“I did not know anything about photography”

Asnāte Sīmane

Interview with François Hébel, longtime director of Arles Photography Festival

Asnāte Sīmane

Material produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation

Today is the official opening day for the 45th Arles Photography Festival. It was founded on 1970 by a photographer Lucien Clergue, a writer Michel Tournier and a historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette. The exhibitions will be on view through September 21st.

Arles is a small town of Roman heritage, situated in the Provence region of Southern France. For the most part of the year life there is quiet and slow-paced. The inhabitants enjoy a life filled with simple pleasures, which they seem to savour with an exceptional ease. It also appears that the way the time flows differs significantly from the way it does in larger cities, in Paris, for example. People spend more time in laid-back lunches and dinners, indulging leisurely in conversations. You have the possibility to enjoy most different sorts of social exchanges when you’re there. Life is simple in Arles, and happiness seems to be also. All these elements constitute also the Arles Photography festival. In the middle of a hot southern summer, the festival brings a radical change on this little town, albeit for a short time. Streets are suddenly buzzing with people who have arrived from Paris and elsewhere in Europe, and who spend their days swarming the countless exhibitions and their nights in vivacious, wine-fuelled conversations at the central Place du Forum. So why is all of this of such great importance to the festival? Meaning - the slow paced appreciation of the time flow, the geographical placement and the size of the town? It is so, because together they create the perfect environment for very special meetings – ‘for meeting others’. And the festival name, Rencontres d’Arles, means exactly that.

Read in archive: Interview with Aurélie de Lanlay, executive director of the Arles photography festival 

Who are these people who meet up? Absolutely everyone - and it happens in the most random ways. Arles is so small and compact that everyone is bound to run into everyone at some point. First and foremost, it is of course a place of encounter for the photographers and other professionals in this field. They talk and exchange within their circles, but they also converse with their audience. This is what characterizes the festival- the wonderful sense that a social hierarchy is missing. One can wander into a café or an exhibit and begin a casual conversation with a world renowned star. The same principles apply to the festival staff. A sense of camaraderie is cultivated within the team, and all the employees, both from the administrative and the technical teams, lunch together in an outdoor cafeteria. As for the evenings, the men are keen to dance with the ladies during festival-organized staff parties.

Many of these traditions are in place thanks to one man - François Hébel. He has been the director of this festival for the past 12 years, though he was first invited to preside it in 1986. During his time François Hébel has done a so much for the festival that his name has somewhat merged with it. Hence, the shock that many felt when in he announced in November 2013 that he will be leaving the festival. This decision was thought to be the result of the unfortunate inability to find common ground with LUMA foundation and its director Maja Hoffman. This was regarding the subject of the main venues of the Arles festival and the subsequent fate of these now famous industrial areas.

This summer, the festival is presided by both François Hébel and his successor Sam Stourdzé, who was previously in charge of the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne. Shortly before the festival opening we spoke to François Hébel about the past and the future of this magnificent event.

Posters of 1970., 1986. and 1987. years' festivals

How would you describe the intrinsic identity of Rencontres d’Arles? Has it changed since the festival was launched in 1970?

Not really – it’s stayed the same. More specifically, it is a festival which has been created by photographers with the goal to invite other photographers to it. And today, it is still a festival to which photographers are being invited. It might seem like tiny detail, it might seem trivial to say it, but there are many institutions that focus on photographs, rather than photographers. In Arles, we are actually in a position to observe the creation, the creative process itself. We are not merely analyzing the past. We do discuss the past in Arles, but when we do, it is with the intention to find a different angle or new information. Our job is really to work side by side with the artists and to show their inventions with all of the fragility inherent to new things. In that sense, we remain loyal to the original concept.

How would you describe your connection to the festival Rencontres d’Arles, given that you are now leaving it for the second time (you organized the festival in 1986, when you were 25 years old, and subsequently returned in 2000)?

It’s passionate (laughs). Well, I do like this setting very much, because it is a theatrical one. More precisely, when it comes to visual arts, it is very difficult for an artist to meet their audience, to have feedback, to spend time with the spectators. Now, because Arles is not the capital, but a small town, people go on a trip, and spend time there, even if it is just a few hours. It is much more than just seeing an exhibition for half an hour or so. Hence time is of great importance. It is a concept that enables an exchange and in that sense, the artist is put on a stage. As a result, they are on the stage during the opening week, thanks to the debates, antique theatre, conferences and exhibition visits. There is no other instance where all of this is done. And later on, the artist is still staged by the mediators, who remain there, and the audience itself. The spectators who may discuss what they have seen, sharing thoughts between cafe tables, even though they do not know each other and have merely seen the same pamphlet. And that is truly unique. This only exists in Arles. It is an actual stage - a theatrical stage.

You have mentioned theatre and the notion of staging a number of times. You have also mentioned this analogy between festival and theatre, performance, a type of a parade or even a circus, in your editorial on Rencontres d’Arles website. Yet, isn’t photography a rather motionless medium after all?

