Over the last 40 years French photojournalist Yan Morvan has been influential in pushing the boundaries of what is considered not only acceptable but also possible. Morvan was one of the first photographers to published uncensored, intense and often shocking images in mainstream media. His seemingly fearless approach to photography has seen him infiltrate the Hell’s Angels and travel to the front lines of war zones, such as Iran, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Kosovo, while he has also worked with the most notorious serial killer France has ever known, not to mention having been sentenced to death twice! At various points during his career, Morvan has worked for French publications Fotolib, Paris Match, Le Figaro Magazine and during the 80s he was a staff photographer and correspondent at Sipa Press. His body of work documenting the delinquent gangs of the Parisian suburbs provides an unrivaled level of insight into this rarely seen side to the French capital. The following series features members of notorious gangs such as the Black Dragons, the Red Warriors and the Ducky Boys, as well as Guy Georges, who became known as “The Beast of the Bastille”, after his conviction for murdering seven women between 1991 and 1997. We spoke with Morvan about his desire to serve as an eyewitness, his addiction to adventure and the future of photojournalism.
You studied science for a period during your youth but I’ve read you got involved in photography because of your interest in history. When did you actually first start shooting?
It was to please my father that I started studying science. Ever since I was five years old and first started reading I was fond of books about history. As a child, I dressed up as a Templar Knight or a Roman legionnaire for Christmas and my birthday. I started as an amateur photographer at the age of twelve. My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic Camera, which cost around 50 EUR and was my reward for coming top of my class.
Was there anyone who inspired you during your early years?
I first started to get more serious about photography during the time of the youth revolutions throughout Europe. It was the end of the sixties, the time of the Vietnam War and the “pitch” of the moment was: “Peace in Vietnam”. I discovered the photo magazines “Zoom” and “Photo”, which published the works of the famous photojournalists: Burrows, Huet, Page, Griffiths, McCullin and Adams. It was at this time that I decided to become an eyewitness, to testify later to the tragedy of the human world.
When did you start shooting with Leica cameras? And how did your chosen camera aid your work as a photojournalist?
Leica was the ultimate camera, used by the “romantic heroes of photography”, such as Robert Capa and others – Fearless young people giving their lives for the preservation of humanity. That idea really stuck with me – A head full of dreams and heroism, ready to sacrifice my life with a Leica in my hands. My first Leica was an M3 with a 50mm lens. It was a gift from a friend and I quickly got used to the rangefinder. I loved it.
You worked for over 20 years documenting the gangs of Paris. What was it that drew you into this world?
Back in 1975 I had to start with something. I read a book by American photographer Danny Lyon called “The Bike Riders”. I decided to do the same stuff in Paris with the motorbike gangs. It was “next-door” journalism and it didn’t cost me any money to travel or for expenses. The only cost to me was blood and tears for a young guy with big dreams.
How do your images of the Parisian gangs relate to your other work, specifically your war photography? Are there any similarities between the two?
In my mind, the same people inhabit each of these two different worlds: be it on the frontline of the battlefield or the frontline in the battle for the streets. Realizing this allowed me to easily switch from one world to the other.
Your immersion in the world of these Parisian gangs has produced some incredibly candid and raw images. How did you manage to gain this kind of access?
It was the same for me as it is for any embedded photojournalist. When you spend such a long amount of time with people, sharing their lives and living with them, at some point they don’t bother paying attention to you any more and when you’ve achieved this, it’s the right moment to push the shutter release!
I’ve read you quoted as saying that the gang members themselves are “exhibitionists” and that they wanted you to photograph them in staged settings. How do you think the mentality of these young men aided or hindered your work?
Things were very different then to the way they are now. During the 70s and 80s people liked to exhibit themselves. They wanted to exist as a kind of “fashion model”. Equally, the desire to belong, to be a member of a tribe, meant they would do whatever they could to be a part of something. As outsiders on the margins of society this was how they functioned. Nowadays, people don’t trust photographers and sometimes they are right not to – some photographers with no ethics have been known to alter pictures and to corrupt the original meaning. This has led to the some losing their trust in photographers and people in general. In the world of images you can come across unscrupulous wolves. In spite of all this, as a photographer, you have to gain the trust of your subjects and once you’ve proved it things become a lot easier.
There were moments however when the trust you showed was betrayed. It’s been reported that you were kidnapped and tortured by gang members, who also threatened your wife and children. How did this come about? And how did you manage to resolve the situation?
Yes… it’s true. It’s a long and difficult story I would prefer to forget…
I was involved against my will in a very dangerous and life-threatening operation with a kind of special police officer, using hooligans as henchmen to carry out certain objectives. In my opinion, sometimes France behaves like a kind of banana republic with no scruples at all. We call it “Raison d‘etat” – a way of justifying unthinkable behavior in the national interest.
At that time I was working for a French magazine in 1994 on what we called “Social Breakdown”. My fixer/assistant in the Parisian underworld was jailed for a murder linked to a drug deal. Guy Georges was his close friend and he advised me to work with him, which I did. When the problems started with Georges and the other members of the gang I became trapped in a horrific nightmare. One day I was able to narrowly escape with my family to Switzerland. When I came back to Paris I was then able to create a trap with some honest police officers. I was just very, very lucky…
How do you cope with this inevitable fear that comes from photographing in such dangerous situations? How much so you think fear helps you survive?
Some people are addicted to tobacco, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, violence, power etc. I’m addicted to adventure and, unfortunately, danger is an inescapable part of that. I have to cope with it against my will and fight against my fear.
Your book Gangs Story was banned due to a dispute about image rights. How do you think this decision effects photojournalists’ right to inform?
This is not my problem. I publish – that’s all. If there is a problem, then we try to find a solution. If not – never mind. Life is never a walk in the park. I always try to be cautious and honest with texts and captions, that’s all I can say. It’s well known that you can make money by pursuing publishers for any reason – Let them try…
How do you think photojournalism has changed over the last 3 or 4 decades? And what do you see as the future of photojournalism?
The future will be bright and glorious! Analog is back. People have started to buy books again. A lot of publishers, foundations, prizes and sponsors are supporting documentary photography. But the work has to be good, professional and with some intellectual political and social meaning.
Photographers have to work hard, taking into account history, philosophy, economics, aesthetics etc. to be at a decent level and to make a proper living from their work.
If you‘re willing to put in the work, you can have absolutely anything you want.
Your career has seen you travel all over the world and report on some of the most violent events in world history. If you were to go back and do it all again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
In the 80s the American agency Black Star offered me a contract paying 80,000 USD a year. It was very big money back then but I had to live in NYC and cover international news for Time and Newsweek magazines. Instead of that I settled in Paris, built a family with four children and started a career as an independent photographer. I was considered a fool to refuse the US opportunity and everybody thought my career was over. This was not an easy path to follow but 35 years later, I can look back and know that I made a good choice and against all the odds I continue doing what I love – telling stories of human beings for others human beings.