French photojournalist Alain Keler began his career working for the Sygma and Gamma news agencies during the 1970s. Traveling constantly, he covered numerous events around the world, from the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala between 1979 and 1982, to the revolution in Iran in 1979, from the uprisings in Beijing in 1989 to the famine in Ethiopia in 1986. Recognized for his nerveless, immersive approach, he received several honors, such as the World Press Award and Grand Prix Paris Match du photojournalisme in 1986, as well as the The W. Eugene Smith Award in 1997. Alain Keler is a member of the MYOP collective.
Keler’s biggest drive has always been his desire to testify and in doing so, to give the people caught up in the seismic events of world history a face. His first monograph “Journal D’Un Photographe” was published this year and sees Keler revisiting his old contact sheets, mixing his professional and personal photography dating back to the very beginning of his career. The photos featured here are shot exclusively with the Leica M system, which he says delivers a “more personal” image. We spoke with Alain about his extensive career and the role photography plays in remembering the past.
I’ve read you quoted as saying, “Photography was my gateway to the world”. How did your photographic journey begin?
It all started at a very young age. My parents were not getting on too well. There was a noisy environment at home. I was very good in geography and would listen at night to an old short wave radio. It was fascinating to listen to so many different languages that I couldn’t understand. Then there was also the propaganda from USSR, in French, or Chinese. On this short wave radio, I could also listen to some incredible sounds, between the stations. It was as if they were being transmitted to me from outer space.
When I was a little older I started to travel and I became interested in the news. I made newspaper cuttings from articles and photographs. I travelled in Asia and South-East Asia for a year and an half, taking photos. During this trip I met a young American woman, with whom I fell in love. Back in France, I worked as a courier, saving the money earned to buy a ticket to New York in 1971. For several years I did all kinds of work and finally I got my first assignment for a publishing house. I travelled for 3 months around Latin America taking pictures for language textbooks.
When did you start shooting with Leica? And how has your relationship to Leica cameras evolved over time?
With my first paycheck I bought the book “The World of Cartier-Bresson”. Then I became involved with the Soho photo gallery. There I bought my first Leica, an M3 with a 35 mm lens. I never stopped shooting with Leica, even when I became a photographer with the Sygma agency (later and back in Paris). Covering the news, we had to use telephoto and wide angle lenses with single-lens reflex cameras, but I always carried a Leica round my neck.
After the M3, which was broken by the police in Spain, I purchased a Leica M4 in New York. The pictures taken with the Leica were more personal than the ones taken with the SLR camera. However the photo editors of Sygma rarely chose them and, for my latest book “Journal D’Un Photographe”, I looked in my archives and I found a lot them, which I really like. Today I also shoot with the Leica M Monochrom, which brings me closer to film photography.
Some would argue that the role of the photojournalist is that of an objective observer, while others claim that photography is above all a subjective, personal act. What do you consider the role of the photojournalist to be?
The photojournalist should be an objective observer, at least officially. This is because their work is distributed to all sorts of media outlets, who have their own political or social beliefs and they can greatly differ from the photographer’s point of view. But it depends on their way of looking at the world. Anyway, what does this notion of objectivity even mean? In some cases it is very difficult not to take part when you witness injustice around you. I feel I fall into this category.
To what extent are your photos also a personal collection of memories?
I have a saying, “What remains of our memory if not a photograph” (que reste t-il de notre mémoire si ce n’est une photographie). Remember all these old family albums of our parents and grandparents. I think they were an extraordinary way of remembering the past. It was even a way of seeing people that we never had a chance to meet because they where gone before our time. This is definitely the strength of photography. These souvenirs will always be there, with us, for us and our children.
The thing about our memories is that they transform over time. The way we remember and relate to events of the past changes in light of our experiences thereafter. If each photo is a memory in itself, how does your relationship to your photos change over time?
We grow intellectually, or spiritually, but also visually. At times I photograph some scenes around me purely on instinct. Often even. But if it seems like some moments may disappear from our memory, in fact they are engraved somewhere in our brain, and they come back to us when we rediscover them years later on our contact sheets. This is how we find great photos never chosen by publishers or even ourselves. The contact sheet is the insurance policy for a photographer’s memory! It’s one of the most fascinating things in photography.
Can you tell us more about the image of your parents at the door to their house? Out of context, the similarities to the image of the elderly Palestinian couple are clearly apparent. However, when considering the personal connection to the one image, the difference between the two appears far greater.
I felt a lot of tenderness towards this old Palestinian couple, as I did for my aging parents, whom I photographed a lot. Although their lives may seem different, their stories are linked through war and suffering. My family lost a lot of members during the deportation of Jews in World War II, and I can feel only sympathy for this old Palestinian couple caught in the crossfire of history. Of course the stories differ. For the Jews there was the Holocaust and 6 million dead, which is not the case for the Palestinians, but they still suffer greatly from the state of affairs in the Middle East.
Nowadays, iconic moments in history are frequently photographed by a number of photographers yet, more often than not, only one image comes to define the event. What do you think it is that makes one photo permeate the collective consciousness, while others are forgotten?
The history of civilization has been passed down to us through writings but also beautiful paintings and images that often symbolized an event. I think that the collective memory retains theses moments via such singular images, which transcend time. Men have always simplified things to make the story of civilization easier to understand. This has forever been at the expense of something.
Nevertheless, today, there are many possibilities to show various images of a single, seismic event, yet they tend to be processed at a later date and serve to further the analysis of these events. These “other” images can provide a deeper insight. Men have always needed simple symbols before the time for reflection begins. When this time comes, the “other” images will provide for a more global, complete understanding.
Which of your numerous travels and experiences have left the biggest mark on you?
Central America, El Salvador and Guatemala during the civil wars. Photographers and filmmakers I knew lost their lives there. There was a lot of violence, but also tenderness, found in the relationships we had with the people there. We were very emotionally and politically involved.
Your first monograph, “Journal D’Un Photographe” was published in October this year. Can you tell us more about this intimate collection of photographs?
I have saved most, if not all, of my films. Only recently did I go back to the oldest contact sheet. It was here that I found numerous pictures I had taken long before I became a photographer. I realized that at different moments in my life, all of the personal and professional work was connected. It was perhaps not from a physical point of view but as a means of remembering. Then, when we decided to do the book, it became evident that it had to be on a chronological basis, thus allowing me to mix personal and professional photos.
My parents, even if they did not get along very well, were very important to me for a couple of reasons. They were very modest, extremely honest and very hard workers. At the end of the day, I tell myself that their attitude in life has helped me a lot, and I am very grateful to them. I had to give them a good place in this book, alongside my professional life.
How has photojournalism changed since you began your career? And how do you see photojournalism evolving in the future?
Magazines and newspapers used more photographs than they do today. They also personalized their reports by sending photographers to cover events. Today, thanks to the Internet, magazines rarely send photographers into the field.
Media outlets are also trying to save as much money as possible. The big press groups now belong to businessmen, who believe that the press is a business, like so many others. This is a terrible mistake.
The press has a duty to inform that is often out of step with the various governments in place. I would say that the press is therefore an incredibly important element in any self-respecting democracy, providing a system of checks and balances. Worryingly, the new owners of the press don’t seem to understand this. They want, above all, to make money.
For the future, and even now, I see that any photographer can stand out and attract the attention of wider media by working on very personal projects and focusing heavily on the content of their images.
If you could offer one piece of advice to any aspiring photojournalists, what would it be?
I would tell them to give the best of themselves but not try to be the best. In attempting the latter they will lose their soul.