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© Yann Arthus-Bertrand
© Erwan Sourget
Yann Arthus-Bertrand has always had a passion for the natural environment and at the age of 20, he settled in central France and became the director of a nature reserve.
When he was 30, he travelled to Kenya, Africa, with his wife to carry out a three-year study on the behaviour of lions in the Maasai Mara reserve. He quickly started using a camera as a visual aid to capture his observations and enhance the written reports they compiled. While in Africa, he earned his living as a hot-air balloon pilot. This was when he really discovered the earth from above and the advantages of viewing what he was studying from afar to gain an overall picture of an area and its resources. And in 1991, he founded the world’s first aerial photography agency.
In 1992, Yann decided to prepare a big project for the year 2000 on the state of the planet. Called ‘The Earth From the Air’, the resulting book was a great success and over 3 million copies were sold. The outdoor exhibitions have been seen so far by about 200 Million people. In 2003, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society, and the French government also made him Officer of the Ordre National du Mérite. He was also given the Georges Pompidou Award. He is a recipient of the Knight of the Légion d'honneur and the ‘Earth Champion’ award among other accolades.
Yann then created the Goodplanet Foundation that aims to raise public awareness of environmental issues, implement carbon offset programmes and fight deforestation with local NGOs. Due to this involvement, he is today considered more an environmentalist and activist than a photographer. It is because of this commitment that Yann Arthus-Bertrand was designated Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme on Earth Day (April 22, 2009).
In 2012, Yann began filming his next feature film called ‘Human’ which comprised of interviews with people from all conditions in over 45 countries, and aerial images gleaned all over the world. Filming has taken place in very diverse landscapes since June 2012. This year, from January 2014, Yann has filmed in Thailand, Antarctica, Dubai, Brazil, Pakistan, Cuba and Japan. The film will be available in 2015 and the preview will take place at the United Nations headquarters, New York, USA, in the presence of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand is famed for his aerial perspective on life. He reveals in this in-depth interview his passion for photography and environmental issues, and how his Canon cameras have become part of his family.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s moment of truth; the defining moment that will forever be the point at which his life changed forever, came in 2000. Following a number of years criss-crossing the planet taking jaw-dropping images, he had successfully amassed a portfolio of images that would make him who he is today.
Each image was taken from a unique perspective that cleverly combined colour, form and geography wrapped up in distinctive narrative. The project had taken Bertrand to five continents and 60 countries and all of the photographs were shot from above.
The book, The Earth From the Sky, spawned a series of offshoots and an even greater number of wannabees. More importantly, it sold like hotcakes. “When you create books that sell 20,000 and then you do a book that sells 3,500,000 copies, your life changes completely,” says the French photographer plainly. “I changed. I was poor and then I became rich. I was so lucky.”
Bertrand describes this chrysalis moment as the “time of his life” when demand for his pictorial odyssey reached such heights that it was translated into 25 languages and he became a sought-after speaker on the exhibition and lecture circuit. “In one month, my life changed completely,” he says.
Almost overnight Bertrand was catapulted into the art world’s aristocracy with all the glitz and glamour that went with it. His meteoric rise was swift and momentous, but as much as he set the photography world alight, his success had come as a revelation to even those closest to him. “Everybody was surprised,” he recalls. “The publisher had printed 30,000 books, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to sell enough so he cut the price. Everyone was surprised by the success of the book. It was amazing.”
Of course this wasn’t Bertrand’s first foray into the world of publishing. When he was 30, Bertrand and his wife carried out a three-year study of a family of lions in the Maasai Mara reserve. He used a camera to record what he saw and later published the portfolio of his first book: Lions.
It was at this time that Bertrand realised his true vocation. “I am more a witness than an artist,” he says. “I was trying to show and understand the behaviour of the lions, so I approached it more like a study. But when we produced the books, I decided to become a photographer rather than a scientist. That is a decision I have never regretted. This job has given me so many things. When you are a photographer, nothing is forbidden. I am 67 and I am still enthusiastic about my work, just like the first day.”
Whether flying over the rooftops of New York or photographing the archipelagos of Panama, throughout his career Bertrand has used Canon cameras to document remarkable perspectives of the world. “I have been using Canon for a long time – it is part of my life. It is part of my family.”
Last year, Bertrand’s contribution to the world of photography was recognised when he joined an elite band of photographers who collectively represent the very best in creativity, passion and skill. The accolade of becoming a Canon Master was one he accepted readily, with more than a pinch of undue modesty. “The guys from Canon came to see me about becoming a Canon Master - I couldn’t refuse that. You have to be modest, but I don’t think I am a big master.”
