Born in Brussels in 1977, photographer Cédric Gerbehaye is a member of Agence VU’. Commissioned by the ImageSingulières festival, over the course of five weeks he photographed Sète, a town in the south of France where the festival has been held for five years.
After having worked notably in the Middle East, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and having published major works on these regions including “Congo in Limbo” and the forthcoming “Land of Cush,” the photographer talks about his new research and approach to his work. Reflecting his desire to focus now on geographic spaces that are culturally closer to home and the choice to use a single camera – a Leica Monochrom – his time spent in Sète comes as a significant stage in a photographic and human journey, both past and future.
Q: How did you approach this residency, particularly in relation to your previous reports and commissions?
A: I’m used to working on my own projects, which I develop over time. This time, it was a commission and, even more specifically, a carte blanche.
When I was invited to this residency in the town of Sète, no constraints were imposed, apart from being asked to work on the town, its geographic zone and its territory for four to five weeks. We also knew that this would end in an exhibition to be presented during the festival, and a book. Other photographers had already been similarly commissioned previous years. Unlike with the projects I usually undertake, I wanted to let myself be lured into the freedom that this residency offered. This was new for me in some respects, and I decided not to prepare, but to go out and embrace this town and its inhabitants without any prior preparation.
Q: Were you familiar with Sète beforehand?
A: I’d never been there. I’d heard of it; I knew it was a fishing and commercial port on the Mediterranean in the south of France, but I knew nothing about its history or current situation.
Q: If this approach was new for you, this suggests that you usually prepare extensively to familiarize yourself with issues concerning the territories you go to work in.
A: Absolutely. When I go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to South Sudan, to Israel or to the Palestinian territories, for example, I adopt a journalistic approach before adopting a photographic one. This involves understanding the issues through research and documentation. Not to mention the preparation in practical terms. All that, I decided not to do here.
Q: How did you manage the extreme freedom that you gave yourself? I imagine that you had to be completely open to anything that might happen.
A: Yes. Certain things imposed themselves over the course of the time I was there.
Although I hadn’t carried out any preparation beforehand, I knew I wanted to work on this idea of a town open to the world, a Mediterranean town facing North Africa, a place of exchange, trade and sharing. Whether in terms of goods or people, Sète is a place of transit. The town has grown around a wave of Italian immigration attracted by trade and fishing. A more recent wave of North African, namely Maghrebi immigration, is also present in the town.
Q: How did you manage to bring out all the threads of this particularly loaded history in just a few weeks?
A: I made three trips to Sète: first, two two-week stays and then a ten-day stay. That was indeed quite a short span of time to grasp a town, its way of functioning and its population. Having said that, it is not a very large town. I was fortunate enough to stay in a little fisherman house in a neighborhood called the Quartier Haut, at the peak of town. Every morning I’d come down from the old district in to the port or in the town center.
Sète is known as “the Singular Island.” It’s a peninsula, which has the particularity of being situated between the Mediterranean and the Étang de Thau lagoon, so it’s surrounded on both sides by water. Thus, there are fishermen who fish on the Mediterranean and others who fish on the Étang de Thau, which are two different types of fishing. The town’s identity has grown around these activities and people. Also, next to – but also a part of Sète – is what is called the “Ile de Thau,” which is also a peninsula. There one finds the more recent working class districts, with their social housing. It’s slightly on the outskirts of the town, and I wanted to explore that too.
One also has to remember the period in which I worked there: I photographed Sète in November and December 2012 and January 2013. So, I may have been in a Mediterranean town, but during the winter. At 6 pm it was dark, and from 7 pm onwards, the streets were empty. At times, the wind was very strong, it was stormy and the sea was rough. That was the reality I was confronted with.
I returned to Sète in May for the opening of the exhibition during the festival. The town was different. The restaurants and cafes had put out their tables and chairs and people spent more time outside. The light had also changed.
At the start of my residency, I thought that since Sète is a Mediterranean town, I would try to meet people, to spend time with them in their homes and that I would portray the town like that. But precisely because it’s a Mediterranean town, people live and tend to meet outdoors. Several times I went to people’s homes, but it’s not customary to invite someone round. This was another element I had to compose with and which, in part, caused my approach to evolve on the ground.
I also realized that there aren’t many young people in Sète. After high school, most of them leave to study in Montpelier, which is the nearest big town, or go to study elsewhere. So the average age of the population is quite old.
Another particularity is that Sète is a seaside town where people come on holiday. The people in my photos are from Sète; they live there all year round. Those were the people I met. So I had to take all these aspects and phenomena into account.
Q: The work has just been published. Did capturing something that will have a lasting existence through what was ultimately a fleeting experience, pose any difficulties, any anxieties, notably given that you hadn’t previously planned to work in this way?
A: When you prepare, no matter what situation you are going to work in – whether the location is in the most remote places that are cut-off or inaccessible because of their far location or because they are conflict zones – you always try to get a better understanding of the situation, to limit the unknown as much as possible. Nonetheless, you realize that, despite all your preparation, once on the ground, the prep is often reduced to a minimum because the situation turns out to be different and because quite a different reality imposes itself. However, even if the situation changes, you do have an intellectual predisposition that means that the preparation helps give you confidence and master things better. Knowledge of context is important, whether it’s geopolitical, social or cultural, and enables you to react better.
In my case with Sète, if anything was a factor of anxiety, I’d say it was this void that confronts you if you haven’t prepared. I was faced with the immensity of the carte blanche, with total freedom, but I also found that very pleasant too. However hard I tried not to impose a given subject, to stay open to what I would discover, I couldn’t stop myself from working conjointly on themes or on journalistic elements. For example, the commercial port is very important in the town’s identity; its construction and development are rooted in an economic reality, in competition, and in relation to the other Mediterranean port of Marseille. That has consequences in terms of employment for the dockworkers, but also for workers in other branches related to the port and fishing trade.
