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On the roof of the world with Matthieu Paley

Posted at 15:25 April 4, 2012 in Arts & Culture

‘I’m the only Westerner who has been to the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan three times during winter,’ he says. ‘I wish I wasn’t able to tell you this; I intended to go only once.’ World-renowned French photographer Matthieu Paley relocates to Istanbul after ten years in Asia, photographing the lives of the Kyrgyz people living on the Pamir Mountains – the region known as the roof of the world. We spoke to him about his time in High Asia, his art and his passion.

-interview by Onur Uygun-

You’ve been living in Istanbul for a year now. But you were in Asia for quite a long time before that…
I’ve been in Asia since 1999, mainly for my work because I want to be where I want to work. To be able to work on stories I’m interested in. To explore the area because I like it very much there. It was like an accident of life, you know? You get opportunities, you say yes to some and no to others. And then slowly we ended up there. It was not like ‘Let’s go live in Asia for ten years’, no. But this is how it happened.


How about Istanbul, how did you find yourself here?
We had kids. And I wanted to be closer to Europe. It’s good for my work if I can go to Paris often, go to Germany. My wife is German and I have work relations with Germans and French, but I didn’t want to live in France or Germany. I wanted to be closer to Central Asia, especially because I’d really liked working there. And I love Turkey in general; I’ve been here many times. Me and my wife, we both like Istanbul. After ten years in Hong Kong, we wanted to go to a different place. Living in Hong Kong was very nice, but we felt like we needed a new challenge.

So you’re familiar with Istanbul now? Do you have any favourite places?
I spend a lot of time at home when I’m not working on an assignment. My life is either working outside on an assignment or at home working on a book project or something like that behind the computer, so I don’t really go out that much. But yes, there are a few places. I love the other side of Karaköy, the fish market where you can eat. But I think they are changing it now, building anew. I hope it will be good; I hope you have good planning. I live in Kanlıca. It’s a very nice place but a little bit quiet. I don’t mind the quiet, but if I’m in a quiet place, I want to be in a village atmosphere. In fact, I’m moving to Alaçatı in one month with the whole family.

Just for the summer?
No, we’re moving for good.

It will be quite silent in the winter.
Yes, a lot people tell me that, but I’m fine with silence in winter. I love the ocean; I do a lot of windsurfing in winter. I was there in Alaçatı in December and it was so beautiful. It’s also close to the airport and I can fly wherever I want. I think Istanbul is very difficult and consuming for families. If it was ten years ago, I’d have loved to live in Istanbul, in Cihangir for instance. It’s very exciting with everything happening there, the art galleries and everything else. Maybe I can come in the weekends to party!

What was the last assignment that you were working on?
Right now I’m working on a book about the photographs I took in the Pamir Mountains. Ten years of work. I’m writing these days and I find it very, very difficult to write as a photographer. It’s terrible, but I have to do it. I do it together with my wife. She’s helping me and also designing the book. It will be around 300 pictures.

Can we say most of your work is from Central Asia?
High Asia. The mountain region of Central Asia. Asia in general, actually, because I also do city photographs sometimes. But personally, High Asia is my favourite.

Why is that?
I’ always loved the ocean when I was younger. Then I discovered the Karakoram region of the Western Himalayas when I was 25. It really impressed me a lot. I was working in Pakistan for one year. It’s one of those places that if you stick your finger in it, you cannot get out of it. It’s very deep. There’re a lot of different cultures, languages. I’m really curious about everything and I enjoy the simplicity and the beauty of this place, the landscape, the people, their hospitality. I just became addicted to it. When I have time, I want to go again. I’ve been to Pakistan more than 15 times.

What has been your favourite journey so far?
There’s not one favourite journey, actually. I was in Mongolia with my wife for three months and we were trying to survive by ourselves in a tent. And then we were in Northern Pakistan, and we were no longer learning about ourselves but about the region. We learnt different languages, worked on projects, worked for NGOs… It really left a huge impression on me.

