Top L-R: Miyashita San, Sanae San and Sudo San
Bottom L-R: Kishita San, Takuya San and Yuki San
from the series Hakanai Sonzai by Pierre-Elie de Pibrac © Pierre-Elie de Pibrac
Pierre-Elie de Pibrac graduated from business school in 2009 only to turn his back on a potentially lucrative future in finance when his first photographic portraits, taken on a trip to Myanmar, received immediate recognition. Paris-born Pibrac has since become a widely celebrated visual artist, exhibiting extensively and publishing several monographs. ‘Everything started in Myanmar,’ he recalls. ‘Taking pictures allowed me to meet people, to live with them, and to build something.’
Pibrac moves easily between styles. His 2014 study of ballet dancers at the Opéra de Paris incorporates black-and-white reportage, film, wide-angle colour works, and abstractions. ‘Using different approaches lets me go deeply into the subject,’ he says. ‘Also, I don’t want to be a photographer who always does the same kind of work. I want to learn something new every time.’
In 2016 he documented sugar cane cutters in Cuba for the first part of a trilogy about resilience, a theme that continues in his large-format portraits taken in Japan, where Pibrac spent eight months accompanied by his wife and children. Travelling across the country, he focused his lens on people who exhibited fortitude in the face of adversity. In Fukushima, he photographed residents still exiled from their contaminated homes following the nuclear disaster the city witnessed a decade ago. Other portraits were taken in the former mining town Yubari, once known as the country’s capital of coal, now devastated by colliery closures and depopulation.
The series title, Hakanai Sonzai, translates as ‘I, myself, feel like an ephemeral creature’. It reflects Pibrac’s belief that his sitters’ forbearance is rooted in a national culture of fatality and awareness of impermanence.
‘Each portrait emanates from long discussions I had with my subjects about a painful event in their lives,’ he says. ‘In all the pictures I forbid any movement, as if they are trapped by their surroundings with no visible escape.’
As in all his projects, Pibrac took no photographs for the first two months of his time in Japan in order to immerse himself in the country’s history and traditions. He attributes this patient, embedded approach to his grandfather, the post-war photographer Paul de Cordon, known for his decades-long studies of circus performers and cabaret artistes.
‘My grandfather took me to circuses and to the Crazy Horse through-out my childhood and his influence is very strong,’ Pibrac says. ‘I think that’s why I spend so much time on each project. I don’t want to impose my way of photographing on the subject, but allow them to use me to express themselves. Living with people, learning their culture, and understanding their environment is the best way to do this.’
INTERVIEW BY RICHARD MCCLURE