Documenting reality has always been his calling. Or should I say realities in plural? Since every place, society and person is different. And that is what his photography reflects, which he naturally chose over journalism as the perfect format to tell stories. From India to France, his native country – which he claims to have reconnected with as a result of the pandemic and the closing of borders – Mathieu Richer Mamousse thinks that for an image to be successful, you have to succeed in transcribing a reality or a setting. Sharing, creating a bond and a smile are his best weapons to capture the essence of life.
Mathieu, for those who may don’t know you. Could you introduce yourself briefly?
I am French and I'm 31 years old. I was born in Paris but grew up in the South of France, where I spent a happy and sunny childhood. I am now living between Paris and the forest of Fontainebleau, near the city where I have my studio and my film lab.
Your artwork takes time to be assimilated and analysed in depth. I have just left your website, and the image of the devotees crowded on the pilgrimage to El Rocío, Andalusia, is still on my mind. What does your work consist of?
I consider myself primarily as a documentary photographer. My main interest is to find interesting and beautiful stories and to go and meet the people who make them photograph them. I take the same pleasure in researching for those stories, in meeting and listening to those people and finally in photographing them.
From experiencing Holy Week in Seville first-hand to documenting a motorbike trip across Rajasthan and the Lower Himalayas, there is no doubt that you like new experiences. Where does this passion for exploring such different cultures and lifestyles come from?
I grew up in a small village in the South of France. The light was beautiful and life was easy.
However, I always felt an urge to travel and meet new people. There’s a part of me that’s quite adventurous. I enjoy travelling to lesser-known destinations and discovering untold stories.
When I was younger, I could watch documentaries on TV for hours. I originally intended to study journalism and write, but photography just imposed itself. The aesthetic, in addition to the testimonial aspect of photography, is essential for me.
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You have travelled a lot throughout your life. You have visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka or Mexico, among many other places. Did you travel to lots of countries when you were a child or was it precisely the fact that you didn’t have the opportunity to get to know other realities that led you to dedicate yourself to it?
We didn’t travel that much apart from holidays in France. My travelling came from watching documentaries. I was dreaming of becoming a journalist or adventurer of some kind. When I turned 18, I took a first trip to the United States to work on a ranch and explore Wyoming, and that was it. Since then, it didn’t really stop.
It’s curious that the first image you shared on social media was a photograph of a small tree located in Uxmal, Mexico. But people have become the real protagonists of your artwork. What are you most interested in shooting: people, where they live or the essence that comes out of the visible thing?
I think probably a bit of both. When I first started shooting, I was very afraid of people’s reactions and I was always shooting backs or people from a distance. The very first portrait I took of someone I didn’t know was in Morocco. It took me 10 minutes to go and talk to a lady that was working at a clothing stall in the Medina of Marrakech. She smiled and agreed.
After that, I was never afraid any more. And then I guess it also just came with maturity, I felt more confident, I started talking to people more, to hear their stories and get to know them, and I just started asking if I could photograph them. If they trust you and you show interest, it’s very rare that people say no. But I also enjoy still life and landscapes, I like these objects and empty places that bear witness to the passage of humans. Behind all these empty walls and these plays of light, there are surely many other stories to tell.
It is as if you are integrated into their lives, recording their most primary expressions, emotions and instincts. How do you manage to do it so naturally, without looking like a fictitious set or a forced pose?
A photograph can say a thousand things, and, for me, a photograph will be successful if it manages to transcribe a setting, a reality, and a story. Trust and interest in the people and subjects you photograph are primordial. Never forget that a person will only give you their photograph if they want it.
The photo will be good only if there has been a sharing, if you have taken the time to meet, to listen, to discuss. It’s a bit like life, friendships or love. If you are true and honest, the people in front of you will feel it and open to you. A smile is always a welcome bonus.
“The photo will be good only if there has been a sharing, if you have taken the time to meet, to listen, to discuss. It’s a bit like life, friendships or love. If you are true and honest, the people in front of you will feel it and open to you.”
Your photos also have a strong social component. They tell stories that, together with the work of journalists and writers, make up a complete narrative with which to learn about other realities. I was unaware of Dimitrovgrad's story and its connection with communist leader Gueorgi Dimitrov, which you documented with The Guardian UK team. Could you tell us more about this?
It was the second time I went to Bulgaria to photograph a documentary. I learned about the history of Dimitrovgrad from Bulgarian friends. For me, there were several possibilities to have a successful outcome and to make it an interesting subject. Visually, it was promising, rich in history, and interesting encounters. And journalistically it was also interesting because Bulgaria, which is still plagued by major corruption problems, was about to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Being a good photographer is not enough to make a good documentary, you also have to think about the magazine that would be potentially interested in history, its journalistic angle, its inclusion in the news of the moment, etc. During my first years, I found, produced and sold my stories myself. I collaborated with journalists from the editorial offices of the magazines or newspapers to which I sold the documentaries, but only once the story had been photographed. It was a risk I had to take because there was no guarantee that I would sell the stories, but you get nothing for nothing...
