Back in 2004, my career as a photojournalist was stopped short after it was revealed that one of my stories published in the National Geographic Magazine contained a staged shot, as well as two shots that had been taken out of the story’s context. GQ Portugal recently ran a feature with an interview that centered mostly on this incident, and on the implications it had for me.
Interview by Diego Armés for GQ Portugal (Copyrighted).
Where were you born? Where did you grow up (I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Argentina)? Give me a brief personal presentation, please, would you?
I was born in Paris in 1960 but the family left for Argentina when I was four. My father worked for a big French car maker and the family moved between Latin America and Europe until I was 17. That’s when I came back to Europe to do my university studies. At the time my Spanish was better than my French! It’s changed since then of course.
I studied tropical agronomy. I don’t think I was really interested in agronomy, the bit that I liked was “tropical” (Laughs). I always wanted to travel and felt that I wanted to live in the tropics. Already when I was a kid I dreamed of exploring the Amazon and the Australian outback.
So, what came first? The passion for photography or the calling from the tropics and exotic environments and landscapes?
The calling for the tropics, the exotic lands, the remote tribes… Right from the age of 20 I was very interested in ethnography and anthropology. I started travelling to Asia, where I would study maps for days on end. When it said “prohibited area” on a map, I would try to reach that area and explore it. In this way I entered the Golden Triangle when it was still completely off limits. I spent some time in Kun Sah’s stronghold. He was this famous drug lord who controlled the opium and heroin trade (the CIA finally got him, 25 years later). I went to Waziristan, which later became the home of Osama Bin Laden. I managed to enter the Chittagong Hill Tracks in Bangladesh, which were completely off limits to outsider, and stayed with the Mru people. That was a defining experience for me, because they were so remote.
Photography only came later, simply because during my travels I would attempt to photograph the people i stayed with. I had had an interest in photography for a long time, so it seemed fitting to take photographs of the things and people that fascinated me.
I read you learned about photography from your brother and some elder photographer in Argentina. How did it happen? Obviously, it became of much use years later for you. But what did you learn with him or them that allowed you to take so many beautiful, powerful, I would say landmarking photos – and I don’t even know if I can say that? Was this essential in the making of Gilles Nicolet as a photographer, or was it only the beginning?
When my brother was 14 he struck up a friendship with an Argentinian who was quite older than him and ran a small photo studio in Buenos Aires. In those days photographers knew how to shoot, how to develop their own films, how to print etc. This guy – his name was Osvaldo -taught my brother everything he needed to know, and of course I would often hang around them and watch them do things. One day my brother came home with a copy of the 1976 World Press Photo Awards publication that his friend had given him, and I vividly remember the shock that I received while flipping through the pages. The pictures showed a world that was unknown to me at the time, a dark and violent place but also one full of promises. On that day something opened in me, I’m certain of that. It was about the hidden power of photographs to convey emotions and evoke interest. Back then I was far more interested in the content of photographs than in the technicalities of photography. That only came later, and very slowly I must say. To this day I consider myself a little weak on the technical side, such as in lightning or post-production…
Tell me about the first day that things changed: the day you realised your life had to be something else, something like living in an adventurous, creative, artistic way. If I’m not mistaken, the epiphany, if I might call it, came with your first-born, was it?
That’s right. I was living in Ghana at the time and had a “good” job with a private company. I had a big house, a big car and I was making very decent money, but I was bored out of my mind… I wasn’t being myself and felt that something fundamental was missing from my life. Then my first child Gaël was born and this made me realise that if I didn’t do something about this dissatisfaction, my kid would never grow up to know his real father – the real me – but only a man who was wearing a mask and playing a role. That was a pretty scary thought I must say! So it is at that point that I decided to take up photography professionally, because deep down I had been feeling for a while that that was what I had to do. I wrote to my boss and told him I was quitting. Interestingly, he was perhaps the only one at the time who understood and supported my decision… All my other colleagues simply thought I was nuts.
I suppose you don’t regret a bit your decision, nowadays. But, at the time, wasn’t it difficult for you? I mean, how did you get money? You were used to a certain standard of living and then you dropped everything you had and chose your passion. Wasn’t it hard for you family? Tell me about that time, right after leaving a well paid job and before you became a well paid photographer.
