Nowhere Safe is Samuel Bollendorff's latest web-documentary, produced with Mehdi Ahoudig for Foundation Abbé Pierre. It tells, in 16 portraits, the stories of 3.6m men and women in France who are living in precarious conditions due to poor housing [watch the web-documentary here].
Nowhere Safe comes 14 years after Bollendorff first started working with video. He speaks to BJP about his experience...
“Each time I’ve directed a documentary, it was because I felt photography alone couldn’t convey the stories I wanted to tell,” says Samuel Bollendorff. “I don’t necessarily believe that one medium is more powerful than the other, but I do believe that an image needs context.”
The Frenchman has made his name producing web documentaries that often mash up still images with audio, video and text, and in 2008 one of his multimedia pieces was the first to feature on Le Monde’s website. It had a profound effect on his peers but, he says, it wasn’t new for him. “I’ve always tried to integrate text into my images. My parents are psychoanalysts so the act of speaking is important. My job is to transmit words and ideas.”
When the now defunct Paris-based photography agency Oeil Public launched its website a decade ago, Bollendorff, a co-founder, made sure that the photographers’ images couldn’t be seen with their captions. “That was very important to me,” he says. “I didn’t want our images to be disassociated from their context. So you didn’t have to click to reveal the captions, they were part of the website’s design.” But once he’d sold his images, Bollendorff couldn’t do much to prevent his captions from being dismissed. “I realised that my images became illustrations. They didn’t really serve the purpose I had given them in the first place.” That’s when he started producing projects that would integrate the written story within the images.
“When I worked on my project on AIDS, I decided to do portraits of people that would carry a large black banner with some text – the words of these people.” The series, which was shot in Malawi, Uganda, Brazil and Russia, contained 32 images – each one of them representing one part of Bollendorff’s overall narrative. “That forced me to think more about the story I was trying to tell, but it also forced newspapers and magazines to publish the images with the text. And since these were portraits, my images couldn’t just be illustrations. They were the actual story. It allowed me to regain space within newspapers and magazines – and be published across six, eight or 10 pages.”
Nowhere Safe tells, in 16 portraits, the stories of 3.6m men and women in France who are living in precarious conditions due to poor housing. Images © Samuel Bollendorff.
Bollendorff’s first documentary – a 52-minute report on the geriatric section of a hospital – was produced in 1998 after the photographer spent three months shooting just still images. “I was happy with the results, but one day, one of the residents died – that’s when I realised that a lot of what I had shared with that person wasn’t in my images. I decided I’d come back to the hospital, with a video camera. I realised that what was missing was speech.”
Now Bollendorff is trying to bring all of his experience with photography, videography and audio to tell stories on the internet through web documentaries. Journey to the End of Coal produced with Honkytonk Films is his most popular work – with more than 300,000 viewers. The interactive documentary follows Chinese coal miners who are risking their lives to satisfy their country’s economic aspirations.
“Right from the start, we knew we needed to write a script,” he says. “That script is the reconstruction of your investigation in a particular subject matter. You need to know who you are going to talk to and what you will include. You also need to think about how you will integrate your captions into your images and online.” But that’s not enough, says Bollendorff. “You also need some sort of guidance for your viewers. You can’t produce something that will be complicated to navigate. That’s when I came up with the idea of using – in design terms – a video-game interface with a series of familiar buttons at the bottom of the computer screen. It means that when you see it for the first time, you know how it works. You recognise the interface.”
This is essential, he asserts. “You can’t use the techniques and codes of another medium, such as television, when you’re working on the web. When I see slideshows in which photographers provide a voiceover, I find it horrendous. It doesn’t work. You can’t do that on the web – it reminds you too much of television when web users are actually trying to escape that medium.”
With each web documentary, Bollendorff tries to do something different. For Rapporteur de Crise, which looks at the European Parliament, the photographer chose a more linear narrative. “It’s 26 minutes of video that offers opportunities to click to find out about a subject.” Bollendorff chose to do away with photography for that work. “It’s about the European Parliament, which is already a pretty boring subject, so we thought that if we had done it with photos, people would be bored out of their minds.”
But Bollendorff isn’t leaving photography entirely behind – quite the contrary, as he believes that his best web documentary is Nowhere Safe, a 40-minute video made only of still images. “The documentary is made up of 16 portraits of up to four minutes,” he says. “On the web, the narrative is simpler than other works as there’s a sort of global linearity to the work. We’ve even added a button – ‘I don’t want to click’ – for people who just wanted to look at the entire documentary in one go.
“There’s a real dialogue between photography and audio, which has allowed us to push the boundaries in terms of narrative; because I was able to go back to film photography, and also because it allowed me to work with very few images in some cases. For example, there’s one portrait of a man that lasts four minutes.” It’s probably the longest online portrait, he says, laughing. “It’s a very long zoom into this guy’s face. But it works, because the audio draws people in. It makes people pay attention. It allows you to bring in elements to contextualise the photo, while the audio tells you this guy’s story. It allows you to focus on this guy’s voice, the fragility of his tone, and so on. But also the fact it is not a video allows you to convey the emotional state of this man without showing him in a vulnerable state. A video of that same monologue would have been too cruel and voyeuristic.”
All images © Samuel Bollendorff.
For Bollendorff, too many photographers are scared of letting an image stand still on a computer screen. “They feel they need to give it movement, even if that means they will end up with something that reminds you more of a screensaver than anything else. Or they will put 40 images when actually only 20 of those are good. It’s a catastrophe. We shouldn’t be afraid of taking our time with our images.”
Bollendorff continues to work with video, but he’s looking for new ways of telling stories. “I’m starting to ask myself if I shouldn’t be recording my material during my initial investigation, and then reconstruct it afterwards,” he says. “That would be a sort of creative documentary. It would take us away from direct testimonies and the so-called objectivity that doesn’t really exist anyway. Why not assume that fact right from the start? It’s another way to tell a story – it’s not pure fiction and not pure documentary.”
For now, he’s still undecided, but excited by the prospect. “I need to try things out.”
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