Meeting with photo-journalist Olivier Thomas//

Behind the lens, forty years of photo-journalism.

The practice of Olivier Thomas is anchored in a body to body with the present. For forty years, the press photographer has been trying to grasp its consistency on the ground. During a meeting at his home in Paris, he returned to his career and the evolution of his profession.

Born in the fifties in Lorraine, Olivier Thomas begins very young to capture fragments of his daily life: "my maternal grandfather was a photo freak and he gave me the virus. [...] He offered me a camera, I still remember, a Dacora Dignette Prontor 250 S. And, from seven years ago, I made my photos and I always wanted to be a photographer. "

After the high school photo Club, he joined the schools of the College and then those of a specialized school. He then became an Assistant and continued to hone his personal practice. From then on, he "continually revisiting" the works ofHenri Cartier-Bresson andErnst Haas, the precursor of research on colour photography. Two of his major references.

In 1975, his first report in Northern Ireland confirms his desire to make photography his profession. Begins a long career that brings him to cover many events in France and abroad (United States, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Italy, etc.).

In the flourishing period of photo-journalism (1970-1990), he responded to orders from Paris-match and American newspapers. In Exchange for the exclusivity of their best shots, the times and Newsweek reimburse all the professional expenses of the reporters. The films and prints then pass between Paris and New York by the Concorde, playing the hourly shifts. 

"Photo journalism was killed by AFP."

Prefering alternative structures to the famous agencies like gamma, Sygma and SIPA, he is one of the founders of several cooperative structures, such as Atelier Presse and illustration.

Olivier Thomas is now a member of Difference. Created in 2004 according to an idea by Jacques Torregano, the Association (Fedephoto became Divergence in 2012) provides photographers with a platform allowing them to broadcast their images on the Internet while protecting their rights of authors.

"Photo-journalism was killed by AFP," says the photographer who explains that poorly paid salaried, local or expatriate photographers, especially in countries like Syria or Afghanistan, "saturate the market". Carried by the digital switchover, Agence France Presse and image banks like Getty Images compete fiercely with the smallest agencies and independent photo-journalists. 

Olivier Thomas remembers the garbage cans of the express which, at the beginning of the 2000 years, disgorged with contact plates. The increasing use of amateur images taken on the mobile phone is according to him the same phenomenon of "uberisation of the trade": these images are used by television, including by newspapers that defend photography. [...] The iPhone has done a lot of harm. " And the photo-reporter to conclude:

"There was a real demand for paid images. Today the demand exists but the images must be free. [...] Corporate orders take the ascendant on the press ".

The images must also meet certain standards. The photographer, who followed Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaigns and the public outings of Emmanuel macron, then Minister of finance, tells the excitement of these moments when everything can fail: "it's exciting because we're fifty to do the same scene and you have to try to stand out. [...] We must try to overflow the official communication, bypass it. "

In a desire to fully control their image, the coverage of some politicians has also become the preserve of the large agencies: " macron has eliminated all the independents. We no longer have access to the Élysée . "

" America has always made me dream ," says the photographer. Like Garry Winogrand, whose clichés fascinate him, Olivier Thomas likes to use a wide angle lens to get a clear and luminous image with an important depth of field. Here as there, he photographs the landscapes of the countryside and cities as well as their inhabitants, "often surprising", frozen, sometimes very closely, in their ordinary activities.

His curiosity about what is human also led him to go to war zones (several times, he lacks to leave his skin there). More recently, to give a face to the crowd of protesters for the wedding for all or that of the yellow vests. 

At a time when the "sign fell by chance" is confused with the "sign done on purpose1 ", force is to admit with Olivier Thomas that " a photo [...] no longer changes the face of the world . " Between poetry of the banal and witness of a social and political climate, photo-journalism reminds us to remain attentive to the system of production and distribution of images as well as to the value granted to them. 

At a time when the abundance of images exceeds our analytical capacity and where their diversion has never been so easy, what sense can we give them? 


Ida Simon - Raynaud


1 Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics, quoted in Georges Perec species of spaces, Éditions galilee, 1974/2000, p. 158

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