parisian photographer Julien Benhamou and his moving mind
parisian photographer Julien Benhamou and his moving mind by Scott Schneider*
I sat down with Julien Benhamou on October 10th, 2016 at a small cafe near the famous Pére Lachaise in Paris. We sat outside of his favorite local cafe and had lunch, joined by one of Julien's models and friend Willy Laury. I asked him questions about his life, his love for photography, his interest in dance, and his thoughts about the relationship between the two.
Scott: How did you start with Photography?
Julien: I started taking pictures when I was 13 years old. A family member gave me a manual camera. I was very interested in the material and the technique. Then I started to photograph my friends and family. I shot in black and white photography, and shot and developed in my bedroom and bathroom. When the images appear under the red light it’s magical. I love it. I also noticed that when I started taking pictures I could hang out with the cool guys. I became popular. And actually that stays now. It’s a way to interact and socialize. I am very shy, and it’s a good way to meet people.
S: What sparked your interest in dance?
J: I started assisting some photographers, and I thought portrait was my thing. But I felt like my photos were too common and I didn’t have any signature. When I was 27 a friend took me to my first ballet at Opera de Paris, Carmen by Roland Petit. I said to myself, ‘wow those people on stage are amazing and I want to take photos of them’. The next day I wrote a project proposal and sent it to Brigitte Lefévre (former Director of Paris Opera, preceding Benjamin Millepied). I had no connections with the company, but I booked an appointment, and she said yes to the project. The photos were selected for the magazine of Paris Opera, and someone from the Ministry of Culture saw them and contacted me about presenting my work. It was a big deal for such a new photographer. Many people came to the exhibit, including the people of Paris Opera, who invited me back to photograph performances. At this point I decided to really involve myself in the technique and history of photographing dance. I tried to understand the movement. But still, I felt my photographs were not unusual. I started socializing with some of the dancers, asked them to shoot with me individually which began the evolution of my own personal style and work.
S: You have such an eye for movement, and you somehow know how to capture the right moments. Would you consider yourself a dancer?
J: Why would I? I am very interested in seeing, and not experiencing the movement myself. I feel very privileged to work with such artists. And that people trust me and follow my instructions. I am the lucky one. When I do photoshoots it's always a collaboration. I never feel like I am alone creating. I always involve the dancer because I think the dancers are artists and have something to say. They are involved in the results. They are not like other models who are interested in just looking beautiful. They are creating with me the photos. They don’t care if you can’t see their face. The purpose is to have a beautiful photo. It’s very comfortable because you don’t feel by yourself, and you don’t have to please some ego or something. I still feel like an outsider. At the beginning of every photoshoot with a dancer I still feel like an imposter.
S: Were there any specific photographers or artists you were inspired by in the beginning?
J: You will laugh (directed towards Willy). My first inspiration was Madonna and the Justify My Love music video. It was black and white, with the dancers, the fashion and the sophistication. In the beginning of my work I was following the work of Madonna. But it didn’t last very long. Then I started to study the work of Richard Avedon, who has done some photos of dancers that are amazing. I never had a dance photographer who I was specifically interested in.
S: Do you have a preference between shooting studio and live stage?
J: Yes, studio definitely. When I photograph a ballet I don’t feel like I am creating something. I am showing something, capturing the right movements, nothing artistic to say. When I am in the studio it's a creative process because it starts from nothing. Often there is a white background which is like an empty page. When I organize my own photoshoot I am involved in every aspect of the shoot.
S: Do you have any favorite performances from Paris Opera?
J: Pina Bausch’s Sacre du Printemps, and most recently Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon. It’s interesting I said these two pieces because I am impressed by the group effect. But when I do photoshoots I don’t work with many dancers. These two ballets are also very emotional.
S: Over the past couple years, have you noticed a difference in the dancers of Paris Opera and how they work creatively with you?
