Under the unblinking eye of Big Brother, Thaddé Comar turns his lens on the very system that seeks to control, documenting the relentless defiance of those who stand tall under scrutiny; those who refuse to be cowed. As the eyes of authority grow to be all-pervading, his images hum with the pulse of dissent, laying bare the dimensions of surveillance and societal control.
Though rooted in Paris, his lens ventures global settings of unrest, with his personal work How Was Your Dream? finding its place in the underbelly of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, unearthing the depths of insurrection while capturing the methods of resistance and anonymity employed by those fighting for their autonomy.
In our conversation, we spoke on his approach to these complex themes, while taking a wider look into the broader scope of his profession, where his work oscillates between editorial, commissioned, and personal projects. Even with his most recent commissioned project for backstage photography of the Jean Paul Gaultier x Simone Rocha S/S24 haute couture show, his accomplishments extend beyond industry recognition, as highlighted by his recent accolades, including being a finalist in the Swiss Design Awards and clinching the grand prize at the 7L Photography Grand Jury Prize.
Thaddé Comar’s photography refreshingly exposes the stark realities we inhabit and the human stories hidden within those folds, in the shadows of control. Read on to learn more about him.
Given your dual Swiss and French heritage, do you feel your cultural roots influenced your perspective as an artist and photographer? You also split your time between Paris and Lausanne, so I’m curious about whether the cultural and societal environments of these cities influence your approach to social documentary photography?
To be honest, I became Swiss at the age of 23, when I was studying in Lausanne. My mother is Swiss, but I never really had a relationship with this country as I grew up in Paris. My first interest in photography comes with Natural Geographic’s Life Magazine, and Magnum photographers, so at the time I started studying I was really into street photography, or photography related to events and travel etc. I didn’t really know what to photograph when I was in Switzerland, the country is so calm and clean, it feels like a bubble protected from the outer world. So I was coming back to Paris to photograph riots, protests and the French mess. It made me realise that photography was for me an excuse to go and see events, places, put myself in various situations, and that I’m more about turmoil.
In 2018 you graduated from ÉCAL [University of Art and Design Lausanne] with distinction. Do you find your experience in university has shaped your perspective as a photographer, and were there any valuable lessons you took away from your time there?
Of course, ÉCAL is a great school, it made me understand the different worlds and usage of photography. Photography can be approached in so many different ways, and there are many jobs and applications related to this medium. These studies have enabled me to understand this galaxy and find my place in it.
Your photography delves into the discourse of social movements, especially themes of surveillance and societal control. What prompted you to focus your work on these issues?
In 2017, while I was in Switzerland, I was following the French situation and I saw the autonomous, anarchist and libertarian and anti-fascist and racist movements developing in Paris (especially during the loi travail) and joining inside the black bloc.
I had many friends who joined the ranks of these [leftist] movements and my attraction to street photography and certain ideas led me to join them in demonstrations. I soon realised that I was in a place that I liked, where photography made sense to me. But it was a place where I also could develop a visual language of my own. I could see all the press photographers present, and as a student I felt lucky to have the freedom not to have to answer journalistic questions. And I've tried to keep that freedom in my projects ever since.
How do you approach these complex topics in your photography?
I had the feeling that in these subjects that are photographed so much, there was an empty space. A space to be found on the border between photojournalism, documentary photography and fine art photography. With the idea of breaking away from the rules imposed on journalists, and taking full possession of my images in the way I show them. This allows me to juggle between different image typologies, to make them cohabit in different formats, so that they form a corpus of images, I can propose a singular vision of certain events.
Back in 2022 you released How Was Your Dream? as both a book and exhibition, offering a compelling exploration of the Hong Kong protests that spanned from June to October of 2019, while probing the depths of protest and insurrection. Can you share what initially drew you to this project and what you hoped to achieve through your documentation?
