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April 2009

In 2003 - following a year travelling the world, shooting over 8,000 pictures along the way - Franck Vogel made the decision to 'jump' into freelance photojournalism. Since then this talented Frenchman has worked in a number of countries documenting social and environmental issues. He spoke to CPN editor Steve Fairclough about his project shooting the Bishnoi sect in India that was recently a major cover story for the 30th anniversary edition of GEO France magazine.

CPN first met Franck Vogel at the Visa pour l’Image 2008 festival of photojournalism when he was looking to meet up with Canon Ambassador Michael Nichols (an editor-at-large for National Geographic) to show his portfolio of pictures documenting the lives and traditions of India’s Bishnoi sect. Fast-forward six months and Franck’s Bishnoi documentary work was published as an 18-page spread in the 30th anniversary edition of GEO France magazine and he was preparing to fly off to Africa on a new assignment.

It wasn’t until he was 25-years-old that Franck Vogel decided to become a photographer when, during a meditation in North Burma, he: “realised that what I really wanted to do was photography.” He had first picked up a camera at the age of 14 and then, aged 21, during a stint at Lehigh University in the US his work was published in a student magazine. But it was a round-the-world trip that ended in 2003 that convinced him his life was behind a lens.

“In 2003 I came back from the tour and I started – it was tough and very difficult to make a living. I did some exhibitions and then I got an idea to exhibit slides large and backlit. I was looking for different processes so I created this triple layer material that gives a very good rendition of the image.” Franck used this method to develop ‘photographic lamps’ which he used at exhibitions and which soon caught the attention of companies such as luxury food company Potel & Chabot and Van Cleef & Arpels. This sideline in the world of lighting continues to this day but Franck is now making a name for himself with quality images as well as quality lamps.

© Franck Vogel

One of the larger Bishnoi gatherings with ceremonial fires burning.

During his year-long world tour Franck recalls: “I had a Canon EOS 300 on my tour but I was robbed in Katmandhu and lost it and all my lenses. In Bangkok I bought a secondhand EOS 3 and all the lenses.” Later on, with monies raised by his lamps, Franck was able to purchase additional photographic equipment and made ‘pilgrimages’ to the Visa pour l’Image festival in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He reveals: “I found out that editors want stories, not portfolios, so it was interesting and I met a lot of people.”

In 2006 Franck began his project documenting the lives of the Bishnoi sect in India. The sect works around 29 principles (Bishnoi literally translates as ‘29’) laid down in the 15th century by Guru Jambheshwar – many of these principles are dedicated to environmental protection, especially protecting trees and wildlife. Franck reveals: “A friend who went to India told me about the Bishnoi and I thought it might have been a kind of ‘fake’ thing for tourists. I went to Jodphur where the people explained the story of the Bishnoi to me.”

Franck then made contact, via the internet, with a young member of the Bishnoi and was invited to come to Haryana, near Rajasthan. “He introduced me to a Bishnoi professor and he helped me to meet others – political and spiritual leaders. Finally I was able to enter the community,” recalls Franck. This ‘induction’ into the Bishnoi also involved having to give a speech in front of a gathering of 70,000 people to explain what he wanted to do.

© Franck Vogel

The Bishnoi grow and nurture trees and do not cremate their dead as this would require the felling of trees.

The appeal to a mass audience convinced the sect of Franck’s intentions and he says: “I wanted to let people know about their philosophy. I wanted them to teach their philosophy; to teach the rest of the world about ecology and the environment.” This approval meant that Franck was given a permit to shoot even in the most holy of places, such as where the Bishnoi guru is buried. However, one day he was attacked by some angry Bishnois who tried to hit him and break his photographic equipment - the fracas was broken up by other members of the sect who were able to confirm the validity of his presence.

He reveals: “They are really protective of the wildlife and the religion. If you hurt a deer, cut a tree, or go to a holy place they are able to ‘break’ you – they were really the first 'eco warriors'. They are not afraid to die for animals and trees, and they can be violent as they consider wildlife and plants as members of their family.”

Franck used National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry as one of his main inspirations: “I am a big fan of his images so I felt my images had to be almost as good. To get classical images you have to find something different.”

On three two-month trips to India in a period of 15 months Franck spent more and more time immersed in the Bishnoi culture. “It was all financed with my own money – I had no assistant and no fixer. I became friends with many of the people and knew quite a bit of Hindi, so it worked quite well.” He adds: “Most of the images were shot with the EOS 5D and my EF16-35mm zoom. I also have the EF50mm f/1.4 USM, the EF70-200mm f/4L USM and an extender. I don’t want to have a heavy bag – I want it to be light with only two or three lenses.”

