Camille Michel is a Parisan photographer currently working throughout the Arctic. After attending medical school for several years, in 2009 she switched to an arts degree, and eventually completed her studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie d’Arles. Her work has been exhibited and published worldwide, and she was one of the winners of the Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards 2016. She is currently on board of an exploration boat in Arctic for four months between Gaspe and North of Greenland, working on a new project.
Hi Camille, you were training as a medical student when you found photography. Was there a moment in your life when something clicked?
Being a doctor is a nice job but it was not my passion. After three years of medical studies, I decided to quit and go study art in the capital city. This is where I met Antoine d’Agata, of who I became the assistant at Magnum Photo and I then decided to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie d’Arles. Everything happened very fast, I just graduated last year. I do not know if it clicked but I surely wanted to do something I liked for a living.
A lot of your work is based in Northern countries, what originally drew you there?
I love winters and wild places. I come from a small town in Northern France. I grew up in Nature. My parent’s house is right next to a forest. I have always been attracted to the idea of discovering remote areas, the inhabitants living there, and the stories they hide. I first went on a few trips to Lapland. When I was in Inari a few ago, I met a Same musician who was a very committed activist. He told me a lot about his people and its disruptions. I then became highly interested in the evolution of these countries yet too often considered wild, authentic, and virgin. I decided to go to Greenland to observe its metamorphosis and draw up a contemporary portrait of the place. I wanted to travel to the North where culture is still traditional. Uummannaq instantly attracted me with its mysterious mountain.
“Photos show evidence, they make people think. It is easier to understand a picture than a speech.”
Your work is very much engaged with the transition between tradition and modernity, how do you mediate these contradictions as a photographer?
The dichotomy between tradition and modernity in Greenland is obvious. It deeply made an impression on me. Showing this in my photos was therefore not difficult. On the one hand, life is still very close to nature, traditions are respected, landscapes are magnificent. On the other hand, the modern world is suddenly settling down. Not every house has running water but everybody has a flat-screen TV. Fishermen still wear traditional outfits made of sealskin but they all have a Smartphone with the Facebook app.
In ‘The Last Men’ you are documenting a culture that will probably disappear in the near future, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing these communities?
Modernity has devastating effects. I think that the pollution is the main issue that should be addressed. Westernalisation is taking over and Greenland is steadily modernizing. In fact the melting of the ice eases maritime access and opens those remote areas to the modern world. In Uummannaq, there is an industrial area, a fish factory, a petrol station, a few shops, a school, a café, and even a sort of night club. The inhabitants have cars, TVs, mobile phones, internet. Goods are imported from Denmark. They make life easier (food, furniture’s, entertainment), but they are not biodegradable. There is no dump in Uummannaq. Everything is burnt in open air creating an intense pollution in dioxin. The health of people is worrying. Also, the appearance of cars and scooters has greatly polluted the city. They are slowly replacing sled dogs. Their use for fishing or hunting made animals go away. Now you must go even further away to hunt… Climate change is not the only problem.
You have described your work as ‘poetic documents’, which for me really encapsulates the intersection of your work between documentary photography and contemporary landscape. Could you talk a bit more about your style and approach to photography?
I am not a photojournalist but my work is informative. Everything in my pictures is real but I take pictures from my own perspective, my own reality. I have not a particular process to take pictures, I just like exploring. I often go on my own and wander for hours. During these ‘walks’, I get appealed by a face, a place, a scene, which gives birth to a photography. I do not attend to show the whole place, I do not capture everything. My pictures relate my experience in a space. For example I like Alec Soth’s approach or Lucas Foglia’s approach.
Many of the communities that you photograph are at the forefront of climate change and it is part of the change these communities are experiencing. Photography is often used to show the effects of climate change, how do you feel as a medium it has the power to show these changes?
Photography is a very good tool to inform, images are powerful. They are broadly used by the media to report on catastrophes. Photos show evidence, they make people think. It is easier to understand a picture than a speech. A picture is taken at a certain time but you can compare pictures taken at different moments to observe a change. However the caption of the photographer is very important so the image is not misinterpreted.
“I just like exploring. I often go on my own and wander for hours. During these ‘walks’, I get appealed by a face, a place, a scene, which gives birth to a photography.”