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1965 (Brest)  member of agence VU’

A determination to understand the world motivated by a desire for adventure.

By Joana Anisten. Janvier 2009

“Some books provide the source of the desire to travel, to experience for real, the situations depicted by the author.  Such books can be considered the preface of our actions.” Jean-Claude Guilbert ( Journalist, writer)

It is Brittany and its coastal location that provided the source for his yearning to travel, which he first discovered as a boy when reading the great adventure novels of the late nineteenth century English authors: Conrad, Stevenson…  Later on, he became fascinated by the photographs which his grandfather had taken in such far-flung places as Madagascar, China and its concessions and which had been diligently collated into a record of exceptional quality for its time.

Then, there were magazines which he so avidly perused, the copies of Match, Life and National Geography and which represented yet other outlooks on different landscapes around the world. Finally, there were the many meetings, such as that decisive encounter in 1988, with J C Guilbert, the journalist friend of Hugo Pratt’s, which changed the course of his life. The desire for freedom was the driving force in his determination to understand the world. Photography is a means of reporting the facts at the same time as escaping them or more precisely, of reporting those situations whose victims wish fervently to escape. This is the double paradox which underpins the whole profession.

The United States

With the photographer Paul Fusco (Magnum photos). Le Figaro, 1995.

“My stories have always been inspired by some political issues” Philippe Brault explained in a conversation with Paul Fusco, on the occasion of the “visa pour l’Image” festival (le Figaro) where he exhibited his work “Mullens”

In 2005, he had just joined the Public Eye, created ten years before.  However, in order to understand  ”Mullens” better, let us go back one year, when G. W.  Bush gave his inauguration speech. “ The heart and soul of America are found…in West Virginia”, claimed the President who had just been elected.  Some comment that didn’t escape the photographer’s notice, so passionate he is about American culture, endowed with an insatiable taste for American literature, cinema and photography from Faulker to Fante, Scorcese, Ferrara, Jarmush…

Amongst the photographers that he admires the most, Walker Evans, deservedly remembered for his series of photographs on Virginia (1935), represents an authority in the profession. Robert Franck’s work achieved in a documentary style and a poetic approach is another example, especially his invaluable book “The Americans”.( Delpire 1958.)

With “Coeurs et Ames”, Phillipe Brault’s eye as if it was a devitalized organ,   revealed a grey run-down ghost-town plunged into dullness. The documentary style used in the series of photographs, was chosen intently as a strategy,described as the “stand back” strategy in a book by Dominique Baque entitled “La photographie plasticienne” (3).  It is a position dictated by the subject-matter, as well as the decision made by the photographer to keep his distance from it:  “I don’t like to give all the clues that enable the spectator to understand a picture at once.  I much prefer for him to wonder, to find an interpretation and to imagine what follows” Paule Gonzales quoted for Le Figaro, in 2005.

Those pictures revealing absence and emptiness, were indeed the ones taken in Mullens, one of the poorest towns in the US, which along with other towns,  has suffered a long decline since the 30’s, sending it into a deeper and deeper sleep, highlighting the gloomy remnants of a once flourishing industry.

In May 2008, Philippe Brault resumed his journey to Pennsylvania, in search for the root of America’s identity and made a series of photographs on Dickinson College (named after the first person who contributed to the American Constitution).  A few months later, after the Crash, he went back to Pennsylvania, in the heat of the historical presidential election with Barack Obama, winning the state over by ten points ahead of the republican candidate.

Finally,it would be an oversight not to mention the series of photographs taken in Louisiana and Texas in 2005, where emptiness filled the picture, just as palpable there as it was in “Mullens”, although of a different nature: traces left here and there by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, incongruous details, absurd scenes unsettling our human overconfidence in our pretended invulnerable constructions – just like that car standing upright against some house.


Liban 1988-1989. Trêve des combats entre la milice Amal (Chiites) et le Hezbollah (Chiite) pour le contrôle du secteur musulman, au lendemain de la mort de l'Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny. La ville de Tyr est plongée dans le silence. Photo de droite : dans un village du sud, après un bombardement.

Lebanon  1988-1989. Deadly silence in the city of Tyr, the following day of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny. Cease-fire between the Amal and Hezbollah Shiite millitias, to take control the muslim district. On the right: In a  south village , after a bombing.

Just like Don McCullin, whose work gave Philippe Brault his first visual shock, he found his vocation in the army, or more precisely during his military service in Lebanon. In practice, war and photography are a combination that leaves tangible traces.

“I carried a weapon and by choice, a camera”. Violence and the subsequent scars left on the civilians and their surroundings in the aftermath of armed conflicts became from then on the recurrent theme in his personal or commissioned work.
Indeed, the photographer showed a particular interest for the victims’ background (numerous ruins and deserted paths).  As well as some street scenes, there were also individual or group portraits, which he would often take in their familiar surroundings (like a house for instance).  Each series of photographs was meant as a glimpse at a traumatic events, such as those endured by “the forgotten victims during the Iraqi conflicts” (Caritas France association Secours Catholique, July 2007) or the Kosovo Serbians, dispossessed of their heritage by yet another of a long list of historical upheavals (“Enclaves”, “Kosovo”, 2002 for Geo France).

