Yan Morvan is one of the most hefty-sacked photographers we've ever met. Over the past 35 years he's kicked it with Hell's Angels, traveled to the world's most fucked-up war zones, worked with the most notorious serial killer France has ever known, and been sentenced to death twice.
Yan participated in the birth of French photojournalism and helped elevate the form to an art. He was the first to show interest in the French rocker's fights and benders, way back in 1975. His book about the delinquent gangs of the Parisian suburbs is one of the few in existence. (Are you feeling inadequate yet? Because we're not done.) He documented the lives of those seriously injured in road accidents, the world's new sexual practices, and historical reenactments performed by the obsessive nerds who do historical reenactments. Morvan was a teacher, an art thief, and a Situationist sympathizer—all while paying taxes and starting a family. Yan spoke with us over coffee in his kitchen.
Vice: How did you become interested in photography?
Yan Morvan: I think the very first photo I took was in 1967 at the Monaco Grand Prix. I was 13 and photographed race cars with my dad. That was the year that Lorenzo Bandini crashed and burned, and I took photos of it with my Kodak camera.
That's a good start.
After that, I studied science at university. I was a part of a little group of crypto-Situationists--the sort of thing that appeals to true slackers.
You've read all their books then, I guess.
All of them. I've read everything. The Wyckaert's, the Vaneigem's…
Well then you must not have been that much of a slacker.
I was, because I didn't understand anything. The only thing of Debord's that I enjoyed were his two Panegyric volumes, in which he discusses his problems with alcohol. That's what I enjoyed. The rest, his theories, well—it's undeniable that he was right. I was driving the other day and thinking to myself that I almost expect to see a Carrefour ad illustrated with a Larry Clark photo, with a caption along the lines of "Don't shoot up, live a clean life." You know what I mean?
Anyway, what I found amusing was that we get it in the neck from the established order—the Ordre Nouveau, and the Trotskyists. It was after the Loi Debré, I think, when we formed an alliance with the ARA—the Revolutionary Anarchist Alliance—and got together after class to fight with just about everyone. The Stalinists and Maoists came to help us too. But not the Maoists who were pro-China, just the pro-Albanian Maoists. It was quite a funny time. It was a bit like when you go to the natural history museum and say to yourself, "Wow, all these things really existed!"
Can you explain who this mysterious pro-Albanian Maoist group was?
The Marxist proletarian pro-Albanian left represented at least half a dozen people in France. In order to show the Albanian's the benefits of Socialism, the leaders used to organize coach journeys to Tirana. We weren't "red" at all. We were more under the umbrella "Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler: same difference!"
And so, other than this intense political life, how else did you spend your days?
Well, the practical aspect of all this theoretical magma was something which came in handy daily: stealing. Everything revolved around stealing. We stole everything.
To begin with, I stole to eat. My father wanted me to study at an elite engineering polytech, but I wasn't up to scratch. He used to say "University's a waste of time," and he wasn't necessarily wrong. Then, there were girls. And so he never gave me any money. Nothing. I was just left to my own devices. It was easy to say "stealing is political." It worked well for me. There weren't metal detectors on shop exits at that time.
So you could just grab what you wanted, really.
Not quite, actually. I was chased more than a few times. Once for having stolen a chicken at a rotisserie. It was around the time that I decided to drop out of my science course at university.
You left for Vincennes, right?
Yes. It was a great time for Vincennes, with Foucault, Derrida, etc. I signed up to do cinema while I was there. I thought it was the only path that would help me avoid all the tedious theory. I'm a practitioner, you know. I'm someone who applies the theories. And that's where I took my first photos, for my professor Gérard Girard, who was also a part of this proletarian pro-Albanian movement. Since he was so preoccupied with the theory, he gave me the keys to his photo lab so that I could work on my practice. He introduced me to some people from Libération.
I'd imagine Libération was much different then than it is now.
Exactly. It wasn't yet the trendy bohemian bourgeois paper that it is now, it was more of a revue. I got started at their photo agency through the back door. It must have bee 1974, I was 22. Because petty theft wasn't a job unto itself, I used to sell newspapers or work at Gibert Jeune book shop. I also worked at the FNAC, a big electronics store, where I stole my first cameras. Then a little later, in 1975, I sold jewels next to the place du Tertre.
A real Albanian job.
Yeah, there must have been stolen jewels amongst all of the ones I had in my little black bundle. Basically, some guy came over dressed in leather with badges and asked to buy a ring with a skull on it. I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy? He looks really rock 'n' roll.' My look was more traditional Situationist: green parka, beard, really long hair, round glasses, and "Peace in Vietnam" badges. I was a little impressed. I asked what he did for a living and he said, "I'm a rocker." We spoke for a little while and I ended up telling him that I'd like to take his picture. Since he was a rock star, he said, "Alright, next week."
