Emmanuel Smague

Photographs do not forget a people who have been forgotten. Nor, in Emmanuel Smague’s work, do the photographs betray them. His portraits of ethnic and social minorities assert the uniqueness of all individuals while also bringing into relief the particular shared customs of a region or group.

His photographs also give the impression of having been taken by a close family member. In the tradition of humanism, from which Smague works, we are all closer than we realize. But he seems to have uncanny access—deriving, perhaps, from sympathy and compassion—into the lives of other people. Strangers begin to seem like friends. Distant regions, like home. And photography, like truth.

Your photographs are often surprisingly intimate portraits of people. How do you establish such close relationships with your subjects?

I must admit that taking pictures of people I don’t know would not interest me so much, and so I use only one lens, the 35mm. With a zoom lens, I would feel as if I were ‘stealing’ something from them. I like to take my time before doing anything. Setting up my camera is not such a priority for me—establishing a relationship with the person I’m shooting is.

What lessons or wisdom have you learned from your subjects?

Respect, before all else.

What have been some highlights of your photographic journeys?

I can cite three that really resonate for me. Iraqi Kurdistan—three trips into the heart of that history, to encounter refugees in their own land. The nomads of Central Asia and Mongolia, among whom ancestral traditions persist. And finally, the street kids of Kathmandu (unreleased pictures), a photographic work made possible by an NGO and those kids, who always gave me respect.

How do you choose your journeys?

After 13 years of having traveled without taking photos, I began choosing journeys in 2005 directly related to photographic subject matter: Trans-Siberia; refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan; the nomadic people of Central Asia, Mongolia and Ladakh (India); the chiffonniers of Cairo; the Chernobyl region; and the street kids of Kathmandu. If the eyes of the cameraman and the technique are so important in realizing an image, then all advance work concerning your choice of a theme and your manner of approach seems utterly essential to me.

Have you encountered any dangers on the road?

A few small scares without any consequences. Elementary precautions go a long way.

What, in your own opinion, defines your style?

My photographic work is infused with the tradition of humanism. To me, a photo needs to tell a story. I also place great importance on the composition of the image.

What other photographers or artists have guided you or provided inspiration?

Let me mention the main ones: Bresson, Koudelka, Salgado and Agoudjian. Their outstanding humanist work has always inspired me.

You seem to shoot ethnic groups that have been disenfranchised by their state and/or disadvantaged by either geography or political circumstances. What motivates you in photographing such people? Is there a message you want to convey?

The message is clear. In illustrating a quote by Milan Kundera, “memory does not film, memory photographs,” my photographs try to capture people’s attention, give eternal witness to chapters of human stupidity and inscribe collective memory so that people never forget.

What brought you to photography?

I needed to invent a pretext for discovering the unusual, including people, thousands of kilometers from home—or just steps away. Has the camera become an essential tool? What is essential, without a doubt, is experiencing the present moment, opening one’s eyes, even if it does not result in an image.

The image makes it possible to communicate and share an emotion, to make the person who looks at it dream or imagine things. However, having a taste of reality, of all you can see, smell, listen to or even touch, is much more enriching than a photograph, which is a pale reflection of reality. Images also allow us to remember moments of our lives that would become lost otherwise. But the strongest moments cannot be forgotten. In fact, photography seems to feed from the mere need or desire to create.

What lies ahead for you?

At the moment, I am a professor of music, but I hope one day to completely support myself as a photographer, working, for example, for an agency somewhere.


























Emmanuel Smague’s book:

Kurdes, de l’ombre à la lumière
(Kurds, from Darkness to Light)
Publisher: Les Éditions de Juillet
Publication date: September 2009
Price: 20 €
Format: 20 cms x 20 cms
92 pages, including covers
Soft cover, French language

To order: www.editionsdejuillet.com

To order prints, please refer to
Emmanuel Smague’s homepage:

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