Berlin is a visual haven for graffiti lovers. Colorful tags, stenciling and murals decorate the city’s walls, pavement and signs. As Tristan Siegmann shows through his photography, however, these artistic urban touches also represent significant social changes. We met with the photographer on the eve of an artistic residency and the exhibit: “Berlin: Places, Traces and Borders” in Nantes, from Oct. 13-24, 2010.
To what extent did your travels in New Caldonia and Mali form your photographic career?
Quite simply, my stay in New Caldonia formed the beginning of my career. First, I went with as part of my military service; I was in the Navy. I worked at the photography center for the air and naval base in Tontouta when I was 22 years old. Then, I came back to France for one month and I contacted a few magazines in Paris – news magazines like Le Point, Le Nouvel Observateur, L’Express, etc. It was Le Point that gave me my first assignment; do the files describing of all the political figures, to give a visual of the political spectrum in New Caldonia. They wanted to see if I was capable of making meetings, doing portraits, and they wanted to get an idea of the quality of my work.
I was lucky enough to be in touch with Manuel Bidermanas, the son of Izis the photographer, who passed along my first work to the Gamma agency, with whom “le Point” worked. The trust that he accorded me was a determining factor for my start in this universe of photojournalism.
The years 1983 and 1984 marked the beginning of events in New Caledonia ant the Gamma agency made me understand that my photos were good and could be used for newspapers and magazines, both French and foreign. From then on, I became a correspondant. On a daily basis, I followed the evolution of the situation and regularly sent them “photo-journalistic material.”
It was with Jean-Claude Francolon, one of the founders of the Gamma agency and one of my first professional references, that I learned how much watching, seeing and analysing is fundamental in this trade. I was his assistant, but he let me work independently on my own photos. Thanks to him, I developed a critical mindset and a real photojournalistic eye.
It was also during this time that I cam into contact with many other good reporters in press, television and other photographers obviously from agencies like Sifpa, AFP and Sigma.
I came back to France with my photos of Rainbow Warrior sunk in the Auckland port and I continued to regularly work freelance in the national political sector and general news for Gamma.
Can you explain your photographic approach which is simultaneously journalistic and one of “impressions”?
I think that the notion of a photo-journalist was evident to me right away. The work I was asked to do fell into the category of the press, which is at the base of the journalistic and photographic methods, and restricted by the news. For that, there is methodology, or technique: make the client happy because we’re competing against other agencies and other photographers. At that time, that opposition and competition was good, but I also worked to develop my interests in other photographers that work with sociological themes, with ideas that allow us to understand that which surrounds us.
It took me a long to time to build up self-confidence and allow myself the idea that I could have a photographic signature. All of this is a form of research linked to my work, linked to orders that always lead me to the best, to research a poetic form through which we see and to which we relate in photography.
The equation I needed to figure out was how to go beyond mastering technique so that I could bring out the poetry and the quality of the subject. It took me some time to piece together all these pieces and now I like the notion of a mosaic. All my subjects are not articulated like a photojournalist’s story: a beginning, middle, and end. I try to construct what I’ve always done and what they don’t allow us to do anymore. With technological transformations, we are moving towards much more rapid things and, paradoxically, I try to go back in the direction of projects that take me more time and to stay behind in relation to the acceleration of images and information. I follow my emotions and my gut to convey what I have to say, to decode the subject that must be read, and to help with understanding the world that still turns.
In connection to the time you spent in Germany, how did the project “Places, Traces and Borders” come about and why did you choose to speak about the neighborhood Frederickstein in Berlin?
It’s a history that must have been with me a long time, which I thought about after my previous trip to Berlin in 1998. As a photographer, I hadn’t participated in the fall of the Berlin wall, but my involvement with Berlin is both a fascination for the historic city, as well as a question of identity of my Jewish-German origins. I think that both interests inspired me, in addition to the meeting of my then girlfriend, who was from East Germany. She encouraged me to get to know the country and specifically the GDR.Following that, I continued to be fascinated by this city. I think that I identified with its aspect of reconstruction, movement, and the fact that its breaking points are visible. All of this echoed with my personality an intrigued me. It’s no doubt for all these factors that I was able to settle in and work there.
