Interview with Clotilde Richalet Szuch

As part of the current exhibition held at La Galerie – “Film-Makers from New Caledonia” –, French photographer Clotilde Richalet Szuch honored us with her presence in Singapore. Before the opening, she gave us some of her time to discuss her work, her inspirations and her upcoming projects. 


Alliance Française de Singapour : We are very happy to have you today at Alliance Française de Singapour, in the frame of the exhibition “Film-Makers from New Caledonia. Through the lens by Clotilde Richalet Szuch”. You already lived in Singapore before, and two of your photo series have been exhibited here in the past. How does it feel to be back in Singapore ? Could you tell us a bit more about your previous exhibitions held at Alliance Française, and obviously about this one ? 

Clotilde Richalet Szuch : Thank you so much for having me, it’s a great honour to be back in Singapore. When I was living here, I had a first exhibit about the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, with glamorous pictures of actors in black and white. The second exhibition was called “Women by a Woman : Portraits of Daily Life in South East Asia”. As I went through 9 countries of South East Asia, I wanted to raise an issue through my photos : when you travel alone to a country and don’t speak the same language, how do you communicate with people around you ? Being a woman wanting to interact with other women, the fact that we can understand each other with just a look or a smile was interesting to me.

This current exhibition, “Film-Makers from New Caledonia”, started from an idea of Valérie Meunier, from CREIPAC (Centre de Rencontres et d'Échanges Internationaux du Pacifique) in Nouméa. Every year, CREIPAC organises the New Caledonia Film Festival, which shows the short movies selected at the Cinema Festival of La Foa. This year, we wanted to put a face on those film-makers, as we don’t often know what they look like and what their story is. In these pictures, each movie-maker is in a location they chose – either a place which inspires them, or where they shot a part of their movies.

AFS : You travelled all over the world throughout your career. Since your first expatriation, how did your photographic style evolve ? And what are you currently doing in Oceania ?

CRS : I think that I knew early on the way I liked to frame my pictures. Cannes was a great exercise to let the characters [the actors] have space to express themselves. I think that’s now what I am trying to do in all my pictures. My style also matured through the topics I approached. I started in Singapore with a project about women in South East Asia, then about women and cinema in South America. Therefore, I’ve been evolving around the theme of women quite a bit, trying to help as little as I can.

After my project in South America, I realised how important it is to take photos, but also to listen to what people have to say. All those female South American film-makers were fighting for their rights, so I believe that photography and text go together, and journalism is something I really like. I thus took over the Caledonian edition of Le Petit Journal. That was a great experience, but I think I am a photographer at heart so then I came back to pure photography ! I now work for Hans Lucas, a press agency based in Paris. We are a team of 4 photographers, and that’s very fun to cover the news, with all the political events in New Caledonia for the past few years.

AFS : Your photographic series is showing portraits of Caledonian film-makers. Moreover, you started you career as a photographer for the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Since then, your work has often been linked to cinema, so where does this strong personal relation to cinema come from ?

CRS : I think this personal relation to cinema came pretty late. I was not a big film watcher when I was younger. It all really started in my twenties when I moved to Paris to study, and I didn’t even know the existence of the Cinémathèque. Some of my friends were going there, and I ended up accompanying then. It progressively opened my mind on so many different ways of saying and telling things which I couldn’t have known about otherwise. Then, I was very lucky to get an internship at the Cannes Festival for two years in a row, which resulted in them offering me a job at the Service de Presse Audiovisuelle du Festival de Cannes, where I worked for 13 more years. 

AFS : What are your cinematographic inspirations ? Is there any film-maker whose films have influenced your work ?

CRS : Can I switch your question to photographers ? Because I think there’s definitely a wave of “humanist photographers” – among which Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, whose photos always fascinated me. I think I was also inspired by photographers like Peter Lindbergh. I indeed tried to apply his black and white aesthetic while I was in Cannes, as well as other codes of fashion photography like producing a blur background in pictures. 