In the case of this documentary in Dimitrovgrad, the first city of communist architecture in Bulgaria, I later collaborated with Andrew MacDowall, who is a regular journalist with the Guardian UK, after I showed him my images and the potential of the story. Now I am fortunate enough to get commissions from magazines, but it took many years, some failures and frustrations, but also great memories and successful bets!
It is interesting to see how each region of the world has its own culture that sometimes we could not even fathom. What has been the toughest experience you’ve ever had?
Definitely my trip to photograph voodoo rituals in Haiti. I was a little younger, and it was one of the first stories I went to photograph. We explored the suburbs of the capital with my fixer to find participants in voodoo rituals and priests. On All Saints' Day is held the greatest event of the voodoo belief around death, the ceremonies of the Guédé.
I remember the first sunrise in the communal cemetery of Port au Prince, which is located in a poor neighbourhood of the country's capital. You have to imagine the cemetery as a labyrinth of graves and alleys with a huge crowd. The more the morning passed, the more people became drunk (drinking is part of the rituals that day) and not necessarily happy to find Westerners mixed up in their voodoo rituals, which I can fully understand. The tension rose as the hours went by, and I had to drink a couple of beers to give me the courage to enter this maze of graves and take pictures. After a few hours my fixer finally caught me by the arm to make us leave, I think he was able to better grasp the words of the people and feel that it was time to go.
Your African Women’s Rugby series, in which you shoot the tournaments between female teams competing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, is a perfect representation of team spirit. We see the players hugging or going for a swim together. Do you find many obstacles when accompanying the characters, you portray in their lives?
As we mentioned earlier, if you have an interest in the subjects and people you photograph, the doors open. It is also important to be discreet, to let the story unfold in front of you and capture it at the right moment. It is in fact a clever mix between laying low and being legitimate to be where you are. Imposing yourself in order to take certain pictures while respecting others. There always will be people that don’t want to be photographed, you have to acknowledge and accept that as well.
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How do you choose your destinations? Do you learn about the characteristics of the country you are going to visit, or do you let yourself be surprised by the city once you are there?
It depends on the type of trip I am going to undertake. If I am interested in a particular story, then a long and precise research work begins several weeks or months before the trip. I will learn more about the subject, read a lot, contact people on site or people who have already been there, and, like any production, plan my stay on-site as much as possible. Of course, and this is the most exciting part, there is always a leap into the unknown, a bet on what you will find and photograph, and in the end, a certain risk to take. But there is also freer travel, where you just leave with a camera and let yourself float through the country and the encounters.
I particularly appreciate these trips because they leave a large part to the random and unknown, and it is often in those that I surprise myself photographically and make my most beautiful memories.
The creation process includes the planning of the idea, the concretion of the concepts, the photographs and their publication, and a lot of steps we are not aware of. What is the phase that you enjoy the most? Why?
I think all the phases are important and bring a lot of excitement and satisfaction. The preparation before the trip is interesting because you have to gather several criteria to make the trip viable, and it is a period of reading and research that I particularly appreciate.
Then, of course, the trip and the photographs themselves make the most beautiful memories, but what a great satisfaction when you receive this long-awaited email announcing that your story will be published! Without mentioning the long hours spent in my lab and on my enlarger listening to my favourite podcasts… From beginning to end the process is superb, and each part completes the other.
Your photographic style is easily recognisable. The way in which you play with lights, earthy and orange colours and a dusty halo that gives it greater depth. How would you define it?
Warm and honest, maybe? There is necessarily a correlation between the people I photograph and the colours I will use in post-production. You don't tell the same story with warm or cold colours. Everything is linked, the people and their clothes, their stories, the camera you use, the colours you work with in your lab... It's true that lately, I found a recipe that I like and that is more identifiable than in my early days, but this style is constantly evolving and also responds to the ups and downs of life.
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I know each experience is unique and unrepeatable, but what has been the most important lesson you have learned in recent years?
Patience and honesty. Being a photographer in 2021 is hard and very competitive. Everyone is a good photographer, the difference will be on the intensity and honesty you put into what you photograph. If you do it with a lot of truth, then it will eventually pay off. You have to persevere, not get discouraged, and assume that it will probably take many years.
How has the pandemic affected your work? Has it meant the cancellation or postponement of many of your projects?
I have not travelled abroad since the beginning of the pandemic. I have had many projects and commissions cancelled. At first, I was devastated, but it was finally an interesting exercise for me because I had to learn to photograph my own country, which I had never really done and which I regretted. I enjoyed rediscovering France, travelling in all its regions and finding local and relevant stories.
My best memories and victories since the beginning of this pandemic have been photographing for my dream magazines, on French stories. It also gave me time to concentrate on more commercial or fashion projects, which are essential in the financial balance of a documentary photographer.
What place, festivity or culture would you like to portray next?
I am rather dependent on events, sports meetings or festivities, so at the moment, on this side, we can say that it is rather quiet. I'm looking forward to the borders reopening. I have several exciting stories that I would like to produce abroad this year. Locally, I am currently working on a local majorette group in a small village in France, and I’m excited to share that with everyone in the near future!
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