Photographs of Laos
Interview with Philippe Coste
published online August 2006. Interview conducted by Tomasz Neugebauer. Philippe Coste has a gallery at www.philippecoste.com
What were the circumstances that brought you to photography?
As my interest in photography started in my childhood, it is difficult to remember. But I believe I got the disease from a close friend of my parents, with whom we used to spend all our summer holidays. I started taking pictures of family meetings, holidays, trips, friends and girl friends…and suddenly, when I started to use black and white, my interest shifted from my immediate environment to the outside world.
Could you comment on what you mean by the shift of interest from your immediate environment and the outside world? Did your introduction to black and white cause a conscious shifting of your boundary of interest in your perception to the outside world due to the documentary qualities of the medium?
This is quite mysterious for me as well! I don't really understand why, but since I have started using black and white films, it is very exceptional for me to take pictures of people I know like my friends, my family. Sometimes I have to force myself to do so… There is also the fact that I think of my pictures as ment to be exhibited. And, so far, I haven't felt the necessity to show private life!
Are you also interested in printing and darkroom techniques?
I don't like darkroom work. Probably, because I'm not good at that. I'm not patient enough. So because I don't have any pleasure doing printing, I've stopped doing so a long time ago. But I like very much the relationship I have with the different people who do the job for me.
How did you end up taking photographs in Laos?
The first time I came to Laos was in 1999 for holidays. I went to visit a friend in Luang Prabang. He was working as a doctor in the local hospital. I decided to avoid, as much as possible, tourist activities. That's why, I spent 2 months helping him in his daily work at the hospital (my background is nursing). During this time, I really got to love Luang Prabang and the Lao culture. A few months later, I decided to leave France to go to establish myself in Laos. I had been taking pictures for a long time and when I arrived in Laos, I just continued to do so.
How does your work differ from the kind of photography that we see in National Geographic?
I'm not a photographer. I mean, I'm not the guy you call to offer a photographic assignment. I've never tried to work like this. From time to time, I get fascinated by something and I try to develop a photographic project on that subject. It has been the case with the boat transportation on the Maroni River in French Guyana, the rice cultivation or what I'm working on at the moment: the elephant at work.
How has your approach towards photography changed over the years?
I'm more and more interested in producing a collection of pictures on a specific subject. I am not seeking to shoot beautiful or very aesthetic single pictures like I was in the past. Probably because I have become more interested in "telling" stories through a series of photographs taken over a period of time.
Do you use exclusively film photography or have you experimented with digital?
No, I use digital as well, of course. I think the technology is great, especially for colour pictures. But at the time being, I still have more pleasure using a film camera than a digital camera. This comes from the camera itself, but I'm sure we will soon be able to find pleasant digital cameras. However, as long as the photographic industry will produce film, I'll continue using both.
You seem to have an interest in documentary realism and the depiction of farm and field work. Do you see harmony in the interaction between human beings and nature?
Absolutely! I seem to have developed, over the years, an interest in certain types of human activities in nature that appear to have reached a kind of balance with it. I believe it is important to document activities that do not endanger the environment.
Could you describe some differences that you have encountered between the cultures of France and Laos?
Apart from the fact that you can find French "baguette" all over the country, I'd say that everything is completely different. The culture in Laos can be quite confusing. But as long as you accept not to try to compare it with your own cultural background, it can offer you many good opportunities to learn about life!
Yes, cultural comparisons can lead to confusion and it can be difficult to transcend our cultural expectations and learn. Could you describe one such lesson that Lao culture has taught you about life? Some of your images reveal Buddhist monks and artifacts, have you ever thought of photography as a meditation?
For sure, living in Laos helped me to realize how pretentious and arrogant I could be. Now, I'm very careful with that, and try to be more respectful of other people. I've never been fascinated by Buddhism as mystical experience. What I can see of it in Laos has a dimension more social than spiritual. To be honest, I don't know what meditation is!