Take the fishing port: there are now quotas that have to be respected. The tuna fishing boats only go out for relatively short periods nowadays, given the measures taken by the European Commission, which means that the tuna fishing fleet now remains docked for ten months out of the year.
The quality of the water is important too, whether in the Mediterranean or the Étang de Thau. Take for example the oyster farming in the Étang de Thau; it’s a very different form of fishing. The water quality has repercussions on the viability of the fishing. One of the major problems is pollution, caused by industries, but also the pollution from yachting. All of this has a direct impact on the town’s inhabitants.
That’s why I spent time with the fishermen. The first thing I did at the beginning of my residency was to go to the fish auction, the place where the boats come in to sell their fish on the fishing port. Every day the boats come back between 3 and 5 pm. So my day was planned around that. Around 3 pm, I’d always go to the fishing port to meet the fishermen as they returned. Also, when it was still dark, I was one of the first people out on foot in Sète, on my way to meet the fishermen in their huts. I would go and have a coffee with them, in La Pointe Courte or Le Baroud, two neighborhoods of Sète.
Q: In other words, this work isn’t beyond the bounds of your usual practice; wouldn’t you agree with that? On the contrary, it is rooted in your habitual preoccupations.
A: Absolutely. I’m interested in the human, in how people live, what they experience, what they go through and what they suffer from to different degrees. I’m interested in these people for what they are, whoever they are, whatever their status or engagement. I’m interested in who they are and the context they live in, the groups they do or do not belong to.
Q: Could you talk to us about the photo that’s on the cover of the book published from the residency? Where were you? Was it at a dance?
A: It was a tea dance, in a place called Le Madison, which twice a week caters for senior citizens in the afternoon. The people get together to dance to traditional music.
Q: And here, you were pretty close to the two dancers.
Yes. That photo was taken with a 35 mm lens. I used just one camera for this work, a Leica Monochrom, and one lens, except for two photos, which were taken with a 28 mm.
Q: Was it the first time you used the Monochrom?
A: Yes, I bought the camera for this residency and so I could continue my new project on Belgium, where I’m from. It’s a project I started in 2012 and that I will be working on for the next two years.
Before, I worked almost exclusively in black and white and in film. I started using digital and color for my work on South Sudan and, after, I went back to black and white to work on Belgium. Going back to black and white seemed obvious to me. It corresponds to what I want to show.
I have always worked with a Leica M6, as my second camera and along with that, I used an SLR and medium-format film cameras, or a panoramic camera. Today, I’ve moved to working with a single camera and one lens.
Q: That determined the kind of images you took.
A: Yes, it determines the relationship to the people you photograph.
Q: Did you feel comfortable using only one camera?
A: In deciding to make it my main tool, there was something of the order of the obvious, the instinctive, regarding the relation to the object first, and then the relation to the reality in which one inscribes oneself with this tool.
With this camera and this set up, I have a sense of simplicity and lightness, certain discretion. In one of his texts, Hervé Guibert talks about the “gentleness of intrusion.” This is something I try to put in place and which has always attracted me to a photographic project. With this camera, I have the feeling that I’m getting closer to my subjects than with the tools I previously used.
Q: On the festival site, your Sète work is described as a “portrait without concessions.” The Italian magazine Internationale’s Facebook Page, which announced it in May, described it as a “rough gentle” work. Do you agree with these descriptions?
A: Rough… I think that’s in terms of the relationship – and the distance – to things, to the matter, which could be described as mineral, too. In my photos of Sète, there are a lot of walls, stones, the bricks of the sea wall, the coal…. There are also the metal elements of the commercial port’s cranes and the fences with their barbed wire, which create a frontier. This aspect is very important to me; it symbolizes in a way – a dreamlike, symbolic way – the separation between North Africa and Europe. To me, Sète is a kind of outpost on the Mediterranean. It’s a gateway to France and Europe.
These different matters are also found in the weathered walls, the facades, the concrete ground…So one could talk about a roughness, yes.
Q: How have the people of Sète reacted to your work?
A: The first reactions were, “We aren’t used to seeing Sète like this!”
The town is often represented in the summer, in the sun, with people by the water, participating in festivities; often a picture that looks like a postcard. I found it interesting to work in the winter and to focus on a Sète that the inhabitants no longer see, or no longer want to see. But it’s just one point of view among others. It’s the vision of an outsider invited for a relatively short period of time, who came as an observer, and who interacted with certain people he met.
Q: Has this residency and the approach you explored during it opened new paths for your future work?
A: I think that it is part of an evolution that began when I decided to work on Belgium, in 2012, for the Saint-Brieuc Photoreporter Festival. Before, I was interested in things people don’t talk about enough in my opinion. I asked myself questions that I wanted to answer and to understand. I was interested in a given situation. I realized I would come back each time with even more questions. That’s what encouraged me to set off again, to develop the matter and to carry out documentary work.
Today, I still want to do such documentary work, but in places that are closer to me. Incredibly, this seems more complicated to me than going to the Middle East or Africa.
A: Because the confrontation is different, because it’s complex trying to see. Things impose themselves on you, but you have to take into account the way in which you want to represent them, what you want to do with them, and what you want to say about them. I get the impression that the risk is higher when working on places nearer to you.
Thank you for your time, Cédric!
– Leica Internet Team
To read the interview in its original French text, click here.