After the Viking Startup bus drove into Paris and I pitched Amordomus on stage with the team at the Microsoft building, I took some time off to relax in the city and check out the street art and graffiti. The place to go is Rue Denoyez, I know this because I have an awesome friend who knows the Paris graffiti scene, otherwise I never would have seen this amazing street filled with all manner of shapes and colors. I also wouldn’t have attended the Wolf Song Night opening at La Galerie Ligne 13 or gone to the La Poste Museum Street Art exhibition. After the pressure cooker of building up a startup idea on a bus from Copenhagen to Paris, with a pitch competition in Cologne on the second day, my mind was overloaded and I was happy to relax and take in the non-linearity of the stenciles, sprays, and poster art on the walls. (more…)
Paris is one of the those iconic places that you don’t want to get sucked into because it’s so well known (like Las Vegas), but there’s a reason that it’s so popular. No matter how much you may think it’s a cliche to stroll down the Champs-Élysées, it’s still a unique experience. The Effel Tower simply does not get boring, and I’ll never pass up a trip to this wonderful heart of Europe. The last time I was back there I met up with Emilie Brion, we know each other from an eternity ago in Michigan and I promised to look her up next time I was Incognito in Versailles. We killed a few hours at a cute cafe near the Opera and we got into some heavy conversations about photography, portraits, and the Decisive Moment. She appreciates the capture of a singular moment in time, which can never be relived or improved upon, I say that I produce decisive moments in the studio when I decide to. In truth there’s a never a way to relive a photograph, either from a darkroom or from the computer, and it was excellent when I regained this sense of fleeting time captured in a camera after our conversation. Since that time Emilie has started shooting a portrait project with Le Bonbon magazine, which features portraits of people from the different districts of Paris. I wanted to write about her project, my mind freshly finely tuned for some prose after watching the trailer for the Rum Diary (the novel by the late Hunter S. Thompson) with Johnny Depp playing Paul Kemp. But to be honest, some things are best left in their perfect natural state – and no post processing or editorial drama is necessary. So I present here, in Emilie’s own words – her portrait project of the 6th and 7th districts of Paris for Le Bonbon.
The online version of her portraits can be found here pages 48-49:
Le Bonbon Juillet 2011 Rive Gauche
In Emilie’s words…
Le Bonbon, ‘the candy” in French, is a local free Parisian magazine by arrondissements (for each districts of Paris) made for and close to the locals. It includes information on what’s happening in each district and promotes local restaurants, stores and events. Each magazine includes two pages dedicated to 32 snapshots of people from that district. Since I love to take pictures, I was asked if I wanted to take the pictures for the magazine for the 6th and 7th district of Paris. I thought it would be a new challenge and interesting project.
Since the pictures are snapshots, I did not want to use a digital camera but simply use my iPhone 4 so that when I would approach people to ask for their permission to take pictures, I wouldn’t be a photographer – but like them, a pedestrian walking on the street with an iPhone in her hand…. Less intruding I find…
Shooting street portraits of strangers is challenging. Often when you see a stranger you want to photograph, you can’t seem to ask them for their photo. For my part, I don’t want to intrude and I have the fear of the rejection. The struggle to shoot through the fear is worth it as when you get a spontaneous approval then you get excited and want to shoot more.
The reaction varies, either you get a firm “no”, or a spontaneous “oh, ok” or some people ask you numerous questions s as they are intrigued by the reason they were chosen and what the purpose is. Approaching people on the street is quite a sociological and psychological experience in itself…
The light is my biggest challenge… I walk around and find someone that I feel represents the districts or I am just struck by their face but I don’t want them to pose and position them to get the best light. I prefer the “instant” moment as these are not professional photos but snapshots so I often disregard the light and the one thing I want to capture with every portrait was that ‘unguarded’ natural look… that look that moved me in the first place when I spotted them on the street… I want to avoid that usual snapshot smile… you know, that smile that you’ve smiled a thousand times whenever you’re in front of a camera that “forced and fake smile and posture”. I want it to be REAL and spontaneous.
This project was a challenging and rewarding experience for me. I remember each and every encounter I’ve had with all these strangers: how I spotted them, how nervous i felt, how they reacted to me, and the rewarding feeling afterwards knowing that I just got one more keeper in a set of a hundred keepers I was aiming to get. Now I feel so lucky having been able to connect with these people even for just a few seconds. Different faces… all of them beautiful in very different ways with whom I have had a brief encounter that I tried to capture to its best in its instant.
