Extract from an interview with Gaelle de La Brosse for the magazine Chemins d’etoiles No 7, May 2000, in collaboration with Danielle Föllmi.
Chemins d’étoiles – You discovered Asia at 17 during your first expedition to Afghanistan which triggered off your two passions of photography and the Himalayas. Is it your love for mountains and the desire to share them that attracts you to this type of expression?
Olivier Föllmi – Yes, certainly. In the beginning the passion for summits was a personal passion. I was thirsty to conquer. I wanted to become a high-mountain guide and Asia opened up the new dimension of the human scale to me. I was chasing after the challenge in Europe because mountains are, above all, a playground. In the Himalayas, I was evolving in a life-ground. And it was this life in the mountains that appealed to me.
Photography has become the way to better determine my emotions and especially to share them. When I return, photography allows me to express myself. I’ve always steered clear of language, as words are limited to a vocabulary. Photography, like all the arts, goes beyond that.
Chemins d’étoiles – Does photography change your relationship with time and space?
Olivier Föllmi – I feel that in photography time only means something if we want to show a precise moment. I’m not a report, news or documentary photographer. I don’t travel with the eye of an ethnologist either. I don’t want to show how people live. I try to reflect the intensity of a moment shared. And that intensity starts when the notion of time disappears. The more intense the moment the more time seems less important. My photos are therefore timeless. When you’re up on a mountain, at one with nature, the perception of space is modified by the immensity of nature and the feeling of how fragile man is. I like this relationship. And what I find so touching in the Himalayas is this acceptance that there is something bigger, something that can’t be completely dominated.
I wanted to show this dimension through photography, through shadows and light. The contrasts allowed me to symbolically express this idea of smallness, remoteness and fragility. I have learnt to love this light and compose with it. Now I always target a trilogy. To photograph a view, I position myself on the mountainside, depending on the desired angle. But that’s not enough. All the time there is no light, the landscape will stay beautiful, but it won’t be extraordinary.
Suddenly, a ray of light appears, and the moment becomes divine because of this meeting. The meeting of a landscape, previously inert, of a light, which in itself did not exist before to light up the picture, and of a glance that came about at the right moment. It’s a question of a fraction of a second. The waiting phase is similar to meditation. You are completely immersed in the spectacle offering itself to you, to the point of being this beauty, to becoming the instant where it is set up. The moment the shutter clicks is the climax of this instant. And when it is fixed, there is nothing left. The light disappears; the moment of elation is past.
It’s a little like love: emotion mounts, explodes, then falls.
You take up your pack and descend, with a clear heart and a great feeling of inner peace. I love those moments. That’s why I’m a photographer.
Chemins d’étoiles – But mountains are not only a natural setting for you. You said once on returning from an expedition that you had understood just how much you loved “the mountain of men”. And it’s this harmony of man with nature that you transmit so well in your photographic work. You are just as adept in showing off the infinity of plains and the majesty of summits as showing the intimacy of a family squeezed into a tent huddled around a candle. In this sense doesn’t your work wander away from documentary and set out to draw a “human geography”?
Olivier Föllmi – A Tibetan maxim says: “What would light be without the people who perceive it?” It’s true to say that from being the man who wanted to conquer, I have become a man of the encounter. I love to be in close contact with the people from the Himalayas, even if it is on simple terms.
We talk about the health of the horses, the grass that is growing well this year, the snow that fell last winter, the height of the torrents. But there is great depth behind this simplicity to express oneself, in the music of the words, and the intensity seen in the eyes of the person speaking. That is what I try to bring out in my pictures. It’s exactly like the landscape’s sudden illumination. A complicity sets in, a comprehension that goes far beyond simple verbal communication. And photography is once more a catalyst. It makes it possible to capture the spark of the person. I’ve had tears in my eyes when taking photos. Simply because of the intensity passing between the person and myself as I look at them through the camera’s lens.
Chemins d’étoiles – You cite another maxim in your book L’Horizon des dieux: “You have two eyes to see others, but you need a mirror to recognise yourself” Is photography this mirror for you?
Olivier Föllmi – Everyone needs another person in order to know himself. We try to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Everything in this sense is mirror.
But photography goes further than just looking. It’s a way of getting near the other person and perceiving what is hidden within. For example, one day, I met a woman who was spinning wool in a sad and abandoned corner. I was touched by her. The more I took the time to photograph her, the more she existed, to the point, where in the end, she looked radiant.
Photography is not a mirror. It is a catalyst of beauty. A means of making someone else smile rather than looking at yourself. At that precise moment, you are no longer yourself and they are no longer themselves. You are transcended by the moment when the spirit is in communication with the soul of the world. And when the person opposite you invests himself in the photo, when you are taken by the magic of this portrait, the instant of communion is so far away from time that it becomes divine.
Photography is a catalyst of energy, a prism, a diamond. The mirror is but one reflection, whereas photography propels us further ahead. It invites us to feel beautiful in the hearts of others. It’s proper to the art: to achieve a state of grace, to express what is not perceptible to the spirit in daily life. This is the meaning of the Zanskar greeting, when we join hands and bow. This gesture made when someone approaches, means: “I revere the god that is in you”.
Olivier Follmi works can be viewed at http://www.follmi.com