by Eleonora Milner

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'Hutton ou la fin des terres'

Hello Jean François, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how did you get into photography?

Jean-François Hamelin (JH): I came to photography a little bit by accident. I always had an interest in the medium even in my youth but I only took it up while doing my undergrad studies in architecture. This is where I further developed my interest in photography. During my studies I slowly got more and more involved in the medium. I worked as a photo assistant for a while and when I finished my undergrad in architecture I took a year off of school to travel before doing what I thought would be my master. That break became 2 years and when I came back from my trip I started to work as freelance photographer. After a while I got really interested in producing my own personal work. This lead me to go back to school and enter a BFA in Photography. The motivation behind this was to acquire a better understanding of the medium creative dynamic as well as the mechanic behind grants, exhibition and al. This path led me to work on my personal projects while freelancing and teaching. I recently joined a small publishing house called Les Éditions du Renard founded by my friend Louis Perreault. 

About your approach to photography. How would you describe your personal research in general?

JH: I must say that, so far, my projects have all been initiated by sheer personal interest. It is the case of every project so far. The “research phase” of a project usually comes after something catches my attention and curiosity. It can be a place, an idea, something I’ve read, anything really. The first “phase” of a project (things are not always divided that clearly) is rather intuitive, I will go and shoot images while keeping that vague idea in the back of my mind. After a certain period of time, if I keep asking myself questions about the said idea and/or if I still feel like going back to shoot more images, I know there’s something worth exploring. Of course, ideas and motivations regarding a specific project or topic evolve over time.

It can take a few months or more to decide if I will continue to work on a specific project. That’s why I have many set of images that never expanded into solid propositions for a project or a series. You must understand that I’m really slow when working on projects, that’s why I often pursue two or three of them at the same time. I will usually work on each of them a different moments and do my research accordingly.

The fact that I work slowly gives me the time to process information found in the field or while searching for information and reflect on it. I find that it also gives me the possibility to investigate further the topics of a project. I kind of try keep separate notebooks for each project, but it sometimes get messy...

Is photography a privileged tool to analyze the landscape of an area?

JH: Photography is the reason that pushes me to go out and look at landscapes, places and people. It can be the same landscapes or the same places under different light. It’s a reason to travel and it became my main motivation to explore the vast territory that is Quebec. For me, photography is not only a tool to analyse a specific area, it is a great tool to spark a reflection about certain places and consider its past and present, why things are the way the are now and what shaped them.

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'La Pointe'

What interest me with photography is the fact that it is an extremely powerful tool in its capability to render a certain depiction of the “real”. The unicity and particularity of the medium lies in this specificity. The fact that photographs are often seen “as the real thing”, or at least an accurate representation of it, can be very challenging. How do I deal with it? How do I communicate a certain idea trough pictures? How to I bring people to consider what is beyond what is represented in the images? How do I developpe a visual syntax and language that create a coherent narrative that makes the various images of a series relate to each others? This dichotomy is probably, for me at least, the most interesting aspect of the medium.

You usually do long-term project. Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format? Why?

JH: I use a large format and medium format cameras. It as nothing to do with the fact that they work with films, even if I tend to like the output of a scanned image better than a straight out of the camera raw file, but it definitely has to do with the way I work with cameras. My relationship with the subject is different if I work with my Hasselblad, my Mamiya or my LF. I really enjoy the pace of work when shooting with them, even if the cost of using film skyrocketed in the recent years.

Tell us about your latest project 'La Pointe' exhibited at Centre Culturel Georges-Vanier. Why the black and white?

JH: The images from this series come from Pointe-St-Charles, an enclaved neighborhood in Montreal on the verge of major changes and for which the future is still uncertain. There’s a physical frontier that cut the area from its surrounding neighborhoods. This situation comes from convergence of various elements: the geography, the deindustrialisation, urban development, etc. There’s a strong relationship between the frontier and the inner dynamic of this neighborhood which is one of the poorest in the city. This led me to question the benefits and the drawbacks of isolation. But mainly, the project is about the feeling of being secluded. 

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'La Pointe'

As for the choice to use black and white, I think it serves the topic and concept of this project. I always envisioned this project being shot in black and white and in this particular case it brings into focus the various structures, limits and the shapes of the places. I find it helps the viewer in making comparison and creating relationships between what constitutes the border of Pointe-St-Charles and the enclaved neighborhood.

The series present some fabulous portraits. How has been the relationship with the inhabitants?

JH: It was pretty straight forward. People were usually curious to see me walk around with my cameras (large format and medium format). Sometimes, they came to me, other times I went to meet them and ask them to make their portrait. The shoots were pretty casual and involved a lot of chatting, actually I spent way more time talking than shooting. Interesting enough, even after I told them about my project and that we exchanged a bit about the neighborhood, they were more eager to chit chat about random things. Plenty of small talk, but lot great encounters.

