By Fanny Revault
The work of Franck Vogel, photographer reporter, combines image and message to move us more. His love for nature made him, at a young age, travel the world to reveal its beauty. It was in India, in contact with the Bishnoi, that he began his adventure in ecologically oriented photography, fascinated by their ancestral way of life respectful of nature. At a time when our biodiversity is increasingly threatened, he is leading this fight through many new reports in remote places of the world to awaken the minds on the environmental issues weighing on our earth. Interview with a sensitive and committed photographer.
What led you to photography?
I liked photography since my teenage time. I studied the life sciences; I did a master’s degree in biochemistry in Strasbourg and then a double diploma in biochemistry in the United States where I should have done a doctorate but the research did not suit me. I felt too isolated and did not have enough human contact. Besides my studies, I was doing photography with a very basic little camera.
To return to France, I applied to engineering schools and I was taken in the best, AgroParisTech, specializing in economics and business management. I did my end-of-year internship as a consultant at Accenture, a large American consulting firm. But the longer I stayed in this office, the more I told myself that I didn’t want to do that.
I had an idea … One day, I met a former AgroParisTech who told me that it was very important to travel before starting to work. I had never traveled … He planted a seed in my head and I told myself that I had to take a trip around the world.
How did you start on this journey?
As a consultant, I knew how to find funding. In 2001, I managed to find a few sponsors and, in the end, raise 15,000 euros. But the event of September 11, 2001 made me lose 90%. So I ended up with € 1,500 for a year of travel. At that time, I met André Brugiroux, a gentleman who hitchhiked in the 60s and 70s for eighteen years on a dollar a day. Today, he is the man who has seen the most countries and territories in the world and who inspired Beijing express. He advises me to make this hitchhiking trip… I was not really of his opinion but he put my foot in the stirrup and I went there, at 24 years old… I landed in Nairobi, a pretty dangerous city. I wanted to leave after four days but I held on … I started to open up … and everything went on incredibly well throughout 2002.
Was photographing one of your goals during this trip?
I had planned three things: to take pictures – I made a total of 8000 slides – to meet people and discover spirituality. I have been in East Africa in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda for four months. Then I went to India and Nepal for three and a half months. Then in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos for five months. I let myself be carried away by the meetings I was doing hitchhiking.
What were you photographing during this trip?
I went to the human. I have always been interested in people. I called my journey “Meeting the people”.
Did this “initiatory” trip make you aware of your vocation?
The click occurred in northern Myanmar in a monastery. The superior monk took me under his wing for seven days. I did four hours of meditation a day, it was physically tough. I had learned the basics of meditation in the Indian Himalayas.
And my question was: what is my mission on Earth? I did not know exactly what I wanted to do after returning from this trip. I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer or a consultant. I realized that what was important was in four words: to travel, to meet others, to photograph, and if possible to inspire people with my work.
I realized that what was important was in four words: to travel, to meet others, to photograph, and if possible to inspire people with my work.
How did you start self-taught photography after your trip?
At first, it was difficult because I had no relationship in the world of photography. It took five years for me to live on it. I persisted and I created, with a technical partner, a concept of photo light; an impression that you light up from the back, like a large slide. Today it’s very common, it’s backlighting. I wanted an interesting rendering that would light up the entire surface evenly. I did a first exhibition called “Light, calm and voluptuousness” with this concept. The idea really started to work a few years later thanks to Potel & Chabot, Moët & Chandon, Roche Bobois and Van Cleef & Arpels which allowed me to produce my photographic reports …
What was the subject of your first photo report?
I worked in India in Rajasthan on the Bishnois, the first ecologists in the world, a people who have lived in harmony with nature and the environment since the 15th century, and who integrated what is now called development sustainable. Between 2007 and 2008, I spent six months with these people totally; I was the first to be accepted on their sacred place and to photograph this land of pilgrimage. The photos aroused great interest among the public because nobody knew these people! President Nicolas Sarkozy had just launched the Grenelle of the environment … in four days, I went from complete unknown to “recognized”. Magazines fought for exclusivity and the subject was published worldwide. Many exhibitions followed and France television asked me to make a film “Bishnois – Rajasthan, the soul of a prophet”, which was very successful.
The human, at the beginning, was at the heart of your subjects, and you gradually opened up to nature and ecology. How did these environmental issues emerge in you?
First of all, I come from a farming family in Alsace and we were very green before the time. Having grown up surrounded by vineyards and I have always been sensitive to nature.
And it was really the meeting with the Bishnois that guided me. I experienced things physically with them. They are ready to die to save wild animals and become martyrs if they die. They follow 29 rules which were dictated to them by their prophet in 1485. During a great drought which lasted more than ten years, this visionary said to them: “either you continue to live here and the earth will be completely sterile from here a few months and you are going to die, either you go on the roads and become migrants, or you stay here but you completely change your way of living… I offer you 29 rules and if you follow them, I guarantee that you will be able to live happily on this earth. One of the most important rules is to stop eating meat and killing animals, and each Bishnoi must plant one tree a year and never cut it down.
An unprecedented experience with the Bishnois…!
Yes, it was quite unique to see them and to have been the first to have had the right to take photos on the most sacred places where the prophet had dictated the rules (400 to 500,000 people meet each year) . They gave me this access and he named me ambassador.
Then, your view turned to the water and the rivers. How did this series come about?
