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At Brother we love finding new and exciting photographers using instruments to document scenes we love and pivotal moments. Elsa Blanchard, Paris based photographer and graphic designer does both. Our writer Ella Sadie sat down with her over zoom to talk about how photography can be a form of activism and whether you can really be a fly on the wall with a camera. 

By Elsa Blanchard

Hi Elsa! How’s it going back in Paris? What are you doing at the moment?

I’m enjoying Lockdown! I just moved back to Paris (my hometown) I live and work here, for a film production company. Also, on the side I’m part of a music collective called Sentaku composed of DJs, producers and visual artists. Before corona we used to organise music events and rave parties alongside the local electronic music scene, but at the moment it’s slow so we’re trying to work on the label and the business. To be creative in that time was easier I have to say. Especially because I usually take pictures of rave parties and DJs. There’s not much of that at the moment but I hope it will go back to normal one day. It’s a bit weird and frustrating to be honest.

“I like to show the freedom that exists in a rave. The way people are dressed, the way they behave, it's completely free.”

How did you find the music and creating experiences fits in with photography for you?

I think, I’ve always been really interested in music and when I arrived in London I met this collective [sentaku] and they knew I was doing a bit of photography on the side and then they asked me to take pictures of the events. That’s how I started doing photography in the rave scene. It was nice because I met a lot of people and it was also a way to have fun. I was discovering all these amazing DJs on the dancefloor and it was perfect because it was music and photography together.

You get to be close to the music to do those things.

Yeah, you have to sacrifice a few hours of sleep, that’s for sure! It’s really nice to be part of a team. Our label is really a family. We come from different backgrounds, different places, different religions, everything but we come together for the music.

When at a party or a rave, what kind of things makes you go ‘I need to capture that’?

I’d say, when the vibe is great I like to take pictures of people having a good time. I also like to show the freedom that exists in that place. The way people are dressed, the way they behave, it's completely free. It’s not what you’re gonna see in the corporate world! Also it's a way that I can photograph my friends. The DJs that I know, I want them to have good pictures of themselves they can use to promote themselves. Also memories. Photographing the rave scene now, it could become archives in the future. When you see pictures from the rave scene in the 90s it's really interesting so I’d like to help a bit in that way.

Especially considering how the world looks now, we have no idea how the rave world is going to change. Even just taking pictures of the scene last year or year before - that could be completely different. Have you had any experiences of ‘Covid Safe’ raves?

Not really! We did a few raves in the summer in forests and stuff in between the first and second wave but it wasn’t really the same. For me, raving and being socially distant doesn’t really go. We need to hug people and dance and be close to each other to really enjoy it.

Do you think there’s a market for online raving?

I think it won’t stay, because it’s in contradiction to what rave is. How we rave and behave in these situations. DJs, when they’re playing, need to get the vibe from the public. I don’t think it works really. It’s nice to do podcasts and listen from home but for a party - I don’t think it's going to work for long. You can also meet people that you’d never usually meet in other situations, even if it’s just for one night. You just meet someone and you’re talking and you never see that person again.

How did you got into photography?

To be honest I never imagined myself becoming a photographer. I was really into art in general and I would enjoy going to photography exhibitions but never thought I would do it myself. I kinda got into it by photographing my everyday life, and my friends and how we live and our lifestyles. When I started travelling I thought it was important for me to take pictures so I could remember what I’ve seen there.

What is your favourite photo you’ve ever taken?

It’s really hard to pick because there is a story behind each photo that I take. The one that i really like is a picture of an older man that I took in this little village in the mountains of Iran. I really like it because it represents … It's a complete stranger in the picture but he trusted me the very second he was accepting the fact I was taking the picture. We kinda had a connection, even though it was a complete stranger. He was way older than me from a different country, a different culture. We knew nothing about each other but he trusted me for that picture.

So you went to Iran to shoot a project, what was that like?

