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Francois Hebel : The Arles Aesthetic

François Hébel is a distinguished photography curator. Director of 'Les Rencontres Arles Photographie' Festival, France, from 2001 to 2014, he is now director of the Foto Industrie Bologna Biennale, and is also overseeing the creation of the new Caribbean Image festival in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

France –  Francois Hebel, one of the most influential man in photography today boasts of a prolific career, spanning 12 years from 2001, to the present as the director of  ‘Les Rencontres Arles Photographie’ Festival in France. Having already directed the festival once in 1986-87, Francois returned to Arles bringing about many significant & effective changes and continues to diligently do so even today. In a lighthearted conversation with EMAHO, Francois spills the beans on this year’s radical B&W photography theme, photographic innovations, his personal journey so far and the overall Asian participation in Arles.

Manik : What is the vision behind the B&W theme for this year and where will the colour balance be coming from?

Francois : First of all one has to check what happened to B&W in the past 30 years. Some years ago colour was regarded as something only commercial, not really serious. Then in the 90’s, via the contemporary art field, colour photography became more popular. With digital coming in 2000, it seems photography is now colour. There is no more shame to be an artist, photographer and use colour.  In fact it’s B&W which has disappeared. So I followed that kind of thread and found very interesting works, whether they were works of the past revisited or whether it is new stuff. It is a B& W programme which is very different from what it would have been 30 years ago. It’s very stimulating.

Stanley GREENE / Agence VU Sélection livre: “Open Wound: Chechnya 1994 to 2003”

Asya, portrait of a woman. Now 22 with the face of an angel, she was carried off and raped at the age of 14. A man entered the family house while she was alone, threw a bag over her head, and hurriedly put her in the car where his accomplices were wainting. He kept her for a few days. He married with her. Chechen traditions allow a man to kidnap the woman he wants to marry, with or without her consent. After the birth of their child, her husband became jealous,, drinking and beating her. She escaped to her sister in Grozny. She decided to become a nurse. After graduating from nursing school she met her second husband. She became a fighting nurse.


Manik : Where would the colour balance fit into the whole theme of this year’s festival?

Francois : In different places. The B&W programme is quite radical. Most of the programme is B&W. But the first person I wanted to approach is the master of contemporary photography in B&W, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and when I was about to call him about a year ago, I received a book from Hermes with all photographs in colour by Hiroshi Sugimoto, so I suddenly was astonished. The first guy I have on top of my list has already moved to colour himself. He did his first Polaroid colour work for Hermes: to create these Polaroid scarves which are quite amazing & beautiful. But in parallel he pulled out all the negatives that he had not printed, which will be seen for the first time in Arles, really surprising work in B &W, so we will have both the latest B & W and the first colour work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.  

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Carré Hermès Ã?diteur (Hermès Ã?diteur square scarf), Colours of shadow 128 1/7


Manik : This year you are launching Rencontres Online – a multimedia platform. So how is this going to change the whole experience of the Arles festival?

Francois : Well, there is a lot of information and exchange in Arles every year, which for nearly 50 years now has sort of gone with the wind. So we were keen since two years to take all the exchanges, all the debates, all the symposiums, all the open-air public talks that we organize, and tape them. We are now putting them online. So in the interest of photography in the future or just now if you have missed them, one can recoup by going online and find a lot of information. If you look back you will realize that big photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward  Western, Henrie Cartier Bresson were in Arles and have not been taped at the time. I mean Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ was first seen in Arles and we don’t have any track of it. The idea is really that now whatever we produce will be taped and put online plus other information that you will find in catalogues. We want our website to be another rendezvous, another opportunity.

Bernhard & Hilla Becher, Anonyme Skulpturen. Edition Art-Press Verlag, Düsseldorf, Allemagne / Germany. 1970.


Manik : I completely agree with you. It’s also the entire experience of going to Arles –  the beauty of this town, it being in the south of France, its summer time.. you think this will accentuate the charm of attending the festival?

