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Ambassador: Pascal Maitre

Ambassador: Pascal Maitre

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

Biography

Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre was born in the French town of Buzançais in 1955. After studying psychology, he started his career as photojournalist with the Jeune Afrique press group. In 1984 he joined the staff of the Gamma photo agency and in 1989 co-founded the Odyssey Images agency. He is currently represented by Cosmos.

Throughout his career he has worked with many prestigious international magazines including GEO and L'Express in France; GEO, Stern and Brigitt in Germany; and National Geographic, Life and The New York Times Magazine in the USA.

In 2000, he published ‘My Africa’, a book featuring 15 years of his work on this continent, with Aperture in the USA and GEO in Germany. In 2001 the book ‘Madagascar, a unique world’, a result of his many trips to the island, was published. In 2012 he published ‘Amazing Africa’, a book that compiled of 30 years of his work on Africa.

Pascal Maitre has worked in over 40 countries in Africa, covering many different aspects of the continent: men and their way of life, politics, conflicts, traditions and the environment. Since 1985, he has covered many stories in Afghanistan including Bamiyan and the Great Buddhas in 1996, Afghanistan after the rise of the Taliban in November 1996, General Massoud military leader of the northern alliance in December 1998.

In 2010 he received the National Magazine Award of Photojournalism for his in-depth essay about Somalia for National Geographic Magazine. In 2011 he received the grant ‘La bourse FNAC d’aide à la creation photographique’ for his Somalia work and in 2013 he received the Prix International Planète Albert Khan (an annual award given to a photographer whose work is renowned for its humanistic qualities).

As of September 2013 Pascal Maitre has had seven exhibitions (the first was in 1991) of his work shown at the prestigious Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France.



Interview

Originally hailing from the rural village of Buzançais, in central France, Pascal Maitre has had a long-held love of photography that dates back to his early teenage years. Fast-forward to over 40 years later and Pascal Maitre is firmly established as one of the world’s best-known photojournalists with an impressive reputation for documenting the continent of Africa, amongst many other stories, and a penchant for capturing both conflicts and the world’s natural beauty in glorious colour.

But how did it all begin? Pascal recalls: “I was very young [when I became interested in photography]. I was really always interested in photography and, from around the age of 14, it was the only thing that really interested me. I have an uncle, who was living in America, and he sent me my first camera – a used Rolleiflex – and I started with this. Photography really touched me and interested me and I really felt something [special] about photography.”

He adds: “I grew up in the countryside in France in a region called Berry and I took pictures of landscapes, rivers, when it was snowing – just very simple things.” Although photography is now very much his chosen field Pascal originally studied psychology… but it was a course that he never finished.

He reveals: “I didn’t complete my studies because I worked so much with photography. At the same time as I went to university I was working during the holidays – I went to India alone for about three months and took a lot of pictures on slide [film]. When I came back I started to make a small slideshow, which I showed to some schools – and people liked it. The year after I did trips to Peru and Bolivia and then the year after that I did Afghanistan, Burma, India (again) and Pakistan.”

Pascal was quickly building a reputation in his home country of France and was soon asked, by an association that takes care of gypsies, to shoot a series of pictures for them. He explains: “I was not paid to do this but they paid my expenses – and, at this time, I stopped my studies to do this.”

When it came time for Pascal to undertake his compulsory one-year military service in the French Army a local connection from his home village of Buzançais proved invaluable. “I knew another guy who was the photographer for the Ministry of Defence in France and he asked me to do my military service at the photo department of the French Army near Paris. The photographer of the Minister of Defence was married to a girl from my village; he came to my village and he helped me to join the photo department in the military service,” he reveals.

Much of his military service was spent in the confines of a photo lab but it gave Pascal the invaluable opportunity to connect with many photographers in Paris. He adds: “At this point I decided to stay in Paris to look for work. I was about 22 [years old] and I started to send many letters to different places to offer my services.”

One of the application letters that Pascal penned was sent to Jeune Afrique – a French weekly news magazine about Africa that had staff photographers such as Abbas and Guy Le Querrec. Pascal admits: “I sent a letter and I was very surprised that they hired me as a staff photographer at the end of 1978. It was a great chance for me because I had the chance to work for a magazine. For a photographer it is always interesting to be ‘inside’ the magazine because you go to news conferences; you [get to] understand how a magazine works and what they need journalistically.”

