Christian Géber: “The photographer I am today has matured”

Guadeloupean photographer Christian Géber

Considered as one of the greatest photographers of Guadeloupe, Christian Géber explored, during his career, all the fields of the art of photography. After a stay of fifteen years in France, the professional photographer – who likes gardening when he has some free time – returned to Guadeloupe for eight years. With Kariculture.net, he agreed to discuss, among others, his passion for photography, his collaboration with a publishing house to produce a cooking encyclopedia and his former Caribbean and bilingual magazine.

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KARICULTURE.NET: You are considered one of the best photographers in Guadeloupe, why did you decide to practice the profession of photographer ?

Christian Géber: I became a photographer purely by chance, quite unexpectedly. I discovered photography through paper development in a lab. I was 23 years old, I joined the Army (where I stayed for six years), and a soldier after a watch invited me to come to the photo club. It was interesting and fifteen days after, I had set up a small laboratory at home, I collected developed films and I practiced to make pictures. After, I was tired of that so, I borrowed a camera. Then, I bought one of the Yachika Mat G brand, a very effective camera at the time that allowed to make photos in landscape and portrait format. Immediately, I began to photograph the Army wives, the children in brief, the regiment. From this experience was born my passion for photography.

At one point, I decided to interrupt my military career because I no longer had this fighting spirit inside of me. I had to make a living. Before the Army, I had studied at the École Professionnelle des Dessinateurs Industriels (EPDI) in Paris but I did not want to be an industrial designer, I chose to become a photographer. I was pretty prepared for the report. In 1976, when I came back to Guadeloupe, I worked for newspapers. However, I also wanted to create my own images so I started making composite images, working on the polysemy of the image. Many people remember the image I had made with a cutlass, handcuffs and a drum. One day, the painter Joël Girard told me: “do you know that you make art?” This question really shook me. I thought that I was like someone who, without knowing the alphabet, without knowing how to read or write, wrote right words ; I was a good technician, a good photographer but a poor ignorant…

Another day, someone offered me the book entitled “La Chambre Claire” written by Roland Barthes. I went to Canada, I registered for seminars, I focused on the theme of image semiology. Roland Barthes made me understand that : “the photographic image is a sample of something that will no longer exist”. We are living beings. When we photograph, we decide on the death of a moment. This moment exists only in the image but not in reality.

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KARICULTURE.NET: You worked for magazines, individuals, large companies, public authorities but you also made art photographs for your personal projects, what type of photo reports do you prefer?

Christian Géber: I prefer publicity photo because it requires certain knowledge and certain qualities. It is interesting to be able to get into someone else’s idea, i.e. the client, to animate his product in order to make it beautiful, to magnify it. There too, it is necesary to play on the polysemy of the image and the viewer understands it according to his level of reading.

Of course, there are also clients who have their concept that just needs to be carried out.

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KARICULTURE.NET: You even had the opportunity to create a bilingual magazine (French-English), Caraïbes Connexion / Caribbean Connexion. Can you tell us about this experience in the Caribbean?

Christian Géber: At the end of the 1980s, I worked at Radio Antilles which broadcast from the island of Montserrat. I thought that there were not many links between us, between Guadeloupe, Martinique and the other islands around us while the Caribbean exists. I thought it would be great to create a newspaper. With my friend Alain Lafage, we invested our money to create a press company and we recruited people to work with us. It was a bi-monthly magazine dedicated to general information with English-speaking and French-speaking sources. Thanks to my Caribbean experience, I had many contacts with our Caribbean neighbours, I had an address book in the Caribbean. With my tape recorder, I went to the islands to gather information for the newspaper. I interviewed politicians, I was invited to all major music festivals in the region. I went to many islands including Aruba, Saint Lucia, Antigua (my wife at that time was Antiguan), Barbados, Grenada, Haiti, Trinidad, Curaçao etc. When the first issue was published, a university in Canada subscribed to the newspaper. Unfortunately, Caraïbes Connexion / Caribbean Connexion lasted only two years, from 1989 to 1991.

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KARICULTURE.NET: What happened?

Christian Géber: One day, when I returned from a report on a Caribbean island, I heard there was a “coup” in the newsroom. People who wanted to run their own business – in particular someone who had a communication agency – had decided to take the newspaper that Lafage and I had founded. They had promised a lot of things (more advertisements, etc.) to the staff members of the magazine. These people who should have been loyal to me wanted me to be only the newspaper photographer, they considered, certainly, that I was just a photographer and I could not run a newspaper… I gave them all my reports in order they make the newspaper because that’s what they wanted. Until now, I’m waiting for the journal…

In fact, they had forgotten the most important thing: I was the one-man-band of Caraïbes Connexion / Caribbean Connexion because I paid for it, I made all the reports in the Caribbean and I even made the design.

What makes me sad about this experience is that we lost an opportunity to have a high-level production.

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KARICULTURE.NET: You also made beautiful food photos for an encyclopaedia of Creole cuisine, (Saveurs de la Table Créole), published in 1997, how was this adventure in the culinary field ?