Well, not so much in Arles. We show a lot of projections; something that the photographers did not quite understand at the beginning, but have grown to love. Certain photographers, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, have been amazing at presenting their work at the theatre Antique in person. So there is an actual process of staging. Indeed, even the actual fact that we must put up walls for exhibitions corresponds to the same process that involves building a stage décor. In other words, we speak to the photographer from the very beginning, asking: “What will you need?” As a result, we pick the spot; we design the wall in accordance with their specific needs. It is therefore an inverted proposition, compared to what one can find in other places, where they say: “We have four walls like this, a hallway and we are going to use this.“ We ask: “What is your project?”

And so, do you think that the success of the festival as an artistic event is linked to the aforementioned concept of temporality, as well as the fact that it is takes place so far from Paris? What impact may this have on the festival?

No, I don’t think that it has much to do with taking place outside Paris. I would like to think that the success is linked to the quality of what we put on show (laughs), also to the fact that we innovate, that each year is so different. We question everything, which may be viewed as provocative or idiotic, I am not quite sure. But we do ask questions. It is a place where people have the opportunity to fundamentally rethink their aesthetic choices and even their political views, for, as every year, I attempt to slip in a political issue. It is therefore a place… a place for holidays, firstly a place for pleasure, yet also one for thought.

Posters of 2001., 2002. and 2014. years' festivals

And what about the Arlesian, the inhabitants of Arles, amidst all this?

Well, the Arlesian take full advantage of the situation. When I first arrived in Arles the unemployment rate was at18%, and it has now fallen to 12%, which is the national average. In fact, it is a reverse curve, when compared to the national average: all of France’s unemployment went up, while in Arles it diminished, thanks to the festival. The Arlesian are most delighted about such a turn of events. Moreover, if we think in terms of the average statistics, 5% of the French population visit places of cultural importance (these are roughly the official statistics), whereas in Arles they are closer to 10-12 %, so it is a rather good marker. I believe that Arles owes everything to photography. When the school of Photography was created, there was nothing else for the graduates with a high-school baccalaureate diploma. All the young people had to leave for Montpellier, Marseille or Paris. Now there are many post-baccalaureate educational opportunities, since the School was created and took off. Following in the footsteps of Rencontres d’Arles, Actes Sud, Harmonia Mundi and now also the LUMA foundation and the Van Gogh foundation have opened their doors. It is all extraordinary! This was a town with great heritage, and a rich one at that, but it was also dormant. But now it truly has turned into a living heritage. How extraordinary!

And it is also a source of pride for the Arlesian, who link themselves with the festival, is that right?

Yes, I believe so. In addition, many of them, perhaps almost all Arlesians have worked there. The young man who opened the night club used to be Lucian Clergue’s assistant, the young woman who created the rock music festival used to be my assistant. Everything is that way in Arles. The taxi drivers change their cars following the Rencontres d’Arles. It is an intertwined little world.

Going back in time a little, one of your achievements was reviving the festival in 2000, when you worked out a very successful budgetary strategy. What would you say was the basis for this accomplishment, how did you manage it?

Oh well, there are so many components to this. Most importantly, I succeeded by taking risks, financial ones mostly. Specifically, trying to invest into what appeared to be good choices, at a given time in the history of photography: everything to do with staging of photography and education. In the late ‘90s the market of photography which did not really exist before had just been established, so people were obsessed with expensive photographs. And we said: “There are plenty of photographs which are inexpensive, but which are also very interesting!” So we thought we had to open up the field of photography, and that was the first step. Also, we made an investment by working with exhibition curators, who were experts in the field. And we did a lot of pedagogical work. One must educate the audience! Not telling them what is good or bad, white and black, but instead to say - this is how you can look at things differently! That is why we worked a lot on developing everything to do with debates, exhibition visits and more. I am not sure what exactly worked best. In any case, I hope that it was the surprise effect of the program which did. I hope that people come to see the photographs - not to look at the black and white photographs from the fifties or of the Humanist movement, but to the ones that we showed them to surprise them. We bring the audience elsewhere, we allow them to dream, and that is marvelous.

Arles Photography Festival in 2011

Speaking of surprises you introduced colour photography into the festival when you were its director back in 1986. How did this occur to you and how was it received back then?

I can now confess something I could not have admitted at the time: I did not know anything about photography! Therefore I did not have ready access to the masters of black and white era and thus when I was asked to create the program I invited the people from my generation - and they were all at the time beginning to work with colour. It could have been a complete failure, yet it so happens that those were exceptionally talented people who now have become renowned stars. We can converse about this today, and it is wonderful, but at the time half of the administrative council resigned - violent letters were coming from the founding members. All of this was not necessarily acceptable at the time, notably exhibiting in industrial spaces. It was the first time in France that an exhibition was held in an industrial space! Nowadays every museum wants an industrial space, yet in my case the industrial space was a constraint, because I did not have another place for the exhibit. I did not have the churches, I did not have any of that! The museum of archaeology had not been built yet, all of the churches were full of ancient sarcophagi, ancient stones and old rocks... I needed to invent places. So I did just that - I used studios. These days it is a pioneering thing to do, however back in those days it seemed either scandalous to a lot of people or a pioneering practice to others. In any case, it was not simple.