As Marcel Proust said: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
I’m incognito in Versailles, the small village just outside Paris – the doorstep of old royalty and Louis XIV art. I’m in a high scarf and sunglasses with a blue wool hat turned sideways. It’s overcast in Paris and I wanted to blend into the shadows of the clouds, totally incognito. Who doesn’t want to be a French spy in 70’s Europe? Less dangerous than working in the East Berlin office but enough je ne sais quoi to be interesting.
Bonjour, ca’va? Je suis un Spy, hagimemashite? So desu ne, nanji desu ka, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? Arigato gosaimasu. Au revoir, madame plus moisours.
I know a few different languages not extremely well. This makes it fun traveling to various locations like Tokyo or Paris, where I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to hold a real conversation. When I miss a word I just substitute another from somewhere else. Sometimes this is the best way to keep the flow, the momentum of the experience going, because nothing is more awkward that stammering, stopping, and then thinking about what to say. If I miss a word in French, I just add one from Japanese, and it ends up in a mismatch of sounds and mispronunciations no one would except the imaginary being in my head can understand.
Tempo and gibberish are important in a conversation when you want your words to be forgotten. It’s more important to be remembered for what you were wearing then what was said, because people forget names and facts but they remember images and visual impressions. In a big, slightly disorganized city like Paris, even a simple idea like getting from one train station to another can be an experience. I had arrived at Paris L’est and thought it would be possible to just jump on a train and head to Versailles. This is the small country-minded mentality a person falls into when they live in a small country like Switzerland. I ended up taking le Metro to le Opera and then navigated the underground tunnels towards Saint-Lazare. I’d never been down there before, and there wasn’t really a map showing the way, just a reference on the street map showing that the two stations are “somehow” connected to one another. I descended into the bellows of the beast, in the digestion tract of Paris itself. Every city can be made to look beautiful on the outside and on postcards, but you never see what is beneath the streets.
When I emerged in the night I was en route to the FNAC store by Saint-Lazare to rendezvous with Emilie, my contact in Paris. Along the way an organized protest filled the streets, something about raising the retirement age by a year or two. Riot police were on alert in large vans with batons at the ready, but the mob marched up and down the same block all day without incident. There was graffiti in front of Printemps, asking Sarkozy to go home. This was written just below the giant gorilla, who was bellowing out something about loving New York or the new fall line of lingerie on display. Batman was there as well in the shadows watching over the city, as was Superman to watch over the children.
I left the protest when it became clear that would be no tear gas and everyone just wanted to be heard, and stood incognito in front of the FNAC building. Emilie materialized out of the crowd and we headed off to a bar to talk. We went over the details of the past 15 years and then turned to business. I passed her my card collection, she chose one from the ProtestLove series, “Everything worth remembering is a journey into the self which, when completed we look back upon with awe. Can you tap that nerve?” We also executed a three image photography project on the perspective of her crushed cigarette pack. Or was it her pack? These details are cloudy now, maybe the pack came from the table next to ours or perhaps I left it there and had taken up smoking without realizing it. She wanted to capture the decisive moment Cartier-Bresson style, however, I don’t own a Leica and couldn’t figure out how to do black and white with my Ricoh GRD. I mentioned something about just doing it in Photoshop later and she nearly threw her drink in my face. The fine fall temperatures dropped as the night grew up into a cold middle-aged man ripe for a life-crisis, and we decided to move inside. There we finished our drinks with a postcard of Jim Morrison by the bar. I apologized to him for not making time to visit his grave in Père Lachaise on this trip, but Emilie said it made no difference, as his body had taken flight from that resting place some time ago.
In any event, the details of the meeting are sealed in secret and near midnight we ducked into a Japanese noodle restaurant before parting ways. There are many Japanese restaurants in Paris and they all seem to be run by Chinese. However, this is irrelevant, my favorite noodle dish in Tokyo is tantanmen, and that’s a well-known Chinese invention. We ate quickly and I made my way back to Saint-Lazare, catching the last train back to Versailles.
Editor’s Note: Don’t believe everything you read, some of the recorded events only occurred in the head of the writer as she was writing it. He makes no apology for the outcome.