Some say Brice Richard is a traveler. I say he’s a master observer floating through the streets, capturing visions which elude us all. He is what photojournalists dream of becoming, invisible in the picture yet reflecting though the simplicity and magnificence of his models and compositions.
Tonight I present to you, conversations with one of my favorite photographers, an interview with Richard.
Q. Why streetcorner?
A. “Streetcorner is the title of my first photo assignment. In 2003, I traveled throughout central China to meet with Chinese workers: coal miners, construction workers, migrants and daily wage laborers. The purpose was to show that, behind the new face of modern China, laid a rougher reality of hard work and poverty. What really struck me during this trip was how close these two China – the glossy one and the “raw” one – were. All you had to do is turn left at a opulent street corner, and see it for yourself. That’s something that staid with me in my following assignments in India and Burma. Hence the name : streetcorner.
Q. What attracts you towards photography more than any other form of art?
A. I’m attracted by two fundamental characteristics of photography (a) the fact that it’s a social art. Not a technical one. The best photojournalists are in my sense not the technical geniuses, but those who have developed a message, a vision, a personality. So, to become better at photography is not only a matter of using your tools better, but also (and primarily) about growing as a human being. Learning to trust your sense of empathy, having a sharp, original and deep understanding of how things work, refusing common knowledge and stereotypes….these are the things that lead to fantastic photography. These are the things that make your shots stand out. (b) the fact that photography works very well with text. A great shot can give so much strength to words. And vice versa. as a result, photography has an explaining power that many other arts lack. I think our generation is currently struggling to make sense of a lot of things around us. How our societies are evolving. What globalization implies for our lives, religions, cultures. Why things work the way they do, and what needs to be done to improve it. Photography can bring some elements of answer.
Q. How did you start with photography? How long have you been clicking?
A. I started photography i 2003. I was then in China, in Shanghai. The SARS epidemic suddenly struck and the city was quarantined. The university in which I was studying closed, so I was left with a lot of time on my hand. I hence decided to take my camera and document via photography daily live in Shanghai during the epidemic. At the time, I was in touch with a professional photographer working there. He was really supportive and encouraged me to get more serious. Which I eventually did.
Q. In your pictures, you connect to the subject, so beautifully. How do you ever do that?
A. I think I still have a long way until I connect to people like I really want to. But so far, the way I’ve done it is just by taking my time and trying my luck. I used to take snapshots of people from afar, with a zoom. They lacked power. So I learned to use wider lenses and come closer to the person I want to capture. Instead of stealing a shot quickly – without creating any link with my subject – I now focus first on making a contact, talking, sharing a smoke or a fruit. I also try to blend in the environment, so that people stop paying attention to me. This allows me to achieve several things (a) to discern the personality of my subject a bit better, so that it shows in my photography (b) to make people more comfortable with me, so that they let a bit of their true self out (c) to turn the subject, and the people around him/her, into an accomplice of the photography, so that everyone enjoys the moment (d) to think about my shot a little bit before taking it. Overall, as early as possible, I try to pull out my camera and leave it out for everyone to see, so that noone feels betrayed or duped.
Q. You say you’re a photojournalist. Do you think that photojournalism too flows with art?
A. That’s a very complex question because everything depends on how you define “Art”. A few decades ago, when Art was still synomymous with “technique”, journalism or social photographies that boasted a certain amount of aesthetic beauty could be considered “Artistic”. The work of Marc Riboux or Sebastiao Salgado can truly be considered as work of art in that sense. But I think today the divide between “Art” and “Photojournalism” is a bit more acute. Art is no longer “technique”, it is “concept”. It has become art for art’s sake. In that context, a beautiful journalistic photography can no longer be seen as “artistic” because it is devoid of “conceptual content”. That’s what separates “artistic” photographers like Mapplethorpe from journalists or social photographers like Steven Mc Curry, James Nachtwey or Don Mc Cully. I’m not saying it’s impossible (I think Nan Goldin’s work falls in both categories) but I feel that the gap between photojournalism and art is wider than it used to be. That being said, both Art and Photography tend to question the same things: who we are, why is the worked the way it is, etc…They both question the very essence of things.
Q. What is the one thing you find most difficult when taking a picture?
A. Making that picture unique. After clicking a thousand times, I tend to repeat myself, to go for the familiar, to reproduce composition I’ve done before, to render atmospheres I’ve rendered before. I find it extremely hard to approach every subject with a fresh eye. Which is why I try to read, or look at other people’s photography as much as possible. To keep push back the boundaries of my imagination. That’s why I love it when the subject in front of me, or the situation I’m in, dictates my photography, rather than me imposing my vision on what I see. My best shots are those where the scene I had in front of me imposed a certain composition, a certain angle, a certain instant. Basically, my best photography is when I’m not in control. It is when what I see simply tells me what to do.