Unsurprisingly, his new position as a ‘staffer’ at Jeune Afrique opened up many opportunities to travel throughout the continent of Africa. Pascal recalls: “My first assignment was in Morocco, covering the war between the Polisario and Morocco. It was crazy – it was my first assignment; I’d never been in a war situation and I’d never travelled for a job before. But it was quite successful because I shot a [magazine] cover and a 16-page article.”

He adds: “After that I started to travel more in Africa… what was very interesting was they used to send me to places where they couldn’t find any pictures. I went to Equatorial Guinea, Burundi and Rwanda – none of these places were really known at this time and for me it was fun. It was a good place to learn because I always travelled with African journalists and sometimes stayed at their family homes – it was a very interesting introduction to Africa.”

So, did Pascal always have an interest in Africa? Perhaps surprisingly, he admits: “Not especially – I had a small connection because one man who lived in my village used to be a guy who was in charge of Chad Mauritania for the French Army in a policing capacity. When I was a child he always talked about his experiences and had pictures of his home – I think maybe this gave me a small interest in Africa. When you come from a remote place in the countryside you just want to leave and see the world – I think this is why I wanted to do my job [as a photojournalist].”

Pascal Maitre spent over four years on the staff of Jeune Afrique, but then took the brave decision to leave. He explains: “I travelled a lot and it was very interesting, but I felt that ‘if I stay I will not make an improvement’. I decided to quit, but I quit in good circumstances and was still a freelance for them – it was great. One year after that [in 1984] I joined the Gamma [agency] staff in Paris.”

The career switch from working for a publishing group to the arguably less ‘cosy’ atmosphere of a photo agency proved to be a steep learning curve. Pascal remembers: “At this time it was rough as they just hired a guy when another one was fired… you can imagine there were maybe about 12 photographers and the other photographers were not very pleased to see me arrive because one of their friends had been fired. It was a good school – you have to fight [for stories]. At this time [1984] these big agencies were really very, very efficient and you did everything and learnt everything.”

His time at Gamma took Pascal further afield than Africa: “ I covered not only Africa but I also went to Afghanistan many times, [covered] the Lebanon War and Haiti.” He adds: “I started to work for French and German GEO [magazines]. I seemed to have a lot of assignments so I thought ‘OK, I don’t want to give 50% of my income away to the agency’ so, with other photographers, we quit and formed an agency called Odyssey.”

It was in 1989 that Pascal teamed up with a number of contemporaries – including Alain Keler, Eric Bouvet, Yves Gellie, Hélene Bamaberger, Jean-Luc Mano, Serge Sibert and Francois Guenet – to set up the Odyssey Images photo agency, but it was a project that didn’t have a great degree of longevity. Pascal admits: “It survived for about three years and then collapsed, as it is always difficult to manage a group of photographers.”

Following the demise of the Odyssey Images agency Pascal worked for a short time for a small photo agency alongside photographers such as Gérard Rancinan and Jean Guichard. It was during this time that he began working for a lot of different magazines: German GEO, French GEO, l’Express in France, Paris Match and The New York Times Magazine. He explains: “I was lucky that LIFE made a portfolio about my work – everything was going OK.”

As well as picking up regular commissions for his stories from major publications Pascal Maitre had also begun to be noticed by the wider photographic community with, in 1991, his work on ‘African rituals’ becoming the first of, so far, seven exhibitions at the Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism. He notes: “I am lucky – I’ve had seven exhibitions. Visa and [festival director] Jean-François [Leroy] have really supported me. Of course when you have done 80 stories for a magazine [German GEO] they have supported you a lot, but outside of the press Visa is the one place that has really supported me. I like the ‘spirit of Visa’ – everything is free; you see all of the population looking [at the pictures], and reading the captions. Everything is really incredible.”

It was this recognition and diversity of work that persuaded Pascal to take his own path to go fully freelance and to choose to be represented by the Cosmos agency, based in Paris. He reveals: “Now I work with Cosmos [photo agency] but that is more for distribution of my work… I am linked but not only for business… I do all my own assignments and afterwards I give them the pictures for archives. It’s nice; it’s great because we work in confidence. I have been represented by Cosmos since 1995 or 1996. Cosmos is really like a family – Annie [Boulat] is a great lady – I feel a part of the family and I trust them totally. For me this is very important, because when you travel a lot you cannot look after all of your business.”

