Information overload defines the world we live in, making it difficult to put yourself in the skin of others. It seems to have a numbing effect on us and it’s all due to the huge amount of inputs we receive daily. We can’t process all of them, or at least, we can’t give them the attention some may require. Hearing or reading stories may not be enough, sometimes we need to visually see things to become aware of the reality and truly sink it it. Raphaël Chatelain, a French photographer and film director, knows exactly how an image can make a change in giving voice to the citizens who are being deprived from it by those in power, and empowering those who may not have the resources to speak up. LGBTQ+ themes and identities form the core of Chatelain’s work, offering the community a space to freely express themselves and feel comfortable with the camera. That’s why he tries to give the people he photographs time enough to get to know each other and create a safe athmosphere. “An important part of my work is that the stories of the people I portray are as important as the photograph itself”, as he tells us. Raphaël Chatelain’s art sends a strong political and humanitarian message.
To start off, could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Raphaël Chatelain, I’m a French photographer and director with a strong focus on the LGBTQ+ community.
How did you get into photography? What made you realise you wanted to make a living out of it?
I discovered photography through cinema. I had picked Cinema as a major in secondary school after having seen an exhibition on German expressionism at the Cinémathèque Française. There was one movie in particular presented there that became a revelation for me, Sunrise by F.W. Murnau. Later on, as I was studying my undergrad I started assisting directors who were often also photographers and that’s how I really got into photography.
In your work the protagonists are people from all kinds of backgrounds and identities, giving prominence to Black and Brown people and especially the LGBTQ+ community. Do you consider your photography activism?
When I work on projects, the notion of ‘activism’ doesn’t directly come to my mind, but when I look back at my work, I realize that most of my projects are activist projects. I always think about the message I want my photographs to carry, either through the visuals themselves or through the subjects I portray. Those messages, for me, quite often are just a reflection of the queer community, but for an outsider, it would be seen as activism.
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And do you consider yourself an activist outside of your job?
Yes, I do activist actions outside of my work, but I think you can always do more.
Looking through your film and photography I can see all kinds of styles and projects. Would you say there is anything that you always like to maintain in your creations? Any trademark of yours?
I purposely try not to do the same kind of projects repeatedly but to present each time a new world, another face of the queer community. Furthermore, I only shoot on location and never in studios; the locations I shoot at are usually dependent on the people I portray, making each project look different from one another. My trademark is the way I light my subjects, often with a soft golden hour light, mostly naturally but sometimes that I recreate artificially. I try to bring a softness to the texture of the photo. Another one would be my subjects, representing a big umbrella of the LGBTQ+ community.
As a dancer myself and because I’ve seen that you’ve worked with many dancers and movement artists, I have to ask you about this: what do you see in dance that makes you want to capture it in your art? Do you have a special relationship to dance?
My special bond with dance is more accidental than by design. I have been surrounded by dancers all my adult life, and one day, we decided to collaborate with a friend of mine. I connected right away with this art form. Capturing movement in photography and video is as challenging as it is captivating. I became seduced and enchanted by dance more than other art forms, which has pushed me to create more with it and through it. Dancers express so much through their movement, and there is a self-expression in this that I love to translate visually.
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Maybe this is also because drag culture and the LGTBQ+ community go hand in hand. Drag came from Black queer people, but would you say it is important for you to study the history and get to know the background of those subjects and topics you speak for?
It is more than essential. I always get to know the background of the subjects to make sure I portray them correctly. When I document a specific community, for example, with the asylum seekers from Central America, I discuss the projects’ entire process with a community leader to portray them the way they should be; to support and put in the value of that community and not take advantage of it. It is important for me to get to know them individually. For the teenagers of the association Le Refuge - who were foster teens that got rejected by their families - I asked them to write down what they wanted to share with me to get to know them better. On projects where I can do so, I spend a few days (if not much longer) with the subject, and I usually barely shoot in the first days but create trust and learn about each other. An important part of my work is that the stories of the people I portray are as important as the photograph itself.
Tajabone is “a transcendental parade of black French queer empowerment,” as you call it. It’s a short film that mixes choreography, poetry and fashion to showcase the power, the beauty and also the struggle of queer Black people. How was it like collaborating with Nicolas Huchard, the choreographer of this masterpiece? How did you both bring together your knowledge to portray a celebration of self-expression?
