Clément Chapillon works mainly with landscapes and people, trying to figure out the various relationships between the lands he visits and their inhabitants. Through a particular and colourful view of the world, the photographer brings a new perspective to the domain of documentary photography. Today we talk with him about new approaches of the Promised Land in Israel, the power of portraits, and working continuously on long-term projects.
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Your passion for photography started when you turned seventeen and your dad gave you a film camera. What made your interest in photography grow to become your everyday job?
My passion for photography started very early, since I was around ten years old. But it was just a hobby, a passion, and I never thought that it could be my full-time job. I was always carrying my camera during trips, and some of them were very long (almost one year). I felt more and more absorbed by my camera and the pictures I created. Step by step, they became small series with a unique angle, and I felt that I wanted to tell a story with my images – like my series Los Passajeros, where I took pictures of hitchhikers in Cuba that were travelling in my car. These pictures started to become more and more the reason and goals of my travels, so I accepted the idea to become a photographer. It was not a desire; it was more a need, or even a requirement. By the end of 2015, I was ready to give it a try and I took a plane to the Middle East.
Your professional career before photography was in the communication field, where you worked for ten years. What made you leave it behind and focus your efforts on photography? And how are communication and photography related?
Indeed. I worked in communication for more than ten years and it’s very related to photography in a way, you learn how to tell stories. You must find creative ways for your narrative, and you have to create strong visual experiences. That’s why communication often uses photography to convey a message. It’s given me a strong background in visual storytelling but the main problem is that I became less and less concerned by the story behind it. I wanted to see the world and document people’s lives, not the last car or shampoo innovation. So I quit my job and started a new life.
I didn’t know where I was going. It was irrational but I felt I couldn’t stay in front of my computer. Having a communication background can also be a weakness because when you work on a story you have to forget about the communication issues and focus on the story itself, the substance, the meaning. It still takes me time to ‘de-pollute’ my mind and give a hundred per cent of my energy into the documentary.
Throughout your work, your photographs show a growing interest in the land you’re in. There is a clear connection between land and people, and the relation that these two maintain. How would you describe this relation?
Yes, there is, especially in my series Promise Me a Land. In Israel and Palestine, everyone claims this land, and I wanted to know the landscapes that make up the collective identity of these people. I was looking for valleys, mountains, villages, and cities. In this white stone, this blue sky, this shining sun, this ochre earth, we return to the primary emotions. We have the impression of touching the real, the essential, the matter and the dust. I returned again in different seasons to watch the hills of the Judean Desert turn green, the summit of Mount Hermon whiten, and the curves of the Golan Heights turn yellow under the wheat.
The inhabitants also tell us about the space and the way it’s inhabited. The chance of the roads often led me to them. Whether it was in a green Kibbutz, under a Bedouin tent, in a small Palestinian village, on a parking lot, in a greenhouse or at the beach, etc. I was more and more interested in the people who live in this land, who have physical contact with its ‘hic et nunc’. They welcomed me and opened their door because I do not come to talk to them about conflict, war, and hatred. I asked them simple questions about their daily life, their dreams, promises, or disappointments. So they talked to me, often with very spontaneous words about the links that bind them to this soil. I photographed them, listened to them and recorded them.
These men are like the trees of this earth, they are deep-rooted; it is impossible to describe the landscape without meeting their gaze. They are the landscape; here to claim the land, wanting to cultivate it, protect it and own it. Whatever their past, they are there today, be they olive trees, eucalyptus, or young fir trees. It is difficult to find true unity in this Israeli-Palestinian identity. They all have a relationship, a story, and a different vision of their land. But all are part of the equation. Each one forms a small part of the puzzle that I collect piece by piece for my project.
“I wanted to see the world and document people’s lives, not the last car or shampoo innovation. So I quit my job and started a new life.”
You have travelled around the globe in the look for insightful photographs and beautiful depictions of everyday lives. What made you grow a passion for travel photography? 
Initially, I was interested in pretty much everything I could possibly see but I got more and more drawn to the landscapes. That feeling of being overwhelmed by a certain landscape – it’s ecstatic. In 2011, I travelled the whole year to discover very remote areas in different parts of the world, but I was also interested in the people inhabiting those places, especially their culture and lifestyle – so different from my daily life in Paris. I love portraits – the emotions that a portrait can offer to the viewer are an important part of the works I like to make. Little by little, I started creating projects based on the relationship between humans and the environments they inhabit, and how the landscape shapes the identity of them.
Promise Me a Land, your latest photography book and project, is centred in the region between Palestine and Israel. The book contains photographs and interviews with the persons you encountered along your journey, to tell a story that most media have not shown or fail to depict. What is the motivation behind this book? What pushed you to document the lives of the people in that region of the world? 
My gamble was to leave the conflicts aside and explore the territory that hosts both the Israeli and the Palestinians, who share the same climate, landscapes and light. During my trips, I felt that the bond these populations have with their land is incandescent – their dreams, identities, fights; everything has to do with the territory. I decided to document the region through pictures and interviews I made of the locals. My intent was to focus away from the stifling political situation.
In Israel, you can find the highest number of journalists per square meter – nearly everything about the region’s conflicts and geopolitical issues has already been explained! I wanted to do something more personal, about my own experience of the territory. I felt that I had to go back to their roots, to how the locals that live in the ‘promised land’ feel; what hopes and dreams they have. I tried to take a step back from the news level and focus on the individual people, their stories and attachment to the territory.
Your photo series Enigmes is a colourful and mysterious series of photos mixed with painting techniques. It is one of your most emblematic works. These artworks permitted you to exhibit at the Salon de la Photo in Paris, and are seemingly different from your other series. What made you create these beautiful representations? 
The Enigmes series is something very personal that I made on a four-month trip around Asia. Colours have always attracted me and painting is something that’s very important to my work, a strong inspiration. In India, I saw people surrounded by amazing colours, which were so strong that I just had to capture these ‘moving colours’ – like painted ghosts. By remembering the colours and silhouettes and creating an image captured with a special time, it gave me the opportunity to catch a special ‘draw’ and light. They allowed the viewer free reign to recreate the scene and imagine something on their own. I like to let people think by themselves, not tell them what to think when they look at my pictures. Subjectivity is far deeper and more poetic for an artwork.
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Your work has been featured in many exhibitions around the world, such as the Tbilisi Photo Festival. You have also been awarded the Leica Prize and showcased in the Voies Off-Arles Photo Festival. Has this recognition affected the way you perceive your work?
Yes, it really changed my perception of my own work. First by telling me to continue, as people really encouraged me to keep going after the first long-term project. The success I had for this project was magical. It was my first real documentary, and I gave a lot of myself in this work so it’s very stimulating. But it was also a little bit disturbing – you’re showing people something that you had inside you, something spontaneous. But people ask you to justify your angle and narratives, and you have to rationalize something that was incredibly personal.
Do you have any upcoming projects? Any new exhibitions or publications we should look forward to?
I have many other events for my Promise Me a Land project. I am holding a small exhibition in Arles for the Voices Off festival and I have two other exhibitions in Paris in September and October, and then one in Jerusalem. I started a new project in Greece last year on a small island that I’ve been visiting every year for ten years, and I think that’ll be my next long-term project. Again, I’ll be exploring the relationship between the people and the land, but with a new angle. Wait and see…
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