« NOWADAYS EVERYONE TRIES TO CREATE IMAGES, I AM LOOKING FIRST OF ALL TO TELL STORIES »
Laurent Weyl captures in his Nikon, moments of social life. Photojournalist, he worked for the press magazines: Le Figaro Magazine, Geo Magazine, Geo Travel, The Cross, Obs, Marie Claire, Serra, Geo Germany and is also a member of Argos a « collectif » of photojournalists. He was one of the first with Argos to evoke the fate of humanity about the climate change fifteen years ago. In 2017 he published in collaboration with Sabrina Rouillé, the very charismatic book featuring photographies and texts about the mythic ‘President Hotel’, retracing with poetry the history of this titanic hotel built in the 1960s in Saigon and destroyed a year ago. Meeting with a representative type of independent photojournalist who dives every day into the heart of the reality.
Bliss Saigon: Laurent, What does photography mean to you?
Laurent Weyl: Nowadays, everyone tries to create images, I am looking first of all to tell stories. What interests me in the subjects I deal with is the human dimension. I like to spend time with the people I meet, and that explains my choice to create documentary photographies. I consider myself as a photographer-author, not an artist, but someone who seeks, without betraying the truth, to approach the subjects in an aesthetic way.
BS: How long have you been a photojournalist? When did you decide to express yourself through this silent medium?
Laurent Weyl: When I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. I studied photo in France before working as an assistant for several photo studios and fashion photographers. I started doing tourism reports before refocusing my work on photojournalism as a freelance journalist in 2000.
BS: A job and a passion, is it compatible?
Laurent Weyl: Fortunately yes! This job is a vocation because it is hard to make a living with it. Also, we must believe what we do, what we denounce, and tell. But it is also a great pleasure and a personal enrichment through meetings, interviews, and trips we do.
BS: Do you always go out with your camera? Do you consider yourself as a ‘compulsive’ photographer?
Laurent Weyl: Absolutely not. I can not work if I do not have a goal, so a story to tell or a command to achieve. When I do a photo footage report, I think about photography all the time, I think about the light, the framework, the storytelling. But I can not do it permanently.
BS: What is the main ‘photojournalist myth’ that does not match the reality of your work?
Laurent Weyl: That we are permanently on the field. It was true before the 90’s, then the crisis arrived. Not today. Most of the time, we are busy looking for a broadcast, to fund trips and we are spending a lot of time on the computer, including for post-production when we return from trips.
BS: You have worked for many media, what is the story that has struck you the most?
Laurent Weyl: I do not know if a report stands out, but some places have marked me as the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan in winter, where you travel on the frozen sea by camel and where temperatures can reach easily – 25 c °. More recently I had the opportunity to make several trips to North Korea, one of the most closed countries in the world. It’s like a return to the past of the cold war, shocking and exciting at the same time.
BS: Are there any topics you have refused to cover?
Laurent Weyl: Almost all of the topics I have worked on come from a personal idea or from fellow writers. Also, either I can pre-sell topics to the press, or I self-finance them and sell them later. For direct orders, I never refused a subject. It is also due to the fact that I am called for reports related to my way of working, my usual values (social, environment, travel ..).
BS: What do you think is essential in photography?
Laurent Weyl: The sense of light and, in photojournalism, the ability to tell stories in 30 images. And if behind all this appears an « author’s look », then this marriage can produce a very convincing series.The story goes through the testimonies, for that you have to be curious and attentive and especially patient. You must also be attentive to the light, as if it was saying: it’s too early, it’s too late, come back tomorrow …
BS: According to you, what elements make a ‘successful’ photo? Do you think like Robert Capa that ‘If your photo is not good enough, it’s because you’re not close enough’ …
Laurent Weyl: Even if there is not only one rule in photography, I think that Robert Capa was right, we can see the difference between a photo made with a zoom and a photographer using a 35mm. This means you have to come close to people, met them, talk to them, share a moment with them, in short, to get involved. It is also through the eyes that emotion passes and the more they will be present in the image bigger the emotion will be.
BS: Your book ‘The President Hotel’ published in 2016 in collaboration with Sabrina Rouillé, traces the history of this mythical hotel built in the 1960s in Saigon. How did this project get started? What were the peculiarities of this place? What did you want to show and convey through your photographies?
Laurent Weyl: It was around 2005, during one of my photo reports in Saigon about urban poverty, that I discovered this building by photographing young students who were sharing a room on the 11th floor of this building. It’s one of these places you can only discover by chance. We immediately thought we had to come back there and create a photo report. I also met the case in the past with the « Haors » in Bangladesh.
Saigon, President Hotel – Pic Laurent Weil
I waited 10 years, waiting to be set up with my family in Saigon to take the time to work on this building. This work was done in one year. At the time, with its teeming life, The President hotel reminded me of the « Cité Radieuse » in Marseille, France, built by Le Corbusier. A city in the city with very traditional customs. This former 550-rooms hotel built for the GIs (soldiers of the United States Army) welcomed up to 2,500 people in the 80s. I wanted to approach this building like I would do it for a person. I followed there many families and businesses animating the place to bring out this life in autarky. And with the journalist Sabrina Rouillée, we conducted a large number of interviews to trace and tell 50 years of history of Vietnam through this place.
BS: When we photograph society, the border between journalist and activist can sometimes be very narrow … Can it be an obstacle sometimes?
Laurent Weyl: No, I can make the difference. I do not feel especially militant in the sense of activist. But when I choose a subject, a person to interview, I am inevitably engaged. I work on topics that are important to me. I inform, I denounce sometimes, but I do not feel activist so far. I just do my job as a journalist. My personal commitment goes to social and environmental topics. For that, I work regularly with associations and very committed people who can be very militant.
BS: The photojournalist sees himself as a witness to history and the guarantor of a collective memory. Do you share this idea?
Laurent Weyl: Yes, but photography is not the only medium. Perhaps the photo has the privilege of telling many things in one image and is more easily accessible and reproducible than a video or a radio show.
BS: You are currently living in France and Vietnam. What is your relationship with Vietnam?
Laurent Weyl: Vietnam was my first big trip experience and my first report abroad. I was 19 years old, and that marks you. It was just at the opening of the country in 1992, nothing to see with the Vietnam of today. We could only travel in three cities, we had to wait months to get a visa. Everything was forbidden but already everything was felt as possible (or almost). That’s the magic of this country. I returned four months in 1993 and then returned regularly until my installation between 2012 and 2016. It is a need for me to return regularly to Vietnam. I recharge there my batteries. This country is always moving, and it is very stimulating for work or for a personal life. This is particularly interesting for a photojournalist to work in a country he knows well. It’s like that we realize the complexity of the reality. The more I learn about Vietnam, the more I discover I knew nothing. This country is definitely my second home, and when I go back there I can not really say if I go back to Vietnam or if I go back home.
BS: What are the news – Current or upcoming projects?
Laurent Weyl: My last collectiv exhibition « Au dela du réel » was until the 15 April at the Echomusée of Paris and I am now working on two photo reports in Indonesia and Alaska as part of the Argos Collective’s new project. Our work will focus on the sea. The sea as a common good and the impact of fishing in the world. Other projects are in preparation, mainly in Asia: « The leopard cannot change its spots”!