CHARLES FRÉGER is a French portrait photographer and the creator of photography collective Piece of Cake.
Through his numerous books and projects, he portraits real phenomena, but his work is far from documentary photography.
He creates stories combining history, culture and anthropology that amaze the eye and the mind.
You are known for your portrait works with uniforms. What brought you to work in that field?
When I began working with photography I was directly drawn to working with portraits. As a young man I had quite a lot of energy and passion. Photography was the only thing I wanted to do and I was naive enough to follow that dream. I remember in 1998 there was a ship of the French navy that arrived in my hometown one morning. I decided to photograph the crew members. I liked the way they were all dressed in the same way, matching, blending in.
I enjoyed the rich color palette combined with minimalism.
My interest in photographing groups has always been as much about the visual side as it has been about the anthropology, the stories behind the people portrayed. I want to portray the tension between the individual and the community and visualize the uncertainty in the moment. This social aspect of the portraits is very essential in my work. It also sets it apart from documentary photography, since my work strongly reflects my way to behave with others. I have shot military uniforms, ice-skaters, ceremonial costumes and Japanese sumitoris. The one thing that always stays the same is that I always present the person in relation to their social group.
Your projects are very diverse and fascinating. Can you tell us about the process and the way you work?
I portrait things that are real and existing, but the event in the photograph itself is staged. I want the photo to have a story, but I also want it to be beautiful.For example I had a project called Wilder Mann, which I completed in 2012. It’s a book where I photographed different cultural costumes and studied the old pagan stories behind them. While I was making the book I travelled to 19 countries, I was working on it for two years. I visited numerous groups around the world and I was trying to understand what was connecting their stories and outfits.
We photographed the crazy costumes of people living in those areas, following their stories. Through my whole career I have concentrated on groups of people, their rituals and ways to behave together. It is not only about taking a picture of a person, but also the feeling of becoming one of them yourself.
When I start to work with a new group, at first I do research and try to get in touch with the people in the group. This can be very time consuming, especially since for one series I don’t portray just one person but usually around 12. I like to explore the rules, the languages and the attitudes inside these groups, and above all their way to behave. Step by step you get deeper and deeper into their world. Once you get into that game you never stop. It always takes you to a new place, for example when in 2012 I stayed in an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Mediterranean sea for a whole week just for my work. The whole process is very exciting.
I have done altogether 15 books. Right now I am working on a series about painting elephants in India. They paint their elephants with amazing colors and symbols for particular events.
You have also worked in fashion for well-established fashion magazines like W, POP and Dazed&Confused. How do you feel about fashion photography?
It is very different because fashion work is always commissioned. It has to be done with certain brands and models and the time is limited. It is out of my comfort zone. When I work with fashion I rarely crop the body in the photograph because I appreciate the model and styling. Recently I made a book for Lacoste, last year I worked also with Hermés and Louis Vuitton. I am planning a project with a famous Indian fashion designer Manish Arora. He does totally crazy things so I think it’s going to be fun.
How do you think you managed to create such a strong career?
I have always followed my own line of work. It has become like a dream I’m actually living. I never had a strict idea of what I wanted to become, so the dream is very extensive and I can moderate it in many ways; I can work together with fashion designers, shoot strict uniforms, go more into costumes, collaborate with designers, dancers or musicians. Wilder Mann was one of my projects that really expanded. A musician Teho Teardo, even made a CD about the book.
The importance is in following your own way and keeping on with projects, focusing on what it is like to be someone in the context of a community. What most fascinates me about photography is the tension. In every photograph there must be tension and that is what I aim to create. I think I will be going on about that until I finish. I use the same kind of light, the same kind of frame and the same attitude. I can put any of my works next to each other and they fit together.I feel like the key in my pictures is that you can use them in very different ways. Some people like to put them in their living room, some people see them as geography or anthropology, some take them as documents, cinematic costumes or fashion.
My projects are often sitting in the crossroads.
You are the founder of a photography collective Piece Of Cake (POC). Can you tell us the story behind it?
POC is a community, like a tribe. I created it in 2002 in Finland. We drove to the north of Norway with photographer Janne Lehtinen because I wanted to go to Kirkenes to photograph the royal king crabs, these huge red crabs with their body covered in spikes. You can only fish them in the north of Norway so we drove 1400 km up north from Helsinki to see them. When we arrived there some fishermen told us that it was not the right season to fish the crabs. I realized that my naivety had made me go there without checking if the crabs were actually there. We stayed there for three days. It was really pathetic and I thought “Ok, I should never be alone with these things.” While driving back south I got the idea of creating a group, which would be like a collective of professionals you could always contact and ask for support if you were in trouble or needed information. Once I got stuck in the desert with my tires flat. Of course people from POC couldn’t come there to pick me up, but it was very comforting to know I was still not alone.
Now a similar group has been formed in the north of USA. We meet once in a while and share info, experiences and knowledge. What you usually find out in a week of research takes you one hour. It also challenges you as an individual when you work closely with other professionals.