Interview : Louis Witter

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Aged 20, Louis Witter is a young photojournalist distributed
since few months by Hans Lucas’ agency. He covered this
year the Ukrainian conflict and he reported on migrant’s
road in Eastern Europe.
When he is not out taking pictures, he studies at the ISCPA, a
Parisian journalism school. His pictures have been published in
well-known newspapers such as L’Obs and Le Figaro.
We asked him questions about his life, his vision
of photojournalism and his experiences.

Published in: Art & Photos
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Interview : Louis Witter

  1. 1. T W E N T Y Y E A R S LOUIS WITTER Aged 20, Louis Witter is a young photojournalist distributed since few months by Hans Lucas’ agency. He covered this year the Ukrainian conflict and he reported on migrant’s road in Eastern Europe. When he is not out taking pictures, he studies at the ISCPA, a Parisian journalism school. His pictures have been published in well-known newspapers such as L’Obs and Le Figaro. We asked him questions about his life, his vision of photojournalism and his experiences. An interview with... Left picture: Autoportrait © Louis Witter - Hans Lucas 2015
  2. 2. First of all, can you tell me more about your vocation as a priest until becoming a photojournalist? Damn, where did you find that? Are you serious? (laughing) When I was a little child, I was a true believer. My father is an army officer, raised in Saint-Cyr (the French Westpoint), and I attended Mass every Sunday. Then, I participated to scout camps and so on. I was really young and I wanted to be a saint. It was a bit complicated, so I decided that I wanted to be Pope until I reached 4th or 5th grade. I realized afterwards that being Pope was complicated because you know, the Vatican is a complicated place to run. That is how I began to think that it could be nice to be a priest. I was picturing the priest as a guy who runs a small country church, who speaks to people and participates to social life. At that time, I met Father Guy Gilbert, the “hoodlum’s priest”. He was working in the ghetto, he was a biker, always wearing leather perfecto and big rings at his fingers, and he had this crazy outspokenness. He can shock people with his words but honestly he amused me when he was talking about the ghetto. For instance, once he said about a guy : “I gave this guy an evangelic punch and he understood right away.” He uses a lot of expressions of this kind. And then, when I arrived in middle school, I noticed the girls were starting to grow up and to be cute. That is when I said myself that being a priest was not for me. How did you become a photojournalist distributed by Hans Lucas, starting as an amateur? When I arrived in Paris, I took lots of pictures in demonstrations, particularly in those against gay weddings. In 2014, I participated to the Paris Match price with my pictures on far-right groups. I did not win, but a friend of mine who was studying at Sciences-Po told me: “We are organizing a conference about photojournalism, I am inviting an old hand photojournalist and I would like to invite a young guy who would like to begin his career.” The old hand guy was Wilfrid Estève, Hans Lucas’ boss, and I was the young guy. We chatted quite a lot, we got along with each other but we did not stay in touch. I focused on far-left groups, I reported on Sivens (the “Z.A.D.” aka Zone To Defend, near Toulouse), on Rémi Fraisse’s support demonstrations, etc. In June 2015, I went to Ukraine, then I did an internship at L’Obs, and there I reported on the migrants who occupied Jean Carré High school. It is when Wilfrid saw one of my pictures on Facebook: he remembered me and he sent me an e-mail. I signed the Hans Lucas’ convention to be distributed by them. Since you started your journalism school, did you vision of photojournalism evolve? My perception of journalism changed: I thought this was a lonely job, with a subjective point of view on news. And you begin school, you learn there are codes, formats, and molding... And it is too bad. It restrains the way you can act afterwards. When I was in senior year and I went reporting, I was not following any rules, except the logical deontological ones. There were no writing rules, and it was a bit funnier, I think. Now we are in a professional mood, it is way more molded. But it is life, after all. This is one of the thing about journalism today: I think it is less going freestyle than before. When you read books written by reporters in the 80’s or 90’s, they are always going freestyle, there are drugs, lots of pains… Once again I have the feeling that today there are codes and ways of doing. And I think it is rather stupid. For instance, the report we made in Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany on migrants’ road: every people I know went by plane, and everything came one after another. We did have no dough, so we took Grandma’s car and we left. I think this way of doing is far better because we can say: “We did it from A to Z, it was rough but at least it has a bit of style. We really left no stone unturned to make the story we wanted to tell.” Your blog, it is a kind of an outlet? I probably should not publish all of that on Internet, but it is great to have some feedbacks. Because the thing I am the most doubtful about is photography. It is stupid, but the way I do, the way I… Like, for my thesis I have to write this year I would like to focus on journalist’s role and the guilt he can feel afterwards. When I meet old hand journalists, they all say to me: “I reported on this war, that war, that one too, but it didn’t change anything. I am pissed.” But when you read what they were dreaming of when they were children, they all wanted to change things with journalism. And I really would like to understand this process: why every old hand journalist is depressed, and why journalism cannot change things like it did once? It disturbs me a lot. My models are the pictures that reawakened the world, for instance the little girl burnt in Vietnam, Tiananmen square and the guy facing the tank… Those pictures outraged people. Oummah, from Lebanon, at La Chapelle migrant’s camp, in Paris. © Louis Witter - Hans Lucas 2015 3 4 « I noticed the girls were starting to grow up and to be cute. That is when I said to myself that being a priest was not for me. » « We had no dough, so we took Grandma’s car and we left. » A clown from Sivens’ “ZAD” . © Louis Witter - Hans Lucas 2015