AFS : Would you someday consider to be a film-maker yourself ? Like for a documentary film about New Caledonia for instance ?

CRS : Well, for CREIPAC, I’m currently making my first documentary, in the frame of the Dis-moi dix mots initiative – as part of the Francophonie Week – and in collaboration with freshmen from the Blaise Pascal Highschool of Noumea. They picked a word in December and, since February, they are doing painting, sculpture or videos, keeping this word as a baseline reference. I’ve been filming the entire process. But I’m definitely not calling myself a film-maker – to me it’s not going to be a movie, it’s a documentary. It’s more like journalism mixed with film, rather than with photography.

AFS : Only 4 out of 15 pictures of your series show female movie-makers. Could you tell us to what extent female producers are represented in the New Caledonian cinema scene nowadays ? Is this something you’ve been looking to again ?

CRS : I think that the Caledonian situation is representative of what happens in the rest of the world. The parity is not there, for sure. In 2023 in New Caledonia, there are still more male movie-makers, but hopefully in a few years it’s going to balance out a little bit. However, I don’t think that parity is even an issue in New Caledonia – though I’m interested in it because I obviously worked on this theme before. I think it would rather be interesting to see why there are not more Kanak film-makers.

AFS : Last year, in the frame of International Women’s Day, you were already commissioned by the Haut Commissariat de la République to make a series of portraits of Caledonian women. Moreover, you took 18 pictures of Caledonian female artists and writers, which were exhibited in the frame of the Francophonie Week at CREIPAC. What do New Caledonian women inspire you ?

CRS : I think that in New Caledonia, it’s the opposite. It’s not the individuals that interest me the most, but rather the community that they build. When you go outside of Nouméa, you end up in the bush, where people live in communities with their families. So that’s why I’m interested in female empowerment as a community, while before I was rather trying to find the beauty in each. 

AFS : An important part of your career is also related to canine photography. In 2011, a collection of your dog pictures was published under the name World Dog Show Tour. In retrospect, how different is it to take a picture of human beings on the one hand, and of dogs on the other hand ?

CRS : I did a lot of dog portraits, for which I would do everything in the same way than for humans : in a studio, with lights… and with a little candy to keep the dog focused. The funniest part of these few years was indeed the book you mentioned – World Dog Show Tour. In one year, I went to 12 dog show contests, notably to Madison Square Garden in New York, to Lima, to Tokyo for the Asia Cup etc. I travelled around the world for dogs and it was amazing ! These contests were always such a mess, and these thousands of dogs, sorted by race, made me think of Cannes. The dogs are prepped for hours, they are being shown to the crowd… so I think the comparison can be funny, and the style of the pictures I took there – all black and white – can be compared to what I did in Cannes as well.

AFS : Your portraits often have a rough and raw look. We see human beings in their environment, or in places that are simply very significant for them. There’s not any artifice, no photo editing. Would you consider yourself a « humanist photographer », just like Cartier-Bresson ?

CRS : I hope so ! At least I’m trying hard (laughs). I don’t like the artifice too much. If I take a picture of somebody, I don’t want to break their trust by showing something they are not. I love to talk with people before and after taking the photo, in order not to betray who they are. That’s why I love to photograph people in their environment, so that there is always a story around them.

AFS : You are a real globe-trotter, and your pictures are undeniably an invitation to travel around the world. Do you have other exciting projects to come ? What is your next adventure ?

CRS : The big next adventure is the documentary. It’s my first time, so it’s a mix of positive excitement and of fear. But there are also smaller projects coming up. This year, I’ll be working with Caledonian dancer Olivia-Manissa Panatte. She’s doing empowerment and has been working with groups of women for years now. Every few months, she invites another artist to do creative dancing and painting with her. Together, we won a call for proposal launched by the Southern Province of New Caledonia, which will allow us to do empowerment with women around the theme of body marks and of ageing. This project will mix dancing, video and photography, again with women and for women. It’s also going to be interesting to work with somebody, because I always meet a lot of people but I often work alone.