Meet Olivier Culmann

Olivier Culmann has been a photographer since 1992 and a member of the Tendance Floue collective since 1996. When he was living in India, he realised that some snapshots of Indian everyday life are so retouched for advertising and marketing that they distort or glorify reality. He has explored this trend in the Diversions photography series exhibited at the Alliance Française de Bruxelles-Europe as part of the Summer of Photography 2016.

You’ve explored self-image in-depth. Who are you Olivier Culmann? 

I think you’re alluding to two series, The Others and Faces. In The Others, I observed people in India and only used myself as a way to copy their appearance. I could have done it with someone else but the advantage of doing it yourself is that you’re always free! The Faces series was slightly different in that they’re self-portraits and I play on different hairstyles. But I’m fascinated by the photographic image of others.

Which is the truest out of these images of yourself? 

There isn’t one. There isn’t one where I’m me because they all play on a sense of otherness. If I had to say who I am, I’d say the photographer and not the photographer’s subject.

What defines your photographic work? 

Exploration. I think photography is at its best when it doesn’t try to show or prove anything but instead tries to explore it. Photography is incredibly subjective: it’s a suggested world view, the expression of a singular and specific vision.  

Picture: © Olivier Culmann by Thierry Olivier

Why “Diversions”?

The title is the English sense of “diversions” rather than the slightly different French meaning of the word. There’s a sense of diversion as well as the idea of deviation and distraction. I found the title in one of my photos (that I ended up cutting from the series) of a road where there were roadworks and a diversion sign hiding them. I found it relevant for the entire series.

Why did you choose to focus your work on India?

I lived there from 2009 to 2012. India’s a country that really fascinates me in terms of image and how it uses image. I visited a digital retouching studio as part of a project where they showed me a touched-up photo of a Delhi university. The original photo had stray dogs, electric cables, a grey sky and monsoon water streaming down the wall. The retouched photo had a blue sky, flowers, no dogs or cables.

For Diversions, I took the photos of Delhi and Goa myself and gave them to the retouching studio so they could use the same process to turn them into what we often call "Shining India", an idealised vision of India. The photographs’ scenery is officially changed by Photoshop but when people are walking down the street in India, don’t they naturally erase what they don’t want to see? 

One of the realities of India has been westernised in the retouched versions of your photos. Why do you think that is? 

During my stay I explored image libraries and noticed that the image of India was far more westernised than in reality: most people had very light skin and wore more western outfits. I asked the studio to incorporate people from these image libraries into some photos in Diversions.

If you ask a photographer in India to take your photo, they’ll automatically lighten your skin. People want lighter skin as they tend to be the most fortunate. It’s very complex and fairly contradictory as they are fascinated by the West but are hugely proud to be Indian. It’s a sort of attraction-repulsion.

What role do the retouched images play? 

They tend to be for marketing and advertising. Images from these libraries are also used in newspapers which is an aberration since an informative report doesn’t have to show a real image. What really fascinates me is that behind this practice there’s the idea of a certain vision of India and a game between reality and how it hopes to be portrayed.

Twenty-odd years ago, reports about poverty mainly depicted a traditional and often lamentable view of India. The media have been showing "Shining India" since the Noughties with heavily computerised images of a more modern India, that of Bangalore and the call centres. In a way, we’ve just gone from one cliché to another.

When is retouching no longer acceptable in photography? 

When a photographer chooses a moment and a setting, having things in and out of shot, it’s already a subjective depiction of reality so there’s no real limit for photography portraying or concealing reality.

A photographer like Eugène Smith heavily altered his images at print by darkening the sky, sometimes darkening the background to remove the setting so you focus solely on the subject. He was and remains a benchmark in photojournalism. A photographer who recently removed a shoe that he didn’t like in the corner of an image was disqualified for a photography prize. I don’t see why one technique is less honest than another. A heavily “Photoshopped” piece can express reality very honestly whilst an “untouched” piece can exaggerate the scene to excess. In a medium which, once again, provides a take on reality, honesty comes from the process and not the tool.

Does Diversions have an honest or dishonest process? 

The idea behind Diversions is to question how we want to depict reality and show the tricks of these transformations. If I only displayed one of the two images from my diptychs, probably the second, if I presented them to a magazine as images of "Shining India", I’d be dishonest.

I really like it when people don’t read the text at the exhibition and think I’ve taken a photo of the same place with several years in between then they realise that’s not the case. They suddenly see the photos differently a second time round. I’m interested in the two-stage observation as that’s what gets people thinking.

Do you see yourself as a “campaigning” artist?

I primarily see myself as a photographer. I’ve never liked the term “campaigning” as I’m not lobbying for any particular cause. However, I have a deep personal interest in the sense of conditioning that appears in most of my work.

I explored education worldwide in the 90s in my work. Very subjectively, I wondered if education was a way to make people freer and more independent by giving them a bag full of knowledge or if it traps us in a certain way of thinking. There were obviously lots of answers: education is both one and the other. The idea wasn’t to judge or prove anything; it was just to explore it.
Later on I worked on conditioning in the military which I compared to a series on the conditioning of battery chickens. The pairing of the two is called Une vie de poulet (a chicken’s life).
The Others also brings conditioning to mind through the portrayal of divided Indian society whereby individuals are pigeonholed from birth.  

I believe that photography has much to offer but it’s no weapon and I don’t believe I can change the world with it. I’m happy if my work gets people thinking.

Text by the Alliance Française de Bruxelles-Europe, May 11th 2016.

Find out more about the exhibition Diversions

© Olivier Culmann by Vandana Studio