Yes, it was very difficult. First because I suddenly had to re-invent myself at the age of 32 and pretend that I was now a photographer, when in truth I still hadn’t sold a single picture! (Laughs) Sadly, I felt this social pressure to succeed, because I wanted to be able to look after my family of course, but also because I wanted to be acknowledged as a photographer… It was also a time of blunders and doubts. I was still learning the trade and so of course I made some mistakes in the beginning. For example I would chose the wrong stories, or target the wrong markets. I had to learn slowly, through trial and error, all the more so because I was all by myself in the middle of Africa. Don’t forget that in those days the internet was not available the way it is today, so exchanging ideas or researching technical topics was impossible for me. I was lucky that my partner and mother of my child was very supportive. She had taken up a job and was now looking after the family while I struggled to understand how my cameras worked (Laughs).
And when did it begin to pay-off? I mean, not only financially, but also in personal satisfaction matters. Which (and why…) were the first journeys that you felt like “this is it, I’m happy, I’m doing the right thing”?
At one point I found this incredible story, which I started to cover. It was the story of the Gbaya python hunters, men who have mastered the art of catching live pythons hiding in aardvark burrows. The aardvark is a kind of giant African ant eater that digs extensive underground burrows, where pythons also like to hide, breed etc. Gbaya hunters can slither down these burrows in the dark, all the way to the giant snakes. There, they grab them by the neck while covering their eyes and then slowly pull them out. For 2 years I followed them in the bush, and I was fascinated by their knowledge. It constantly reminded me of how little I knew about the bush myself, and I felt privileged to be able to witness all of this. We were often surrounded by dangerous wildlife – lions, elephants – and this was incredibly exciting of course.
Also I could sense that the story had huge potential. I felt that it could be my “big break” and that gave me extra energy. It took me two full years of work before I could bag the story, but indeed it eventually ran in the US edition of National Geographic Magazine, before being widely published around the world. That really launched my career.
What does it take to be a photographer out in the wild, in the bush, with native people(s), surrounded by dangerous animals? How do you prepare for that? I mean, physically, psychologically, the whole combo.
It takes time, dedication, knowledge and curiosity. Time, because nothing comes easy in this kind of environment. For example, you come at the wrong time of year, the wrong season, and nothing will be happening… You’ll have travelled this far but you’ll see nothing, absolutely nothing! So you have to come back and back again, and be prepared for the long haul if you want to succeed. The dedication is also essential, because when you chase such difficult stories in such harsh environments, it is very easy to get discouraged… You just can’t allow yourself that, so you just have to keep going and eventually something wonderful will happen. I used to say that the most important thing in this kind of work is that “once you have bitten into it, don’t ever let go”.
Knowledge of the people is also very important of course. You have to be able to gain their trust, so that they will show you something that they may never have shown to a foreigner before. You need to gain their respect, too. And curiosity is what will make you discover new facets to a story. You may have started shooting the story with a particular idea in mind, but if you are capable of showing curiosity, if you are capable of constantly enquiring with these people, it is very likely that you will discover a lot more and that your story will just keep gaining in strength and importance.
For how long did you work with National Geographic magazine? I know how and why it all ended, but I’d like you to remember the good (or not so good) times between you and NG. Would you consider working for/with NG magazine the peak of your career as photo-journalist?
We worked on 2 stories together, and I was working on the 3rd when I got into troubles and decided to abandon photography. That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider that it’s almost impossible to get un-commissioned work published in that magazine, it was quite a bit…
Back in the 90’s and early 2000s Nat Geo was this incredibly good magazine – unfortunately I find that today it has somewhat changed for the worse. They had the best lay out, the printing was outstanding, and the quality of the stories and the photography were generally very good. What struck me also, is the profound respect that they showed for photographers. This was not always the case in Europe, where photographers could sometimes be treated rather dismissively… I think that at NGM they understood that photographers were the ones who contributed the most important element to the magazine’s success. The magazine was also staffed with great professionals, editors like Tom Kennedy and John Echave, who were not just incredibly good at what they did but who were really nice human beings, on a deeper level. Working for them and with them was definitely a peak in my career as a photo-journalist. The fact that it all ended is 100% my fault. At NGM they were professional through and through, and the only mistake they did was to take my word on some aspects of this story, when they shouldn’t have (Laughs).
