Gérard Rancinan: ‘stopping time forever’

Vision catches up with celebrated French photographer and artist Gérard Rancinan as he prepares to premier his new exhibition in Dubai

You were the youngest photojournalist in France at the age of 18 and have since moved to fine art photography. How did this come about?

I started at a newspaper in Bordeaux at 15 years old with a lot of ambition; I wanted to take pictures of war for Life magazine. I learnt a lot from the work of different photographers, like Neil Leifer.

To me though, there is no difference between the two. I was a photo reporter, now, I’m an artist, but I have always been a photographer. I look at the world, talk about our contemporaries, describe society. If I shoot a picture of war in Lebanon, a portrait of Fidel Castro, or a fresco, they’re all one and the same. I am a witness.

Does your previous experience as a photojournalist influence your current work?

Of course! When I was a reporter, I travelled everywhere, so I learnt a lot about the world. Today, I’m an artist, but I am also a reporter because I talk about the world. Maybe I’m more like an editorialist, I look at the world from a distance. Photo reporters are the film, very close to the event. I’m not as close anymore, I’m thinking about the metamorphosis of society.

Hillary Clinton’s people said, “Shooting outside is impossible. Do you have a plan B?” I said, “Yes, I’ll get a plane home.”

What impact do you want your photos to have? What do you want people to feel when they see a Rancinan piece?

People came to an exhibition of mine last year in Shanghai because newspapers said, “wow, go to this museum, the picture is huge! It’s 15 metres large, it’s spectacular!” People come to see a jewel, a spectacular picture. I don’t care about beautiful pictures. I talk about people. I am a witness. I want to say, “look at yourself, you are in my piece, you are like that.” My pictures are like mirrors in this way.

You mentioned in another interview that the individual who bought your Batman Girls piece in London for a record price at auction did not care about the message. Does it frustrate you when people ignore the major themes of your work and focus only on the aesthetic qualities?

Usually, people understand what I mean, but some just look at the picture very aesthetically and buy it only to put on display in their apartment. But if everyone who goes to their home then say, “wow, its fantastic, so strong!” maybe one day, he will understand what I mean. It’s enough.

I remember 10 years ago, a very good French collector bought The Raft of Illusions and put it up in his kitchen. Five years later, we were having dinner together, and he said, “I only understood your picture recently. It’s incredible, my eldest son told me it’s a closed reality because of the raft and the migrants.” I hope people eventually discover the meaning, even if it takes years.

Do you feel any responsibility as a photographer?

Batman Girls, art, photography, modern,
'Batman Girls'Image: Gérard Rancinan

Of course, there is immense responsibility. If I shoot a picture of you right now, you will always be the same on film. You’ll go on living, you’ll become older, you’ll change. Twenty years later, you’ll look at the picture, and say, “wow, I’m not the same person anymore.”  The responsibility of the photographer is incredible because we stop time forever.

You have photographed some of the world’s most powerful individuals, including Hillary Clinton, Fidel Castro and Bill Gates. Do they have an idea of the image they want to convey of themselves or do they let you decide?

Often, photographing such famous individuals wasn’t easy. I have one idea about people; I have to protect the originality. Hillary Clinton’s people said, “Shooting outside is impossible. Do you have a plan B?” I said, “Yes, I’ll get a plane home.”

Do you still learn lessons about your art form, despite working on your craft for so long?

Photography is my tool, my language, but what I say is more important. Some people are writers, others are painters – I’m a photographer.  

Today, there are too many nice pictures. In fashion magazines for example, the girls are wonderful, the makeup is wonderful, the clothes are wonderful, but as soon as you finish looking, you forget everything you’ve seen. In a bad exhibition, you might see an old black and white picture of a girl crying. It may not be fantastic technically, but I prefer it. It has more feeling, more depth. I don’t want to be considered a good photographer; the most important thing is the message.

Opera Gallery Dubai exclusively presents Gérard Rancinan’s special exhibition and project 5-20 October. For the first time, as an artistic performance, Rancinan has agreed to perform 10 portraits of private collectors in Dubai following the opening of his exhibition