During this unprecedented health crisis, photographers must fire up their creativity and reinvent themselves. We talked to Jérémie Bouillon just as the country had gone into lockdown.
How have the recent events and self-isolation measures affected your photographic practice?
Needless to say, my commissions have come to a halt. With the exception of photographers working for the press, I think we are all in the same boat. Like any major historical event, this situation makes us, as photographers, want to bear witness—this is how we express ourselves. This desire is all the more difficult to reconcile with the present restrictions on mobility… At first, I was a bit torn between the desire to go out and look at the deserted streets, at the strangely silenced city life, and the need to go along with the lockdown. I am not above the others, and I got over this frustration very quickly; I’ve decided the confinement would be a new journey, an inner journey, in all the senses of the word!
How do you take advantage of this situation to nourish your creativity?
This is in keeping with the creative journey I had started a while ago: producing in my immediate surroundings, or close to where I live in Paris, with the idea that adventure starts just around the corner. Touching the material, tinkering, taking an artisanal approach to my work. I was lucky enough to be able to create the necessary tools before the outbreak. It’s as if I had subconsciously prepared myself for this slowdown and got myself organized for when the time came. So I am using this “time regained” (insofar as I can afford it) as a really exceptional opportunity to concentrate, without the stress of having always to move forward and procure commissions.
I find this atmosphere very inspiring. My senses are heightened in a particular way. New soundscapes emerge outside my window. Everything that is outside the field of view activates one’s imagination. We conjure up the lives captive in other buildings. In my apartment, I also feel like a castaway on a desert island. My place is now like a sailing ship. You have to rationalize space, optimize your resources, make do with what you have. Apart from the basic needs, the desire to create corresponds to a vital impulse, it allows me to set my body and mind in motion. This is only the tenth day on lockdown, and already daily series are beginning to take shape.
Were you able to stockpile enough raw materials to last you for a while? For how long?
In my personal projects, I use traditional, black-and-white film and a 4x5 view camera. I had a feeling we were heading for a lockdown, so the week before I stocked up on paper and chemicals. I made sure I had everything I needed to complete the project in progress, to print the portraits of the people I had invited to participate. And then, when I have done that, or if I run out of fresh paper, I still have a whole stock of expired paper and film, so I’ll go into an experimental mode! I have enough material to keep me busy for at least two months if need be!
When you take a photograph, you are holding a moment captive in a box
How does working from home help you generate a new vision that corresponds to what we are experiencing?
I have been working in my place of residence for quite some time. I have a small studio on the roof, a cubicle where I can create images, and a darkroom in the basement. From my apartment window I have a breathtaking view of the railroad tracks crossing a rapidly changing neighborhood. Both my subject-matter and my working process are integrated in my surroundings, in my living space. The construction sites were bustling with activity, and all of a sudden everything had stopped. This too becomes part of my creative process. I hope that the imposed confinement will resonate with the images that, it goes without saying, are made in an enclosed space.
When you take a photograph, you are holding a moment captive in a box, in emulsion, or in a sensor. At present, working in an enclosed space takes on a particular dimension, like a mise-en-abîme.
What technical aspect(s) have you (re)discovered?
If find conventional photography very exciting. You control the production process start to finish, from shooting to printing, and you are physically handling the material, in contrast to digital photography.
This technique makes me want to experiment with new processes. There is something physical, something alchemical, that involves your whole body. The daily rationing of raw materials pushes me to create differently, to concoct emulsions; basically, I am “cooking with scraps,” and it’s exhilarating, it takes me into uncharted territories.
Would this experience have been possible under normal circumstances? If so, why? Or why wouldn’t it?
I think that, normally, many of us aspire to some degree of slowness which is now imposed on us. Normal everyday life comes with a powerful mental charge, a fast pace needed to keep up with our over-connected societies. I find that the present period is an opportunity to question the things that are essential to us and, more generally, the world our societies have built since the industrial revolution. Right now, watching the birds that are reclaiming urban space is a simple and comforting joy.
I hope the situation will not get out of hand. It’s all very well to talk about slowing down, but withdrawal and creation are only fulfilling if there is also a balance in our lives, around us; otherwise nothing we can say here matters anymore...
Interview by Maxime Riché