Corentin Fohlen has worked as a photojournalist since 2005. Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan: he has crisscrossed the world documenting conflict and poverty. To take a break from reporting, he often does celebrity portraits in France: political figures, filmmakers, actors, and singers; every time the subject must be “managed,” as he puts it, to create original, surprising images.
Corentin Fohlen, you have done portraits regularly for the past five years for various magazines and newspapers at the rate of about one a week. What do you like best about portraiture?
What I like best is the ability to create an image and to create it from scratch. I choose the lighting. I choose the location. The meeting place is not up to me, clearly, but I pick the frame, the context. I set up my own lighting and direct the subject. This is both stressful and exciting. I put a lot of pressure on myself, because the shoots are very short. You may have only twenty seconds with the person you photograph, but sometimes five to twenty minutes, rarely an hour. To me, the portrait is among the most difficult photographic practices.
Because everything hinges on you, the photographer, and on how you react to the constraints you encounter. You are completely dependent on your subject, the time they want to give you. Your work is contingent on the vibes the person gives off. Some people are just not that charismatic. Sometimes, you must make them appear more natural when they are stiff or ill at ease. It is up to you to create a context so that people feel comfortable, forget you’re there, forget they are being photographed.
Is that a prerequisite to a beautiful portrait?
My job is not to make people more beautiful, nor is it to make them ugly, either; I am there to impose my creative vision. That is to say, the photographed person is like an actor and I set the stage where they are to play, I choose the lighting, and make them act. I say, “Go and stand there,” “Turn your head,” “Lower your chin,” “Take your hand back,” “no, this won’t work, close your eyes.” I have to manage them from a to z.
The filmmaker Aranud Desplechin meditating on a chair; François Fillon standing behind a half-open door; the actor Michel Fau draped in a stage curtain... You play a lot with the décor, with the elements you find on location. Is it important to be playful about your environment?
It is, because what interests me is not so much the person’s face or their expression, but to bring the décor to life. I love situational portraits. That can be helpful. When the person is not very charismatic, putting them in a visual or colored décor may save the picture. And then playing with the décor helps me to overcome my shyness at the beginning of the session and get to the next step, namely directing the subject. In addition, I find that in a portrait, the décor can speak volumes. This is the case of this portrait of the actor Michel Fau, with the stage curtain completely wrapped around him. I had fun with the décor here. But it was also because he let me. With a minister, it would have been hard to take such liberties... Some people put up barriers to communication.
Is the challenge precisely to “loosen them up,” to “cheer them up”?
Indeed, making a portrait is a struggle. You wrestle with the person. It is a face-to-face combat with someone who is on the defensive. You must find a subtle way in, make them let go, relax, become laid-back enough to sit on top of a desk or pose next to a potted plant, for example. Sometimes, it is an uphill struggle with someone who refuses to let go of their personality. You mustn’t hesitate to challenge a strong ego, they love it! But do it with humor and kindness, of course...
What would you say makes a good portrait?
I think it’s about going beyond plain and simple representation. That’s the hardest thing in photography: to go beyond aesthetics, lighting, communication, and successfully bring out something unique about the person. People who look at the photograph, even if they don’t know who the person is, must be able to get to know them a little.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to make a career in portraiture?
You must impose your own way of seeing. You mustn’t hesitate to set aside the client’s specifications. This is a good way to set yourself apart. And then, I would add something very important: you must get to your meeting ahead of time. You need to arrive well in advance so as to get an idea of the location, install the lighting, open up doors that are shut...
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
More information on Corentin Fohlen here.