abkhazia in frame inframe

Interview Françoise Lambert (ENG)

Françoise Lambert lives and works in Paris. A professional journalist, she has been working as an author photographer since the early 2000’s. In her personal work, she explores the relationship between documentary and fiction. In silent and distanced photographs, she questions the fragility of worldly things or the quest for a lost paradise, through the question of the landscape or man’s relationship with his environment. It also places social and human stories at the centre of its image production. Françoise Lambert has been a member of the Hans Lucas studio since 2015.

About  » (Abkhazia)  »
Abkhazia is not on the maps. A self-proclaimed republic, ruined by a bloody conflict and forgotten with Georgia in 1993, it does not exist in the eyes of the international community. Since Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia in 2008, Russia’s 250,000 inhabitants of the former Soviet Riviera have wavered between hope and concern, in the uncertainty of tomorrow. A country in brackets. A « lost paradise »


« There was still an unknown area, not so far away, like an unexplored territory. »

What is the starting point of your project and why this country?
My project was born out of a meeting with an Abkhaz woman, Marina, and my curiosity for a place I had never heard of before, Abkhazia. There was still an unknown area, not so far away, like an unexplored territory. I am not a specialist in the Caucasus or the satellites of the former Soviet Union. What attracted me with Abkhazia was its ambiguous status, on a thread, between reality and fiction. It is the country that exists without existing, a bit like in Tintin in Syldavia. This is a starting point, but it’s not just this entrance. It is also the dream Abkhazia, which I fantasized about, based on the story told to me by a woman from there.

The situation in that country is special, recognized by Russia but not by the international community. What did you feel on the spot, does it affect the daily life, the local life?
I have seen very beautiful things, solidarity between people, immense hospitality, but also more disturbing feelings, linked to the nationalism that is evidently shown by a people who feel threatened in their very existence. There is also a surrealist side to it, with a visa that we get from the Department of Foreign Affairs to slip it between the pages of his passport because it cannot be pasted, an international airport closed due to the lack of planes coming from abroad. Then there is the reality of an area under tension, with for example a Turkish oil tanker boarded by the Georgian navy, which causes a shortage of fuel in Abkhaz territory.

Can you tell me how you usually work?
I frame during the shooting, but I don’t like to do it too much upstream! This approach gives me more freedom, it allows me to let things happen through my eyes and my heart, not to intellectualize too much, what I will do when I select the images. I made two trips to Abkhazia, the second one was more difficult, because at times I was too much in the projection, I thought to myself « it would be nice to bring back this or that photo », a bit like we do in a report on an established subject, whose synopsis we wrote. In my personal projects, it is only at the time of editing, the choice of images on the contact sheets, that thinking begins. But it works more in terms of shapes and colors, visual associations, impressions, than in terms of subject or narrative. For Abkhazia, if I have to sum up, it is rust and green, the green of lush vegetation that invades everything, including the city. Abkhazia is also a lost paradise. But I also didn’t want to get involved in a nostalgic vision. I wanted to keep a certain photographic distance.

Did you have any problems on the spot with the picture?
People were sometimes distrustful, they didn’t understand what I was photographing, that is to say something other than smiling people for souvenir photos. One time it was a little surrealist, they thought I was a Georgian spy. As I was accompanied, the misunderstanding did not last. Maybe it was a joke after all, who knows? Most of the time, outside the capital Sukhumi, I traveled with members of the great « tribe » of Marina, her family, and friends. I also had a safe-conduct on me, which I had obtained from the Ministry of Communication on the advice of a local photographer. This has allowed me, especially since I do not speak Abkhaz or Russian, to work more quietly.

What equipment did you use?
I worked in natural light with a full-format digital SLR camera and two optics: a 50mm lens as a base, and a 28mm lens in situations that required a wider angle, such as some indoor scenes. But I don’t like the « wide-angle effect », the distortion that can be linked to this type of optics. So I use it sparingly. I also used a tripod for some of the views, including architecture and a few rare night views.

« What I really like about my work as a photographer is the encounter and exchange with the people I meet, and then it’s the moment of shooting, the good days, when you totally enter into it, the desire, the concentration and the form of trance that then inhabits me. »

Do you think you’re done with this project or are you planning to go back?
I’m going to go back there first, via my contact sheets, because I want to make a book out of it. Abkhazia is a project that has been exposed and projected, a little bit published in magazines, paper or web, but I feel the need to give it a mature editorial form.

Can you tell me your favorite memory as a photographer?
It’s hard to say, if I start to think about it, there were so many magical moments, because the photo is that, it happens, and it’s wonderful. What I really like about my work as a photographer is the encounter and exchange with the people I meet, and then it’s the moment of shooting, the good days, when you totally enter into it, the desire, the concentration and the form of trance that then inhabits me. It’s also when something unexpected and perfect comes to mind, I think of the photo of this solitary saleswoman sitting on a blue chair, lost in her thoughts, in the middle of clothes and shoes hanging around her. Sometimes I like to think about the pictures I didn’t take. Everyone knows that they are obviously the best!

What are your photographic influences and to finish your 3 favorite photobooks?
I was very influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, when I was doing black-and-white photography and I put a black margin on the prints. And then I discovered American photography, which fascinated me: Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein and the others, and of course Walker Evans because I have the impression that he did everything.

Images à la sauvette de Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Americans de Robert Frank
American Photographs de Walker Evans

Recently this one « A Storybook Life » de Philip-Lorca diCorcia, for the ambiguity, it reveals, with these photographs of which one wonders if one is in reality or fiction.

Interview Kalel Koven / In Frame

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