I would say it was the most challenging thing I ever did. It was great, really great but I was there for 4 ½ months on my own. It’s a different life there. Different rules you have to obey so it was really challenging. But it made me grow and be more brave as a photographer because I had no choice but to talk to people when taking pictures. I was really surprised by the reactions of the people when they saw me with a camera. They were really welcoming, which I didn’t expect. I published a photography book [Iran] with all those pictures and I think it’s also an homage that i want to give to the people of Iran because we have a really bad image of Iran worldwide and the people there are not what we think they are, you know? They’re just normal people living in a country with a government that’s really oppressive. But that’s like us too sometimes with the government! You know that now!

Can you tell me a bit about the story/the narrative that goes through that book.

It’s called Iran but the concept is on around the world paradox. I took two trips to Iran actually. The first trip I only took street photography and then I came back and I did interior - living rooms, flats, without the people in the pictures. The book is on the idea of the difference between private life and public life and how it’s very different especially in Iran. What you see in public and what you see in private are two different worlds - clearly!

The first part of the book is on street photography and then inside there is a small book hidden, kinda like in those movies where there is a gun hidden in a book? So there’s a tiny book hidden in the first one with the pictures of interiors. The design of the book is what you see in public then what’s in private.

That sounds absolutely incredible. What else did the trip teach you?

I think for the first time I had to literally say to myself ‘okay, you go on the street and you know no one and maybe it’s dangerous, you don’t know, but you gotta talk to people’ and it was not the case! People were really happy, really welcoming. You can’t really go to a bar or a club or even a restaurant, you can’t have a beer, it’s not like going to Barcelona! So it took me a long time to get to know the people and after a while, I got to go to house parties which are very very illegal there! With homemade alcohol and opium and electronic music. There is a culture with young people especially. There is a label there called Paraffin Tehran and they organise parties like you can see in London or Paris. It’s really cool. They’re really close to the scene in Georgia and I respect them for creating a local scene in a country so different. The phrase 'underground music’ really makes sense there.

When you were first getting into photography, what were the main things you captured?

It really started with one camera that I bought. It’s a small olympus 34mm which is really practical to take around with you and take different pictures especially at parties. You don’t want to take a big really expensive camera. I’m friends with different groups of people and one group I’ve been hanging with are graffiti artists. We would go around to abandoned warehouses and take pictures of the graffiti, they would do it then I would take pictures. Then the rave scene. I would just go to parties and at first just take pictures of my friends and I would take this camera every time. It’s thanks to this little camera I’ve got a big collection of pictures because I wouldn't have been able to take a bigger camera to any rave or old warehouse in the suburbs of Paris.

Now you’re back in Paris, what’s the scene like?

It’s quite big; the electronic music scene in Paris - before covid of course - the Techno scene kinda goes with the drag scene as well. The electronic music scene is big but we have different types; the micro house scene, the house scene, the techno scene. It’s different people and it’s growing a lot! The problem is it’s really hard to find places to organise raves because paris is so small. You have to go far from the city centre to find places to rave. The illegal raves are hard to organise.

“When I’m photographing a subject I try to be as objective as I can, but I try to remind myself every time that it’s my own vision through my own eyes, sometimes the reality can be a bit different.”

Do you have a lot of run ins with the law?

Yes, especially at the moment. There’s a law that they want to pass - they are against us photographing or filming the police

They’re trying to bring that law in now?

Yes, [If it happens] you’re going to be the one illegal if you take a photo of the police during a manifestation, for example. You can’t inform other people that the police are doing bad stuff. I don’t know how they can actually pass a law like this right now, it’s fucking crazy. The police are gaining more and more power in France at the moment, it’s quite scary. Because it’s Covid they think they can pass laws without us reacting. There was a protest on Tuesday and there will be one on Saturday and it’s going to be really violent, I’m sure.

Riots and violence largely coincides with standing up for what you believe in in French Culture, is that right?

Of course it’s a really big part of French culture. One of the reasons I started taking pictures was by going to protests and taking pictures, still with that same small camera, because I think it's really important to protest when the government is trying to pass a law that you disagree with. In France we’re like the champions of riots but I think it's important to document everything that’s going on for the future.