Collaborating with Nicolas Huchard was wonderful as we completed each other perfectly to create our video. Nicolas had the choreographic experience and the knowledge of the culture we were putting forward, and I had the directing experience and the understanding of how to bring our vision to life. He also pushed me to rethink the narrative because he would see things in a choreographic aspect that could be presented in more powerful ways. We understood each other and made a great co-directing team.
"I am strong because I have no choice… But I am fragile. I am fragile too,” narrates the poem. I can imagine you first read it and then visualised how you wanted the video to be. What was the creative process like? Was everything planned or did you let the director of photography, cameras and other members of the team have creative and artistic freedom?
The video on a technical side was quite meticulously planned before the shoot, as we had rehearsed with the director of photography and the dancers in a dance studio prior to the shoot day. However, it entirely changed in post-production. On set, we were doing camera movements that didn't really allow any of the team to be around, or they would easily be in the shot. Apart from the camera and the dancers, only me and the second camera assistant controlling the focus stayed around. However, we were very dependent on the forecast. For example, when the sun came out through the clouds that day, we all quickly stopped the scene we were shooting and got right away in a position to shoot the final scene. The sun was literally shining for 5 minutes, and we got the shots we needed barely on time. We did a few scenes where we gave complete artistic freedom to everyone, to the dancers as much as the D.o.P, where each of them went freestyle. Most of these moments actually ended up in the final video as they were very authentic and gave an extra layer to their self-expression, which was a core message we wanted to express.
You documented a group of LGBTQ+ refugees traveling from Central America to the United States in one of the Migrant Caravans. You met people trying to escape from poverty, violence and persecution. Can you tell us more about this experience? What did that do to you? Did it change any misconception you had?
It's difficult to sum up this experience in one short answer. I initially met and became friends in Tijuana with one of the community leaders that was helping to form the LGBTQ+ group of the Caravan Migrants. He invited me to join him on a new migrant caravan that was forming in Honduras as he trusted me to show what was really going on. This became a vital part of this project, to portrait their experience authentically and to talk about them without dramatizing the situations like nearly all media were doing. So I left for Honduras, where the caravan was taking off from. As the caravan was advancing, more people were joining and soon, a little LGBTQ+ group was forming. They were all fleeing their countries because of the violence and the persecution. When we reached the border of Guatemala and Mexico, we met Francesca, a trans woman who had been traveling on her own until then and was reluctant to join the LGBTQ+ group. When she first met me, seeing my camera around my neck, she came to me and asked me if I knew why she was fleeing her country. She pulled up her T-shirt, revealing enormous scars on her chests - which she later explained were knife stabbing scars - “this is why I’m fleeing my country” she explained. A lot of them at first, like Francesca, were scared to join the LGBTQ+ group as they thought they would be more in danger by outing themselves to the rest of the caravan. But they quickly realised they would be safer in a group of their peers than on their own. So did Francesca. This was the beautiful part about this LGBTQ+ group: even if you didn't know the other person, you knew they would protect you in a dangerous situation as much as you would for them. Everyone was looking after one another. What more powerful message for the queer community could there be?
When capturing such personal moments, it is necessary to make people feel comfortable and to have a bond with them. Do people feel intimidated by your camera? How do you build trust?
In this particular case, I travelled with them for days before I really started using my camera. Instead, I spent that time getting to know them. It definitely helped the fact that I was there with the community leader and that I was doing everything with them. We walked every day for hours together, ate together, slept at night in the streets together, helped each other in daily tasks. We created real bonds. The camera definitely generated a questioning on their side at first but this changed as we got to know each other. The most beautiful photos I got were definitely on the last trek of this journey when they reached Tijuana. When I went back to meet them after a few weeks, we all jumped in each other's arms and were so happy to see each other. At that point, they were very comfortable with me taking photos and really letting me into their world.
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You have traveled the world to take pictures and film. Which journey moved you the most?
I don’t know if I will ever have a journey that moves me more than the Caravan. Maybe it is because of how much I got involved in it, or because of the friends I made there, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. I am still friends and in touch with a lot of them and have kept up with their journey now that they are finally in the United States.
Are you currently working on any project? What can we be expecting from you?
I’m working on quite a few projects at the moment that nearly all involve different aspects of the queer community. One is about the body, discussing the beauty standards imposed by the gay community and showing the beauty in a body that differs from what has been imposed as the norm. I’m also working on a new video with Nicolas Huchard. Another project is on an LGBTQ+ rugby team. As well as one series about the touch and sensual body contact between a gay couple that recently got into porn, amongst other projects. I hope my work contributes to challenge stereotypes and preconceived ideas that are perceived about the queer community.
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