Christian Géber: This Encyclopedia Saveurs de la Table Créole” was published by Les Éditions Caredda in 5 volumes. The initial step was the preparation of the samples to convince the publisher. Then, I had to go to Paris where chef Francis Delage’s restaurant was. The cooking workshop was located in a large apartment near the Gare de Lyon. For a year and a half, we worked intensively with a kitchen help and an assistant photographer, from Monday to Friday, to achieve this photographic production. There were 500 images of 500 recipes in 500 different sets. I did all the design work around the plate and the chef arranged attractively the food on the plate. Communication between us was very good. The quality of the photos surprised more than one person. The intensity of the colors, the materials, the very discreet use of the Madras fabric to avoid “doudouism” gave the images this feeling of warmth. With the agreement of the publisher, I went to Barcelona (Spain) where was the printer to correct the first copies because the gloss of the images did not emerge.

It was a great experience that brought me the ability to work with big companies. After that, I returned to France and I stayed there for about fifteen years. I worked, among others, with Moët and See which had decided to organize a competition centred around the liqueur Mandarine Napoléon. It made a culinary tour de France and asked to greatest chefs to prepare recipes by using this liqueur. My job was to photograph their recipes. Every year, I also took all the photos of the final competition which takes place in the city of Lille. Two books were published: one in French and one in English.

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KARICULTURE.NET: How does a photojournalist become an art photographer?

Christian Géber: As regards art photography, I think that every photographer makes art, part of his production can be considered as art. Any image with a certain quality is a work of art. This is the case for the war picture wich has depth, humanity and aesthetics as for the wedding photo. Art photography has no precise meaning.

Personally, the title of photographer-author suits me perfectly, I do not have to claim this title of art photographer. The photographer is the one who writes with the light. Initially, it has to record the light reflected by people, things… The photographer I am today is different from the one I was in 1980, I matured technically, intellectually and personally. This combination gives humanity to the work. It is like a musician who gets used to his instrument, he produces acceptable notes at first, then he becomes more skilful.

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KARICULTURE.NET: Photography evolved with the times, it became digital. You knew traditional photography which enables to obtain an image by photochemistry, do you ever regret all this process that made the photographer a kind of magician?

Christian Géber: It is true that with the chemical development, the photo was a kind of alchemy, little witchcraft, something special. Besides, I plan to set up a new lab to develop black and white photos.

Digital photography has its magic points. You cannot touch it like traditional photography, it’s something impalpable. When I went to the Caribbean with my film camera, it was only when I came back I knew what I had as images, today with digital technology, I can see the images right now. But, I have to constantly check if the photo I took is correct. The most interesting thing about digital is the fast transport of pictures.

However, whether the work is digital or traditional, the magic of the image is the moment of capture. Sometimes, I took a picture and I knew it had a special content, a moment of very high communication with the photographed person. To make a portrait, each time, I put in place a strategy to deceive the photographed, to encourage him to forget himself, not to act, to be himself and it is at this precise moment I take the photo and he does not even realize that I have already taken a picture.

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KARICULTURE.NET: The invention of digital photography and the drop in prices of cameras which are more and more compact democratized the practice of photography. Many people became photographers and even professional photographers, what do you think of this great upheaval within the profession?

Christian Géber: That leaves me completely cold. There are always invasions of people but there is a cream-skimming. Everyone has the right to take pictures. On the other hand, a certain code of ethics must to respected. For example, it is shabby when the one who already has a job as civil servant makes pictures and cuts prices. Professional photographers are also responsible for the large number of people who take pictures. I always said that it is necessary to be up to the job, to work with a high-performance and appropriate equipment. The first thing to do is to equip yourself as a professional. I have always worked with a kind of camera. When you give quality to the customers, you respect them. The professional must also get better, read, seek information, always take nothing for granted even if he took an excellent photo, it is a matter of human development. In addition to the technique, there is something that the photographer puts in his interpretation of the image, it’s his own personal touch. Today, how many photographers took the time to look into their work if what they had done was right? Only you can know if you made mistakes, you must not be afraid of discussing with other photographers.

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KARICULTURE.NET: In Guadeloupe, today, everyone speaks about the Caribbean, you know very well our geographical area, you lived in several Caribbean islands (Montserrat, Trinidad, Antigua, Saint Lucia etc.). Each island has its own “personality”, is there anything you prefered to photograph in the neighbouring islands ? Do you have any memories there ?

Christian Géber: We are very much alike, in the Caribbean. The only difference between us are small details in language, gesture etc. Our colonizers left us different imprints, our brains were stamped differently.

In Haiti, I enjoyed photographing people when they left the churches after the service. One Sunday, in Port-au-Prince, I saw a very well-dressed gentleman arriving, he had a hat and his Bible. His clothes were very well ironed. Everything was fine but when he went past me, there was a gaping hole at the back of his pants… He was a man of dignity despite his poverty. I did not photograph him out of modesty.

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KARICULTURE.NET: Do you have any plans for the future ?

Christian Géber: I am currently preparing an exhibition on the topic of violence from seven short stories that I wrote. There is a link between the text and the image which is not denotative. No photo shows the violence, it is suggested. This exhibition should be held in 2018 at the Memorial ACTe.

Planche Photos Christian Géber