Photography has taken Magnum Photos member Jean Gaumy to some of the world's least welcoming places. As a pioneer of the long-term project, he's ventured behind prison bars, inside Arctic icebergs, and deep under the ocean in a nuclear submarine.
Whether battling the elements with trawlermen at sea for his book Pleine Mer (or Men at Sea), photographing the crew of French nuclear submarine Le Terrible, or exploring the aftermath of nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, Jean is drawn to intense situations. "I'm interested in places that haven't been seen much before. In such spaces, you find the essential elements of life," he says. "And it was my childhood dream to visit places like this – submarines, the Arctic..."
Often his series will follow a group of people working together in dangerous circumstances – fishermen on windswept trawlers, scientists on remote Polar expeditions, or French doctors and firefighters rehearsing their response to potential terrorist attacks. His relationship with them is one of mutual respect. "Like many photographers, I am quick to build empathy with people but I maintain a necessary distance," he says. "The people I photograph sense that I'm working alongside them and that I'm genuinely interested in what they do."
Is he ever afraid? "Not afraid in the sense of panic, but I've experienced great apprehension, yes," admits the Magnum photographer. Watching the radiation numbers on a Geiger counter shooting up amid the silence and calm of a forest in Chernobyl was, he says, particularly unsettling. "The danger is invisible, incomprehensible and imperceptible. The grass, the air, nature has become totally hostile."
Since 2008, Jean has regularly accompanied a group of scientists studying the impact of climate change in the Arctic. He documents their work, diving into ice in temperatures of -30ºC to retrieve samples for research, but he also captures the dramatic and quickly disappearing Arctic landscapes. It's a process he describes as "beautiful but very frustrating."
"In the Arctic, everything takes longer and is more effort than in normal life. Even walking a short distance, getting your hands out of your pockets, undertaking some small technical action, will take 12 times as long there," Jean explains. "There's a physical tiredness in every movement. After 8-10 hours working in the glacial cold, you're suffering and it takes real tenacity to do anything. Sometimes you simply can't go 100 metres further because it's dangerous or because you're exhausted. That's why I use zooms there or when I'm working on boats. I love working with prime lenses but, in those difficult moments, it's just not possible. They're too cumbersome."
How are zoom lenses less cumbersome in those situations? "I need my equipment to have a certain versatility," Jean explains, "as well as producing technical results at an extremely high level. It all depends on the kind of work I'm doing. For example, I'm very into fishing, and I would use certain rods or certain methods for different types of fish, different places, different waters – rivers, torrents, ponds, at sea. It's exactly the same with photography.
"My everyday kit is very light and streamlined but when I have a heavy technical schedule, I need the reassurance that these Canon zooms and cameras provide, even if they are heavy and big. This kit gives me a genuine guarantee that I can do everything I need to do for my job."
On Arctic trips, his kitbag contains a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5DS, along with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens. "The 24-70mm is precise but it doesn’t have an Image Stabilizer, so I tend to use it in calmer situations, such as when I'm shooting landscapes. I use it with the EOS 5DS body so I have the highest resolution possible. In terms of focus, both zooms respond to fast action.
"My Canon gear is efficient, fast, reliable. In extreme places like the Arctic, that's important. I need equipment that doesn't give me any trouble, so that I can be as spontaneous as possible."
Born in 1948, Jean always wanted to be a journalist. His first job was working for a local newspaper, Paris Normandie, while studying literature in Rouen. But he found it was through the medium of photography that he flourished. "I was shy, quite a solitary person," he admits. Photography was an excuse "to go to see things, to meet people, to prove myself." He enjoyed expressing himself through photography and he was good at it, too.
In his mid 20s he undertook two major series that would be the making of him, L'Hopital and Les Incarcérés. "In those days most photographers were employed by newspapers and here I was as a young, independent photographer," Jean recalls. At the time it was unusual for a photographer to shoot projects over several months, chronicling daily life in big public institutions, but Jean went ahead on his own initiative – and with more than a little boldness.
"I got into the prison [to shoot Les Incarcérés] through the Minister of Justice at the time. He'd been the mayor of the town where I lived. While I was working on Paris Normandie, he gave a press conference about his plans. On the spot I asked him if it would be OK for me to come and photograph inside prisons. He said yes. So I showed up at his office a few days later with a lawyer to make it official."
Spotting Jean's work on show at the Rencontres d'Arles festival in 1976, Magnum members Marc Riboud and Bruno Barbey wasted no time in inviting him to join the collective. In the four decades since then, Jean has built a stellar career by specialising in going where others might not. Along the way, he has twice won the Prix Nadar, awarded for the best photography book of the year in France; been named Peintre de la Marine, a title bestowed by the French Minister of Defence to artists who have devoted their talents to maritime subjects; and in 2018 was admitted to the prestigious French Académie des Beaux-Arts.
With their rich tones and undulating compositions, Jean's Arctic landscapes, almost abstract in appearance, are breathtakingly beautiful. They tread a delicate line between documentary and aesthetics that runs more subtly throughout his work.
Does he ever feel a conflict in creating something beautiful from often tough realities? "It's a bit like being a tightrope walker," he says. "Between what you call reality and beauty there appears to be ambiguity, but why can't tough reality also be beautiful?" Above all, he stresses, his pictures are made to be legible.
After four decades of travelling, Jean isn't one for staying still. As we speak, he's juggling various projects – including an ongoing study of the world's oldest lighthouse in Cordouan, France, a series on the painter Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France, and a study in Niger inspired by the filmmaker and ethnologist Jean Rouch – but in recent years he has combined this documentary approach with a more "contemplative" outlook.
"Photography, like all crafts, is an ongoing education. I'm still learning about myself and about the world," he says. "When I'm photographing people working, for example, I have to watch and record their actions – you're looking for the decisive moments. Whereas with landscapes, mountains don't move and the light changes slowly. I work with these two registers or attitudes – fast and slow – but I can be fast when I'm shooting a landscape or slow when I'm photographing people. Either way, I'm someone who doesn't rush, who really looks at things."
Jean's advice for photographers starting out today is to be tenacious, as he himself was aged 25 when he approached that prisons minister. "Keep a balance. Be yourself, don't lie," he says. "Initially, it's important to align yourself with photographers – or painters, filmmakers, other visual people – whom you admire and who can influence you to develop a visual culture." But that said, "it's also important to be true to your roots and to your own motivations. Don't neglect your identity." It's advice that Jean himself tries to follow, even after 40 years. "I try to be myself, to be sincere, to always start like a beginner," he says. "You have to maintain that child's curiosity."