Francois : Since I designed the festival 12 years ago, there’s one thing I am convinced is that nothing replaces human exchange and we have a lot of human exchange possibilities in Arles from the professional week in the beginning of July, to what we do in September when we receive 300 plus forms, sometimes kids from all over France. Sometimes, we bring the photographers back to meet the kids. So all these opportunities of human exchange I think are very important. Lots of projects were born in Arles because of people talking at the café, whether it’s a book or whether it a production. So I am reassured it’s an important experience and it will actually increase. What I think is that from these meetings, all these experiences are being created in the exchange of ideas ; debates, the modern and the ancient, all take place in  Arles and nowhere else. But there was no memory of this. If you take for instance, we are doing B&W edition this year… I would like to refer to one colour edition I did myself in 1986, when half of the administrators resigned because they thought colour was vulgar. I mean there is no track of this, there are only a couple of resigning letters and that’s all we have, no track of the debate that was held at that time. So this is very important for the history of photography , to understand what topic goes and what doesn’t and Arles has always been a debating place, so it’s very important that these debates be taped and be accessible, I mean we are not a private place, it’s a public place. It’s very important that we make ourselves accessible. Nothing replaces the experience of being in Arles, having a good drink, and the sun, and the people you expect to meet. I mean the difference is that you go to New York City, Paris or London, you only meet such and such. In Arles you don’t know who you are going to meet because such and such will be there but they will introduce you to a third one you never expected to meet.   Manik : It’s about getting everybody in one town and getting them talking about photography and other things….Francois : And they have time. You know when you are in a big capital, you go to a big exhibition, you go to an opening but then you have your family, you have your work and you have other things to do, but when you are in Arles there is no other reason. Arles is a little village, it’s a little town; there is no reason to be there except the beauty of the place.

Jean Noviel, Fabricated landscapes 


Manik : It’s not just the photography but also the innovative exhibits that makes Arles special. What special innovations can we look forward to this year where you’re presenting B&W photography in a contemporary set up?

Francois : People now challenge the ways we show photography and we have done so extensively, not always in the form of print and frame. It can be a projection, it can be glued to the wall; after all we are the ones that started JR all over the world. Photography is really something that is very flexible but to make it as a product, most of the galleries make prints & frames, but photography is much more than this. Photography is also books. We get a lot of books from publishers all over the world and we put nearly 2500 books on display every year. People have full access  to it.   So there are a lot of things that needs to be investigated in the way of showing photography as we do now. This year, for instance, we have a whole lot of family albums, starting with Jacques Henri Lartigue. Lartigue was a master of family albums. Then we end with Hessel, the Dutch art director …he has loaded 24 hours of photos on the Internet and he is filing up a chapel with loads and loads of print that is equivalent of what you can see on the internet every day. People will just pick up the prints, check them out and put them in their pockets, put them back on the floor.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Ubu and Bibi on the road. April 1925. Courtesy of Ministère de la Culture â?? France / AAJHL


Manik : Have you come up with any specific location like in the past you had old churches, railway factories… anything specific that you have this year?

Francois : We’ve done a lot of that  this year for  Sugimoto. We will also have a very special night of projections, with 15 screens in an old salt line.

Manik : At Arles you have dedicated a segment to photographic interactivity through games. This year’s specially devised game is ‘pause, photo, prose’. What is the importance of this segment to the festival?

Francois : The festival doesn’t really have regular sections; we try to be different every year.  We don’t want to repeat ourselves. The Internet is a resource for raw material for artist to transform the photographs and do their own work. So we did a big exhibition with this which is now touring the world – Barcelona, London and other places. We also created a game for kids, so they could go to schools and classrooms for one hour and play photography and put words on photographs, so they get to understand the message of an image. This game teaches them how to read the message behind the image–the intention of the photographer or the artist.

2012 © Marion Gronier / Résidence BMW – Musée Nicéphore Niépce


Manik : Any specific game for this year’s edition?

Francois : There is just that one game we created, which is intended to go to the schools. It is only in French but we have to translate it into other languages.

Manik : This year there is a focus on South African photography via the programme that commissions 12 photographers to photograph the South African landscape.

Francois : It’s something we are very happy about. It’s easy on our side to pick up the work we think is good and show it; it’ s harder to help the photographer to produce something. This is the year of South Africa in France, which is the year of diplomatic exchanges between the states and they asked us to do something. I said I know all the important photographers from South Africa because, over the years, I have been inviting the major names in photography from there. I am not going to do it again. They will present the same works and that would be ridiculous. In South Africa territory is so important because it’s about minds, it’s about people being moved because of wars, it’s about white being protected in gated compounds. So we decided why don’t we do something fresh, a public assignment about territory and have a combined team of South African and French photographers. This was financed by the French and South African authorities. They did 2 trips, 12 photographers – 6 South African, 5 French and 1 Belgian.  One of the questions they were trying to address was:  what does landscape say about society. They were not looking for news, or events or whatever. It was about time as a dimension and the traces left on the landscape by social phenomena. They are very different photographers and the result is quite amazing. We started the show in Johannesburg in December where it was very successful and it’s now coming to Arles in the summer.

Thabiso Sekgala, Untitled.


Manik : On what basis were these photographers selected and by whom?

Francois : We shared the selection between the Rencontre and the Market Photography workshop in Johannesburg, which I was told was created by David Goldblatt during the apartheid, to give access to young blacks to other works. It’s quite an important school and has lasted even after the apartheid was over.

Manik : Where do you foresee new voices in photography coming from this year? Are there any major trends or trend shifts that Arles Photography festival will be highlighting this year?

