“Aux Champs-Elysées!”, sung Joe Dassin in an 1969 ode to Paris’ most striking boulevard. The world-famous street houses luxury shops and historical monuments, has featured in fistfuls of iconic films and presumably millions of somewhat less iconic amateur photographs snapped by the throngs of tourists who visit the road every year.
Parisian photographer Francois Prost was captivated not by the street itself but by the tourists which swarm to the location every day. A vision of sunhats and oversized cameras, Francois’ subjects come from all over the world in numbers expansive enough to warrant a three-part series from the photographer, At The Champs-Elysées: a first part that shows people in the street, a second looking at body position of photographers and a third that shows tourists getting off coaches. We spoke to Francois to hear more about part three of his tongue-in-cheek series.
Why the Champs-Elysées?
I chose to focus on Champs-Elysées, because the job I had for the two last years was near by and passing by every morning made me think about what this place was, is and will be. Champs-Elysées is probably one of the most famous avenues in Paris, but Parisian people don’t like it that much because it has became a very touristy and superficial looking place. Having to go there everyday made me look at this place in an other way. i started to appreciate the surreal atmosphere that was happening there. The avenue is probably the busiest place in Paris, it lives 24/7 starting from very early in the morning with garbage man cleaning the pavement or service industry workers going to work, till very late at night with hookers looking for clients or people getting out from nightclubs while the day sees a massive flow of tourists strolling down. Everyday the avenue hosts not less than 300,000 people.
From a more anthropologic way, I think Champs-Elysées also represents pretty well the extreme globalised world from today. Every big cities has its own Champs-Elysées, with equivalent shops, fast food and fast fashion chain stores, bling bling restaurants, high end luxury stores, tourist shops, strip clubs and showrooms for iconic brands. Apart of the external historical Parisian architecture, there’s nothing much about the local culture: it’s a total international/globalised culture that exists here. But in an other hands, this place hosts a very eclectic mix of people that changes everyday, which makes it intriguing and surreal.
Tell us about the decision to photograph tourists getting out of their coach. Was your intention to make them appear like celebrities?
Coaches of tourists stop along the Arc de Triomphe roundabout everyday. Tourists basically get off to take a few picture of the Arc de Triomphe and get back the bus 15 minutes later to continue the tour. This happens everyday, and if you stop for a little while around Arc de Triomphe, you’ll see that this traffic is pretty mad — there’s always 10 to 15 massive buses parked wildly around! Noticing this crazy circus, I decided that I should welcome tourists as mega stars, to make their 15 minutes of the Arc de Triomphe experience even more memorable, to go deeper into their Parisian dream, as if they were getting off a private jet. At one point, I even wanted to put a red carpet in front of the staircase, but it was too complicated a process.
Did you ask them before you took the photos?
I never asked people before, as I wanted to get spontaneous reactions, as a paparazzi would shooting a star getting out from the supermarket. The goal was to freeze them with a flash on the descending staircase, and to immortalise their last moves before the big emotional surge they will get when discovering the Arc de Triomphe.
What kind of reactions did you get?
Reaction were eclectic, some people didn’t like it, some people yelled proudly the name of their country (especially Brazilians), some people thumbed up being looking happy about it, some people posed making victory signs with their hands, some people covered their face, some people asked me to retake them and to send it to them, some people asked me get out. I also could see a lot of people hesitating while getting down the staircase, but once they were out they appreciated the performance. I always tried to make them feel I wasn’t sleazy or badly intentioned, I always tried to welcome them with a gentle “Welcome to Paris, enjoy your time here“. some tourist guide came a few time to me asking me what i was doing, i told them that was a portrait photography project and they would say “Ok, go on then“.