  3. 3. An Ukrainian fighter from Dnipro One battalion takes shelter in a bunker during a pro-russian separatists bombing. © Louis Witter - Hans Lucas 2015 And today, when you see the constant influx of pictures, how is it possible to reawaken people? Was Ukraine your first report in a conflict zone? How did you ended up there? Yes. I finished school in May, and I did not want to stay put waiting for my internship. So I looked into several subjects and amongst them, Ukraine. I saw that a friend of mine was going there, I knew he was covering this kind of themes, he was older than me so I trusted him. We talked on Skype, he told me: “Hey, you wanna go in Ukraine?” I answered: “Sure!” We booked our plane tickets and we left. I am really disappointed by what I did in Ukraine. I think I was not ready to live that. Even if I keep asking myself since three years: “Are you ready to take risks, are you ready to die, are you ready to see someone die, etc.?” And honestly, I thought I was ready. But once you are there, you become aware that it is not really what you expected: it is not shooting 24 hours a day. When I was there, it was rather calm, except at night. During the day there was not many interesting things for photography, and during the night… It was really dark. The other thing is that I am pretty shy. It is rather stupid for a journalist. When the guys were being bombed, I was not really up to come close to their faces to take a picture. At the time, I had this big Canon camera and I just thought it was ignominious to do that. If the guy went mad, he could have shot me dead. That is what I was thinking. My story was not enough tied up probably because I did not prepare it enough before leaving. I did not think enough about what I wanted: I left thinking: “I will see what I can find and I will make do.” In a former interview you said that you wanted to do war reporting not matter what. Did this experience in Ukraine change something and what did it change? I want to do it even more now. I left France bragging myself I would bring back crazy stuff the first time. And this has a lot to do with the result. Until then, I did no more than little demonstrations, stupid little things — the pictures were graphical because one had a placard, because the cop was throwing a grenade, etc. It was easy until then. There, in Ukraine, I took a hammering and my ego too. But it really gave me the will to go back there and to rework on it, to see things from a different point of view. My will did not weaken at all: it became even stronger. The morning after I came back was tough. When I sold my gear I did not know whether I wanted to stop or… But after two weeks without taking pictures, I said no, I can’t live without it. After Ukraine, I went back to France disgusted. I had lived crazy stuff but there was not any great story to tell. On migrant’s road, at the contrary, I looked deeper, I met more people, I talked more to people, I was closer to shoot them. We were there at the moment they closed all the borders between Serbia and Hungary, Austria, Germany, we were there right on time. And then they published my pictures. In fact for the first time of my life I achieved to repay my expenses and even to earn money with my pictures. I begin to earn money with this job, and I am happy to see it can work. Which report hit you the most? For now, it is the one on migrants’ road. Even if it was less shattering than Ukraine, it was a thousand times harder mentally speaking. Migrants and refugees are people who have no other choice, sometimes they had my age, they studied the same things than me… Like this student in Alep, the guy could have been a very good friend. He told me: “My brother gave medicine to the Free Syrian Army. Bachar’s services caught him and tortured him to death. Same story with my mother, my father, and my other brother. I had no other choice but leaving.” You see 10 000 people telling you the same story in one day… There was this teacher, a guy from Mossoul in Irak. He was an art teacher when Daesh took the city. He stopped to paint, to draw, to play music because they said to him: “You stop everything or we will cut your tongue and we will cut your head.” You hear stories like this all day long. It is really tough. I am quite sensitive so I don’t know if this job is made for me… I cried during this report, when taking pictures. When we saw this father turned down at the border, holding his dying kid in his arms… It was impossible to hold my tears back. But you know, that is the way it is. But I was kind of proud I took the picture that shows this insanity. You are going to Irak in a while, right? In a month. With two buddies from school who went to the West Bank two years ago and to Lebanon this summer. I trust them, and we trust each other. We are going to Iraqi Kurdistan during two weeks and my girlfriend is coming with us. She is going to stay in Sinjar with female battalions. With my friends, we really would like to settle at the front line, near Erbil. We also would like to go to PKK’s staging grounds, in the boondocks of Iraq that are bombed by Turkey right now. We will find out whether it is possible to go there or not. Thank you and good luck, Louis. Interviewed by Pierre Laurent A father and his dying children turned down at the German border. © Louis Witter - Hans Lucas 2015 65

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