When we look at your pictures, they really seem to be from daily life, even from inside the houses. How was that process, to get the people to accept an outsider into their homes?
To me, it’s not provoked at all and real. It’s very important, in order to get better pictures. Learning the language is one big part. I speak Urdu; I speak Farsi and some other local minority languages. It’s very important because I don’t want to deal with translators, if possible. So that’s one way to get close. And also visiting the same places again and again helps. People remember – ‘so you came three years ago with your wife’, ‘you were walking with a donkey’ – they remember you.

Do you usually pick your destinations according places magazines want to cover?
More or less. If I have time, I like going by myself, not for any magazine or publication but only for myself.

How’s your process when working for a magazine?
When I’m working for a magazine, when I have an assignment, we prepare the story very much in advance with the writer so that we have a very clear plan. And I start thinking about the image before I go there, before I’ve even seen the place. Often I don’t end up doing this, but still it’s very important for me to do my homework.

Do you ever see a place on TV and decide to go there?
No, because if I see it on TV, it means it’s already been discovered; the story has already been told too many times. The stories I prefer are those that you can’t find any information on, even if you spend the afternoon on the internet. My best stories so far are ones you cannot find any information about anywhere else. It’s a guy living in the middle of nowhere, having this crazy lifestyle for instance. But it all starts with just a feeling that an area is interesting and I want to go there.

These places are not easy to get to, and maybe even harder to find your way around once you’re there. Did you ever say this is just too much?
Yes. Actually last year in winter I went to Afghanistan in the Pamir. I’ve been three times in winter. I’m the only Westerner to have been in there in winter three times. I wish I wasn’t able to tell you this; I intended to go only once. Then a friend of mine dragged me there to make a film. You know, ‘you have to come, you have to come!’ And then National Geographic asked me to go again and I couldn’t say no.

So sometimes when you find out that you need to go to a place again, you find it hard, like going back to the Pamir Mountains?
Yes, of course. When we were in Mongolia with my wife for three months, it was terrible – the food, we got sick all the time, we got fed up with the place, but it’s also that hardship that creates the good memories. I need the challenge. Taking pictures on the shore at Thailand, that’s not interesting to me. I need to not be sure whether I’m going to be able to get the story.

Have you had anything unpleasant or dangerous happen to you?
Dangerous? I guess no. I never had that feeling from people. From the places I visited, I guess I was lucky all these years. I never had a toothache or anything health-related like that. In Afghanistan, if it’s winter, you need two weeks to reach a place where you can get treatment. You need to walk for one week, find a jeep and drive for three days – that’s if you can find gas – so it’s very complicated. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. But there are thousands of people living in that area and they don’t even think about this stuff. They just try to get through one more winter.

How about an instance when you say ‘This is it! This is why I’m doing this job!’ Does that happen to you?
Every day. I’m mostly amazed by the simplicities we’ve forgotten in the modern world. So if I can see places like this, it’s very interesting to me; it gives me a lot of energy.

If you had to give up something, would it be travelling or taking pictures?
I really don’t know. They are the same thing to me, you know… I would travel. And then I would sit down to write! I actually enjoy writing; it’s just more painful than taking pictures. That’s also painful, but I can handle it.

One final and controversial question. Which one do you prefer: Canon or Nikon?
I really don’t know! I’m the wrong person to ask. When you said ‘controversial’, I thought you were going to ask about iPhone pictures.

Do you use Instagram or any applications like that?
No, no, never. It’s like candies, you know. I love the idea of having something small because I don’t like to carry all my gear, but Instagram? No. I don’t get seduced by that look. What seduces me is a real good picture. Taking a great picture with an iPhone is as possible as taking it with a $20,000 camera. But the picture should not be obviously retouched; what you do to the image should be very subtle.

Two free exhibitions of Matthieu Paley’s work can be visited in Istanbul:
Forgotten on the Roof of the World/ Dünyanın Çatısında Unutulanlar
Istanbul French Cultural Center, February 22-May 9

Whispers from a Fairytale World/ Masalsı Dünyadan Fısıltılar
Gallery Linart, March 15-April 10

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