With the weight of all the politics going on in France and across the world a camera can really be a secret weapon against corruption, in the wake of the BLM protests it can seem that camera phones are one of the only tools we have to hold cops accountable and photography is a form of activism.

Yes and it proves what’s happening. That’s why this law they want to pass is very dangerous because you can’t photograph any cops ever. You’re gonna be breaking the law if you’re filming the police doing something. It’s really dangerous but that’s why I like my 35mm camera, because they can’t see it. It’s pretty dangerous because it means you can’t have proof. I think that’s what they’re trying to do actually because they’re scared now, more than ever with social media, people can see very quickly a video and then react. In France we have the Black Lives Matter movement we have a story about a young black guy who was killed by the police called Adama, so there were protests so the fact they’re forcing us not to film the police is a way of forcing us to accept what the police do, giving them credit for their job and being on their side. If you don’t let the people film when the police do this, that’s dangerous.

So being a photographer is kinda like being a soldier in the resistance?

Yeah, definitely. I’m sure you’re gonna see the images in the press soon, this policeman beating a photographer with a ‘press’ sign on his jacket which means he’s a journalist. He has the right to film and he’s being beaten by the police - it doesn’t make sense at all.

I want to talk about your Disco Queer series. What’s the drag scene like in Paris and what’s it like to photograph?

It’s quite big, but it’s quite hard to approach. You know the expression ‘the fly on the wall’? It’s not my favourite subject to take pictures because I don’t really feel I have the right, I’ve never experienced it. When I am photographing and trying to show somebody’s life I like to live the experience as well. With the drag scene I’m not really a part of it, so I don’t really feel like I’m the right person to document it.

Do you think that’s the secret to taking a good photograph? Being in the moment as well as just capturing it?

Yes, I’m sure it is. You have to live the experience and share real connections with the people. When I’m photographing a subject I try to be as objective as I can, but I try to remind myself every time that it’s my own vision through my own eyes, sometimes the reality can be a bit different. Iran for example. I took pictures in the moment based on what I saw but it's not the reality of the whole country. I can’t say ‘this is Iran’ because there are so many other aspects that I didn’t see or didn’t experience. I feel more comfortable when I take pictures of people that I know, because it requires a lot of intimacy to take a portrait but also it’s really interesting to take a picture of a stranger. But when you are exploring a subject on a wider level like a tribe or the rave scene, it’s important to live that scene because the best photographers are.

What’s your favourite thing about photography?

I’d say memories, first of all. It’s nice to send the picture that you took to the person that is in the picture, but mostly memories. For me it’s really important to use the 35mm because with an iphone for example pictures get lost in a sea of different stuff you have on that phone, but when you have film that you can keep then maybe in 30 years you can be like ‘oh what’s on that film’ and discover crazy photos that are 20/25 years old. It stays. Especially when it's like 7 or 8am in a rave and you take a picture that you don’t remember the next day, and then when you develop the film you’re like ‘oh my god who is that guy?’

What’s your favourite photo you’ve ever taken from the rave scene?

There is one, it’s a picture that I took at a free party. It was a rave in an old factory that was built by the Nazis and never used. Now it’s used for raves! It’s crazy. It’s inside what looks like a tunnel, a bit like catacombs. It’s a picture of this guy and you can’t see his head but you can see the crowd, and he’s dancing without his shirt on. I don’t know the atmosphere, the place. The image says a lot about the rave scene.

Where do you see yourself going in the future? Is there anything you really want to capture?

Actually just before Covid I started a project that’s more film than photography but it’s related. I went to Rio in Brazil and did a small documentary on the rave scene and my plan was to maybe go to other countries in the area - Uruguay for example because the scene there is really growing but it’s not documented, not like London or Berlin. We don’t know about other countries and my plan was to visit those countries, stay a bit, discover the scene and do a small documentary. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that. With photography I’m still going to document the protests, the rave scene, everything, to make some kind of archive for me and for others who are interested in it. My first love is documentary photography.

See more of Elsa’s work via her website

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All photos by Elsa Blanchard

Interview by Ella Sadie Guthrie


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