Photographic educator Laurent Breillat recently traveled from his home in France to participate in the mentoring workshop with David duChemin in Venice, Italy, an intensive week designed to explore the creative process, hone each individual's photographic craft, and create a cohesive body of work. It was his first time visiting the city, which can lead to creative overload; the tendency for photographers in a new city is to run all over the place, looking for the best things and people to photograph. Laurent started with four ideas, creating a mini-portfolio of each. But by finding his place above the canals, Laurent created story slices—snippets of human-ness—in his Strangers in Gondolas series that are emotional and engaging.
Tell us a bit about how this series came to be. Was it deliberate, or an unexpected discovery?
I got the idea unexpectedly. David told us the goal of the first two days of the workshop was to explore and make photographic sketches. So I tried many things and kept an open mind, and I stumbled upon one of these "gondola highways" as I like to call them. The view from above looked funny to me, and I spent 30 minutes or so photographing them.
It was only afterward, when choosing the series I was going to work on for the next of the week (with David's help), that the process became more intentional, and I started actively looking for the best places and light to get what I wanted.
As part of the mentor series, David asks for everyone to choose a constraint. What was yours? What was the biggest challenge of that constraint in creating this series?
There were several constraints. The first and most obvious one was to photograph people in gondolas from above. So I needed to find different bridges, with a lot of gondola traffic (in order to have more chances to get a good moment), with the right light, and preferably not too many people bumping into me.
In the beginning, I was shooting people riding the gondolas AND gondoliers, but I realized that people were the most interesting because you could see faces and gestures; there was more variety.
Then there was the light. My first images were in soft light because gondolas were in the shade. I experimented with harsher light and even found a spot and time with something I liked. But after looking at the photos, I felt soft light, being almost the same all the time, added some consistency to the series.
I also chose square format because the water on each side was not interesting, and selected black and white in post-processing. I liked contrasted colors, but it didn't work well as a body of work because of the different colors. Black and white added consistency.
The biggest challenge was mainly to stand there for hours, waiting for something interesting to happen, and not miss it when it did. What you can't see when you look at the series is that for each photo I show, there are 200 photos of groups of 6 tourists with selfie sticks, doing nothing in particular. But I had to take those just in case something happened very quickly.
After 20 minutes without anything interesting to photograph, you start to lose focus, and you can miss something; I know I did. But at the same time, it's very rewarding when you’re not expecting anything and suddenly something great happens right below you. For example, when this woman reached for the man’s phone (below) was like that: it all happened in a split second, and I had to be ready.
There are relatable stories told in each of these photographs; the relationships with each other (or lack thereof), with self, or with the experience. What struck you the most about these photographs when you had time to really look at them? What surprised you?
What's interesting to me is that they're all really short slices of life. Being above them, from a bird's eye view, is not only an unusual point of view, it also gives you the role of an observer, almost God-like. So it also makes you want to judge. "Ah, those self-centered people with selfie sticks!"
And then, in the next photograph, you see people not even sharing anything, or being pissed off at each other, and you think, "Well, at least in the previous one they were sharing something or being happy!" And you laugh, sometimes because it's actually quite sad, and sometimes you empathize. It's sort of an emotional roller coaster.
So I guess at the beginning, all the way up on my bridge, I was kind of judging them. And then I realized each photograph was only a tiny slice of life of human beings with their own feelings, thoughts, emotions, problems, joys and pains, and you couldn't judge anything in that split second.
What I felt about it when editing (because the shooting itself was too quick for that) is two things: first, it's amazing how a short moment can tell a lot about people (and how you can feel for them in just one image), and second, it also tells a lot about them only in that short moment. So I guess it may say more about me than about them.
Part of developing a series often includes parking yourself at a stage and waiting for the actors to appear. In a city where there's so much pulling your attention, did you find it difficult to do that?
I think it was actually a relief. The first two days were exploring, so it was a little bit exhausting at times, especially for an introvert.
But then, when you find your focus and you know your work is going to be staying on that bridge and not missing great moments, then you can relax and let go of the rest. When I was on a bridge, I didn't try to photograph something else. I was focused, almost in a sort of flow state.
And even when I wasn't working on that series, knowing what was my focus took a weight off my shoulders; I didn't have to search for something great all the time.
If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
Not that much differently. I would focus earlier on people riding the gondolas and not the gondoliers, but I think I couldn't have done better with the time I had.
Laurent Breillat is a French photographer who hasn’t let go of a camera since he picked one up for the first time in 2010. He admits the first few years have been mostly been photographic rambling, but as not all those who wander are lost, Laurent is now mostly trying to capture moments, lights, and selfie sticks while he's traveling.
He also teaches photography on his blog Apprendre la Photo, but if you don't speak French, you can also see some of his work on his website, as photographs don't need you to take fancy French lessons.