As for other photographers that he admires, and who have inspired him, Pascal reveals: “Gilles Perez, Gene Smith, [Josef] Koudelka (and his Gypsies)… but I was always a colour photographer. It’s funny because at that time I liked black and white photographers but I always shoot in colour. I love Alex Webb, William Albert Allard – I met him in 1986 and it was very important because he gave me a different perspective on how to look at colours.”

Indeed the vibrant colours that are present in almost all of Pascal Maitre’s work are almost a ‘signature style’. “I love colour generally – I love painting and colours give me some emotion. It’s something I really love – it’s deep inside me. It’s really important; I never think of shooting in black and white,” he states.

Despite being published worldwide it took until the mid-2000s for Pascal Maitre to finally start working for National Geographic Magazine. He reveals: “The first assignment was 2004 and the first publishing was a story for a special issue about Africa. It’s a long story – I knew them from 1987 but it never [quite] worked. I was lucky because when Chris Johns (current Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine) came he was a guy who had worked in Africa and [Michael] ‘Nick’ [Nichols] (an Editor-at-large for National Geographic) also – they knew my work and they really wanted me to work for them. It was the African Connection!”

Like many photographers of his ‘vintage’ Pascal has spanned the film-to-digital generation gap. He reveals: “First of all I didn’t want it [digital] because I was a ‘classical guy’ shooting with Kodachrome for over 20 years and I knew this film perfectly. I knew the reaction it would have to light and I managed very well. For me, when Kodachrome stopped I was in despair – I tried Fuji Velvia and so on but it was not exactly what I expected.”

Before taking the plunge into the digital world Pascal got some help and advice from Canon France on digital cameras at its Paris offices and reveals: “They really gave me ‘the bridge’ between argentique [film] and numerique [digital] and how you can pass from one side to the other side. The first story I did in digital was about Somalia – I shot this story for National Geographic, which was quite successful. Now I really love it [digital].”

Pascal had used other brands of cameras earlier in his career but when it came to shooting digital there was only one choice: “From digital [onwards] it has been Canon. I have to shoot quickly – I have many stories and a lot of preparation to do… the times I shoot I have to shoot quickly. Digital [photography] has given me more speed because with slide film you have to take care with exposure and digital, for a guy like me, who used to shoot with Kodachrome for years, exposure is very easy. [My first digital camera] was a Canon 5D – the first one. After that I had the 5D Mark II and now the Mark III. I had the EOS-1 [film camera] before that.”

He admits: “I don’t need to take too much care with exposure so I can be more dynamic in my pictures and get more energy in my pictures. I shoot mostly with zoom lenses, whereas I never did before, and I shoot quickly. Digital has changed my way of working.”

Pascal reveals: “It’s funny because when I was using film I never used zoom lenses. When I switched to digital I felt that I wanted to work quickly – I had this chance, as I was not slowed down anymore by checking exposure and I decided to try zoom lenses. I was very happy – the zooms are very high quality. If you are a young photographer maybe it’s not too good to shoot with zooms but I know exactly what I want when I shoot and from what distance. What I feel for zooms is they are very comfortable [to use] because I can change position quickly. I am very precise when I shoot and zooms don’t disturb me at all.”

Like many photographers Pascal Maitre doesn’t get too emotionally attached to his cameras, preferring to view them as tools he can rely on. “To me it’s just to do a job. This is why sometimes I say I am more of a journalist because if I don’t shoot for a story I will not shoot [anything]. I have friends who always have a camera with them – for example, at a restaurant – but for me it [a camera] is like a tool. It’s really a tool but I want to try the tool because I know exactly what I want and I want to be sure about what the tool gives me.”

He adds: “You have to know which one [camera] to use for your target and which one you need for which case. I will try the [EOS] 1D X but the Mark III is really crazy [good]. The only thing is it is a little bit fragile with humidity, so this is why I want to try the 1D X – I should maybe use it as it will be more strong, in terms of the water and humidity. But it depends on the story. If you really take care about the equipment you won’t take pictures – you don’t have to take care. You don’t have to break them but you don’t have to take care – it’s really a tool – you don’t have to worry about it. You are there for a shoot.”