With his new-found title, Bertrand had a clear idea about what he could bring to the role. “If I can transmit my passion about photography, I will be happy,” he says. “My life began through photography and now I am doing movies and working in the NGO world. My life has changed a lot through photography – I am not the same man I was 40 years ago. I understand what is important in my life. Through photography I have learned a lot, mainly through the people I photograph.”
If his body of work is anything to go by, it is safe to say Bertrand has amassed a wonderfully in-depth understanding of our planet and our impact on it. Whether shooting a Dromedary caravan in Mauritania or capturing a peasant working in a field in Crete, Bertrand has the ability to create captivating image that relies on colour, form and function often incorporating a wider view of the world. His images give perspective and scale to what is often an everyday activity, for instance finding beauty and context in the marks on a runway at Charles De Gaulle airport or at a car breakers yard at Saint-Brieuc.
Bertrand’s objective to create pleasing imagery is matched by his desire to convey a compelling and powerful narrative that goes far beyond the boundaries of the frame. “It is impossible for me to do an advertising feature or a picture without sense,” he says. “What is the message behind your photography? I am completely obsessed by that. I think it may be a little pretentious but I think it is important to give sense to your work. There are so many important things happening in the world that we have to understand. When I was born, the world’s population was two billion. Now we are seven billion. In my lifetime I have seen the population triple. That’s incredible.”
He continues: “I want to be inside this world, I don’t want to be somebody looking in. I want to be part of it. Being involved makes you happy.”
For Bertrand, being involved meant setting up the Goodplanet Foundation in 2005 with the aim of raising public awareness about environmental issues, implementing carbon offset programmes and fighting deforestation with local NGOs. It led to the 7 Billion Others project, which he established, with Sybille d’Orgeval and Baptiste Rouget-Luchaire. It involved 6,000 interviews filmed in 84 countries discussing the fears, dreams, hopes and ordeals of ordinary people.
In 2006, Bertrand took his foray into film a step further with a series of one-and-a-half hour television shows each addressing an environmental issue. Aired on French television, Vu Du Ciel has now been distributed to 49 countries. Three years later, Bertrand released a feature film, Home, simultaneously through various media outlets almost entirely free. As a result, it is estimated that more than 600 million people have seen the film so far.
Projects for the United Nations and World Water Forum followed with his reputation as a film-maker growing stronger by the day. His latest feature film, Human, is due for release in 2015 and combines intimate interviews with aerial images from across the globe (filming is taking place this year in Thailand, Antarctica, Dubai, Brazil, Pakistan, Cuba and Japan).
Bertrand’s migration from film to digital and ultimately to video has been a constant throughout his career with every step-change representing a new outlet for the photographer. Although he has embraced each one, the first was far from a premeditated adoption of cutting-edge technology, resulting instead from a near-death experience.
“I had a bad accident during Hurricane Katrina,” he explains. “I was nearly killed and was lucky to be alive. I lost everything but the Canon people were very nice and sent me the new digital camera. It changed the way I approached photography. It was so easy to look at your shots straight away and you could work at high sensitivity like 4000 ASA [ISO] with the pictures turning out really well. It changed my vision of photography.”
For stills, Bertrand currently uses Canon’s flagship body; the EOS-1D X which combines a full-frame 18 megapixel sensor with Dual DIGIC 5+ processors and up to 12 frames per second shooting. For his film work, he uses the groundbreaking EOS-1D C, which brings 4K movies and advanced video functions to a high performance DSLR body.
Intriguingly, he doesn’t distinguish between the two forms treating video in much the same way as he approaches photography. “I think it is the same,” he says plainly. “For me to do video or to do photography is exactly the same. When people look at my movies often they say it is a photographer’s movie. What I learned in photography has helped me a lot in terms of filling the frame and using the light. I therefore have the same approach if I am doing photography or if I am filming.”
In an age when digital and online media is evolving at break-neck speeds and the scramble to keep up with the latest techniques is deafening, it is good to know one of the greats still holds true to the fundamentals of photography. “I am completely obsessed by the frame,” says Bertrand. “I have to fill the frame.”
As for his cameras he follows one simple rule. “I only use the top cameras – I only use the best. I am not a technical guy. All I try to do is get the best camera that is easy to use.”
His response is equally forthright when asked about his favourite photographs. “My favourite image is the photo of my grandchildren in my wallet. There is no more important image than that.”