All photographs are copyrighted and used with permission by Pierre Belhassen.
“In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”
This mindset characterizes Marseilles-based photographer Pierre Belhassen‘s approach to photography. While he has been photographing for quite some time, he recognizes that he has so much more to learn, and that frees him to make the images he wants to, and in many ways has to, make. His images often have a certain quietude that draws you in and keeps you there. He finds tranquil moments in urban chaos, whether it’s in New York City’s subway system or a street in one of Istanbul’s bustling neighborhoods, and they leave you looking for more.
Phoblographer: Your photographs are often as chromatically powerful as they are compositionally. How have you developed your eye for color and composition?
Pierre: Since I was a child, I was fascinated with painting and drawing. I was moved by the power of representation of artists but I did not have any particular talent in any of those fields…I am also a moviegoer so very early and quite unconsciously I think I have started paying attention to composition. The elements in the frame, the notions of on and off-camera struck me and as I discovered photography – quite late by the way- I have tried to apply to it the lessons I had learnt from the films of Scorsese or Kurosawa. I like the notion of ‘tension’ in a picture, jostling the elements of the frame and its balance… it is difficult to describe this process but easy to recognize when you are faced with it.
Paradoxically, you have to be wary of a certain stylization of the composition. Automatisms can be destructive and I prefer trusting my simple intuition. Moreover, I have a bad hearing since childhood and I sometimes wonder if my mind did not naturally develop a taste for things visual in compensation of that failing sense. As for color, I appreciate its narrow link with light it is fascinating to observe the influence one has upon the other. Each one containing a sensation and combining them allows me to create an emotional palette in my work that I feel is essential.
Phoblographer: Something I’ve noticed with many photographers who shoot film today is that they typically shoot black-and-white or color. You, however, shoot both. Your two-part New York series has the first in monochrome and the second in color. What’s the deciding factor between the two for you?
Pierre: In fact I have ended up dedicating myself entirely to color after a long black and white period… To me these two photographic fields are like two different languages with their own peculiarities. Black and white has kind of a ‘natural’ power because the image is immediately transformed. The absence of color allows us to intellectualize more easily and leads us in an oneiric dimension, an escape from reality. The difficulty with color is that you have to look for a pure form in the mundane. The colors if too numerous or badly organized destroy an image. Some just don’t work together while on the contrary others make a perfect match which gives the picture a unique force. It’s in this challenge that I’m interested today and that’s why nowadays I dedicate myself to color photography even though black and white is still fascinating me.
Phoblographer: Why have you stayed with film all these years?
Pierre: I’ve started shooting with an old analog Nikon. Digital existed but I was given that camera so I was naturally drawn in that direction. Today I know digital technology and the possibilities it offers through the use I made of it for commercial work but for my own projects analog suits me perfectly. I like the physicality of the relationship that you can build with the picture, through the negative. And in a time when the all digital rules, I find this reassuring. I also like the grain of the film, its matter and its interpretation of colours… I do know that digital cameras are more efficient today but I simply don’t need more results.
“The difficulty with color is that you have to look for a pure form in the mundane. The colors if too numerous or badly organized destroy an image.”
On a philosophical point of view the relationship to film suits me even better : I like forgetting my pictures and rediscovering them later. This space of time between the shooting and the developing process matters a lot for me. It’s like the dormant picture had been ‘dreamt’. This enables me to detach myself emotionally from my pictures which is necessary to edit them properly… only time and distance can make this possible. Analog photography naturally imposes this physical limitation.
Phoblographer: What was one of the most important lessons you learned over the course of your photographic career?
Pierre: That I absolutely know nothing! I think I have to go on preserving my beginner’s spirit, my child’s soul I should say… Letting the ordinary amaze me. This is what photography teaches us: resisting, keep seeing things and not letting the stress of everyday life overwhelm us. The photographic practice can be a way to live and to remain alert to the world. Looking at things is a rare pleasure for the one who knows how to see or for the one who didn’t forget.
Phoblographer: You’ve written previously that the cities of Istanbul and Marseille are linked for you, and that you’re exploring them through photography. What have you found through your photographs?
Pierre: These are two wonderful cities that indeed share some common features. They are open on the sea and their feet stand between two worlds. Their cultures clash there. They are lands of contrast both in their cultures and in their lights. I was speaking of a ‘tension’ earlier on and we can find that invisible force in those places, a special energy that I try to make visible. In the end I’d like the pictures of these two projects to echo each other from coast to coast, accross the sea.
Phoblographer: What is one piece of advice you’d give to a photographer looking to do a project in a city that isn’t their own?
Pierre: Keeping in your approach a neutral spirit as long as possible. At first, avoid any documentation, letting the places get in the way and allowing the city to come to you. Little by little it will reveal itself to you and it’ll then be time to confront your vision to that of others. Write your own story.