He was a butcher's boy at the time, and he suggested I go over to his place after work. I went, took the pictures, developed them at a friends—obviously the film was stolen—and I did my best to get it back pretty quickly. It was the summer of 1975, July or August. When we next saw each other, the guy said to me, "Come with me, I'm going to introduce you to some other rockers." My relationship with the gang of rockers started like that. It ended two years later when the book [Le Cuir et la Baston] was released and the Hell's Angels destroyed my place with their shotguns. I'd moved in between rooms and some poor African guy got it instead of me.
What's the name of the rocker who introduced you to that scene?
Johnny. Johnny from Montreuil. I used to take him around on a Solex, to see and be seen. He was such a myth. He had the shit beaten out of him regularly. Once, while we were in some shitty bar and he was wasted—he was almost always wasted—he looked at a guy and said, "Stop looking at me or I'll pull your socks up!" They other guy left, went to his car, came back with his nunchaku, and massacred poor Johnny. It was always the same story. I got my arm broken by some Hell's Angels, too.
And you were still stealing?
I was doing bizarre things left right and center. I was photographing salons whenever they took place at the Porte de Versailles—I used to go and take pictures of the stands. Obviously it was all disgusting, but there were always a few people who took pity on me and bought them. It was ten francs a shot. But when you've got about 500 exposures, you can make a bit of cash. The guys used to come over and say, "Oh, poor little guy, what you're doing is so sweet."
How did you get to know the Hell's Angels?
Well, one thing lead to another. The principles behind reporting are always the same: you start small with a contact who introduces you to someone else who likes your pictures, then he wants pictures of himself, and so on. At the moment I'm putting together Gang II, and it's the same process. These guys are often huge exhibitionists. They're stars. For this, some guys came looking for me and said, "Hey, you put together Gang—the only book on thugs that's ever been released. You need to make another with us."
Was it difficult releasing a book at such a young age?
I don't know. It's not something I was aware of. It coincided with the time I met Maurice Lemoine, the author. He was working for an agency called Norma, and told me he liked my photos. He was the only one who cared, because at that time no one gave a shit about photographs of rockers. He wrote for it, and that's how Gang was eventually released. A lot of people were talking about it, Le Monde, L'Express, Le Figaro, and Paris Match, whom I worked for not long after.
Was it not annoying to go from having the freedom to do what you wanted to being stuck in an office where there was no danger?
Not necessarily. Working at Match was dangerous. I found myself in a few situations, but I won't elaborate. When things began to deteriorate at Match, Le Figaro magazine was starting up. It must have been 1977, I was a sort of minister at that time. The guy from Le Figaro got in touch, François Angèle, an adorable guy, and said to me "We're going do things the way Warhol did, it's going to be fantastic," and he hired me. I stayed there for a year and a half, fucking up the entire time. Taking "Lifestyle" photos. I'm not sure if you can picture Le Figaro magazine today, but I'll have you know that it was even worse then. So I took photographs, I learned my trade, right up until the day I had a total paranoid breakdown. SAMU came and got me. Miraculously, there was nothing wrong with me. The following day I went to Figaro and said to them, "Sorry guys, you're really nice and all but I can't stay or I'll end up dying." That was in 1979.
What did you do then?
I went to Asia for six months, to the gutter. I'm going to release a book about it focusing on Bangkok. Really trashy.
What did you do while you were there?
I hung out with the girls in the brothels, I lived in a hotel... I was originally renting a bedsit with a local gay streetwalker, and after that the girls took me in. I used to keep a sort of diary at the time. It will be released soon. Then I came back to France.
You must have been washed out.
Yeah, I was taking amphetamines over there—but no dope, that's not really my thing. I was a bit of a case. I knew I could come back: people knew me, knew who I was.
People were waiting for you back in France?
This job, it's a lot of showbiz, you see. People know everything because everyone knows everyone, so I was seen as "out." On top of that, I was as thin as a rake. I wore black glasses, snakeskin boots, and a red jacket. At that point I landed back on the doorsteps of the WASPy conservatives of the press, do you see what I mean? My career was already fucked.
Finally, someone introduced me to a guy from SIPA, one of the biggest press agencies in France. The guy was Turkish and had the most incredible accent. He saw me and said, "Who the hell is this guy that you've brought to me?" Obviously the photographers at that time were all tidy looking, with a little scarf. He said to me, "Straight out of the bordellos, I don't want your filth around." So the guy introducing me said, "OK, you're right: he doesn't look like much but I promise, he's a good one." The Turk took me in on a trial basis. Luckily, because I'd just come back with nothing, I didn't even have an apartment, just a shitty little bedsit that I was subletting.
