Vladimir Antaki is a Paris based photographer, known for capturing striking images of everyday scenes and people. For his acclaimed Guardians series he travelled to Europe, the Middle East and North America, visiting small specialist stores and photographing their patrons, or as he describes them ‘Guardians of urban temples’. The series has been exhibited in over a hundred cities worldwide, and a book comprising a selection of the images is out now.
What inspired you to start taking photographs, were you influenced or inspired by any particular photographers or artists?
A couple of weeks before leaving Paris for Montreal, back in the summer of 2003, I purchased a film camera and I started to take random street photographs. I had no idea that I needed to set it up, so I would just go and capture what I saw on the streets. When the film was complete, I went to get it processed, and to my surprise it came out blank. The guy in the shop asked me what settings I used and I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know about setting the aperture, ISO and shutter speed. I just assumed that I could put the film in and go shoot, I was very naive. He explained the basics to me, and shortly after I moved to Montreal, this new city, where everything was new to me, and I was fascinated by everything. Like for example, I would see a guy carrying a supermarket bag and it would look different to the ones in Paris, I would see people in the subway, homeless people, the architecture, it all inspired me. I would spend the days, literally sixteen or seventeen hours with my camera, taking loads of pictures. Back then I wasn’t using digital, only film, and it was pretty costly, so I ended up learning how to process the film myself, although it was still pricey as I still had to buy the paper, and because I was learning, I wasted a lot.
That’s how I started, I wasn’t necessarily inspired by any other artists or photographers, it was just me trying to express myself in a new city, but sometimes people would look at my work and name other artists. I remember doing a presentation, a series of photos in a supermarket, and people were talking about (Andreas) Gursky and I had no idea who he was. I was fascinated by visually busy images, and I should also mention that I grew up watching loads of movies, so I think my influences come more from the cinema than from photography.
Did you specifically choose documentary photography or is it something that happened naturally?
I didn’t specifically choose documentary photography, it kind of happened naturally. I don’t really consider myself a photographer who does one kind of photography, I enjoy doing environmental portraits very much, like my Guardians series for example. I enjoy the fact that I photograph what’s there, I do not stage or plan a shoot, it’s a photo of something that’s in front of me. I have done some stage photography before which I really enjoyed, but I did it my way.
We live in an age of unprecedented access to information and news, but often stories are falsified or taken out of context to serve an agenda. With this in mind, how important is documentary photography, and how do you see your role within it?
As I said, I document what’s there; I never alter or falsify anything. It’s very unfortunate when you find out that a photograph has been falsified or modified to turn the story into a different one.
When I first started showing Guardians, I didn’t include any text, so people could make up their own minds, using their imagination, but when I did the book I added the personal stories as I felt it gave more depth and layers, and also context is pretty important, so it can’t be modified or misused.
When did the concept of Guardians first come to you, and what was the inspiration?
I’ve always been fascinated by small shopkeepers. When I was a kid, a teenager, I would spend my time in video stores and pharmacies, local shops, talking to the customers and the people in charge, spending time with them. To me they are the heart and soul of our cities, and they are what makes each city different, giving each city a different flavour. Having the shops close, one after another, makes me sad, and this is why I decided to pay tribute to them, travelling to different cities and documenting the shopkeepers that I found interesting.
How did you approach the subjects, did you find they were generally open to having their photo taken?
I usually take the photograph, the portrait, within the first five to ten minutes after meeting the Guardian. It’s very important for me to have the look of a stranger to another stranger, so everyone can identify with the look that I’m capturing. I usually introduce myself very briefly and then ask if I can take their photo, and I show them a few examples of the portraits I have taken previously. They usually say yes, although I have had a few refusing, and I always respect that. I am in their ‘home’ so I have to go by their rules. Sometimes, when I really like their place and their charisma, I will ask again, and half the time they say yes, and half the time they politely decline.
Do you have a favourite image from Guardians?
I don’t have a favourite image, I’m really attached to the whole series, but of course I have some which are more iconic, like the Birdman for example, or Mario the Mexican religious sculptor. I have a funny story about the Birdman, when I met the guy, Bill, I spent some time with him and he told me some stories, and I went back a couple of times to visit him, and after I took the photo, several people over the past few years have said to me that it reminds them of the shot of Dr Bowman from 2001 A Space Odyssey by Kubrick, and I’m a huge Kubrick fan, but I think this was totally subconscious. I wasn’t thinking of Kubrick when I took the photo, but now when I compare the images there is something very similar in the pose, the hands and everything. So to go back to your first question about my influences, this might be a subconscious influence on my work, like I said, I watch a lot of movies.
Tell us about the I am self Made campaign you shot for izettle. How did this come about?
