Interview Yan Morvan

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Born in Paris in 1954. After studying mathematics and cinema, he worked on a project about the Hells Angels in Paris and then on prostitutes in Bangkok. From 1980 to 1988, he was a member of Sipa agency and became a permanent correspondent for American weekly Newsweek, for which he covered the main conflicts. Since 1988, he has been a freelance photographer. He is recognized as one of the world’s leading specialists in war photography and used to collaborate with most major international newspapers and magazines. He won a Robert-Capa Award for his work in Lebanon in 1983 two World Press Photo Awards and numerous awards from American journalism schools. He has been a member of the studio Hans Lucas since 2015.

In the last year of my secondary school, I was buying Zoom, a French magazine about photography. I was looking at the pictures of Don Mc Cullin and Eugene Smith. They witnessed the atrocities of war. This was the flower power time and I was also politically involved in an anarchist movement in the 1970s. I got involved in photography first through political activism. Then I came to Paris to do a movie school, the current FEMIS. I failed. So I joined the University of Vincennes where I started developing films. My teacher Gérard Girard, the man wearing a pair of underwear and nowadays haunting the Paris VIII university Campus, helped me to start photography. Then I was introduced to the newspaper Libération thanks to the agency Fotolib and then Norma where I used to work. It was 1974. I didn’t have a penny. So sometimes I would steal things. That’s how I ended up with some Olympus cameras and lenses. I sold everything to buy a Leica.

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

Then I worked for Paris Match magazine. My work on bikers « Blousons Noirs » began during this period. Then I found myself working for Le Figaro newspaper. It wasn’t for me. I managed to stay for a year and a half before I slammed the door and left France for the brothels in Bangkok. For six months, amphetamines will be my daily bread. On my return to France, I arrived at the airport with several kilos less, wearing leather trousers and some black sunglasses. Then a Sipa salesman, whom I knew from Paris Match, introduced me to the agency that I quickly joined.

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

It takes time and patience to get into movements, and gangs and gain the confidence of individuals. It was rare to be able to photograph the top guy, the band’s bosses, the « caïds de la Cité », those who are big. However, the less important guy, because of their social position in the band were looking for some kind of recognition. These were those that I was able to reach and photograph.

I was able to photograph gangs because I wasn’t competing with them. I didn’t insist on taking pictures. I wasn’t looking for exclusive news. However, I did not photograph every situation. Sometimes you have to take risks and in some other moments just be able to step back, stop, and wait. It is exactly like taking war photos, you have to be careful. When there were clashes, I would wait one or two hours. I wasn’t leaving. I was coming right after that. The battles were carrying on but the first line was cleaned up and the fight was less intense. With the gangs, I got into street fights. You have to know how to position yourself. You learn from experience.

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

Then once as I was on the terrace of a café, I came across an article on the political situation in Turkey. I think a « coup d’ état » was about to happen. I offered to work on the subject with Sipa’s boss, Gökşin Sipahioğlu. In a Turkish accent, the guy said to me « You’re crazy ». He refused to send me to Turley. A few days later, a coup d’ état took place. Honest, Gökşin sent me to Turkey. I get six pages in Paris Match. My career as a war photographer began that day in August 1980. I would then cover the conflicts between Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and others.

« Nowadays in France, the photographic world has become individualistic and extremely competitive. To climb and be recognized, we have to against each others all the time. On your side, you may have another photograph that is a potential enemy or a bad friend. During the agencies era, there was no such thing. »

In 1988 I left Sipa to become a freelance photographer. The same year, I tried to get back to Magnum but they turned me down. Today, if I had the opportunity again to present myself to Magnum, it would be to have a structure able to manage my archives. At the time, I wanted to join Magnum because of the agency’s reputation. The disappearance of agencies made the situation more difficult for photographers. The current economic situation only leaves room for recognized photographers. The market has destroyed the notion of community and its social spirit and solidarity. It is now up to the photographer to develop his or her products. The system has become individualistic and extremely competitive. To be recognized, you have to fight against others all the time. In front of you, you may have a potential enemy or a bad friend. In the days of agencies, that did not exist.

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

I was quickly labeled as a sex and fight photographer. I got away with it by working on a new project about the war field « Champs de Bataille ». I would like to continue and work on Volume 2. But between the moment you create something and the next project, you have to let the previous one, live its own life and leave hit the time to get into galleries and art institutions. It can take between 3 and 5 years before a project is recognized worldwide. In the meantime, I would like to find funding to work on Volume 2 and travel to Iraq, Ukraine, Yemen, etc. I love reading. I do love books and I read a lot of them. Especially books about philosophy, history, and politics. These are the main subjects of my photographic work. I am currently working on 300 years of history. Basically since the invention of the steam engine. I photograph the history of humanity.

yan morvan in frame gang blousons noirs bikers biker motards gangs inframe

While the media are increasingly controlled by political and economic interests, and the elites have lost their sense of reality, my role is to tell stories about people’s daily lives and the history of my country. I hope that these documents will remain and be a record of our history. I don’t do photography to make money but to make these photographs last and be a document for the next generation. My work is about the passing of time. Photographs help to freeze time. The word image comes from the Romans. When they buried their dead, they put a wax mask on their face, « imago ». The word image comes from there.

Il faut du temps et de la patience pour pénétrer les mouvements, les gangs et obtenir la confiance des individus. C'était rare de pouvoir photographier les numéro un, les chefs de bande, les caïds de la Cité, ceux qui avait une aura importante. Les numéro deux et trois en avait moins et du fait de leur position, ils recherchaient de la reconnaissance. C'était ceux là que je pouvais atteindre et photographier. J'ai pu perdurer à photographier les gangs dans le temps car je n'étais pas en en rivalité avec eux. Je n'insistais pas pour faire des photos. Je n'étais pas à la recherche du scoop. Cependant, je ne photographiais pas toutes les situations. Pour durer, il faut savoir prendre des risques et il faut parfois savoir se retirer. Et comme à la guerre, il faut faire attention. Lorsqu'il y avait des affrontements, j'attendais une ou deux heures. Je ne partais pas. J'arrivais juste après. Les batailles continuaient mais la première ligne avait été nettoyé, les combats étaient moins intenses. Avec les gangs, j'ai fait des bagarres et des combats de rue. Il faut savoir se positionner. On apprend avec l'expérience.

« Modern man wants to be immortal. The ancient man wanted to be eternal… Finally, it is not immortality that I seek but eternity through my photographs. »

Photography is the only thing to freezes time. Painting does not freeze time. Photography is a demonic invention that manages to freeze time. And so to be eternal. It is this concept that drives me. Hannah Arendt who has written a formidable book about the conditions of modern man, makes a distinction between eternity and immortality. And that’s an important point. Modern man wants to be immortal. Ancient man wanted to be eternal. The difference is that your achievements make you eternal, while immortality is something trivial. Finally, it is not immortality that I seek but eternity through my photographs.

« I’m just a time operator. We need some people recording our time for the next generations to look at. I have more and more confidence in photography as a way of telling stories. »


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