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'La Pointe'

In the same series we had noticed recurring closed doors and windows. This "fil rouge" brings to mind the idea of the cul-de-sac. You gradually take us closer to the area, only to then move away from it again. In a metaphorical way it reminds that photography is an open knowing process, in continuous evolution and never definitive. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

JH: 'La Pointe' is about being isolated and cut off the rest of the world, being stuck and trying to find a way out without being able to find an exit. For this project, I decided to work with recurrent patterns and subjects and they are at the core of the project. To the closed doors and windows you can add fences, walls, breaches, etc. To a certain extent, I’m trying to convey the experience of what it is to walk in Pointe-St-Charles and be constantly confronted to dead ends, closed shops. The feeling of isolation is something inherent to the neighborhood and it became the tread around which I developed the project. This is something that you experience on a daily basis if you live in the area and I think that it quickly shift from something physical to become a kind of state of mind, a form of psychological pressure that you absorb in your subconsciousness. The book form of this project will take this idea as a starting point and expand from there.

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'La Pointe'

As you put it, the fact of moving close to something to only being pulled away reflect something I did often while working on this project. Shooting for a certain period of time, taking some time off to look at my images and understand what I’ve learning and seen figuring out on to go back, approach the subject by building on what I previously shot and shoot more pictures.

You had already investigated the concepts of "border" and "identity" with the project 'Témiscamingue', a reflection, as you say, on what remains of our link with a vast territory. Do you think there is a link that connects all your works?

JH: I think one of the main thing that links my projects together is my curiosity to understand what is the history of a place and how this history shaped what is in front of me today. This can take many forms. In Temiscamingue, this history informs the current situation of the region. It influenced the crumbling sense of identity, hence the stillness one can feel through the series of images. In “La Pointe” it also explain the how their is a so strong sense of “appartenance” in the neighborhood today. In this case the history does not prevail over the concept of the project but it helped me in shaping my idea and concept.

© Jean-François Hamelin, Concrete Block, from the series 'Temiscamingue'

In 'Temiscamingue', what pushed me to start the project is the fact that I had difficulties understanding the region from a geographic perspective. I started travelling around, driven by my curiosity, to form a mental map of the land and understand its boundaries and borders. From there, things became more serious and I understood their might be something worth investigating. The project slowly shaped and my interest shifted from geography to psychology. How did people living there defined themselves? What made them different and their land unique and how do they identify to it?

© Jean-François Hamelin, Window and Pool Table, from the series 'Temiscamingue'

© Jean-François Hamelin, Muddy Field, from the series 'Temiscamingue'

If you address the notion of landscape in 'Temiscamingue' from an historical and socio-political perspective, the vast northern territories of Quebec, which the Temiscamingue region is part of, and its natural resources played an important role in the shaping of a distinct collective identity here in Quebec from the 50’s up to the 90’s. But I feel that this notion on land and territory, something that is a collective common place and not only a resource, is becoming abstract and quickly fading away these days. Today, it mainly has an economic value, something that wasn’t the case a few decades earlier.

Now, there’s a slight shift in my latest project, 'Hutton ou la fin des terres' on how I approach the relationship between the landscape and its history. I’m trying to look at how we look and understand the physical evolution, another form of history, of the landscape through different techniques and sciences.

How about 'Construire les montagnes' and 'Hutton ou la fin des terres' projects you are working on?

JH: Well, 'Building Mountains' is for now at an halt since after 'La Pointe' I will be focusing on 'Hutton ou la fin des terres' which was made during a residency last summer (2016). The result of this project will be shown during next year’s photo festival in Gaspésie. I’m starting to realise that this project is slowly becoming bigger than I expected. What I mean is, this residency might be the first chapter or the instalment of something bigger, an idea I can definitely pursue in other regions and even outside Quebec. To quickly summarize the project, let say it has to do the various manners we have to compose and understand the fact that landscape, due a variety of geological processes, is in a constant state of evolution, but the timescale of these changes is so long that we can barely see its evolution.

© Jean-François Hamelin from the series 'Construire les montagnes'

How is the documentary photography world in Québec?

JH: If we take the term documentary in a broad sense, documentary is doing well. There is a lot of very good and very interesting projects being made in Quebec that could fit in, or at least relate to, this category and I definitely think it is a good thing. From an historical perspective “documentary” (whichever form it takes) was one of the first form of photography introduced into Quebec’s museums. The production of such work were supported by the major institutions such as the National Film Board. For some obscure reasons the term “documentary” is often seen as something pejorative or negative, the fact that your images might have a certain aesthetic that relates to it is definitely not something that will help you make your project get out there. Now, if you consider the options for showing the works, the situation is a bit tricky. That is one of the reason you will see a lot of people defending themselves of doing anything closely or loosely related to documentary work or doing photography that could have any relationship to the term. The good thing is that meanwhile, people didn’t stop producing this kind of work. Even if showing the work is hard, I feel that, somehow, they are trying to get the work out and photobook becomes a viable option.