And what of digital post-production? Pascal replies: “I will do some brief changes for a portfolio if they need it. For National Geographic I do. I shoot a lot for German GEO and I give them the RAW [files] and I give them some jpegs to show what [images] I like. That’s it! I feel it’s not my job! When you used to shoot film you knew, especially with Kodachrome, that you cannot change anything – you have to be perfect. When you decide to shoot a picture you are interested in colour and you know how the colour has to be [look] when you shoot.”

Despite a career that dates back to the late 1970s what is it that really motivates Pascal Maitre? He says simply: “I am a photojournalist. In the word photojournalist you have two points – the word ‘photo’ and the word ‘journalist’. I feel that I am a journalist first. I am really deeply interested about telling stories. Photography comes second. Sometimes you have stories that are more visual but what really drives me is to tell a story. I’ve done a lot of stories – German GEO recently told me I’d done 80 stories for them. If I’m not really motivated to tell stories maybe then that’s why I would start to retire. I was always interested about photography and colour, but telling stories is very important.”

Although he has never trained as a journalist Pascal says: “When I was working for Jeune Afrique it was a good school because they had a very high quality of journalist; specific people [who were] very sharp about the subject. So, you learn to understand what is important, what is not important and how to approach [a story]. I love to read and maybe if I knew how to write… well, I would be a writer.”

CPN asks Pascal if there is one story that stands out from his career… He thinks for a moment and then replies: “It’s difficult. There was another story about Kinshasa for National Geographic in September 2013 and my focus was about artists because Kinshasa has many different types of artists – the best artists in Africa; best sculptors, best musicians – and I tried to explain this city through these people. This is more journalistic. Kinshasa was a story that was great in both a photographic and journalistic way. You know, it’s always the last story that is the best (laughs).”

He adds: “I spent three weeks with Commander Massoud [in Afghanistan] – it was great – I spent three weeks more or less alone with him and one picture was very interesting. I also did one big story when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and met all of the different groups before they closed the country and it was really great. I have many stories that I love.”

As an homage to his long ‘love affair’ with Africa in 2012 the book ‘Amazing Africa’, featuring Pascal’s photographs from a 30-year period, was published. He explains: “The Austrian publisher Lois Lammerhuber, who is a photographer, said ‘you have to do a book’ so I said ‘why not?’ and we started to design it. He said I will give you a ‘blank page’ and you can do the book you want. Of course publishers are not always like this! I liked the book because I tried to organise it with different aspects about Africa. There are not many photographers who have covered all of these different aspects, like the war, landscapes, traditions, the economy – for me it’s exactly the mix that makes up Africa. Too many times for Africa we have a book about landscapes, a book about tradition, a book about the wars, famine… but the only thing is it’s all the same continent.”

To compile the book took approximately one year with an end edit of around 150 images being published. Pascal reveals: “It was good to do it with Lois because he’s a small publisher and there was only him and me involved in making choices. I had a choice to make… I could do a photographic book with maybe 80 pictures with another layout or a bigger book with more about Africa and I took this choice. At one point I collected 1,000 images and from this 1,000 I started to organise and see what stands out… how the pictures can work together and I ended up with around 150 [images].”

So, is there any story Pascal Maitre would still like to cover? He reveals: “There is one place I would like to go – the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. There are two guys who I am really fascinated with – [Paul] Gaugin, the painter, and Jacques Brel, the singer, who also was there. This is one place I would love to go.”

He adds: “I would like to work again about Afghanistan when all the different armies come out and the country will come back to be more of an ‘Afghan place’. I don’t know when or what I will do this with the story but I have started to have this feeling about [such a story]. The last time I was there was about two or three years ago. I went to Afghanistan and I felt very sad because I felt it was a country that was totally occupied. I didn’t recognise it – this country was very proud, very wise and very strong. It was terrible in a way because, of course, the conditions of women are really terrible and you feel that this population has put their heads back. I had a very bad feeling. A beautiful country has crazy but strong people; very proud people and then you suddenly see a country, which is really not in a good shape.”

After an hour in Pascal Maitre’s company (via Skype) you can’t help but feel uplifted by his sheer enthusiasm and passion for photography and the world around him. With a new project about the Congo River for National Geographic in the pipeline it seems that little will stop the irrepressible Frenchman from continuing his already glittering career for some time to come…


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