I'd been photographing the black bloc in France for 2 years, with the idea of taking an interest in the way these groups respond to surveillance and repression systems, through the use of certain tactics. When I saw what was happening in Hong Kong, I realised that the surveillance present there and the creativity deployed by the demonstrators to counter it, showed us our possible future in Europe. So for me, it was a logical next step, and despite an extremely different political situation, the subject remained the same.
The protestors in Hong Kong employed innovative methods to maintain anonymity and evade surveillance. Were there any specific techniques or moments that stood out to you as impressive or particularly symbolic of the broader struggle?
There were many elements that struck me. Firstly, the architecture of the city didn't allow the police to carry out proper searches, so there was an unbelievable amount of protective equipment, you could equip yourself for free on some protest stands. So you could really see extremely well-equipped individuals, who sometimes looked almost like Police. Of course, one of the moments that sticks in my mind is the carapace of umbrellas that demonstrators deployed to hide an individual who was sawing down a surveillance camera pole. It was an extremely photogenic and visual element.
What were your initial reactions and feelings when you first witnessed these new forms of resistance during the Hong Kong protests?
It was one of my first demonstrations, and after a long, peaceful march, I came upon an avenue where I discovered around a thousand demonstrators, much more motivated and equipped, and suddenly that feeling of electricity in the air that I'd known in Paris, I found again on the other side of the world. And I felt I was in the right place.
You chose to provide a “strictly visual testimony” through your work, avoiding traditional photojournalistic practices. What impelled you to take this artistic approach, and do you think it changes the viewers’ perception of the events?
I'm not about writing, it's really not my thing. And I believe that's why I do photography . Also, I had the experience of selling content to the press, and I was always disappointed by the texts that accompanied my images, I had this feeling that my photographs were parasitised by titles and comments that I didn't control. When I set out to design this book, and tried to create a personal vision of these events, I decided to work with my images as if I were making a film. I wanted the sequence and relationships between the pages. I wanted to develop a narrative strong enough for the reader to feel some of the emotions that ran through me during these events. This is why the book mostly runs horizontal images (exceptions are the portraits) and comes with no margins. Also we worked with two additional Pantones, and a glossy varnish to boost the visual intensity.
Your work oscillates between editorial, commissioned, and personal projects. Do you feel it is challenging to balance these different aspects of your career while maintaining a coherent artistic vision?
Yes, to be honest, I really enjoy working on projects that are less personal, that develop over shorter periods of time, and where I can collaborate with other creative minds. Sometimes with big brands, or for magazines, but this allows me to see photography through a less conceptual prism, and where I can develop more playful ideas. On the other hand, it's true that I don't communicate about most of my commissioned works, because it’s sometimes very far from my artistic practice. And I must admit it is sometimes a tricky situation.
Reflecting on your recent commissioned project for Jean Paul Gaultier x Simone Rocha, how was your experience and what was it like to receive recognition from such influential figures?
In fact, I've been working with Florence Tétier, Jean Paul Gaultier's artistic director, for a long time. I was her student, and since then we've had a great working relationship. These collaborations are important to me, because they allow me to develop my practice elsewhere, and in collaboration with people with whom I get on well artistically speaking.
In addition to acclaim from industry figures, your work has also been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Swiss Design Awards and the 7L Photography Grand Jury Prize — where you were indeed honoured the grand prize. What do these accomplishments mean to you and do you find they have influences the trajectory of your career?
Well, they're great moments, where beyond the prizes, you can present your work to talented people from different backgrounds. And of course it reassures me in my practice, and encourages me to go further. The awards open up new possibilities and encounters, and they're organisations that follow and support me. So it's only good things.
Throughout your career, was there ever a moment you are comfortable sharing that you found especially difficult to overcome?
Leaving school wasn't easy for me. I had to settle back in Paris, and make a living from photography, which wasn't easy at first. So I had a bit of an empty year, and even wondered whether I should continue. It's not an easy time, but I think a lot of people go through this in many applied art professions.