Bodies, Water & the Streets

We talk to Gil Rigoulet who became the first official photographer of Le Monde in the early '80s. Today he mainly works on personal projects.
Words: Ger Ger
Images: Gil Rigoulet

"It's the people that are of interest to me. My photographs show them in a distance between 1.50 and two meters. It's a high-voltage zone. People can spot me or not and everything goes very quickly."

Aside from becoming the first official photographer of Le Monde, Gil Rigoulet worked for numerous national and international media outlets for more than three decades. He spent his childhood and a great part of his life in Normandy, in Évreux, a city surrounded by agriculture. Since 2001, he has been based in Paris and enjoys splitting his time between nature, the city, and the sea.

"In 1975, I started at a weekly newspaper, La Dépêche d'Évreux, and took care of the lab. I began to work on series of images on different themes, including on the famous Rockabilly 82 band, which we just turned into a book 34 years later. I was passionate about photography and making a living shooting pictures brought me a sense of balance. In 1985, I worked with Henri Cartier-Bresson on 'Portrait d'un quotidien', a special supplement edition to Le Monde."

"But the photos I took for the newspapers weren't necessarily attached to topics I was interested in. I started to take time off for myself and travelled to fulfill my own calls for images... England from 1977 to 1984, Czechoslovakia from 1977 to 1980, Poland from 1978 to 1980, Rome in 1979, Naples in 1981.

I always knew that total freedom was the key to achieve an authentic and deep photographic dialogue... and most of the time I traveled alone."

"Currently, I am mainly busy with sorting through my archives which I am beginning to show but the work is gigantic... I just spent a full year scanning the images I took in France!
Aside from that, I work on series that are important to me and I have been pursuing for the past 30 or 40 years such as 'The Body and the Water' or 'Landscapes from a Moving Car'."

"I found my way into photography in the '70s at a time when street photography and photo reportages were the most prominent genres in photography. This had started in the '60s with the desire to show our ways of living, facets of counterculture and the simple fabric of our societies with precursors like Robert Frank, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson.
Over the last few decades and various crises that shook the world, the mindsets have changed, the great currents of ideas are no longer, fear has taken over and many are locked into their own little world. Individuality has taken over, photography has become egocentric, and we are more interested in ourselves than in others. Social networks work at full bore.

Yet there are some young people who do travel again, who share, who live hard, who create... they do not want this world to collapse under its anxieties."

"Now, when we say 'we go to the pool', we no longer mean hanging out, it's to exercise: we swim laps. That's why all the photographs I took in swimming pools have this unique character. That time was unique, and many things today are no longer possible.

Water has always been my element, ever since I was a kid: first the holidays by the seaside, and later on at the swimming pools. I'd stay there for hours without necessarily swimming. At the time, public swimming pools were fun places where we would hang out with friends. We'd meet lots of people."

"It was noisy and lively, and with my diving goggles I'd aim for a quiet spot underwater. I discovered an aesthetic that immediately fascinated me, the bodies let go..."

"They adopted positions of well-being. At the pool, the bodies of men and women exude a certain sensuality, an eroticism, and in the '80s women could swim topless. Society was permissive. I could be in the water with a camera without any problem. This also reveals the state of mind of an era. Nowadays in pools we are confronted with a good number of taboos, bathing caps, the prohibition to run or dive... pictures are no longer allowed.

I lived for more than 30 years with a camera always ready from morning 'till night. Today, I still carry one but I shoot less. There was a period when I would spend a lot of time outside, in the streets. Shooting a lot of pictures of people in the street is a way of sharing, each has something to gain. I like to immerse myself in the bath of humanity. It's energy. But since I started taking care of my archives my daily rhythm changed. I mainly have a relationship with my computer... folders, scans, communication, projects to propose. I dream about taking pictures."

"I no longer read anything [in newspapers]. There was a rupture when I stopped working for the press. I research subjects of interest to me, I buy books. [Have I] ever lost the passion for photography? Yes, only when the press worked my last nerve.
My passions are in nature. I do not live them enough. The first is to swim at sea, to feel alive in this element, to be in a certain peace and to observe the sky, the water, to watch the birds and to see what is happening underwater at the same time, to be in touch and in harmony with nature. I was fortunate to have grown up in the ‘70s. Today's world is an endless drift, which makes you want to go and live in remote places."

"My favorite season? It depends on the photographic themes. I shoot street photography all year long but people are lighter and more carefree during the summer season and it's the time of the year for my water-related series.

In winter I take advantage of the heavy skies and work on my 'Inner Landscapes', 'Solitary Trees', or 'Sacred Landscapes' series. I like the bareness of winter, these mystical clouds that evoke the power of the natural landscape, the greatness of this nature, and link it to the history of painting.

Other work is unseasonal. The disorderly hairstyle of my life partner is a living sketch of what she is waiting for without expressing it. I took hundreds of pictures of her hair from the back and will turn this into an intimate book to address the unspoken."

"In my eyes painting is way more creative, it is much more introspective and open to everyone's interpretation. But photography allowed me to be in touch with the world, mankind, the currents of society, and it is a real need for me even now." — Gil Rigoulet