Mid-August I covered the six-day 2009 Lourdes national pilgrimage for CIRIC, the Bayard Presse photo agency. I travelled from Paris on the “White Train” chartered to transport 439 Assumptionist pilgrims -178 of which sick or disabled. It took three hours to board everyone, set-up the disabled on stretchers, stack all the wheelchairs in the restaurant wagon…
The six-hour trip was rythmed over the train’s PA system by Father Marie-Bernard Kientz, preparing passengers for their pilgrimage with prayers and stories on Bernadette Soubirou.
Lourdes is fellinian. It’s a well organized and very lucrative business. Amidst scores of cheap plastic religious memorabilia boutiques moves a crowd of tourists and pilgrims of all ages and origins. Daily processions, mass services, prayers at the Grotto, filling-up on water from the miraculous spring, stocking-up on souvenirs, the pilgrim’s day is packed with rituals. It can feel like Disneyland, trying all the rides.
But there’s obviousely more to Lourdes. During the time spent covering the pilgrimage I saw people genuinely care for each-other. A great human experience, even for a non-believer.
In September 2010 I set out to cover the large demonstration against the French government’s planned retirement reform by shooting portraits of the retirees participating to support the movement. The angle for this series was to compare these retirees’ work history and retirement pension to that of younger generations still at work -and demonstrating.
I planned on using the same studio set up used to shoot the two large demonstrations against Nicolas Sarkozy’s politics which brought huge crowds from the private and public sector together -a rarity in France where people usually demonstrate to attract attention to their own specific issues. This meant two lighboxes and a black cloth backdrop installed on the side of the demonstration’s path, Boulevard Beaumarchais. It also meant having an assistant to watch over the studio and write down the “model’s” testimonial (name, age, profession and in one sentence why they were demonstrating) while I was out casting in the marching crowd. Speed of operation was essential in this shoot: the demonstrators usually marched with a group they didn’t want to loose in the crowd. So every portrait and interview had to be made in less than a couple minutes, five at the most.
Alas my small pool of potential assistants was unavailable for the retirement demonstration. I had just treated myself to the iPhone 4 and was amazed at how good the pictures it produced were. I especially enjoyed playing around with the very popular Hipstamatic application. So I decided to shoot my retirees with my phone.
Along the path of the demonstration I found a neutral backdrop -the metallic curtain of a closed shop on Boulevard Beaumarchais- and had my models pose in front of it. In those ancient days (this was six months ago, an eternity in geekland) the Hipstamatic application was very slow at processing each picture taken. I had to wait 30 seconds to see the result -now you can take up to nine photos while the app processes in the background. That meant I only had time to shoot one picture per retiree, do the quick interview and release him or her. All pictures turned out ok, some better than others but all were usable.
It felt strange to work with a telephone but none of my subjects noticed or said anything about it.
I sent the pictures to my agency, Sipa Press, and they were picked-up by the national magazine Le Nouvel Observateur to illustrate a story on Sarkozy’s retirement reform plan.