How about the "Rencontres internationales de la photographie" in Gaspésie and generally the photography residencies programs?

JH: There are numerous artist residencies program in Quebec. They are often provided through artist-run centers. That being said, only a handful are dedicated specifically to photography meaning photographers have to compete with artists from other disciplines to get a spot. The "Rencontres internationales de la photographie" in Gaspesie is a festival held each summer. With it comes a photo residency program that bring european artists as well as artists from Quebec to the region to produce work. The way it works is pretty simple, each year there is a call to proposal and committee select the best project proposals. Gaspesie is a vast region, so photographers can decide where they want to work. Usually, the work produced during the residency is shown in next year’s festival.

You founded Photobook Club in Montréal. By sharing and presenting new photobooks each month, the club is looking to promote the ”photobook” as an art object. Could you tell us about this idea and suggest us three books of photography to keep an eye on?

JH: Simply to give proper credit to my colleagues, I co-founded The Photobook Club with my friends Josee and Thomas. The Photobook Club act as “reading club” or a traditional “book club” but for photobooks. People are asked to bring and present a book to the crowd. We then discuss the project, the images, the sequencing as well as the physical aspect of the book and try to see how every elements relate to the series and reinforce the final outcome. We organize 5 meetings a year and everyone is welcomed. We often end up with quite an interesting mix of people: photographers, artists, graphic designers, journalists and passionate photobook lovers! We are now expanding our activities to give lectures and workshop to a wider audience by participating to various art related events.

Meetings of Photobook Club Montreal, 2016

As for the recommendations, I must admit that I’m not always up to date in my purchased of photobook. I see a lot of them, but I tend to buy books that were published sometime a couple of years ago, books for which some images got stuck in my mind. But in terms of new release, I recently purchased 'The Great Unreal', by Onorato & Krebs, a book that I’ve known for quite a while. I’m looking forward their new book, 'Continental Drift' published by Patrick Frey. I should mention 'ZZYZX' (Mack books, 2016) by Gregory Halpern, a book I was extremely reluctant to purchased at first. He recently won the Photo Book of the year at this year Paris Photo. Another interesting and newly release book is 'One Shadow, One Sun' by Shane Lavalette. I like how he played and approached the narrative for this book.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

JH: There’s currently lot of things happening with the BNMTL (Montreal’s Biennial) and there are some pieces that are more interesting than the others. Among others, David Lamelas’s 'The Desert People', the work of Luis Jacob and Janice Kerbel. You can add to this the exhibitions at the Canadian Center for Architecture, 17 volcanoes and It‘s All Happening So Fast (A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment). One of the reason they inspire me is that they gather information from a variety of disciplines; architecture, design, all forms of art, social sciences, etc., and assemble them in a very interesting fashion that constantly shows how everything is interlinked. It find it to be a good way to approach a topic in a very broad manner without being selective or close minded. Plus their exhibition design is really neat.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer that influenced your work in some way?

JH: There’s plenty of photographers for which I find the work very inspiring and interesting, so it’s hard for me to pick only one of them. There the work of Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault, both filmmakers. They worked together on many projects for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada). Mark Steinmetz and Robert Adams are for sure sources of inspiration. Mark Ruwedel, Adam Jeppensen and Susan Lipper too. Alec Soth for his way of dealing with narrative and sequencing. I’m looking into Taryn Simon’s work quite a bite lately. I admire her way to conceptualize ideas, how she deal with all the information and, especially, how she to present it as a final work. Really, there’s so many!

Something I often go back to, as a source of inspiration, are american short stories. The work of Carver and Banks among others. I like this idea of creating something, deploying a story, in a very short amount of pages. The idea of creating a narrative that kind of let go of any superfluous elements. I find it to be a great way to experiment with the literary medium.

What’s ahead?

JH: I’m currently working on the editing and sequencing of the work made during last summer’s residency since there will be an exhibition of this project in the summer of 2017. I’ll continue to work on the book dummy of 'La Pointe' and continue to expand the ideas I worked on while shooting 'Hutton ou la fin des terres' (Hutton or the end of the lands). As for les Éditions du renard, I’m thrilled by the fact that we have a few photobooks in the making! This will be hard work, but I’m very excited by what is coming. Stay tuned!


Jean-François Hamelin
Les Éditions du Renard 
Photoclub Montreal 
urbanautica Canada