As a teenager Ambroise Tezenas was interested in photography purely as an art and a vessel to “express” and “create something”. A self-confessed “monomaniac” it was only in his later years that photography became a career.
After successfully working for editorials it was the seismic change in the editorial world where magazines had to vie against the might and speed of the internet that Ambroise Tezenas had to adapt. In adapting he found power in personal projects which allowed him to take his methodical and slower way of processing his work without fear of the dreaded ‘deadline’.
While here at #itchysilk we were taken by Parisienne’s work regarding death and the macabre world of death tourism it is his ability to imbue all his images with a photographic power that is addictive.
Inspired by names like Eugène Atget, Maxime du Camp, Francis Frith and Emile Gsell, Ambroise Tezenans’ work is part travel photography and part documentary photography. With a skilful photographic eye, he manages to coalesce the unsettling (at times) and the beautiful for visually startling images.
Talk to us about growing up as a young Ambroise and how your family life may have had an affect/effect on your path into the creative world?
I grew up in Paris, my father was an economist and my mother a journalist. Not really an artistic world but more an intellectual world. Learning piano with no talent, average school boy. I discovered photography at 13 and have been a monomaniac ever since.
I spent my childhood in darkrooms. Photography was a way to express myself, to create something. I never considered that I could make a career of it though. Then my parents divorced, and something exploded. The beautiful order was torn apart. I have trodden the path into the creative world alone, but I kept something very important from my parents. The idea that working hard is important. I learnt that strict discipline from them and in my own work that is what I do. Talent is 90% hard work.
Can you name an image which had a powerful effect on you and indeed helped your love for the visual arts grow?
There are many images which had a powerful effect on me but to name one, I would say: The photograph Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. It has it all. Such an iconic image helped my love for photography grow. Photography is – among many things- a quest. Walking for hours searching for a great-images. A good image must be earnt. It’s never easy but it is always rewarding.
Since I embarked on this journey I have been interested in the history of photography spending many afternoons in libraries before I could start buying books. For me it has been essential to study areas of photography that are not natural to me. Such photography is a lesson. The composition, the emotion, the documentary aspect… all in one. And no tricks.
Photography is a journey and you must accept that it takes time.
We know you worked in photo journalism. How did that time prepare you for your solo pursuits?
It started with a fascination for photo-journalists who travelled the world to tell stories and I wanted to be part of that. But things changed in the print world and magazines. They were not paying any more. I needed to adapt. In 2000, I decide to change my way of working. Taking time on personal projects that eventually became books and exhibitions and working for corporate and advertising clients. Photography is a journey and you must accept that it takes time. You must experiment in different fields and formats because the world of photography is constantly changing. You must adapt without losing yourself.
We were interested in your project on death.
I firmly believe with long term projects that it is important to know where you start not where you want to go. I became interested in this when I began to ask myself why people would be motivated to visit these dark places. This was linked to an experience I had a few years back while witnessing the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka. I saw the drama happening and a few years later read that visitors were coming to this place to have their pictures taken.
This is all part of this Dark Tourism movement.
I have travelled the world for five years witnessing Dark Tourism. In documenting this project, I had to be accurate and have a strict protocol. Booking through tour operators, paying my tours, spending the time as a normal visitor would on those sites and taking pictures as the tourist would (no special access).
Never has the modern man hidden so well the idea of his own death. Witnessing drama to feel more alive.
Emotionally is it difficult to be such places particularly when seeing the aftermath of our cruelness to one another?
To be honest my feeling at the end is mostly sadness and pessimism. History repeats itself. It was interesting to see the capacity of most countries to commemorate crimes they committed. Germany was interesting as it seemed more at ease with its past. In terms of my feelings, they didn’t really change during my travels, but my vision became clearer. The idea of the individual free to make their own judgment was significant. Ultimately it is the individual’s right to visit these places, but one has the right to also question why would anyone visit such places?
Places where genocide has occurred are terribly disturbing to visit. Birkenau has been left as it was to commemorate and to act as a visual deterrent to avoid such acts being repeated. But of course, it does repeat and that is very disturbing. It’s a hopeless history of man repeating these atrocities despite the past awash with clear lessons that we should be learning from. The Rwandan genocide sites among others shocked me because I recall those events with such clarity and remember the building tensions. As a Westerner it made me question what is ‘our’ collective responsibility when faced with such terrible events?
Why are we obsessed in a way with death- the JFK is intriguing?
Never has the modern man hidden so well the idea of his own death. Witnessing drama to feel more alive. Man constantly strives an avoidance of distress by indulging in hyperactivity, hyper-distraction, compulsive behaviours, the search for power. Paradoxically, while the modern man denies the reality of his own death, he enjoys the virtual confrontation to it. We strive for danger by proxy, the location is a pretext, a scene where danger is felt, although it is unreal.
Tell us about the impact of visiting Chernobyl the images are beautiful in their desolation?
Chernobyl is one of the chapters of my book. A perfect illustration of dark tourism with many tour operators in Kiev offering the visit. It is a truly photogenic place. A place stuck 1986, which has now been taken over by nature. It is the perfect illustration of ruin photography, A movement in photography that takes the decline of the built-environment.
How difficult is it to survive as a photographer?
All projects are self-funded. My life as a photographer is a delicate balance between making a living with commissions and reinvesting in my own projects. It takes time because my projects are expensive. I am a slow photographer. I have accepted the slow process of things and my need for time, the need for maturity. Photography is a solitary path. Photography is a way I discover the world and continue to ask myself questions.
Talk to us about Des Sneakers Comme Jay Z-there’s a real powerful theme and idea behind that-indeed what inspired the idea?
In the cloakroom of the first Refuge Centre in the Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, one winter’s evening in 2017 Zaman – a young Afghan who had just arrived in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops after having walked for16 months from Kabul – asked us if by any luck in the pile of old plimsolls that we were showing him we didn’t have a pair of trainers “not ugly ones” or sneakers but instead trainers like the ones Jay-Z wears. The project started from that.
I wanted to know more about the role of the clothes that refugees wear which often belong to other people. What these clothes represent for them. How they condemn them, how they betray them, or how they protect them (and not just from the cold and the rain). The project has been shown in Les Rencontres d’Arles, and it now in Nantes and will be in Paris soon. The aim of the project centres on raising concerns about refugees and how we welcome them. Practically we try to build a stock of clothes for the refugees before the next winter.
What other projects are in the process can you tell us about them and the reasoning behind the project/s?
I have two projects going on, one in France that’s started last June and concerns the influence of American civilisation. The other project centres on over tourism in the world. As I said before however both projects are financially ambitious, so it will take time for them to reach a conclusion.