There are people I follow on social media, whose lives never seem to stand still – at least judging by their photo output. Same goes for French photographer Sylvain Bouzat. Albania, Oman, India, Morocco, Nepal, Bhutan, to name a few. He’s been there, loaded with his Contax 645 and came back with stunning results. Yet a stolen camera years back almost meant a career in graphic design and countless of these photographs would’ve never seen the light of day. Thankfully Sylvain found his way back to film photography eventually. We talked about his travels, beginnings, remote places and what he looks for in an image. Here we go!
Hey Sylvain, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi, I’m Sylvain, a french photographer. I live in Lyon near the French Alps and I try to improve my photo skills everyday. I work as a wedding photographer, work on corporate projects and have covered skateboarding, punk rock shows and travel film photography (street photography and portraits) for my personal work.
How did you get into film photography? Is it the physicality, the haptic aspect of the process?
I started to photograph a lot during my teenage years. My main topics were my friends, our skateboarding days. Nothing special, but I naturally learned to compose and use black and white film with a Canon AE1. Someone stole this camera, so I was left without any camera for many years and I focused on graphic design instead. Then I bought a small digital camera in 2008 and my passion has reignited.
Three years ago, I wanted to get back to the basics, to something more authentic and rediscovered a new (old!) creative process: I bought a film camera, my Contax G2 and took a lot of pictures in Nepal. I loved the fact of not seeing what you end up with until a few weeks later. Above all we become more aware of the world around us.
Looking at your portfolio, medium format is your go-to-thing. Has it always been like that?
I started with a classic full-frame, but very quickly, I wanted to do the next step. Coming back from Nepal, I started looking into medium format and bought a 645. It’s a fairly demanding camera that requires to slow down a little more, to be even more focused on what is happening around you, and also learn to «give in». We can no longer capture everything, we must accept to do fewer photos and try to capture the right one. Fewer photos, but better ones. Less is more. On that note, I’d like to thank Carmencita Film Lab for always taking care of my 120 film rolls. Shooting film is team work after all!
Describe your photographic style in 3 words.
Your portraits always have a story to tell and it feels like you’re sharing a deep connection with the people you capture. How important is this human aspect on your travels? You even went out to give prints to people you shot on a trip to the Himalayans way back?
I am quite curious and I really like to meet new people. My totally naive but benevolent look on the world allows me to feel comfortable in many places. This is not a rule, but overall, I can connect easily with strangers.
Putting the human aspect in the center of my photo was something that came quite naturally on my first trips. I travel to discover cultures, people, ways of life. I do not really like the tendency of people to position themselves in the center of attention and document their travels by collecting self-portraits in all those different places. There is so much more to learn from others than to stay focused on your own vision of the world.
During my third trip to Nepal and my second time in Bhutan, it seemed logical to me to print the photos I had shot the previously and return them. They spared their time and a lot of kindness, so it’s my way of giving something back. It seems insignificant for us, but for them, a real printed photo is very important, like if they are a famous personality in a newspaper. I remember an old lady in a remote village in Bhutan. She almost cried with joy. It was just amazing. These are magical and simple moments that must be experienced and lived.
What’s the challenges you face apart from being on the road for so long and going to some remote places? Any crazy stories?
There are not really big challenges. I am not a war reporter, I do not put my life in danger, my trips are relatively simple trips as millions of people do. My real problems are not to lose my rolls, to have batteries in stock, to find water and a roof above my head, ahaha! Also to go a little further on each trip.
I went on an incredible trip with my friend Jacob Brook, an incredible traveler, who has been shooting medium format for years. We went to the Himalayas with Bhuwan, a Nepalese friend of mine who helped translate, to the epicenter of the 2015 earthquake. We left with a light bag, on foot and without a road map. We hitchhiked and walked until nightfall. Nepali people from remote villages welcomed us quite naturally. We ate and slept on the floor in small huts made of sheets and clay. We shared incredible moments with these people. We were able to take beautiful pictures, with a lot of meaning and a lot of humanity. These are unforgettable memories and it’s impossible to explain those transformative moments to my friends and family, who do not travel as much.
I read that you tried to avoid giving money for taking portraits in Marrakech. Is it that tricky to take portraits there?
During my first trip to Morocco, I was quite disconcerted, because a lot of Moroccans refused to be photographed and sometimes they only accepted if we paid them money. It’s a lot easier in small villages and in the countryside, I have to say. But it’s almost impossible to shoot portraits of women if you’re not family. I managed to shoot a single portrait of a woman within 15 days!
When I returned to Marrakech for a week for a wedding – this is the hardest place to shoot portraits – my challenge was to not spend a dihram on a photo. So I met and talked to countless Moroccans. I only shot a few portraits, but these pictures now feel more valuable to me and all have a specific story behind them. A beautiful coincidence, an exchange, and finally a sign of confidence to let me shoot a portrait.
You’ve not been standing still for a while, rushing from photo trip to photo trip. Where does the road take you next? And what’s the place you’re dying to travel to?
Next, I plan to spend a few days in Istanbul, and I will teach a workshop in Nepal about Human Connection with Finding The Light photographer Nadia Dole in November.
My #1 place to travel to was Bhutan, and I went there twice already. I will go back there for sure, but there are other places, too. Colombia, Iran and Ethiopia are on my list. But one of my dream trips would be to travel all around Pakistan. A lot of people have common preconceptions about it, so i’m curious about going there and form my own opinion.
Thank you for this interview!