In collaboration with the author Isabelle Guisan, Pierre-Emmanuel Fehr got involved in capturing a particular atmosphere in Greece. In 2018 and 2019, they were in Athens and witnessed a whole generation’s search for meaning. People circling around each like atoms, coming together and then drifting apart again. Fehr used film and neon light to bring viewers closer to the dreams of Athenian youth that emerge at night in the city. In this interview, he explains why his Atoma project – which has also appeared as a book – is so special to him, about how his cinematic style underscored the melancholic-romantic atmosphere, and about the particular role played by the colour blue.
What is the biggest challenge you face in photography?
I think it’s finding projects that make sense for me depending of my state of mind at a certain time in my life. As a project lasts 2-3 years, that’s not easy to anticipate! Clearly, the most important thing is the path taken more than the result, and what it enables me to experience – that is to say, meeting people. Then I try to fit this project in a book publication, as this is my favourite way of viewing photos – more than exhibitions –, but also because the construction of a sequence is pure excitement.
Do you have any photographic role models? Who has had an influence on developing your own perspective?
Josef Koudelka. For his commitment, his humanism, the immersion in his projects, his humility, his aesthetics. He is always at the service of the narrative. I couldn’t avoid his influence in my book on the migration crisis on the island of Leros.
You focus on social documentary and also narrative photography. Atoma is most definitely narrative photography. To what extent is Atoma different from your previous projects?
Atoma is very different from my previous projects in both content and form. I left aside social and documentary photography as well as black and white, to photograph for the first time in colour, in a sensory and narrative way; with feelings and textures to represent Athenian youth, without projecting itself into the future, but rather in suspension in the night, as in a dream. Atoma is also an intimate project that echoes my own youth.
How did your Atoma project come about? Please tells us about the collaboration with the writer Isabelle Guisan.
I met Isabelle Guisan in 2016, when we were both working independently on books about migration. We had visited the island of Leros two years apart, and had both immersed ourselves in the lives of the refugees and islanders. This was followed by the publication of Leros, île au cœur de la crise migratoire (Leros, island at the heart of the migration crisis), half with my photos, and half with texts by Laure Gabus (Georg Editeur, Geneva, 2016); and for Isabelle Guisan, Hors-sol (Éditions de la Marquise, Lausanne, 2018). Our friendship led us to Atoma, which Isabelle and I put together over three years. We worked in such a way that the texts and photos have a dialogue without actually mixing. Our two parallel immersions into Greek youth are two echoes of our own different youths and our different vision of today’s youth, which also take into consideration our age difference.
Did you have a special visual approach in mind for your Atoma series?
I had in mind to move away from a realistic Athens. I was looking for a simplification of the colours, with a soft and often blurred scenario. For this, I needed night atmospheres and three neon lights, as well as blue filters on my lens in order to balance the artificial light on the film rolls.
What kind of stylistic elements do you like and use frequently; and why?
The edges of the buildings and the moon are omnipresent. They symbolize the frame and what goes beyond it.
Your images have a cinematic feel; did you shoot on film?
Only film. First of all, for aesthetic reasons, as the textures are more blended and smooth with film. That being said, it was an arduous undertaking compared to digital, especially at night with artificial lights. The greatest benefit of using film was to feel closer to the people I was photographing and spending time with. There was no possibility to see the immediate result, so that there were no immediate expectation; and the action of photographing and posing interfered very little with the flow of the night. The cost of working with film is also an incentive to take fewer photos and to shorten the scenes. In one year I used 34 films.
Your shots are very cinematic, atmospherically dense and convey the special lighting mood of nighttime. What role did colours play in Atoma? Please tell us something about the colour scheme. What else did you pay specific attention to?
Atoma is mainly built around blue. Three additional colours are recurrent in the book. I wanted the images to contain as little diversion and visual noise as possible, in order to leave a feeling and a free space without imposing a precise narrative or direction. It was essential for me to use continuous light and not flash, in order to feel the atmosphere in the interaction with the subject, so that the scene may have been lived, not only exposed on the film roll. The cinematic atmosphere you mention is the zone between reality and dream.
How important is post-processing, namely retouching, to you?
Almost inexistent, except during the photolithography with a soft rebalancing of the colours on some pictures, so that the combinations in the book are coherent. The correct intensity of neon lights with faces is very important, and with the use of film there is no margin to adjust an error with post-processing. I experienced that the first time with an almost complete roll…
What current or future projects are you working on? Where are you headed next?
If only I knew! I tell you, it is my biggest challenge…
Born in Switzerland in 1984, Pierre-Emmanuel Fehr is self-taught and works from Geneva. He focuses on social documentary and narrative photography. His work has been displayed both nationally and internationally, in Zurich, London, Geneva, Berlin and Rome. His photos have won him the 2016 Prix de la Photographie Paris (PX3), section professional press (1st prize); the 2016 Prix Nicolas Bouvier, section photographic reportage (1st prize); the 2016 Moscow International Foto Awards, section editorial (2nd prize). He was also selected for the 23 Vfg Nachwuchsförderpreis. His last two projects were carried out in Greece: on the island of Leros and in Athens. Both corresponding books have been published by Georg Editions (Geneva, 2016 and 2020). Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.