This article originally appeared on VICE France
When Patrick Zachmann told his mother he wanted to be a photographer, her response was to open the phonebook and look for guidance from a professional. With all the embarrassing tenderness that is typical of anxious mothers who want to make sure their children are given a bright future, she ended up calling Henri Cartier-Bresson [co-founder of Magnum] on his private number. His ex-wife picked up the phone. She didn't have any advice to give, so she focused the conversation on how hard it is to live with a photographer. Forty years later, a single glimpse at Zachmann's portfolio is enough to realize that his mother didn't have anything to worry about.
Since starting out in the late 1970s, Zachmann has walked the streets of Naples with anti-mafia brigades, documented marginalized Chinese communities in Hong Kong, and worked on the integration of immigrants in Marseille. His work frequently shifts between black and white and color, depending on his subjects. I talked to Zachmann about his projects and how he built his own identity through the examination of others.
- Julie Le Baron
VICE: When you started working as a photographer, you had very strong left-orientated opinions as well as a desire to change the world. What were your first projects?
Patrick Zachmann: My first "real" reportage was in Portugal in 1975, just after the Carnation Revolution. I really wanted to explore the country and its social, political, and economic situation. I traveled across Portugal with a backpack and skills I had learned by myself. My career really took off after that experience.
Over there, I met the director of Rush, a newly-born agency with which I stayed for seven years. With them, I covered a few topics that had to do with current affairs in France as well as abroad, but I always preferred working on society-based issues. In 1979, I started working on what was going to become my book, Enquête d'identité.
What made you brush away news topics?
That same year, I went to Iran at the very beginning of the revolution. I was in the plane that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini back to Teheran. It was my first experience working as a news reporter, with the guarantee of being published. Eventually, it was a very negative experience because it made me realize I was not cut to work in the news. I just could not get used to the pace: You always need to run without having time to stop and think about what you are doing.
One day, I found myself in the cemetery where the Ayatollah was supposed to give his first speech. It was mayhem—journalists everywhere. At sunset, the light became beautiful and soft. I felt frustrated because I had to go back right away and hand in my film rolls. This experience taught me a lesson, and being confronted with religious zealotry marked me a lot.
Speaking of violence, you then went to Naples, which was rotting because of violence.
After this reportage, I wanted to test my own limits and those of the people I photographed. It's important to know whether you can press the button of your camera or not in any given situation. Naples has become a learning field for me. At the time, everybody would go to Lebanon to cover the war and I didn't want to take part in this. I always preferred going where the media did not go, in forgotten or unknown places, to cover issues that were not or no longer news. I read a short article in Le Matin de Paris, which was about the mafia war that was taking place in Naples and killed 400 people each year. It was a conflict between two families of the Neapolitan mafia. Nobody talked about the Camorra then.
Once I was there, I faced three forms of violence—first, the one coming from Camorrists. Then, there was violence from the police and the people I was taking pictures of, who sometimes reacted vehemently—women that had just seen their husbands getting shot or arrested. Their reaction brought me back to an inherent violence, related to the mere act of photographing. Talking about this, Diane Airbus once said that even though she was trying to be sweet and nice with her models, the act of photographing still remained an aggression. I got obsessed with that idea. Now I don't think I could do the same reportages, nor could I take the photos I took back in 1982. Perhaps I am too conscious of the pain of the people I was taking pictures of.
What did you learn about your own limits over your stay there?
I learned that you need to know how to wait, that there are frustrating moments where it is better not to take pictures. I built some kind of ethical code empirically. After that, I tried not to take pictures when someone suffered or when I thought that pressing the button would add an unnecessary pain; especially if this picture was not essential or there was a chance it would not be published.
It's hard to find a balance when you want to take pictures "on the go" like Henri Cartier-Bresson would say, to capture magical moments and you fundamentally want to respect the people you are photographing. It is sort of contradictory, isn't it? At times, I wish I could seize what's visually appealing in the streets, but I know that without asking, in certain countries or situations, I am exposing myself to a violent backlash. On the other hand, asking them for their approval destroys everything that appeals to me. I don't like taking pictures of people without giving them anything in return for it. I realized that going to marginalized people, listening to them, and taking their pictures is the first step of a dialogue. If you give attention to those who feel weak, it feels like a gift to them. It took me a lot of time to integrate this fact. I also give a lot of little prints that I often find years later, pinned to a wall or in a photo album. I remain passionate and often moved by that strong relationship between a photographer and his models.
Furthermore, I became aware of how powerful photography was in its documentary and momentary aspect, but also the sentimental value of it. When a person passes away or a place is destroyed, photos can be precious and historical.
How do you separate yourself from your subjects in cases like Mare Mater, where you work on your own mother?
Every time I worked with one of my parents, I succeeded in breaking silences thanks to photography and cinema. Without that, I do not think I could have learned as much about my family. This approach has always been difficult—painful at times—to undertake. Precisely because you need to keep a "professional" distance, remaining neither too close nor too far from your subject. It happened that I wanted to drop my camera and take my old and frail mother in my arms instead of taking her photo.
What gives me the strength to work on this is how necessary it is for me to do it. It is important to understand, clarify, go beyond taboos and secrets, and make our own opinions. Whether it is about your parents, yourself, or the world, you need to forge your own opinion. This is what I like in photography; leaving and returning to exterior and interior worlds, conscious and unconscious.
Before Mare Mater, between 2009 and 2011, I had already photographed migrants in Calais, Paris, Malta, and Greece, but the pictures never went beyond the journalistic aspect. I needed to uncover the link between my subjects and myself. Of course, both sides of my family are immigrants, but those links were not enough. I was drawn to the question of separation between young migrants and their mothers—all young boys. I followed them in Marseille for more than a year and went to their home countries to visit their mothers. Then, I investigated my own mother's history at the same time I was working on this project—she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and I wanted to hear her story of Algeria before it was too late. I finally understood what was similar in my situation and the one of those migrants separated from their mothers—as I was going to be separated from mine forever. I mixed those stories in the book, the exhibition, and the film Mare Mater. Perhaps we are better at telling stories we truly understand or that echo our past.
How do you decide between color and black and white?
I find it important to ask myself the question before I start working on something. I don't want to repeat myself, which is often what happens to photographers with a particular style. It really haunts me. Truth is, we repeat and display the same obsessions over a lifetime—it's something inherent to being an artist, I believe—but we can find new ways to express them. Consequently, I often ask myself what would be the best format to express such or such subject. For my series on workers' gardens, I bought a 6 x 6—it may well be a tribute to Robert Doisneau and his photographs of the suburbs.
My use of color is another issue. For example, for my book on Malians I wanted to give a fair account of the cultural shock and geographical gap they face when they try to integrate themselves in France. Also, I was weary of pitiful and miserabilist images of immigrants we are generally shown. I thought this portrayal was not synced with today's reality of immigration. I make books where the text and photos are entwined; I make films in which my pictures are embedded. Essentially, I want to question the connection between fixed and animated images. As long as I am not repeating myself in terms of aesthetics, I am sure I will be passionate about what I'm doing.
More of Patrick Zachmann on Magnum's website.
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