There's something immersive with the travel photographs of Elie Souffan, allowing the audience to glimpse places across the world through a secondhand experience of the photograph. The visual storytelling is sophisticatedly tied to his careful and observant eyes, searching for patterns found in each location. From the waters of the Dead Sea, the lush views of Napoli to the streets of Seoul, Elie captures not just a scene, but of life and culture both from the individual and of the community.
How are you lately as a photographer in the times of the pandemic?
Those pandemic times are not easy when you’re a photographer. Everything is shut, and everybody stays at home. As my last work Masks and motorbikes already dealt with masks – and even if the context is totally different this time – I don't really feel like working on this topic again. So I refocused on Paris, my city, and the Vosges in the East of France, where part of my family is from.
How did you get into photography and film?
As a kid, I was nourished by family albums, my photograph dad’s works, and very affected by the book “The Americans” by Robert Frank in my late teens. I started to take pictures with a digital camera, during a trip to San Francisco. Then during the World Cup 2018, I started buying disposable cameras. This was my first encounter with the magic of film. Then I bought myself a Nikon F3 with 50 mm 1.4. I carried it with me on my trip to South Korea and ever since it hasn’t left my side.
As you've been traveling all over the world and taking photos – something distinct about your work is how you focus on certain aspects of the place and culture that subtly invokes more nuanced visual storytelling – like motorbike usage in Saigon, the "dolce vita" in Napoli, and the "ajumma" in South Korea. May you share with us more about how and why you choose the particular subjects for the series.
First of all, I didn’t go to these countries knowing what my subject matter will be. I just discovered the place, and let myself soaked up in the atmosphere. Then I try to find a distinguished pattern among the places. In Vietnam for example, amongst the beauty of landscapes, architecture, and people’s kindness, I was amazed by the number of motorbikes, moving like a unique entity, making a loud but happy mess. But besides this messy crowd, I found real tranquility, a peace, inner to Vietnam, like everything is fine, and it is. Masks were the other visual particularity of Vietnam cities. And both were connected. Today, everyone wears masks because of Covid, but before that, it was something really unusual in occidental countries. But sometimes it doesn’t have to be that specific. It could be a feeling I experienced, like the Dolce Vita in Napoli and Procida.
How many places have you been to and what was your favorite? How about your favorite experiences and moments of the places?
I went to Vietnam, South Korea, Israel, Brasil, San Francisco, and some European countries. I think the best place I went to was the Dead Sea in Israel. This place feels like being on another planet. You’re 492 meters under the level of the sea, so the pressure is very heavy. And the salt, the smell of sulfur, and people bathing make this place unreal. I also loved the very lively colors of Procida, Salvador do Brasil, and Halong Bay in Vietnam.
What attracts you to travel? What do you look for when doing so?
The thing I love about traveling to different countries is discovering culture and people I don’t know. Traveling allows you to take a step back in the world, but also on yourself. It means discovering and immersing in other cultures, each one as inspiring as the other. It puts things into perspective and every time I come back from a trip, I have a new look at my own city. Travelling teaches you how to look at things. I really miss it.
What element do you usually pay extra attention to when composing an image?
I think that color is the first thing I pay extra attention to. I use some black and white but I really prefer colors because it reflects the mood of a moment. You can express so much more with it. A colorful background is a good start to a beautiful photo. Then, wherever possible, I add people in the foreground or not.
What or who influences and inspires you in your art?
Besides photography, cinema really inspires me. I love the work of Wong Kar Wai, Roger Deakins, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noé, Martin Scorsese. At the moment, I’m discovering South Korean cinema. I love its poetry. I also read a lot of photo books because to me it’s the best way to enjoy a photograph’s work. Because it’s a real item, you can “feel” the photo, and because it reflects more the artist’s thoughts. My absolute favorite one is The Americans by Robert Frank. I’m also a huge fan of Raymond Depardon, Joel Meyerowitz, or Gregory Halpern.
What's next for Elie Souffan?
A fanzine is in preparation with two photographer friends Pierre Griffon and Pauline Deschamps, and maybe for an exhibition too. And as soon as the sanitary restrictions lift, I hope to travel again, to Taiwan or Japan. I will probably experience medium format film.