Not that we’re here going around in circles, pretending there’s no elephant in the room, but now I think it’s time to get to the point: your long work with the Barabaig hunters turned out to be a disaster for your career. But, at the same time, I believe you can feel proud about it, except for your decision to “resort to a little trick” (sic). How do you feel about that specific story? Not the consequences of your mistakes; now I only want to know about the work itself.
Honestly, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, i think very few photographers would have gone to the lengths that I went to try to bag that story… It was truly beyond difficult, and it demanded a lifetime of African experience to even consider shooting it.
Even though I ended up staging a shot, the story was VERY real… I mean, these guys hunted elephants whenever they could ! It’s just that on the 5 hunts that I attended they didn’t get lucky – by that I mean that they didn’t manage to bring an elephant down. And so of course this put me in a very delicate position, and also made me “unlucky”, if you want. That’s when -and only when- I decided to resort to a little trick: don’t forget that before this I had been trying for nearly two years to get the real shots! So perhaps I would not say that I feel proud of the work that I did, but I will definitely say that I am convinced I did my best, and that the only way I was able to do that was because I already had 20 years of experience of the African bush. In a story like this, your human qualities and your experience of the field become far more important than your technical or even creative ability as a photographer.
And afterwards, you quit photography for 10 years. What have you done with your time and with your life during such a long period?
Yes, after that I quit photography entirely, partly because I did not want to be branded as a “cheat” for the rest of my life, but mostly because I knew I would no longer be able to do what I had loved most, and by that I mean tell beautiful human stories in the middle of nowhere… I was at an age and a stage in my career when only a magazine like National Geographic could have funded the kind of projects that excited me. Now that I had lost their backing it was pointless for me to continue. Of course I could have become a wedding photographer, or a commercial photographer, but that simply wasn’t me. So i just quit.
I immediately tried to rebound and started dealing in -of all things- furniture! (Laughs). I am a survivor, and I was ready to do anything to try to look after my kids. That didn’t work though, and so for the next 2 years I immersed myself into philosophy. I read a lot and went deep inside myself. Of course I felt a lot of pain, and I wanted to understand why. I did understand eventually, and I got out of this mess stronger than I had ever been. By then I felt that the time to work again had come, so I first worked as a literature tutor at an international school, and then started managing lodges in the national parks of Tanzania. I also went through a very creative period, sculpting and making all sorts of objects. Until recently I never thought that I would take up photography again.
When it all happened, the Barabaig hunters photo scandal, what was the dimension of it all? You had your credits in the business, but how did it affect, not only you, but also NGM and photo-reporters in general? How did the audience react? I read the editor’s note and it’s pretty harsh, sounding like “this person tricked us and now we know we never knew him”, which must have been pretty rough for you. Do you think about it often? Did it leave a scar or is it still a wound?
It was not prime news of course, but it was a small scandal in the world of photojournalism. People spoke about it, particularly in editorial boards, in forums, and articles were written on the subject. At National Geographic they are extremely sensitive about their reputation, and so obviously they had to react quickly. They immediately posted something on the web, saying that they were enquiring into the whole thing. Three months later (it was in the Octobre 2004 edition if i’m correct), they printed an apology to their readers. Also, the Editor-in-Chief – his name was Bill Allen – resigned a few months after the scandal, and I would not be surprised if his decision to resign was somehow connected to this affair, although I have no way of knowing for sure.
In forums, the audience reacted almost unanimously by dismissing my whole work as bogus. It was almost as if they felt that the entire story -not just a few shots- had been made up. Hardly anyone, whether in the public or in newsrooms, seemed to want to know WHY I would have done something like this, the reasons behind my decision to cheat. They probably thought I had done it because that was the easy way out, or the lazy thing to do.… A bit like “why bother shooting the real thing if you can just stage a few shots?”. But then I guess you can’t blame people for that. After all they didn’t know what I had put into that story in terms of work, energy and time, before I decided to cheat.
Seeing the editor’s note printed in the magazine was hurtful of course. I mean in those days NGM published something like 13 million copies every month and it was read by 50 million people, so obviously seeing my name reviled in this way was not very pleasant… As far as I know this kind of apology had happened very rarely in the history of NGM – perhaps even never. And there I was branded a cheat for all to see. Mind you, I really don’t blame them for what they did, they were just covering their back and doing what they had to do.