I was contacted by an art buyer in Sweden. Izettle is a Swedish company, and they said they were impressed by my work and that they had a concept they would like to explore, and they sent me a brief. The concept was filled with pictures of my Guardians so I called them back and told them I was flattered and interested. They told me they wanted me to shoot images of shopkeepers in London and Stockholm, in the style of Guardians. They said they would send someone to scout for shopkeepers based on what I was looking for, and then they would fly me to the cities to shoot. It was a fun shoot as they gave me total liberty to work the way I usually do, by myself, connecting with the shopkeepers. Seeing my images displayed in the subway, on the street and on taxis was pretty flattering and new; I had done several street exhibitions before In Toronto, in Montreal, in France, and in Philadelphia, where I displayed life size prints of my Guardians on the windows of empty shops. So I was familiar with seeing my photos on the street, but it was usually an artistic project, not a commercial one.
I liked the fact that the company trusted me to shoot the campaign the way I usually shoot it, and it was also a big relief and a victory for me, because just before that I had spent eight months in Toronto, and people kept telling me that I couldn’t do any commercial work because I was too artsy, but I proved them wrong, which made me pretty proud.
Your Family Portraits series capture a side of Paris rarely seen in the mainstream media, talk to us about this project.
The idea was to show those families, some constructed by organised crime, some legit families who fled their country, and show them in a way that would resemble a painting. What I did with the Guardians was to pay tribute to the subjects by making them look beautiful in their own space, making them look majestic, and the idea here was also to make them look beautiful and more visible. People don’t pay attention to them anymore, they know they’re here but they are part of the environment, like when you go out and take the subway, you know you’ll see them.
The idea was to show them in a different way, so at first I went out and spoke to everyone, but I quickly realised I wasn’t always welcome and I wasn’t trying to do a journalistic series, it was more social and human, so when I felt resistance, I didn’t insist. There were a few families that opened up to me so I spent time with them and bought them food, and I let the kids use my camera to take pictures of their siblings, and we did some fun pictures together with filters, I gave them attention. It was very important for me to show that sometimes food and money isn’t enough, you need to make them feel human again, as their lives are not easy. They didn’t choose it, sometimes they are put there as they have pressure from organised crime groups, or some of them have had to flee their countries, so they are just trying to make it day by day. One of the families told me they left Eastern Europe and they spoke a bit of Italian, not French, so when they had enough money they were planning on driving to Italy to try and find some work.
It was my way of documenting these families and making them feel less invisible. I also forgot to say, In France we’re used to seeing homeless people on the street, it’s something that’s been around for decades and decades, but the phenomenon of having kids on the street is a new one, less than ten years, five years maybe, and it’s really heart breaking. So that’s why it’s called family portraits; to show those families and make them look like families, not just people trying to get your money.
My name is Wesson Dagnew documents the unchanging daily routine of a Toronto man, what was it about him that inspired you?
So Wesson is a different story. I was in Toronto, and had just shown my work at the Nuit Blanche, which is a huge outdoor celebration of arts, and I think it was the next day I was in Dundas Square which is like Toronto’s mini Times Square, and I see this guy dressed in a white suit. I immediately thought of Iceberg Slim, a pimp who became an author and wrote several novels. So, I went to this guy and asked him if he knew who Iceberg Slim was, he didn’t, but we started talking and I think I took a few photos and then about twenty minutes later I followed him home and started documenting his life. I would go to him, not every day, but every now and then, and spend some time with him documenting his daily routine, trying to discover who is Wesson, as everyone called him Tony when he was dressed in his suit.
This is a story of a man who leads a double life, a man with a big heart, and people assume he’s a pimp, or that he’s doing something illegal because of how he dresses. The cops would sometimes come and ask for his papers, assuming he was doing something illegal; the guy doesn’t drink, or smoke, doesn’t go to bars or clubs, he leads his life, and I got to know him and realised Wesson was a great man, a man who helps people with physical and mental disabilities, working as a janitor in a place for people with drug problems.
Every evening after work, between six and seven he goes to Dundas Square, dressed in one of his twenty four custom made suits, and he just chills, drinks a Coca-Cola, and spends some time with his friends. He really inspired me, and became a friend, someone I would hang out with when I was in Toronto.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I’m currently promoting my book which will be out in North America on 3rd September. I’ve just come back from a six-week tour of the USA and Canada and the reception from people so far has been fantastic, people seem very touched by the stories which is really rewarding for me, as it’s my first book and I wasn’t sure how people would react.
I have a show opening on 10th September in Paris, at the Institut Du Monde Arabe, which is a pretty big institution for contemporary arts and culture around the Arab world; I was selected to be part of the biennale of contemporary photographers which is a big honour for me. I am going to be showing a series called Beyrouth, Mon Amour, a tribute to Beirut, my home town. Even though I didn’t grow up there, I’m Lebanese, and it’s a visual love letter to Beirut. The idea was to take photos of buildings in Beirut, poor and rich, new and old, bearing scars or not, and make them look like traditional Arab mosaics, so you can’t tell which are in poor neighbourhoods, and which are in rich neighbourhoods, putting them on the same level.
This is happening in September, and then hopefully I will go back on the road and work on a new series. I don’t know yet what I will choose as I have a few subjects that interest me. I can’t talk about it right now, but hopefully soon.
All images courtesy of Vladimir Antaki.
The Guardians photo book is available now in Europe, and from 3rd September in North America. To buy the book and to see more of his work, visit his website.