Francois : I think photography has never been so exciting. I think it goes in all directions. Even the curators now are giving stress to territories that they would not have considered before. So the scope of photography is pretty wide now.

Jeannie Abert, Revolutions, 2011.


Manik : My next question is a bit personal – in the last 12 years as the Director, what has changed & not changed about the Arles experience for you?

Francois : We have created a lot of professional opportunities; we have created 500 pages of catalogues, which are now a real source of reference. Many of our programmes are touring the world. There has been an effort to shed light on fields of photography, which were probably not considered in the past. Manik : But has changed and what has not changed for you personally…Francois : I have done this job twice in my life, the first time I went was in the 80s. I went back because I wanted to learn more. I was also learning every year when I worked with Chinese artist, when I went to India, when I went to Africa.

Erik Kessels, 24HRS of photos, installation, FOAM Amsterdam. Photograph: Gijs van den Berg. 


Manik : Were there any mistakes in the past. Do you think that over a period of time, you’ve learnt from those mistakes in being the Director of Arles?

Francois : Certainly. You know every year we put up around 60 exhibitions, and some theatre shows. When I look at the end of the summer, sometime I think I overrated some of the work that wasn’t really that good. Some things worked better than I thought. But if you don’t make mistakes, that means that you don’t try.

Manik : What is your personal process before the festival? How closely do you involve yourself in scouting for the new in photography each year?

Francois : I sort of write the festival between the month of August and the month of February before opening in July. It’s on purpose, some last minute calls, which is very difficult for the teams, but which really allows us to be on top of things instead of being like other institutions, which plan 3-5 years in advance.

Manik : And along with this, emerging voices of countries such as China & Argentina have also found a platform at Arles. What is your role in making that happen because I think it’s a brilliant initiative?

Francois : I take full credit for this. It’s different each time, sometimes there is a movement like in China. In the case of Argentina, we had not had a focus for long time–they have photographers but they don’t create art. They are very different photographers, you know not every country needs a focus, but we had one very interesting year when there was an Indian artist facing a Chinese artist. These two countries are the leaders of BRIC; they have very different cultures, one being democracy and the other not being democracy, one having a very long tradition and the other having revised everything in a revolution and we could sort of see the impact of all these differences on the artist, so we had a very interesting year. We try to create these kind of opportunities.

Viviane Sassen for Numero magazine. Courtesy of the artist.

  Manik : You have also said that Indian artist are not very daring or transgressive as in they do not criticize urban growth, while Chinese artists are more daring. Would you like to elaborate on that please?Francois : First of all, so you know, I love your country; I have travelled through your country for my own pleasure a lot. Still, there are some conventions which are very much respected in India and the artists are less radical than in China. In China they use nudity, some very provocative politics statements , they always stretch the string to breaking point. In India it’s much more prudent, much more pure, much more respectful, so there is not that same sort of energy, it’s another type of photography. Its more soft, doesn’t mean it bad, it’s just different. There is a very conceptual approach in China, which started earlier and is more radical than in India where we still have the heritage of the big and beloved Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai . So its changing more slowly, the society in not in the same sort crisis as in China.

 Daido Moriyama, Wallpaper “Mesh” (detail) (1986/2013) © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, courtesy Polka Galerie

Manik : I had interviewed Christian Caujolle in Cambodia last November. He said he is connected to some photographers who are recommended by his friends and then he does his best to curate them. Are you familiar with the photography scene in India or is it just that you know the top-notch photographers?

Francois : I have travelled India so I have met photographers. The first time was I think 20 years ago and I did some trips on purpose to meet photographers. Since we all do the same thing, we have friends who tell us where to look. Sometimes these photographers never show you the right thing, but they can also have a good work that they don’t really value, and its while talking to them that you can give them more strength and nudge them in the right direction…this is what I have been doing a lot and I will do it again.

Manik : Each time do you have specific participation from different parts of the world?

Francois : It depends on my meetings. Sometime I realize that it makes sense to do a focus on Mexico,for instance, and sometimes I go to another country and I realize there is no need to make focus on that country and I invite only one artist. I have no rules.  

Cécile Decorniquet, Lady 3, Ladies series, 2008/2012


Manik : In 2007, Arles was the Guest of Honour at the PhotoSpring Festival in China. Do you see more such ventures coming up?

Francois : We do all the time. This weekend in Beijing we opened four shows that were showed in Arles last summer which are not of the Spring festival because Spring festival doesn’t exist anymore. A month ago we had shows in Barcelona, and then there were shows that travelled to New York, then London this winter, so that happens all the time. As I said, we also opened this co-production in Johannesburg in December.

A five year old that lives on the rubbish dump. He is cared for by his grandmother after he was abandoned at first by his father and then his mother. © Robin Hammond

  Photography Interviewed by Manik Katyal

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