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A tool for looking - Talking ‘China West’ with Julien Chatelin

6 years ago

Born in France in 1968, Julien Chatelin has been a documentary photographer since 1992. He’s made a career working for major French and international magazines, ranging from Paris Match, Marie Claire, Geo, National Geographic France, Der Spiegel, Time, among others. He is also a former member of Rapho and co-founder of De l’air magazine.

In 2008 Julien Chatelin published ‘Israel Borderline’, a 160 page monograph, depicting the complexity of Israeli society. In 2011, in a “constant quest to explore new visual dialectics and narratives”, Julien produced ‘Egyptorama’: A journey through Egypt's semi-desert lands shot in large format which received the 2013 Camera Clara award. ‘Egyptorama’ is the first opus of a larger body of work in progress which deals with the issues of urbanization and the cyclical transformations of our environments.

Julien was shortlisted in the Professional Architecture category of the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards, with his series ‘China West’

Hi Julien, thanks for chatting with us. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography

I started photography at quite an early age. At fourteen, whenever I had free time I would hit the streets, and take photographs. Soon after I had my first black and white lab setup in my bathroom, and I would spend my nights making prints. After finishing college, where I specialized in photography and political science, I became a documentary photographer, working on various issues, from world news to social oriented features. At the same time I always developed long term personal projects, to have a space where I could challenge my vision, and express myself without concessions.


Tell us more about your successful series, ‘China West’

Since 2011, I have been working on series that look at how economic changes impact our environments. I've investigated very diverse territories from Egypt, Detroit or Siberia. I'm particularly interested in semi-deserted landscapes from which emanates an odd, sometimes surreal, tension between nature and man.

I wanted to work in China, because of the fast speed urbanization that has completely reshaped the topography of the country in the past decades. Western China is now probably the fastest growing economic zone in the world. I eventually did three trips there, covering a vast territory ranging from Sichuan province in the south to Inner Mongolia in the north. My itinerary was nearly random, and I changed course constantly, depending of what I found. It was a bit like street photography, except it was with a car, and a large format camera.


Your work has covered many subjects and narratives, from Israeli society to Egyptian desert lands. How do you approach each new project?

My work has certainly evolved a lot throughout my career, although I find myself often looking for the same things in a photograph. This might be hard to define, but it has to do with pushing reality into a frame, while conveying different levels of meaning. I'm interested in various photographic approaches, ranging from documentary to landscape, streets, architectures, and portraits. I guess the thread is the direct confrontation with reality. I like the idea when looking at a photograph that what I’m witnessing what actually took place, even if I’m aware of the subjectivity of the medium.

I approach every project differently as I always try to find the right form for the story or idea I’m trying to convey. Sometimes it requires changing formats or going from color to black in white, using specific lighting, or changing my distance etc.


Do you have a photographic philosophy?

Not really, to me photography is just a tool to look at things. It allows me to confront the world, and express myself, but it’s a very limited art form, even more so than the visual spectrum. Yet this limitation, is what’s makes it interesting.

What’s next for you?

Not sure yet. I’m working on new ideas, and new directions on which to take my work.  But my priority at the moment is finding venues for my project on territories.




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