J: With my models I try to achieve a relationship thats very close so we can work for many photoshoots, so we know each other and always go further and further. In the beginning I could never do nude shoots but I have built relationships on trust. It doesn’t feel like work, it’s fun. It feels more easy. There is less pressure about the results. I always prefer to work with the same people. I’m rarely sensitive to physical appearance. When I want to work with a model it’s because they touch me somehow and I want to spend time with them. It’s not so often about the results, but it’s about the moments.
S: What about the nude series, and our photo shoot?
J: It started 3 years ago. I never did nude before. I was shooting a model in underwear and we both realized it would be better in nude. For the light, the muscles, the lines. I never go to a photoshoot with the idea that it will be nude, but if it means the product will be better then we go there. In the beginning I prepared a lot. Makeup, hair, stylist, lighting, those things were very important to me. The more I work the more I relieve those things. It’s more radical when it’s simple. It reminds me of Annie Leibovitz. The photos of hers that inspire me the most are her simple portraits. I was really afraid to do nude because what I saw most of the time was for the reason of being nude. When I do nude it’s for the reason that the image is better when the body is nude. Some photos are better with clothes than in the nude. Like in our shoot we started shooting many shots with clothes and gradually became nude.
S: Do you have a preference with the amount of bodies you shoot?
J: One body is easier, so hopefully one day I will do more.
S: During our session you wanted to two bodies to morph into one, can you elaborate on that?
J: I am very inspired by sculpture. Rodin is a big artist for me. It’s never for the sake of nude. It’s always graphic somehow, and I think it goes further that way. I don’t want to work with eroticism. I want to work with graphic, form, sculpture, and for me it’s a way to avoid sensuality. There is sensuality in my work and that's important for me, but it’s not the main point. I think it’s very easy, when you have a nude body, to give an erotic sensation. I don’t think it’s something you have to focus on. I like to work with creative people. It’s not always about their beauty, it has a lot to do with their aura and charisma. I think it’s about the mind and intelligence of the model, and the direction we both want to go. All dancers are beautiful, so beauty is not my only interest. I have worked with people that have an ego, and it’s not so nice. On the other hand I always want the picture to be liked by the model.
S: Would you venture outside of working with dancers?
J: I would like to do that and I’m saying that to myself from time to time, but I always come back to dancers. I’ve worked with contortionists in the past, and that is nice as well. I don’t know, with dancers, it’s really nice to work.
S: What’s next for you?
J: Now that I am involved in dance and know a little bit how it works and how artists work, I can go further. I have a new series Blessed Unrest with Aurélien Dougé. I am using dance and the body as material. It’s something else. It’s not dance photos. It’s a long term collaboration. Aurélien is choreographing an installation with one performer on the stage with one light and very minimal movement. The photos I shoot are very different than my usual work because of the stillness. From dance photography, full of movement, I moved into this “plasticien” (visual art) type of photo.
Another project, I am working with Francois Alu (rising star at Paris Opera). He has this classical formation, ballet dancer, but he’s also very interested in break dancing, rap music. We tried to create photos that are in between. Naturally classical, naturally hip-hop. I think it’s different than dance photography that we are used to seeing. Trying to mix genders, styles, and genres. The goal is not to do dance photos, but the model is a dancer and we are playing with gravity. I have never liked the classical pose.
I want to go on working with my models and find other creative people. Every kind of artist that works with their bodies. I want to do what I like. I don’t have bigger ambitions, I like it this way. I would like more locations to show my work, but that’s easier now. I never think about what I will do with my pictures, it always comes from a wish to work with people. I always say to myself, those photos will exist and there will be other things coming. There isn’t a grand career plan. Like when Willy came to me and we had coffee and expressed his interest to create. For me, those moments are great. We both want to create.
S: I wish there were more artists like you.
J: I don’t consider myself an artist. I really consider myself a photographer who does portraits. I work with the artists.
*Creative Content Scott Schneider. October 2016. Paris, France.