The Frederickstein neighborhood was a happy coincidence for me because I happened to find lodging there, considering that it perfectly embodied all the tensions and transformations of an urban and social landscape. I found myself at the center of a phenomenon where images could be the best way for me to testify.
What themes do you think about most important to explore in a society that is going through such transformations?
In the beginning, the main theme was what was going on for me in Paris. I was pretty disgusted by the realization that the economic and social system that I was struggling through, like so many others, was getting more and more difficult. So, I wanted to tell my story in particular, to no longer work in the conditions that I knew, the transformation of the press – all this through a story with sociological order. I wanted to tell the story that we can live differently than in this kind of trend of performance as the best quality. Each one of us can live with normalcy, with dignity, and that is was I wanted to express and share through my photographs, by showing human relations with a necessary simplicity.
In combining our experiences and bringing photography’s humanist principle of reflection, I wanted to warn people that these negative consequences, if we don’t speak out against them, could lead us to the center of a machine that would drain the quality of our lives.
This work allowed me to renew a sense of meaning to my trade that I was starting to lose by staying in Paris without knowing why we consume so many images in which I couldn’t find my place anymore. I thought there must be a commercial connection between us to live, but not just any old connection. Things must have meaning.
In the past, what exchanges have you had with the university Paris XIII?
It began with a chance meeting with an old high school friend who turned out to be a professor at Paris XIII’s University Technological Institute. I appreciated planting the seed of interest in photography in the minds of students mostly oriented towards marketing, management, and economics.
Did being able to share ideas with the student or the professors in this academic setting change or alter your way of seeing and understanding the project?
Not really. I was able to get at an aspect of my work that is more sociological and ask the question: “What is an image’s status in societal transformation?” I was touched to discover that this subject could be, for them, a source of reflection and a tool for interpretation in their own studies. So, it was a new way for me to fulfill my contract; to enlarge the field of exploitation of an image, to be an alternative that integrates the perspective of knowledge, to be aware of exchanges and transmission. My thoughts today are thus: what is the impact a document or an iconography can have in a given context, whether pedagogical, research, or reflection?
Where will this project go in the future?
This exhibit has already toured quite a bit since 2006. The next phase will be an exhibit in Nantes, in October 2010, in a very beautiful cultural exhibition space known as “Cosmopolis.” The exhibit will be shown with support from the review “Allemagne d’Aujourd’hui” and will be up from October 13-24. These two weeks will be punctuated by round table events with French and Germany professors and researchers covering subjects ranging from history of sociology, to poetry, to philosophy. Without doubt, they will speak, redefine, and explain the new European economic and cultural stakes that are represented by the grand capital that is Berlin. This will also be the occasion for me, in collaboration with Nantes’ rectorat, to do an artistic residency for the whole month of October at the IEA in Nantes.
Will the theme of the residency be based on the same subjects we’ve been discussing?
It is a subject that adapts itself really well to the city of Nantes, which, for a few years now, is finding itself transforming with industrial zone wastelands. There is a real reappropriation of space that was in mutation for years and years. The Ile de Nantes neighborhood in particular is concerned with its old naval commerce activity and naval yard. I’ve walked around the town quite a bit and have even started getting my bearings with photography.
The work that I’m going to be doing during the residency will be about a neighborhood, Malakoff, enclaved between a river and the railroad tracks. It is interesting to see how people appropriate this zone in the process of significant change. This comes at the time when the means of communicating with this enclosed zone are being built, and the fluidity of transport is being improved simultaneously with the rest of the city. I will try to show a urban sociology that I photographed in Berlin; in it’s similarities and differences. Even if the culture isn’t the same, in these spaces, we can find vestiges of the rich industrial past of these cities. We can also see how combinations work or don’t work. I’m simply going to “qualify the regard.”
Following this photographic work, we could find comments and reflections that are, in my opinion, the best means for everyone to belong to this city and to suffer less from it’s historic pressures.
Interview by LG