Nowadays with the availability of new technology the very process of photography has become simple and accessible. Do you find that this vulgarizes photography as such?

No, it is absolutely genius! I personally believe that the term ‘vulgarize’ is a pejorative one, and is not adequate in this instance. This has enabled everyone to do photography, whereas it used to be an occupation only for the rich. Now, if you will, there is a great creativity, and then there will be a load of nonsense too, but that is fine. It is like that in all the Arts. Look at the people who sing - photography has become like singing. There are people who sing out of tune in their shower, and then there are those who sing at the Opera house. In between, there is a whole gradation of people, who do rap music one day, and then another day they do punk music, and then hip hop, and whatever else. That is what is going to happen to photography now, and that is the wonderful part.

Arles Photography Festival in 2007

And you believe that the growing availability and technical simplicity is an undoubtedly positive development for photography? Are you not worried that it could lessen the artistic value of this medium?

No, I am simply worried that I am going to have to look at even more photographs to find new and interesting things! It’s going to be very time-consuming, and so we will need experts with a good eye and fast ones. And so, if we do get experts with a good eye and some who are fast, and who agree to work with the living rather than with the deceased (which is the case for many experts actually - they much rather work with the dead, because they are afraid of “the artist’s angst”). But if we do get these people, we will succeed in finding wonderful things. When we put in place the exhibition “From here on” three years ago, it was fascinating.

I believe there are many photographers who were discovered in Arles and who became stars thereafter.

No, it is the photographers who have discovered themselves!

But Rencontres d’Arles gave them a helping hand…

No, there is a day when one decides to become an artist and that is a very brave decision, it is very painful, it is extremely difficult and there are very few who succeed, and so it is the artist who discovers himself in the first place. We simply are lucky enough to come across these people - we are formidably lucky.

Yes, but later on you enable them and it is an important starting point for them.

Yes, but we are lucky enough to be an institution that lives on. Now artists want to display their works here, and this has not always been the case, so this flatters us immensely. And so we must simply respect the fact that courage is on the artist’s side.

Arles Photography Festival in 2010

Art has become a lucrative business these days. Where do you think photography stands in relation to this?

Well, for photographers, this is great news. In other words, these are financial resources that they did not have before and which have now been added to those already in their possession. Some photographers used to make a living from fashion photography, industrial photography, marriage portraits, etc. Nowadays, they can also sell their own work, which is, of course, good news to them. Just like in every other type of commerce there are things that have been overestimated in value, and others that have been underestimated – well, that is, sadly how things work. This is free market for you. One should not mistake market for art. One must be very clear on this point. So for us, in Arles, the purpose is to observe history of photography, the history of photographic art that is being written. We are not watching history of the free market being written. For instance, at Paris Photo, they are looking at the history of photographic market being written. They are not preoccupied by writing history of art photography. We must simply be clear about who does what - it may then, in fact, be very complementary.

How do you feel about the the Rencontres d’Arles festival changing directors?

Well, the transfer will go perfectly smoothly, because he is a friend and I admire his work a lot. The problem is, he will be confronted to the same issues that are the very cause of my departure - there is a major uncertainty regarding the location. So, everything that we have built within the past 12 years is partly destroyed, and the investments that we have made are partly lost, and so we must reconstruct other places, other adventures in a very short period of time or else he will have to change the setting of the festival altogether. He will see what is best to be done, but in any case, he is someone who will be good at it, and the transfer will absolutely happen in an entirely friendly way.

Arles Photography Festival in 2010

And what are your plans after leaving Arles?

Probably doing the same thing somewhere else, though I will not be recreating the concept of Rencontres d’ Arles in another place. I will still be creating events around photography. There is a lot to be done. Last year, in Bologna, I created a program on photography and its relation to work, enterprise and production, and we prepared seventeen exhibitions in ten superb spots in Bologna. It worked out brilliantly, so they have asked me to do this every two years. For a start, that is something I will be doing. The project is called Photo INDUSTRIA, and it will take place in October 2015. And I might have projects in Rio and elsewhere. Arles is Arles. One cannot do Arles somewhere else. On the other hand there is a lot to do around photography, so I will be creating events like this around the world on the subject of photography and the education of photographers.

Do you think that Arles is somewhat representative of France?

It is part of, if you will, a certain kind of French know-how. In other words it is a very French skill, this specific way of dealing with culture and making it accessible to the public. One must simply look around. There is the theatre in Avignon, the lyrical art in Aix. The three, including our festival, combined attract a colossal quantity of people coming from all over Europe. Speaking of which, my friends in Bologna tell me: “You, the French, you really know how to do cultural marketing, which we don’t!” So, yes, it could be viewed as a skill, characteristic to the French. That is why we must defend the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ and people who have a particular status here. If all other jobs are delocalized this is one that can be developed.

François Hébel. Photo: Niccolo Hébel

And after all this time that you have spent in Arles do you feel that there is now something of an Arlesian in you?

Yes, I believe so. I am an Arlesian immigrant - without the accent.