The Bishnois obviously inspired me a lot on ecology. Then, from 2012, I started a series on water and rivers called Fleuves Frontier, a global project which aims to raise awareness of access to water across eight rivers. cross-border; the Nile, the Brahmaputra, the Colorado, the Jordan, the Mekong, the Ganges and finally the Zambezi and the Danube. All these rivers have problems related to access to water. UNESCO asked me to add a more European river that is doing better. The Danube is the only one that is getting better, this is a positive example.
All the others have diverse and varied problems; the idea was to paint a global portrait of the rivers on a world level and to study those with risks of wars or tensions related to the access to water. Each river has its own problems; for example, Colorado is the only major river that has not reached the sea for twenty years now because farmers in the Imperial Valley in southern California have changed their farming model to use all the water that is theirs law (American water rights); because of that the Mexican side of Colorado is dry…
Water, so precious, that UNESCO had described as “blue gold” is the major issue that you defend in your work?
Yes, it’s vital … We cannot live without water. Access to fresh water represents less than one percent of the water on Earth. We need to seriously think on how we consume. To make a 200g beef steak, you need 3,550 liters of water.
Beyond this attraction for the beauty of these places and the encounters, there is a desire to bear witness to a natural heritage threatened to be safeguarded. What do you want to achieve through the medium of photography? An awakening of consciousness?
Exactly, a global awakening of consciousness. I consider myself as a mediator and photography is a way of transmission. My mission is to raise awareness, inspire people with my photos, but also through my conferences and my films. We have known for a long time that global warming will occur and this new pandemic was also potentially predictable. I think, basically, that the man is good but that he has unfortunately become too greedy for money and power. The beauty of the earth and of life is not considered. My series on water and rivers is used to denounce things but above all to raise awareness.
I consider myself as a mediator and photography is a way of transmission.
When in your creative process does magic happen?
This is the moment when I feel that I have the right photo; something is happening. Two years ago, I photographed the Ganges and I also went near its source of the Ganges in the Indian Himalayas. It should not normally rain at this time of the year but when I arrived in the last village before starting the trek to the source it started to rain continuously for several days and access was prohibited . The rain calmed down a bit, I was still allowed to walk a few kilometers on the path and I came across a cave with two sadhus, Hindu hermits. They live here all year round and in winters, at -20 ° C, to pass the time they meditate for seven days, without sleeping, eating or drinking. One of them takes me near the Ganges in which he washes in 2 degree water. It was still raining a bit and the sky was completely gray. Suddenly, a ray of sun pierced the black clouds and came on him … the magic moment arrived! In the second, I knew I had the photo … It was the opening double page of several magazines including GEO. I knew it was a very strong, very visual image … and that’s what I’m looking for, there isn’t much by report …
These moments of grace?
Yes, moments of grace. We are there at the right time. Cartier Bresson speaks of the “decisive moment”, that’s really true … I had to go to the source and I finally came across this man who led me to this place. The sunbeam lasted ten seconds so you had to grab the photo! I was already in the right place and I was able to take the photo. Sometimes it can take days before you can capture the good times.
Do you work only with natural light?
I just play with natural light, this is extremely rare when I use artificial light in addition. The morning and evening lights are very important, as in India for example. But during the day, we can also make beautiful images but it is necessary that the sky is clear. For example in Scotland, you can take great photos any time of the day. A ray of sunshine can appear from a gray sky and it can create incredible contrasts. This light that pierces, as near the source of the Ganges, creates an atmosphere that I seek. Light is, in the end, not a story of schedules but perhaps more a question of climate and weather …
What are your most significant reports?
I’m going to talk about four places that made a special impression on me. Obviously, the Bishnoi in India… There is also the Zambezi in Zambia during the annual royal migration of the Lozis people during the flood of the river towards higher lands. The river can reach 50 km wide in some places and the royal barge with its elephant totem sails through tall grass. It feels like going back four hundred. This report was not easy because we tried to bribe me, I had to hide … I finally managed to take the photos anyway and an image was elected among the fifteen best images 2019 by GEO in France , and among the fifty best images of GEO in Germany with also the famous near the source of the Ganges.
Another striking report: when I was working on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia with the Ethiopian Orthodox priests. In Orthodox monasteries, people come for the Orthodox epiphany; they remake the baptism of Jesus in a way. Pilgrims come to get water poured in at sunrise. There too, this moment with them was quite magical … And there are many others …
My approach is to use the beauty of things so that the person dives into the image, then by reading the legend, realizes that it is a dry river, like the roots of a tree which has no more sap, it’s sad…
For you, why do you think photography, and art in general, is important?
For me, art is beauty. And art allows messages to be conveyed by the beauty of things; beauty can sometimes be in the dark. But it is important to create beauty to touch people and possibly awaken them on subjects. For example, the Colorado Delta in Mexico is dry. And when you fly over it, it is very beautiful and graphic; we see like furrows, roots of trees stretching out. My approach is to use the beauty of things so that the person dives into the image, then by reading the legend, realizes that it is a dry river, like the roots of a tree which has no more sap, it’s sad…
Sometimes it’s pure beauty and other times it’s sad things. I think we shouldn’t show horrible things because people won’t watch … We have to try to magnify these places. I want to touch and educate people in this way. This is how I see my role …
Photographer: GEO, Paris Match, Stern, Bloomberg, Le Monde diplomatique, NRC, Corriere della Serra, Discovery Russia,…
Speaker: UNESCO, Columbia University, Pictet AM, Credit Agricole, Artelia, ESSEC Business School, Sciences Po Paris.
Author/co-Director of documentary film:
“The Bishnois: India’s eco-warriors” (52min)
Portrait photo of Franck Vogel by Frédérique Philipona