Monday, April 21, 2014

A conversation with Emmanuel Benoit

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Emmanuel  Benoit: I was born in France in 1972. I am an aeronautical engineer by profession and I am currently based in London. Besides my work, I develop photography concepts through pasting installations in the streets and portraits that question our multiple identities. I make human beings the focus of my artistic commitment. I went to photography in 2001 with my first project “Extimidenty”, where I created a poster (a naked self-portrait) out of one of my photographs and pasted it in several places in Toulouse (France) but also in New York. I carefully chose playful and interesting locations, to which I would later return at regular intervals and take photographs of the evolution the posters went through. I shot this series with B&W rolls and decided to print them out  myself.

Issayas:  Would you tell us how you came to know about Eritrea?

Emmanuel:I have always been fascinated by the Horn of Africa reading writers like Arthur Rimbaud, Henry de Monfreid or Joseph Kessel. In 2008, I went to Ethiopia for one month. Then the following year, I went with my wife to Yemen. Some friends suggested to me that I visit Eritrea. Before I got there in 2010, I knew almost nothing about the country.

Issayas: When your friends suggested to you to visit Eritrea, what were the kind of things that they were telling you that made you decide to visit?

Emmanuel: We were talking about the Afars in Ethiopia, Djibouti and also Eritrea. I don't exactly remember what she told me but the story of the Italian colonization and the independence war made me think that I had to visit Eritrea.

Issayas: What do you think of Eritrea? Its people, culture etc.

Emmanuel: Eritrea is unique in Africa for many reasons; the Italian colonization, Eritrea's war of liberation from Ethiopia, the Eritrean government... I am more and more captivated by Eritrean people.




Issayas: Am I right to assume that you like to take pictures in Massawa. What is it about Massawa? Am I totally off the mark? Also, when we met in Massawa in March 2014, you mentioned that you were taking black and white photographs? Could you show us some of the pictures that you took then? And also do you prefer black and white over color?

Emmanuel: I love Massawa and the people who live there, its strange atmosphere of lost city attracted me in 2010.

For the time being, I can’t show you any B&W pictures. I received the contact sheets last week from my laboratory in France (I continue working with them for my B&W pictures) but the prints out have still to be done. However, you can find  my website plenty of B&W pictures from 2010. Going from medium format camera to 24X36mm camera or a Polaroid, I could also use color films depending on the subject but I don’t work with digital cameras. I like B&W because it requires the viewer to use their imagination.   

Issayas:  I like your personal card. Would you tell us about the picture on your card?

Emmanuel : I took this photograph by the old city of Massawa in 2010. In the beginning of a bright afternoon when almost everybody is having a nap outside their house, some children were playing in a sea water swimming pool. They saw me but they continued diving into the water with a lot of fun. I had my Leica M6 with me and I started to shoot them.

On this picture, one of them is diving in front of me while another one is running around the swimming pool in the background just under the diver. It was a pure coincidence as I definitely couldn’t anticipate this moment. It was simply magic when I discovered this image while I was screening my films.

Issayas:  You were featured in a some magazines in France. Would you tell us about them?

Emmanuel: In October 2011, I was living in London. Apparently, a lot of people were talking about the large scale images I pasted on windows of shops in Toulouse just before I left France. Toulouse Mag contacted me for a Portfolio of four pages and we did the interview on Skype…  In July 2011,
“Le Monde Magazine” published four portraits from my series “The national cycling team of Eritrea”. Some of the others publications are more related  to special events like solo exhibitions or photographic competitions.

Issayas: Could you tell us about “Le Monde's Magazine” four portraits from your photo series “The national cycling team of Eritrea”. Where were the pictures taken? Your interest in cycling? Eritrea's cyclists emergence in the world stage, etc?

Emmanuel: It was a beautiful encounter. Early in the morning at the Hotel Luna of Massawa in 2010, cyclists were having breakfast with their colorful clothes. They were accompanied by their coach Solomon Samson, as well as their technical assistant Hadi Barhi. We exchanged glances and I asked them if they would allow me to take their portraits before they start their training (to be able to share the images there and then with these sportsmen, I found it necessary to use my Polaroid camera). These 9 particular cyclists from the national cycling team of Eritrea were following an intensive training program around Massawa. I took their pictures in a relaxed atmosphere in the dining room of the restaurant, and everyone took the photographic session very seriously. Then, they left the hotel. When the time came for me to catch my bus to Asmara,I realized that I didn't ask for their permission to use the images. Back in the hotel, I prepared the documents they needed to sign for me, and we all had lunch together when they came back from their training. I grabbed a cup of tea with Solomon and caught my bus back to Asmara.

I am not specifically a fan of cycling, but again I like photography because it gives me the chance to meet and see lots of people.

The work was exhibited at "look mum no hands" in London (2011).


Issayas: Emmanuel, thank you for this interview and for letting me use the pictures .
Emmanuel: Thanks.