French reportage photographer Emmanuel Fradin talks to us about how his years of following French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin shaped his eye and his career. Now a freelancer, Fradin discusses what it takes to work in this competitive market–it turns out that things are not that different between New York and Paris: in both places you need perseverance and a good network!
When and how did you realize you wanted to become a photographer?
Very early as a child, I used to borrow my father’s camera, a fujica AZ1. I particularly enjoyed taking photos of boats leaving and the crews on the harbor of Rochefort, France, where I lived. Then, when I was 17 years old, I had the opportunity to turn toward this job by attending a photo school.
Is there something you know now that you wish you had known years ago, as you were just starting out?
At first I wanted to concentrate on reports, which appealed to my tastes and conviction. But you have to get quickly interested in all the various approaches of photography to be able to adapt yourself to the economic context and carry on earning your living with your images, whatever the fashion, the style and the demands of the day.
You followed French Prime minister Lionel Jospin for years, as an official photographer. Can you tell us more about how that came about as well as your experience? Would you say that is the experience that has contributed most toward your success?
When I went to Paris at the age of 19 for my military service, I wanted to be a photographer on board the military ship “La Jeanne d’Arc”. But I was in the end temporarily assigned to work with then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. At the end of my military service, since the experience had been satisfying for everyone, Mr. Jospin’s press attaché suggested I could carry on my collaboration with them. Of course I accepted without hesitation and I was fortunate enough to continue my work during the whole length of his mandate.
To follow the Prime Minister in all his official trips, whether in France or abroad, has been an incredible experience. I have discovered what goes on behind the political and institutional scenes when coming close to numerous national and international key figures. At that time, I also often met agencies photographers (Gamma, Sygma,Sipa) who covered the political news. I have learned a lot watching them, at a time when digital technology didn’t exist yet.
To go back to your question, I wouldn’t say that this experience has «contributed most toward my success» because I wouldn’t mention «success» yet. On the other hand, this unique experience was the determining factor for my career afterward, because I have hugely learned there and improved my technique, built up a network and perfected my sense of observation with and without a camera. Moreover, having worked for the Prime Minister’s services certainly contributed to the fact that my clients trust me!
Looking through your portfolio, it’s clear that you have an amazing eye. No wonder your long list of clients trust you! How did you learn how to take a good photograph?
The sense of observation is the main quality. I have learned a lot watching other people’s work–photographers but painters too,with whom we share the necessity to arouse an emotion within a definite frame. Relevant and new subjects can be found everywhere, you only have to look around, get interested in the society and our environment, in what happens round the corner of your street or at the far end of the world. The years of practical experience are also a way of improving yourself. I keep learning every day since each new order personal project is different. And it is in fact through experience that I have learned that there’s still an enormous amount of things to learn.
Speaking of clients, how have you been able to build your client list?
After my political experience in the State high administrations, I worked for several press agencies, covering current events for several years, while also being a paparazzi. All those years in the press were opportunities to get known and build a very diversified network. By the end of 2006, when I became freelance I canvassed my clients directly and I produced my reports with my money to show what I could do.
Today the magazines and firms call me spontaneously or thanks to the sending of my news.
Becoming a freelance photographer can be daunting for many. What would you tell others hoping to build a solid career doing freelance work?
You have to know how to be patient to persevere and therefore not to be discouraged, especially at the beginning. I believe it is necessary to have build up a solid experience for yourself, with a network of acquaintances and potential clients. When you become freelance, you have to develop this network and not to hesitate to show your work. It is essential in order to live from this job decently. That takes inevitably several years.
You photograph portraiture, politics, fashion and landscape. Which of these do you favor? Why have you chosen to photograph these specifically?
I have discovered all the possibilities you get with portraits only two or three years ago. Contrary to what one could believe, it is a particularly difficult exercise but one that I appreciate more and more. I wish to continue to try my hand at everything and above all not to stick rigidly to a single field.
Diversifying my experiences enriches my ideas, thus being able to develop and never be bored !
How much of the image is based on the subject/client personality and ideas versus your own direction and vision? Where do you find the balance?
In general I am asked to do portraits in environment: I meet the persons at their homes, in their offices or in a public place where they are regular visitors. Allowing for exceptions, as for advertising campaigns, my work does not deal with actors, but rather personalities in the civil society or the political class. The work is all the more difficult as those personalities have only a few minutes to spare. I have therefore to analyze immediately the technical and logistic problems and identify the advantages of a place I am discovering. In every case it is essential for me to keep a certain spontaneity and simplicity in the exchange.
That being said, I attach great value to the light and thus the time when the photo session takes place — ideally at the beginning or at the end of the day, when the light is more subdued.
Do you usually already know what it’s going to look like before the photo is taken? Or does it come to you somewhere along the way? Which do you prefer?
It all depends if I have got «carte blanche» or if the client wants something particular, and if I have been able to scout out the shoot location beforehand. Sometimes I get a few indications to start with, but most of time it is necessary to act there and then. There is of course a part of «improvisation», but the work must remain technically mastered to provide a result up to the client’s expectations.