After life-threatening incidents, many people who survived burns still feel a great deal of emotional pain long after their physical suffering passes. Clément Marion, a photographer based in France, wanted to help empower them after learning about how they hide their burns in public due to embarrassment or shame.
With this in mind, Marion, 24, teamed up with Clélia Lebreton, a woman who was left with severe burns across her body after being hit by a truck two years ago. Their collaboration led to Brûlés, a book of photographs depicting people with burn scars. Lebreton posed for Marion and provided text for the book.
For the project, Marion used a 19th century photographic process known as wet plate collodion, which involves using collodion and silver nitrate. Marion found that the hardened photo texture produced from this process is incredibly similar to that of burned skin.
Marion and Lebreton hope that their book will be emotionally therapeutic for burn survivors, and will help diminish the stigma surrounding their physical appearance.
VICE: How did you two meet and get the project going?
Clément Marion: The project was initiated by the fact that burn survivors are hiding most of the time—their scars, their faces, their person. I didn’t want to live in a world that accepts the fact that some people are hiding themselves. So I said to myself, “OK, I’m a photographer, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a surgeon, but maybe I can do something, and maybe it’s going to help someone.”
Clélia Lebreton: I think I contacted Clément via Instagram, because I saw a picture of a burn survivor on a post on his Instagram Story.
Marion: I started crowdfunding on my websites at first so I could buy lights in order to continue the series, and then Clélia came to me and said, “Why can’t you make a book of your series and my text?”
Clément, how did you find the other subjects for the project?
Marion: I initially checked on social media and social networks like Instagram or Facebook. I met a girl who I spoke to for months. She was burned from an electric shock she experienced on a train. We spoke a lot. When you are doing a photography project, once you get a foot in the door, you just begin to meet more and more people. She directed me to some other people, and I met some of them in real life—like friends of friends—but also through social media. I contacted them by email or Instagram, and I asked them about whether or not they would be comfortable to be in the project. I sent some pictures to show what my intention with it was. It was a long and interesting process, meeting a lot of people and hearing their stories.
What was the process of taking the photos like for both of you?
Lebreton: Personally, I hate photos. I don’t like seeing myself in photographs. And this was a particular challenge for me because it was a new body. My accident happened a year before I did the photo shoot with Clément, so I was obviously uncomfortable. But there was an intention to make something bigger and make something more important for me and for other people. It was a challenge but I knew there was something more important behind it than my comfort.
“It was a challenge but I knew there was something more important behind it than my comfort.”
Marion: It was touching, of course, hearing the models’ stories. You can’t do a project like this and try to stay neutral. I was touched by these stories, by their bravery, and sometimes it was hard. Some of the models are really lucky to be alive. When you’re confronting the fact that the person in front of you could have died in an accident, it’s hard. But that was the project, that was the way I wanted it. I was very lucky to have those brilliant people.
Clélia, what happened during your accident?
Lebreton: I was on my bike and I was hit by a truck. I fell and was taken under the truck’s axle. It dragged me for 6 meters, so I was burned by contact and not by fire. I had several injuries including fractures and broken bones. I can’t really remember how it felt but I was conscious the whole time, until I was in the hospital and the doctors sedated me.
I remember saying to the nurse, “I’m scared,” and she asked me, “Of what?” and I said, “I’m scared to die.” She didn’t say anything. I think that was one of the most painful things. I remember saying to myself, “Let go and rest. You can act later if you can.” I remember feeling lonely. Later, I saw my mother and my sister, and that was painful, but it brought me a little bit more comfort. After that, I was in a coma for many weeks.
How much of your body was burned? Do you try to hide the burns?
Lebreton: A quarter of my body was burned—my right leg and my lower back. For some reason, I never wanted to cover them. Even the first few times I went out after I came back home, going to a restaurant or to rehabilitation sessions, I was in shorts or skirts. I feel lucky that I was able to see things like that. Some of Clément’s other models told us that they hid themselves for many, many years.
Marion: I talked about covering scars and burns with the people I photographed. One of them didn’t even know she could expose her scars. No one told her that she could do that. It’s great that Clélia has a very optimistic mind and way of thinking.
How did Clément help you feel comfortable during the photo shoot?
Lebreton: I had never been a part of a photo shoot done by a photographer, and I was naked, so I was pretty uncomfortable. But Clément took the time to talk with all his models, and I think that made us very comfortable with him. When you are comfortable with the person, you can be comfortable with the photograph. The shoot was very long and demanded patience from both of us, but we had the time to discuss anything, not just my scars and his work, but my father, my cats, his studies, wine, beer—many things. I think there was a particular connection that we had and I think it was beautiful. I really liked Clément. I wouldn’t have done a project like this if I didn’t like him. It was a beautiful moment.
Marion: I think therapy through photography exists, and this project is proof of it. Some of the subjects were more optimistic and said to me, “That was wonderful and I really like the way I look in the pictures.” And that’s great because it’s thanks to both Clélia and I, and what we did. They were very enthusiastic.
“I think therapy through photography exists, and this project is proof of it.”
How does it feel having a photo of yourself that’s so vulnerable and raw out in the world?
Lebreton: I’m pretty lucky because you don’t see my face in the photo, so I can stay totally incognito. Maybe if people could see both my face and my body, I would have been scared. But, as I am an author of the book, I’m happy to maintain some distance, some security, with the photo. When I look at the picture, I don’t see my body, I see my journey, I see all the love I received, I see all the gifts I received, the work of the doctors, the kindness of the people around me. I see everything. I think that’s the power of those photographs—anybody can see just a body, but you can also see something bigger, something more beautiful. It’s a story. Perhaps each photograph is a story.
What's the main message that you hope people take away from the book when they read it?
Lebreton: In my opinion, the important message is that whatever you are going through, you can choose to look forward, and focus on what brings you joy. And then maybe you’ll be able to see things differently and see peace in chaos. Another important message is that you are not your thoughts, which may be negative sometimes.
I remember lying on my hospital bed and thinking, “It’s amazing because all the lectures I’ve heard, all the books that I’ve read, all the films I’ve watched, all the experiences in my life—I have the feeling that they prepared me for this moment. Now I know I can use all these experiences to move forward.” It was amazing. And through this book, I wanted to condense all the little things, the phrases, the films, even scenes from films, that helped me through that. It’s just one way to help; it’s just one way through. There are multiple ways, I’m very aware of that, but I wanted to do my part. Maybe it will help only one person but even if it helps only one person, I will be incredibly happy.
Marion: Most of the time, burn survivors are afraid of showing how they look, what they’ve become, and the body they have. I think that when you put some light on these scars—how they are, how they look, and their photographic texture—when you show all of that, you make people more sensitive and more used to this texture and these specific scars. So maybe it helps prevent the odd or mean looks, because people will already know what these scars will look like. Maybe that’s what art is for, to make society a bit better, a bit more pleasant for people.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.