In 1993, alarmed by how little information was available on the Mozambique situation, counting over one million deaths after the conflicts, Philippe Brault gave up his activity as an assistant cameraman and set off on a 1000 km road trip, resulting in a ten minute encounter with Black Khmers.  His first contribution to the press took place on his return when Liberation published photographs of RENAMO guerrillas.

First publication. Libération 1993.

It was also in the early 90’s that Philippe Brault became aware of the urgent need to re-think the practice of his profession. He felt the necessity
to cut himself off the main flow of photo-reporters whose destinations were defined by the world news making events at a given time.
Instead, counter to the latter, he decided to concentrate his attention on matters neglected by the media. It was therefore as free agents, protective of their independence that Philippe Brault along with a few other photographers from the Public Eye started to travel around the world in search of countries and issues that the media did not cover.

Violence, although usually off shots, appeared in the form of resentment left on the victims hit by some course of destiny and who Philippe Brault intentionally captured in their familiar surroundings to reveal their everyday life conditions. The photographer was concerned with the existing lack of freedom in the profession whereby photography was considered a self-sufficient entity requesting therefore no other arts or techniques to compliment it.  Philippe Brault applied himself to fighting that rigidity and appealed to photography, sound and animated pictures in order to serve his project as effectively as possible: The first part of ”Frontieres Ameres” revealed what was left of Bent Jbell in South Lebanon, February 2007, after the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.  Other series dealt with territorial issues in such terms as expectation and frustration taking shape in barb wires, surrounded bridges, guarded roads, walls: “Enclaves”, ” Kosovo” 2002 for Geo France;” Mitrovica”, “Kosovo”, December 2007; “La memoire serbe du Kosovo”, April 2008, for Geo France; Israel Palestine, “La frontiere est partout”, The West Bank, Gaza Strip, 2004 (..)

Violence took different forms in other series as those in the work he started on urban violence during peaceful times (Scenes de crimes a Guatemala City, 2008 for GQ France).  In 1995, there was also the series about the estrangement of retired immigrants whose families had been left abroad:  “Cela commence par…” (Editions Actes Sud 1997).

2007, a new stance

Interestingly, since his “return” to the South Lebanon in 2007, Philippe  Brault has been working regularly  with a large format camera. Consequently, this change of stance, thus clearly asserting himself as a photographer, implied a new approach to his subject matter with a new means to relate to it.

“After my first experience in Lebanon, I felt convinced that large format was the obvious choice.  I would lay out my kit on the floor of some derelict house and load my films in the charging bag in front of an “old” Hezbollah militia in  charge of watching my every move.  In spite of the language problem, our eyes and hands being our only means of communication, I think he quickly understood that I had not come to “steal” pictures. I feel that the loading ritual somehow encouraged a feeling of mutual trust“.

The time spent on location varied according to the length of series. The idea being that the photographs were taken to last, unlike the sensational shots spread out on today’s newspapers – soon forgotten about as yesterday’s news.  Besides, Philippe Brault was perfectly aware that large format meant the end of a profusion of pictures.  Indeed, the handling of such a tool suggested that the photographer knew exactly the story he wanted to tell and that he had meticulously adjusted the focus, since once loaded the camera had no viewfinder.  However, during their anti- CPE demonstration in Paris (March -April 2006), Philippe  Brault, maintained his belief that large format camera was suitable in the treatment of current news, dismissing some pressures from the Press enticing him to use numerical tools. Although definitely not as prolific as other cameras, he persevered with his tool and was rewarded with several publications, one photograph chosen as The Picture of The Year by Newsweek magazine.  The Public Eye confirmed thus their ability to respond promptly to the demands of the daily news with their old silver salt camera.

Philippe Brault, also covered other world events with the same means, such as the commemoration of Rafiq Hariri’s death in Beirut in February 2007.  2007 represented a turning point in Philippe Brault’s practice of his profession,  since as well as large format, he chose to introduce sound into his work. On the basis of his demo (first part of “Frontieres Ameres”) mentioned above, he set out to make a 16:9th film with Arnaud Lavaleix in charge of the sound.  Philippe Brault, great admirer of Chris Marker’s films, alternated still and animated pictures, a process he believed would throw a new light on photography.  “People hardly look at pictures nowadays.  There are less and less prints (at least for some types of images)”.

Finally, Philippe Brault, has always had dream projects and cravings for no particular reasons, such as making a film in the North Pole or publishing a book into which he would like to collate Joseph Briand’s recommendable recorded photographs (taken with a large format camera).  We find ourselves back to where it all began… his first imaginary travels as a boy, to explore the Great North, when he read books by Jules Verne and also his fascination for his Grandfather’s photographs.

Joseph Briand, self portrait. Bangui, Africa 1900.

Joseph Briand, Bangui 1900.

1 Response to “Biography”

  1. […] an award winning documentary about the American prison system made by the French journalists Philippe Brault and David Dufresne. In 2009 they presented their online platform and 30 minutes of footage at the […]

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