live in Robert Doisneau's time, where you could take pictures of children playing in the street without causing controversy. Capturing humanity gets more challenging, no matter how much good will you put in your practice. Over time of course, you learn when to press the shutter, how to balance between boldness and consideration. Spontaneity remains essential, but it certainly helps to transform what you see into a more thoughtful photograph. You don't necessarily reveal humanity more clearly, but it might be slightly more compelling.

Was there a specific moment when you knew that photography was what you wanted to do? 

 

It happened in Vietnam where I spent a few months for an internship around 2004. I "borrowed" a brand new film camera from my sister (she never actually used it because of me...) and started documenting my whereabouts. I had never travelled that far for that long, disorientation was very real, so I had to process this somehow and photography was the perfect medium for that. I had a Vietnamese colleague with whom I travelled once. He had a camera but never pressed the shutter once, instead handing it to me to take a picture of him in front of any cultural landmark we would walk by. It was a way to inhabit the picture, wavering between the duty to remember and a lifeless ceremony, like wearing a t-shirt saying "I was here". At the time selfies were just a foggy concept, still requiring a healthy dose of social interaction. I quickly realized that the kind of photography I was into would rest on a certain sense of selflessness -in French we would say "oubli de soi", forgetting yourself. Maybe it only makes sense that I am attracted in return to subjects unaware I've got my eye on them.

Spontaneity remains essential, but it certainly helps to transform what you see into a more thoughtful photograph.

What catches your eye on the streets? Do you look out for situations that might be compositionally striking, situations which may be intriguing, or do prefer to shoot first and think later?

"Shoot first, think later" is definitely a mantra for lots of street photographers, although let's be honest, there's always a quick risk calculation going on first. I lost count of how many times I've let a striking moment slip away. When you're too slow, too bad. But when you're being hesitant or not daring enough, it's even more frustrating. In short, I think you shoot what you feel comfortable shooting, with the secret goal to expand your comfort zone. This is no coincidence that I'm mostly drawn to people on hold, lost in thought, not quite there. They might wait for the bus or take a nap in a park, there is a transient state in the streets that fascinates me. Most of us don't leave home to go on an adventure and embrace the unknown. We rather walk on a predetermined path like a horse with blinders. Daily routines will usually turn off our senses, making us immune to what's around us. This is a curious blessing for a street photographer: the camera becomes a fitting tool to take advantage of those lives on remote control, though we can never predict what will happen. Truth be told, I am not the most audacious photographer. To lie politely, I attach great importance not to disturb people. Shooting fast is a prerequisite, so is not asking permission. I have the utmost respect for photographers who seal a tacit agreement with their subject and provide some context in the captions afterwards. When done well, street photography is like opening a window into someone's soul. I just find it more intriguing (and no less genuine) when a camera collides with an untamed soul.

Recently on Instagram you revisited lots of black and white images from your archives - how do you think about the differences between colour film and black and white? Do they offer different things, or tell stories in different ways? 

I started shooting with colour film fifteen years ago, but I quickly switched to black and white, back on the usual path to study a more classic form of photography, I guess. For many years I stuck to it , maybe a little too radically, shooting almost exclusively pushed Kodak Tri-X, after my beloved (and personal favorite film to this day) Fuji Neopan 1600 got discontinued. I was hungry for grain and harsh contrast and black and white seemed to compliment pretty well the gritty feel I perfected over the years. Whether you shoot colour or black and white, light and composition are always key factors for a succesful photograph. Surprisingly, when I resumed shooting colour film about a year ago, I realized I was not "seeing" the same things, as if my eye had been rebooted to focus on tones and chromatic moods rather than on specific subjects. It felt fresh and new, almost to the point of questioning my artistic identity. I think black and white still "defines" me the most, but it's always nice to expand your horizons and look at the world with brand new eyes -eventually to go back to what you do best? Only time will tell.

What kind of photographers are you drawn to? Are they any in particular who have influenced or inspired you?

The list is long, though I always tried to pledge limited allegiance to other photographers, probably to avoid copying their style, consciously or not. I probably failed, but at least it's not me to say. To name two photographers who singularly captured my imagination: Daido Moriyama, for his high contrast black and white reflecting like a stained mirror the raw uncertainty of post-war Japan, and Harry Gruyaert, who balances light and colours of Belgian landscapes as in a Vermeer painting.

 

How do you think about your photography? Is it work, something that you are consciously creating, or is it more of a reflex, a way of processing the world around you? 

I never see photography as work. A body of work, maybe. It is commonly agreed that we find statisfaction in hard work, but my practice of photography really opens out when done effortlessly. It has to do with the highly random nature of street photography. Sometimes I spend several days without shooting anything, or just a handful of boring pictures to make sure the shutter doesn't get rusted. You almost forget that you're carrying a camera -that's the key! Your only job is to train your eye, stay alert. Whether you're shooting or not, you will see the world differently, captivated by the possibility of a moment you'll be the only one to see.

Whether you're shooting or not, you will see the world differently, captivated by the possibility of a moment you'll be the only one to see.

C O N T A C T

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