© Franck Vogel

Twice a week Ganga Ram's family pray at his grave. He was murdered while trying to save a wild gazelle from poachers, on 12 August 2000, and was buried near the gazelle he tried to rescue.

© Franck Vogel

Bishnois have shared their harvest with birds and wild deer since the 15th century.

As well as ensuring he had a light camera bag to carry, another key consideration for Franck was the quality of the light in India: “Most of the images were shot in the morning between 5am and 8.30am. During the day you don’t get good light so you can’t shoot anything between 9am and 5pm.” Franck also learnt when the main Bishnoi festivals fell – in March and April and September and October - and planned his trips around them. He admits: “the first trip was really to scout the Bishnoi, but you need to go back.”

Franck adds: “After seeing it once I began to imagine what kind of images I wanted graphically – the fires, feeding the deer by hand. I had about 40 images in my head and I planned what could be the best shot of each situation. Sometimes it took a long time to get a shot.”

In fact to get the low down shot of ladies cutting millet took longer than you might imagine. Franck explains: “You set high standards for yourself. I sent some shots to another photographer friend who said I hadn’t quite got the shot. It’s actually not an amazing picture but it took time to get a good angle and good light. You see this sort of shot quite often in magazines but I felt I had to do something different.”

Franck’s initial switch to digital came in 2005 “because I wanted to try it.” Initially, however, he was a tad disappointed: “I had my EOS 20D but in the beginning it was tough as my images looked worse. I was comparing it to Fuji Provia and Velvia and to get the sort of colours you get with those films isn’t easy.” He admits: “With the 5D it is much easier for me – I can do a bit more with colour saturation to try to match the colours of Provia and Velvia, but I try not to do too much in post-production. I want to create images that are as natural as possible.”

© Franck Vogel

Franck took some time composing and planning this shot of women cutting millet.

After three stints living with, photographing and understanding the Bishnoi Franck returned to Perpignan in 2008 with a fierce determination to make this trip to Visa pour l’Image a success. He admits: “Everything started in Perpignan. My goal was to sell it (the Bishnoi story) – I knew I had a good story and my images were good. I had four or five days and I had to meet as many people as possible. I planned a programme to definitely meet National Geographic, GEO France, GEO Germany and the New York Times.”

He adds: “Finally I met ‘Nick’ Nichols and Gail Fisher (senior photo editor at National Geographic). Nick told me it was ‘a nice job’ and gave me advice on selling it. He told me ‘you will make it’.” At Visa Franck also tracked down Jean-Luc Marty, the editor-in-chief of GEO France, at the Palais des Congrès: “I ran over to him to introduce myself and said ‘maybe I have a story for you’. He said he had no time but after looking at five images he said ‘Wow, that’s amazing’ and told me we had to talk.”

Instead of four minutes Jean-Luc Marty spent 40 minutes looking through the images for Franck’s Bishnoi story. Marty said that he wanted the story and gave Franck his number. The following week he presented it to Marty in Paris and Franck recalls: “After one month he (Marty) told me he wanted it for the 30th anniversary edition of GEO France.” That magazine was published in March 2009 with the feature on the Bishnoi sect one of the main cover stories.

© Franck Vogel

During festivals Bishnois collect grain to feed wild animals near the temple.

Following the publication of the story there are possible plans for a television documentary on the Bishnoi sect, which will mean Franck returning to the Rajasthan region to meet up with some ‘old friends’. As to what happens after that who knows, but if you come across Franck Vogel in Perpignan you can be sure he’s only there for one reason – to show you some more of his superb photography.


Franck Vogel’s equipment:

Canon EOS 5D
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 20D

EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF70-200mm f/4L USM
EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Speedlite 580EX
Speedlite 430EX
Manfrotto tripod

Biografía: Franck Vogel

Franck Vogel

In 2003 Franck Vogel after a year travelling with his backpack, camera and 8,000 pictures later he decided to “jump” into photojournalism. He has worked as a freelance photographer in Albania, Ukraine, Africa and India. His most recent story was published in GEO France and his work has also appeared in Le Monde 2, The Age, and Courrier International. Franck has also shot corporate images for Nissan, Danone, Kuoni and l'Oréal.