Eric Valli of Swarovski's 'Living Yangtze' exhibition tells us why photography isn’t just about “click-clack”
The man behind the lens
Eric Valli sure is a growler.
The 62-year-old is a lot of things: Photographer, filmmaker, Sagittarius and the subject of my interview. But in the span of our 45-minute chat, the Frenchman growled three times. I'm talking the works here — eyes widening behind his glasses, mouth twisting and expanding to release a deep-throated roar. It's just the tip of the iceberg that is his unbridled passion for story telling.
I met Valli in town for the opening of Swarovski Waterschool's 'Living Yangtze', an exhibition of photographs and short films commissioned to him by the brand. Swarovski Waterschools are present along the four great rivers of the world — Amazon, Nile, Ganges and Yangtze — educating children on the issues that affect water use. We were in the lobby of Pan Pacific hotel, a far cry from where the photographer was at just two days before: On the foot of Manaslu in the Himalayas of Nepal, filming villagers who were reconstructing their trail after the earthquake.
The China Valli had known before was that of towns — Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai — but on the outskirts of the Yangtze, it's another way of living altogether. For six months, the thrillseeker travelled along and around the 6,300km-long river with a cameraman, a translator and an occassional driver. From shadowing a nomad, potter and painter to roaming with yaks and firing a 70 metre-long kiln (which he eventually slept on with sleeping bags), Valli also found himself drinking litres of tea — although that wasn't what he initially intended.
"I didn't bloody want to make a story on tea," he exclaimed. "Everybody wants to make a story on tea. I told Nadya (Swarovski), 'Sorry, no tea'." But when Valli discovered a tea house teeming with communal living, he likened it to a familiar setting — that of a little bistro in France, where people smoke pipe and play chess and cards with each other.
Swarovski isn't the first trend-setting brand he's worked for. In his decades-long career, he's also shot campaigns for the likes of Louis Vuitton. Inspired by the legacies left behind by explorers such as Richard Burton, Aurel Stein and Alexandra David-Neel, Valli used Vuitton's old trunks from their archives and went to the south of New Zealand to recreate the way he would have loved to travel in the early 1900s.
"I have a feeling I was born 100 years too late," he said as a matter-of-factly. "Back then the world was still so unknown and where there was still a great adventure to be led. I would have loved to be dead by now."
Your reputaton precedes you: You've shot for National Geographic and your film, Himalaya was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1990. We have to know: What makes a good photo?
Magically, it should touch you. I don't know how. I know that many people talk about my work, saying how touching it is, and so it makes me feel good.... but how do you touch people? I was giving an interview and the guy was asking, "how do you do this? How do you do that?". One point I said, "stop thinking!"
Be instinctive! It's just like when you're with this girl and it's going to be the first kiss. At one point, you forget everything and grab her in your hand and give her a great kiss. You just forget about all this intellectual bullshit and you jump in. You stop thinking. Oh, that's the first time I talk about it this way.
When I am into something, I live totally instinctively. It's this magic that develops between you and the subject. It's very much a love story in many ways.
When was the last time you fell in love with a stranger you photographed?
Each of my stories is a love story. 'Living Yangtze' is no exception.
What makes a bad photo?
Things which leave you cold, you know? Which is just informative. A really good photo... I've taken very few in my life...
Very few, yeah.
But your work sells.
But your work sells, you know what I mean?
I never see it that way. I make a good living out of it, but I never do anything...what you say is very... I could take it badly. I would prefer you to say, "your work touches". Yeah sure, it sells.
What I mean is that people appreciate your work. You don't think you've taken good photos?
Frankly, I'm not a good photographer. I never cross the world to do "click clack". "Click clack" is slightly boring, if you want to know. I'll never be Henri Cartier-Bresson or one of these great photographers, because I'm less interested in photography than in life. Sure I take decent pictures, but I'm not interested in taking pictures, I'm more interested in telling stories: The life of a man and of a community. Of course I've worked with the biggest magazines in the world, but what is my main motivation? It's grabbing life and sharing things with people.
You're very candid, I like that.
I tell you, my dear, there is no other way to go in life. If you're not sincere, where do you go? How can you share something with people? And that's the main thing in my work and in my life. I'm not interested in having a fake life.
That brings me to my next question. On social media, this is so rampant: People take photos for the world to see. It's not necessarily an honest look into their life — more of a projection, don't you think?
My daughter put me on Facebook. I don't even know what Facebook looks like.
What about Instagram?
I've heard about it, yeah. I have no time for this stuff.
With social media, photography becomes so instant — there's less conceptual planning, less backend work. Do you consider people who take photos on social media photographers?
I don't have any idea. That's a world I don't want to talk about, because I don't know about it. It's kind of funny that all these people are connected through the web without knowing each other. There's nothing better than really knowing one another. What life is about is experience — I'm more interested in grabbing, smelling, touching and biting.
Do you take selfies?
What photos do you take on your phone then?
Ideas, architecture, and things I like or I can reflect upon... some articles which I send to my daughter.
Lets go back to the beginning for a bit. When did you first pick up a camera?
I was 13 years of age and it was on my birthday. I didn't know anything about being photographer and never thought about taking pictures. My parents had a simple life and weren't very well off at the beginning. They gave me a Kodak Instamatic — something which cost 10 dollars or something like that. I was so touched that I cried. I don't believe in destiny, I think somehow you make your own destiny. But why did I cry so much when my parents offered me this present? That was one of the first signs for me to make my life around photography and telling stories.
Your life is obviously very exciting. What would you say is the most boring thing about you?
I am kind of boring at times. I'm so focused on my challenges that my wife tells me that I'm so selfish and self-consumed, because I set myself goals which are slightly crazy. I'm also a bit gloomy at times. It's like I'm eaten up by something that keeps pushing me somewhere further into the challenge, putting me in weird places.
'Living Yangtze' by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool is showing at ArtScience Museum till 27 October.