So it was this Turkish guy who set you back on the right path?
Yeah, I suppose so. During that time I had two or three paparazzi jobs going on as well. Taking photos of the Baroness de Rothschild and Greta Garbo kissing, that sort of thing. Then, while reading Le Monde—I used to read it every day, it was my base—I understood that a coup d'état was about to be staged in Turkey. I went to see the Turkish guy from SIPA to tell him that I wanted to cover the thing, and he said to me "It's all bullshit, there's no coup d'état, Turkey's a great democratic country." A week later there was a coup d'état in Turkey.
That must have convinced him to send you.
Well, after that, all the reporters wanted to cover the thing. But the Turk was legit: he let me go. I knew I'd only be allowed one shot and that if I fucked it up, it would be over for me.
Did SIPA pay for your ticket?
Ticket? What ticket? There was a guy with dark glasses, you gave him 100 dollars and he let you through—the old fashioned way. I arrived in Bulgaria... I'm not quite sure how. I was lucky. Then I took a shabby bus, really bizarre, and got off at Ankara. I managed to shoot three rolls of night photographs—atmospheric ones. I came back to Paris Sunday night. The Turk said "You're such an idiot, you should have stayed!" Monday morning in Match, six pages. Boom.
Did you make any money from it?
Nothing, I must have made about 500 francs. But the Turk was happy. He told me I could stay a while if I wanted. Which I did.
And you became a war photojournalist just like that, because you read Le Monde?
I covered conflicts for eight years, 20 wars total. I was in Lebanon for three years. I only worked for SIPA until 1988, but I continued covering war zones until 2000. After Kosovo I was tired of it. When the refugees left with their hands in the air and a million photographers waiting for them, that was the end, really. It did my head in.
Did you write articles as well?
No, never. I was only asked for photos, a technical thing. You know, photographers have always been seen as piles of shit.
Do you think that's changed at all over the years?
Yes, things are changing, but at the end of the 1970s photographers were more or less canon fodder. I only realized that when I began working with the Americans. To start, they saw the French how we see the Arabs. In Lebanon, I was the bureau chief for Newsweek. When Americans were killed, they used to write six page long articles. When someone French died, they didn't give a shit.
Did a lot of journalists die over there?
Some, but it was mostly Lebanese. And no one gave a shit about them. I stayed at Newsweek until Wall Street's mini crash in 1987, then they fired everyone. I can't remember what shitty country I was in. Some guy arrived and said "You're fired." Same story with the guy from SIPA: "It's over Yan, there's no cash left!"
What countries did you go to after that?
Loads. Uganda, Mozambique, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq a few times.
For the Gulf War?
No, for the Iran-Iraq war. I was the first on the Iranian front-line. I did a lot of things at the same time then, as I always have. I was working on Gang, Mondosex, and on my own online paper. I continued to cover war-zones. I was a photographer for Parisien, and taught at the rue du Louvre Journalism school the Polish way: Minister in the morning and taxi driver at night. I get bored if I'm not busy.
It seems like you've had what, six different careers?
Yeah, after Gang was released I had what you might call writer's block. I was kidnapped by the serial killer Guy Georges, which freaked me out.
How did that happen?
It's complicated, it's a long story and I can't really talk about it. Roughly, what happened was that I had been hanging out with troublemakers for a while, and I found myself face to face with Guy Georges and some pretty high up people who wanted me to take photographs that I didn't want to take—for the suburbs, to create a sort of fear, if you know what I mean.
The social fracture of 1994.
France 2 was falsifying images at the time, but they were busted. So then I stumbled onto these guys who were trying to threaten me. They held and tortured me for three weeks. Then they followed up by threatening to disembowel my girls and rape my wife, so I took the photos. I knew these guys had already bumped people off, I'd seen it. So I took off with my family and my negatives. They looked for me for three months. Guy Georges was finally caught by the police because his accomplice spilled the beans.
How did that happen?
They're delinquents. They're all permanently fucked on coke. He admitted everything. I've got a lot of crazy stories. I once went to pick up Guy Georges in the late morning to work on Gang, and he'd just killed a girl! He was my photo assistant at the time. He helped me carry all the material I needed to take the phony pictures. There were guns all over his place. There were grenades. I remember going over to his place—a squat where he'd been living like an animal. He wouldn't wake up, he must have been hard at work the night before. He would slit people's throats and carve them up while they were still alive. In any case they were on my back—him and his gang—for a good while and it wore me out.
Jesus. This was around 1995, is that right?
Exactly. On top of that, I didn't have any cash because all my money had been taken. It took me two years to get back on track.
And your family?
