The day I met Don McCullin…

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… I took this photograph not even knowing it was him.

I was at the 2012 preview of the Arles Photography Open Salon exhibition, where some of my photographs were part of the show. I was talking to Vanja Karas, the curator, when a white-haired man came toward us. Several people started gathering to take photos of Vanja and this man. I did like the others, I pointed my camera and shot a couple of frames. Back home, as I was sorting out my photos of my trip to Arles, I froze when I saw among my hundreds of photos the face of what would appear to be Don McCullin. I opened my book ‘Shaped by war’ and checked. Yes, it was him! I jumped in frenzy and ran around in the house. It took me a while to calm myself. I had been in the presence of one of my favourite photographers but I hadn’t even realised it. A few days later Vanja  asked me if I had any photos of the preview. I responded that the only photo I had was of her and Don McCullin. I added that I could not send it to her yet as it had to be rescued by friends, who knew how to expertly use photoshop.

So now that I have ridiculed myself enough, let’s get down to business. I don’t consider myself a good photographer. I can take good photos during concerts but this doesn’t mean I really know ‘how to’ – and now that I’ve got your attention…

I grew up in France. My brother was into photography. He used to have postcards of black and white photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis and Robert Doisneau – I think – pinned onto the walls of his toilets and kitchen. Post World War II Parisian low-life is the romantic idea of photographic representation I grew up with.  I remember being particularly fond of ‘Le petit Parisien au pain’ by Ronis. I must have been 13 or 14.

Last night, I watched a French television programme featuring photographer Stéphane Kovalsky talking about his grandfather, photographer Willy Ronis. The programme was shot one month after Ronis had passed away, aged 99.

When asked about the kind of legacy his grandfather would be leaving to the younger generation, Kovalsky mentioned Ronis’ ability to communicate with his environment (‘la communion avec son univers’). He observed that Ronis would go back to the same places over and over again and take photographs of the same things; he would question and perfect his work as much as he could.

It is widely acknowledged that photographers taking pictures at concerts are not allowed to ‘communicate with their environment’ for very long at all. They are given the duration of three songs to do what they have to do, then they are escorted out of the photographer’s pit. Sometimes I get the feeling that the first three songs are poorly lit to make our work more difficult. It could be because the artist is aware of the photographers and feels vulnerable while warming up into the concert, or simply the artist doesn’t like being photographed onstage but goes through it because they have to; these are throwaway assumptions on my part, of course. Still, next time you are at a concert, pay a little attention to the lighting at the beginning of the concert and as it unfolds – and see for yourself.

Anyway, once you’ve exited the photographer’s pit or the concert is over, it is not possible to go back and re-work the composition. So there is one way of looking at my photographic practice: that there isn’t much about it. Indeed, the camera angles in a photographer’s pit are limited; there are few subjects to focus on and their moves are predictable. Any aspiring or established rock n’ roll star will at some point…

play an intimate venue

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stick their guitar up in the air

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do something unusual

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make fun of their audience

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flaunt their best side

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mingle with the crowd

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give it their all

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jump up and down

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pose in front of the camera

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have a broken arm and still be cool

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do the rain dance

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be dead serious

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get caught being silly

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look stupid (no fault of their own)

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have their legs wide apart (because I can only assume, from a female perspective, that it’s more comfortable playing guitar without your genitals chafing against your tight pants, right?)

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invoke god’s mercy

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… and this is only a gentle self-mocking of my own images. You should see the photos promoting global artists, like Madonna for example. I won’t paste the photograph for fear of legal action by Madonna’s legal team but I will summarise my interpretation of it as follows: Madonna is in the centre of the photo wearing black lace lingerie and a fishnet corset, with her left hand in her trousers slipped down to her thighs and her head thrown back as if about to enjoy strong feelings of pleasure… Obviously Madonna takes centre stage and she is portrayed in a position of power (as dominatrix?), with her legs apart (of course it’s not about chafing!). Her submissive audience (mostly men), positioned in the bottom quarter of the picture, are just by the side of the stage at arms length, seen in awe looking up (I can only guess) Madonna’s bottom in her black pants, most of them taking pictures with their phones. We have here a very fine example of the photographic golden triangle (with Madonna being at the end of each corner of the triangle – power: head at the top and feet at the bottom, wide apart). I could go on with, for example, spurious links between golden triangle and golden shower. In fact, this photo suddenly becomes more interesting with such a title. The sexual connotations would not be so terribly ill-fitted, as Madonna’s imagery of the enticing femme fatale has always been a big selling point.

It is this servile function of photography that makes me stay late at night and photograph bands in a more ethical and honest fashion, and display them on my online fanzine. In fact it was Madonna (rather her portrayal in the media in the early 1990s) who prompted us, students, to start a music fanzine.

I’m determined to argue that this kind of obedient photography feeds into the stereotypical behaviour that has plagued popular music genres over the decades since Elvis Presley made those little girls fever at the sight of his long and trembling legs. Therefore, I’d like to argue that there is another side to my practice, one that deserves less (self)mocking and more documenting, questioning, thinking and writing about.

What I really like about Ronis’ photography is that you could sense in his images that he cared for the places and the people he photographed: Paris districts of Belleville and Ménilmontant and the struggle of the working class come to mind.  In a way, I’d like to think that Ronis was close to McCullin in spirit. They photographed different worlds, different times and at a different pace. Yet they both had a social conscience that permeated some of their most arresting images.

“I never wandered around Chelsea …  I always preferred to roam around the back streets of East London, east of Aldate … Nobody excercised that privilege of walking around with a camera with greater concern and respect. I used to approach these people very carefully… everything I’ve ever done in my life has been political.” McCullin (2011)

I’d like to think that my images (and interviews) show that I care a great deal about music and the artists that I photograph. I guess it’s up to me to evidence this.

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