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Jean-Francois Hamelin Takes Beautiful Photographs of Rural Quebec

Ken Wallingford

Montrealer Jean-Francois Hamelin has been capturing the essence of rural Quebec for many years, most recently in his project titled “Temiscamingue”—named after a region of 10,000 square kilometres in north-west Quebec that goes by the same name.

Montrealer Jean-Francois Hamelin has been capturing the essence of rural Quebec for many years, most recently in his project titled “Temiscamingue”—named after a region of 10,000 square kilometres in north-west Quebec that goes by the same name.

Hamelin first visited Temiscamingue in the winter of 2010, and was surprised to feel like he couldn’t grasp the physical boundaries of the land he was exploring. So Hamelin took several more seven-hour drives from Montreal to Temiscamingue beginning in the fall of 2011, to photograph the landscape and try and get his bearings.

The project, now in a state of near-completion, can be seen on his personal website, and was recently picked up on the Boreal Collective online gallery. (The website is Canadian-based and aims to document social and environmental injustices via photography.)

Much of Hamelin’s work deals with the lives and the land outside of our the city centres. His last piece, “Harvesting the North”, documents the immigration of Latin-Americans to southern Quebec for the harvest season. In “Temiscamingue,” Hamelin’s images stir up nostalgia for a time when the land was cultivated and filled with migrants moving away from the cities during the Great Depression.

I called up Jean-Francois to talk about his curiosity for the Quebec landscape, his style of photography, and the people he captures in his work.

VICE: Hey, Jean-Francois! Can you please tell me about your fascination with rural Quebec?
Jean-Francois Hamelin:
We live in a huge country, but we think everything that happens, happens around the city. I find it strange. My fascination was to travel the land and try to see the actual country. Some people in Montreal think of going north and they think of going to a maximum of two and a half hours away to visit a ski hill. The fascination is trying to comprehend the land we live in.

So is it a fascination with the land itself, or with the people who live on the land?
It’s both. I’m quite interested in landscape. But it’s also the way people live. This is something that we can relate to. What you see in the Temiscamingue series is that you go there and you wonder why people live there. There’s nothing special about the region. But it’s the relationship between the people and the land.

About three years ago I was working on a project called “Harvesting the North” in southern Quebec about the asbestos and the mining. This is really where I started to question this. This region was alive because of the mining and now it’s shut down. This is what happened with Temiscimangue. For 30 or 40 years there was an industry there. But, now the kids have left the towns for the city.

So it’s sitting in a sort of immobile limbo right now?
Yeah.

What were you trying to achieve with the symmetry in your photos?
I like when things are straight and square and centered, you see them and they seem really peaceful. So that’s why you will find subjects that are dead center.

Are you saying that you find peacefulness in the symmetry?
Exactly. When I do these essays I really try to, first of all, have a really straightforward approach to the images. Not too much artifice, no fancy effects. For me, I really like to have a straight approach to the subject. I find it something to be very quietening, I like to take the time to find the subject and find a way to frame it.

When you go out and shoot, what catches your eye?
It depends on the project. Before the Temiscamingue project I did one about South American workers coming up for the harvest. I wanted to shoot the people and I wanted to shoot them in the field. For Temiscamingue, it’s a completely different state of mind. There’s not a lot of action going on in the project because there’s not a lot of action going on in the region.

I realized there are two states of mind I’m in when I take the photos. By driving a lot you get bored, because nothing happens. So if there’s something in a field and the light is hitting it at the right moment, I stop and take a picture. The boredom helps bring details up in the landscape that makes me stop and shoot them. Alternatively, sometimes I go to a location and find it super beautiful but the light is not super great. I take my notebook and I write this place down and if I’m able to I will return at a better time.

What about the way you take pictures of people? You capture some very intimate photos. How do you accomplish this?
When I started the project, it was supposed to be only a landscape project with as little traces of humanity as possible. That was the very first idea. But things evolved and humans started to become important in the story. One thing I thought about was the ratio of people to landscape photos. I wanted to keep a balance where you don’t have many people but you have a lot of landscape; because that’s the way I saw the place when I was there. If I go into an interesting place, I will put the camera on a tripod and walk around to see if I meet someone interesting. Sometimes I meet someone on the road, they ask what I’m doing because they don’t think there is anything to shoot out here. But, they’re taken that I’m interested in their region. So maybe I’ll take a picture of them.

How do people react when you ask them about the landscape?
People are attached to this landscape. There were a lot more people than there are now. But they quickly come into discussion saying it’s not what it once was. Old people will say, “If you had came 25 years before, this land was five times bigger and we’d have a couple of restaurants and gas stations.” So there’s a lot of nostalgia.

Does it make you sad to think about the lack of life and appreciation in places like Temiscamingue?
Yes, I definitely find it sad. It's not the same sadness people from there will have considering their attachment to the land, their town, and their region. They are also more sensitive to every economic or social downturn the region can experience (whether it be, something that seems trivial for people from the big cities, like the closure of the only restaurant in a certain village) due to the fact that they are living their all of the time.

Follow Ken on Twitter: @kjrwall.
 

Other Canadian Photo Essays:

Tree Planting Is Really Awful

A Look at Calgary's Neo-Nazi Movement

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin

Jean-Francois Hamelin