There is no doubt that for some years this “scandal” had a very large impact on my life – professionally, psychologically and socially – but in the end probably no more than some other life events that many of us go through, like a beautiful love story gone sour, or the birth of a child and all that it implies in terms of commitment, joy, worries, sorrows etc. It definitely forced me to completely re-think myself – my choices, my actions – and to explore the complex web that is our psychological make-up: the nature of ego, the nature of psychological fear etc, or, in other words, the mental traps that push us to make mistakes of this kind. In the end, on a personal level, I think it was a very positive thing that this should have happened to me, because it made me so much stronger.
I rarely think about it nowadays, or when I do, it’s always with an amused feeling. My girl friend and I sometimes joke about it. There is definitely not a trace of hurt any more, that I can assure you. There is no scar and no wound.
Now you’re coming back from the shadows, and we found you on Instagram. Are you making a living out of photography again? What kind of photography?
It was my new companion who pushed me to take up photography again. She has a very keen eye and we often discuss photography together -we look at other photographers work, we go to exhibitions, we sometimes buy collectors prints – and she must have sensed that the passion was still there. Women are intuitive and very often they understand us way better than we understand ourselves! (Laughs). Anyways, some time back she bought me a little Fuji X100S and said “please, take shots again”. That’s how it all started again. Because from the moment I had the camera in my hands, i was hooked…
Although the response to my new work as been very positive overall, I can’t say I’m yet able to make a living out of it. I’ve quit a paid job though, and I’m devoting myself full time to photography again.
My photography has now gone in a new direction, and it’s quite different from what I did before. I no longer work in colour for one -only black and white. My work is also less sensationalist, more ethereal, more contemplative and timeless somehow. The sequences of images no longer constitute picture stories, as had been the case in the past, but I try to make images that suffice to themselves individually, where every shot conveys a feeling or a message, or evokes a mystery. It is definitely not journalistic in nature, but more a “travail d’auteur”.
What are you planning for the near future? I heard you want to make a book. Are you planning something like a Sebastião Salgado’s style book, compiling photos of various situations and environments? Or you pretend to make a comeback as a photo-reporter?
I enjoy shooting again tremendously, and I want to completely focus on that from now on. At the moment I am working on a book project, looking at the unique environment that is the Swahili Coast, on the western edge of the Indian Ocean. I also hope to exhibit my work in galleries soon.
To answer your question, there is no way I could make a comeback as a photo reporter! After what I did no one would take me seriously (Laughs).
So, it means your new work has been shown in exhibitions? Where? When? Give me details. Is there one coming? In Europe?
No, you misunderstood me, I have no exhibition planned at the moment, although I have been approached by a photo festival in Northern Europe for a possible exhibition in 2017. What I mean is that, as much as possible, I would like my new work to be shown in exhibitions and galleries, or in books, more than in magazines. Ultimately my aim is to target the fine-art market, and not so much the magazine market anymore, like I used to do in the past. In those days my work was almost exclusively calibrated for magazines: a powerful story line, a chronology of events, colour shots etc. You wouldn’t really have seen it hanging on people’s walls, as fine prints…
Because I like to surprise, I am someone who normally does not show his work before I consider that it is completely ready, and I feel that my current work on the Swahili Coast is not yet complete. It should be soon, though.
How would it be if you had never been caught? How would you have lived with that?
At the time I got caught my career was going very well. My work was being published in all sorts of major magazines, and I had just gotten my first proper Nat Geo assignment, on a story in India. That, I have no doubt, would have led to more assignments. So I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been caught I would have done well professionally. But then there is no need to try to re-invent the past, it’s a waste of time…
To be more specific, if I had not been caught I’m sure that I would have managed pretty well with my conscience. By that I mean that the fact that I had cheated would not have bothered me, or not much in any case, because I had cheated out of a sense of despair. After investing so much time, work and money into that story I felt that I simply could not afford to not have it published and get paid for it. And you know, a lot of photographers, including some of the best or some of the most well-known, cheat or have cheated in some way or another… Examples abound. I don’t want to dwell into this here, or give names, but I can tell you that many do re-arrange reality -to say the least- including amongst photojournalists. It’s just that most of them are smarter than me and don’t get caught (Laughs).
Yeah, I figured. From this conversation we’re having, I deduce that you did not get stuck in that past mistake, which is great because it’s good to have you back with your photos.
Thank you. It was a mistake that cost me a lot, and I paid my dues. Now I simply look forward to doing more photography again, because I’m still in love with beauty. That never changed, you know.