They're OK. My wife is very strong and the children didn't see a thing. One day the thugs had left me alone for two hours to go and get some money. I got to my house and said to my wife, "Enough's enough, we're leaving." I got undressed and my body was covered in a constellation of bruises. I told her I'd explain later. She understood.
Were you over photography after that?
I didn't want to take photographs ever again. Well, I put together photographie.com, but that was more of a hobby. I was so close to giving up on photography. I felt the same way the time I was sentenced to death.
I was sentenced to death twice in Lebanon.
Holy fuck. What happened?
It was during the Israeli invasion, at the start of the 1980s. These guys had prepared me to die—they sprinkled me with the stuff they put on people before execution. That's when I was fucking scared.
What was going through your mind?
When I was condemned to death, I felt like a horse being sent to an abattoir. I started sweating buckets and I was incapable of moving. The executioner was spraying me with patchouli, because you're supposed to purify a man before executing him. They had caught my chauffeur, who was a Sunni spy. This was different from the last time when I was almost executed with a bullet through my head, which wasn't quite as impressive in the end. That was a more simple process, shall we say.
Yeah, waiting is the worst part, I'm sure.
Exactly, it's the apprehension that gets you. The ritual. They eventually got a call from the embassy ordering them to stop the killing. Instead, they forced me to read the Koran. I fucked up because I was stuttering so much. I was incapable of saying in Arabic, "Almighty Allah, I bow before you." They made me repeat it three times and I was still stuck on "La-la-la." When I got back to Beirut, I learned every verse of the Koran by heart, just in case. Well, I remembered it for a month and then it went by the wayside.
What did you do after Kosovo, in the 2000s?
I was sick of the war, I went home to France. I got into a motorcycle accident not long afterward—I massacred myself. I've got a prosthetic limb made of titanium, and I still have a bunch of stuff in my body.
If you had to guess, how many times would you say you've cheated death?
Oh, I don't know. With that I wasn't really cheating death. I spent three and a half months in the hospital. I met loads of accident victims. I noticed that motorbike injuries were similar to war injuries: metal pierces the skin. I know a bit about it because I've taken a few bullets. Another time, my car exploded [laughs]. All that was left was the steering wheel: it looked like De Funès. At that point I had the idea of working on road accident victims. The project was financed by the National Art Center, and I managed to sell nearly all the photos. I see those injured in accidents as the modern equivalent of those injured through war. I slowly went back to working. By 2003 I had begun my project on reconstructed battle scenes.
You're working on multiple books now, right?
I'm going to release four soon. I do a lot of revues as well. I've done so much press work that I'm obviously less interested in it today. I work on films on the side as well. But it's true that only books interest me now—and galleries. I also teach in a school. I'm always doing ten things at once. I'm into my fifth career. After Match, there was SIPA, a descent, the climb back up, always the same thing. Until it ends, really. It's a question of energy.
What reignited your interest in gangs?
They got in touch with me. The problems are always the same, the guys are a nightmare, you see. I like them, in a similar way to how I liked the rockers. They're full of wild energy, impossible to contain. And they've got huge egos. TV has made them stars. On top of it, they think there's money to be made. One of them wanted to work on a project with TF1 instead of Gang II. I told the guy "Don't do it, you'll get stood up." I ran into him two weeks later—they'd dropped him. I asked him, "So what do you want to do now?" We had to change editors because of it. I let them know I didn't give a fuck about the television guys. What would it do for me, seriously?
And you know, they're Africans. Those guys argue for no reason. Sometimes they strike a pose and waste three hours thinking about how totally useless photographs will turn out.
They're really into the mise-en-scene.
Yeah, and they claim to know what they're doing, you know. They're just bitches.
What do these guys do?
They set cars on fire, shoot at pigs. They said to me, "we've got a deal with the riot squad for the time being: we fire blanks at them." The police are fine with it.
And the guys are really into business too.
Yeah, and robberies as well. I'm not a big fan of robbers, I try to stay away. In Grigny the guys who welcome me are 30 and introduce me to little 15 or 16 year olds. It's always the same story: sex, violence. If I had to compare my work to music I'd say it's big sound, like AC/DC. But for Gang II, I'm gonna try something a bit calmer, more adult—more like contemporary music. I want to make sculpture with the big black guys that pump iron. When I call I say: I'm old, I'm tired, I've met enough wankers, so for god's sake don't be a dick!
Thugs have an unlimited respect for the old.
These guys bitch non stop. "You're making me waste time boys!" I never argue with them but they're difficult, like kids. And I've got a 350 horsepower A8, so they all say, "You know, one day we'll be big like you are, we'll have big rides like yours." [laughs] Don't break your necks boys!
INTERVIEW BY: JULIEN MOREL
PHOTOS: MACIEK POZOGA