Candid and peaceful, François-Marie Banier talks us through his life-long quest of photographing strangers
The French photographer learned portraiture from Man Ray, and has taken more than a million snapshots of people, mostly on the street. Here, he talks us through his evocative practice.
- Ayla Angelos
- 30 June 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Evoking a state of peace and stillness, François-Marie Banier’s recently published book, Dreamers, is a sweet documentation of candour. A portraiture compilation of Moroccan construction workers at rest, the book is characteristic of his photographic intentions – that being, to capture strangers in brief moments of idleness.
For the French photographer, the desire to document his surroundings stems from his journalistic background. Particularly that of newspapers, which he refers to as his “second soul” and something that he was drawn to even before he knew how to read. “My father, Étienne Banyaï, a Hungarian immigrant who later changed his name to Banier, was a publicist,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Every day, tons of newspapers and magazines would arrive at our home and I would spring on them.” Criminals and victims displayed on the front pages of the France-Soir were on show to this young creative, alongside their portraits. “Every one of the pictures were breathtaking and from them I was taught two lessons: the first, how to study faces, how to guess who wouldn’t hesitate to kill me; and the second, if I ever had to shoot devils or angels, where to focus.” The latter being more important to his practice at the time, yet as it turns out the first became more useful.
As time went on, magazines like Life, Time, Vogue, L’Officiel, Harper’s Bazaar, Paris-Match and L’Œil began to inform his photographic vocabulary, alongside an exposure into the fashion industry laid out by his father – who would often show his son the work of various photographers. There was also a pivotal moment when François-Marie had discovered the Surrealist period and, at the age of 16, he was introduced to Man Ray through Salvador Dali. “Three years later and I was [Man Ray’s] neighbour; he lived on rue Férou, I lived on rue Servandoni. He described to me how he made his portraits.” A few years later and he was working for Pierre Cardin as a press officer, meeting various figures within the industry, before coming to realise his true passion for photographing people.
“I must confess,” he continues, “I’ve taken more than a million snapshots of people – for the most part on the street. I’m deliberately not naming them encounters.” With each subject, he aims to approach them individually and to capture what sets them apart from any other. All are captured in black and white, which is a stylistic choice by the photographer due to the simplicity and tenderness it presents. “My photographs are there to educate about the rich character of each person,” he says, “be it a vagabond, a bad lady, a drunk, or Ray Charles or any other individual. Each one’s poetry, each one’s voice.”
François-Marie has a repertoire filled with novels, plays, art and photography. Most recently, however, he’s launched a trilogy of photo books, including Battlefields – a documentation of gay prides – Passport – the third in a series dedicated to Afghan emigrants – as well as Dreamers, all of which has been published by Steidl. “Dreamers is not a book, it is an opera,” says the photographer. “I state this all the more freely given that I never go to the opera.” Of course there is no direct link to the opera within the book’s pages, but there is most certainly some underlying themes and connotations associated with the opera’s grandeur and theatre, laid out bare through his photographic eye.
The book began during a trip to Marrakech, whereby François-Marie walked into a contraction site filled with workers who were busy on the job. “I love photographing workers, I’ve loved it from the start,” he continues, pointing out how there’s not a day where he doesn’t come back with one or two photographs of workers on his camera. He was drawn in by the worker’s labour, behaviour and modesty, he says. “I don’t reason, I watch; I want to keep the image of the construction worker’s face whose wife and children are waiting for him at home. The dignity of such a life in squalor strikes me like lightning.” Then, during lunchtime, he notices them taking a rest on the ground – “a thing of beauty” – and he would photograph their poses with sublimity, the way he does with all of his projects. “Everybody looks stupid lying in a bed,” François-Marie concludes. “Where do you think I am lying while I write these words? On the floor.”
François-Marie Banier: Battlefields