How long does this flight last?
CLÉMENTINE SCHNEIDERMANN is a French photographer born in 1991. She completed an MA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales in 2014 after studying at the Applied Art School of Vevey, Switzerland from 2009-2012. In 2015, she won various awards for her long-term project ‘I called her Lisa-Marie,’ which was produced between South Wales and Memphis and studies Elvis Presley’s fans. The work has been exhibited at Paris Photo 2014, Unseen Art Fair 2015 and was selected for the New York Times portfolio Reviews 2015. She is currently working on a documentary project in the Welsh Valleys, which explores the relationship between the youth and their environment. This work as been commissioned by Arts & Minds.
Clémentine’s work and approach inspired us so much that we invited her to write a personal essay for our Chronicles section. This section allows contributors to share a variety of personal experiences in a more free-form manner.
Between the ages of 15 and 17, I regularly flew between Paris and Nice after my family dispersed to these two poles of France. I was scared of these flying, floating machines, so I began speaking with my neighbors to distract myself on the plane. It’s not easy to spark a conversation with someone, especially as a nervous sixteen year old, but my strategy was to somehow demonstrate my fear and then ask, “How long does this flight last?” I enjoyed hearing their stories, stories that opened and enriched my mind. When we landed, we would say good bye, and never see each other again.
When I was younger and living in Paris, my favorite hobby was to observe people in the metro and imagine their life stories. I admired artists, like Sophie Calle, who could follow strangers in the street. They made me realize that I wasn’t the only one to have possessed these unconventional ideas, and that there were ways to explore this eccentricity even further.
I began photographing my everyday life, and little by little, the camera became a part of me. I remember my first project when I was seventeen, taking the first metro to shoot the produce vendors at the early morning wholesale market in Rungis. I used the pretext of the camera to discover small, parallel universes, and forget my boring high school existence.
I’ve been a photographer since and I’m still scared of planes. For the past three years I’ve lived in southern Wales, and over the last six months, I photographed an isolated region just north of Cardiff called “The Valleys.” It’s made up of small towns tucked between two hills, full of older people playing bingo, karaoke nights in pubs, and lots of Welsh watching rugby. It rains more than it shines. I often ask myself if I’m not a bit crazy to be spending my youth here while my photographer peers chase meetings and opportunities in East London and Paris. Would I live here if I were not a photographer? I don’t think so.
But I feel close to the people. I appreciate the slower pace of life. A typical day consists of getting coffee with women from the retirement home who meet every week for tea, working in the town’s only pub, chatting with John, the painter, who sits every day at the same table near the chimney, saying hello to Chris who, since his wife left him, spends his days at the Wetherspoons’ bar, and getting dinner with my boyfriend Sebastian, the only Argentinian you’ll run into for miles.
Most of the people I photograph are strangers, unknowns. It took me a while to muster up the courage to approach them in the street and explain my intentions without seeming crazy. I spent lots of time shooting in Newport, a small town near Cardiff where I lived for two years, and, in hindsight, I’d say it’s here that I developed that courage. I found pretenses to approach people, like I had in the plane — “I love the color of your hair,” “Your dog is very interesting” — and I suspect that my French (read: exotic) accent rendered me inoffensive, almost intriguing. After all, why would a young Parisian girl be so interested in an 80-year-old woman living in a forgotten city in a small country that most would have a difficult time finding on a map? Yet it’s this improbable gap that inspires and pushes me.
I admire photographers who have the courage to travel far and wide on ambitious projects, who come back after a few weeks with a completed series, ready to move on to the next thing. But it seems like my M.O. is the complete opposite; it takes me two years to be satisfied with a series of images taken in the same city, even the same street. The more I discover a place, the more my gaze is transformed. When I first arrived, I shot the pubs, the damaged houses, the things I had never seen before. Yet the longer I stayed, the more I discovered in the insignificant details that became all-consuming: the lights, the hair, movements of the body, clothing styles.
Paul Graham said, “Photography is easy; photography is difficult,” and it’s true. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m always working, or never. Is meeting strangers considered work? If so, I’ve largely eclipsed the 35 hour work week, yet I continue to have the insatiable desire to see everything, to speak, meet everyone, like I was waiting for the curtain to rise for us to begin a banal scene of everyday life and that, comfortably seated on a red sofa, I observe the finest details of a fragile, poignant humanity.
Translated from the original French by Lawrence Neil
Published: March 31st, 2016