Françoise Callier has been the Programme Coordinator of Angkor Photo Festival since 2007. The festival, which just concluded its 11th edition, is the longest-running and arguably the most important in this region. Over the years, it has helped to discover, nurture and promote Asian photographers, many of whom are alumni of the festival’s free workshops. There is a family vibe to the festival, and Françoise is the mother figure, loved and respected. Splitting her time between Paris and Siem Reap, she remains tireless in championing talent and promoting photographic stories.
How did you get into the world of photography?
I was born into photography. My grandfather was in love with it, my father was in love with it. When I was a young girl, there was no television, no nothing, but my father was subscribing to a lot of photography magazines. It was my only view of the outside world. My father was an amateur, but he loved it. And then I worked 8 years in Perpignan. Before that I was an agent for photographers, mostly fashion photographers. Then I worked for Corbis agency. I was a long time in the business but in different fields.
How did you get involved with Angkor Photo Festival?
I came here by accident. I was in Antarctica – because I love penguins – and later made a children’s book with my photography for my granddaughter. I was asked if I would show my photos to the kids during Children’s Day. I said, “Of course.” Then I asked if I could come and help as a volunteer. Soon after they asked if I wanted to do the programming for the festival. I’ve been doing it ever since 2007.
A lot of people started here as volunteers!
(Laughs) yes that’s true.
What was your first impression of Asian photography, was it different from what you were used to?
It was different. At that time, there was a special Bangladeshi way of taking photos because Shahidul (Alam) was influencing a lot of the Pathshala school students. But now, it’s changing and they are doing different things. The Japanese are doing something different. A lot of Chinese photographers are photographing in the old way, which I like a lot. A lot of them are also making very long-term stories. In every country, it is a little bit different.
What about Cambodia, where the festival is held?
In Cambodia, there are still not many photographers doing the kind of work that is suitable for us at the festival, and so sometimes it is difficult for me to find new work that we can show. Remissa is different. He is an AP photographer, but every two years he’s producing personal work and it is (pop!) always fantastic. For example, the last festival in China, I showed a story Fish and Ants. It’s very interesting, it’s beautiful. There was a guy from an agency in the States, who told me, “Francoise, where did you find this? It is incredible, it can win the World Press!” And I said, yes, but the work is a little bit old. Remissa is very interesting.
How much work are you supposed to produce in order to be noticed?
It depends because some works take many years for a photographer to complete. For the festival, as we have it every year, of course I am hoping to see new work each year.
There is also one problem with quite a lot of Asian photographers – they are not interested enough in interesting stories from their own countries. But an example of someone doing really good work is Munem Wasif, who started his story on old Dhaka. It is a fantastic story and it is really documenting. He is the only one who is doing that. He’s been working on it for eight years.
Why do you think this is so, that they are not photographing these stories?
I don’t know exactly, maybe they think people won’t be interested. You know, stories like typhoons and floods, are more, wow! It’s in the news.
Also, the photographers were not travelling a lot before. Now they are travelling and they are seeing more work from other countries. They are discovering, ‘I can do this, I can do that’. I think this festival is very important for that. They are meeting from all over Asia and they see different things.
Every year you show a large number of photography stories, some recognised widely, many not. How do you find these discoveries?
We also have submissions. This year I got 1300, but I also dig on the Internet a lot to find others. I feel a lot of submissions are looking the same, with empty houses, empty landscapes, and if there is someone in the photo, their eyes are empty also. They try to copy. And it is a bad idea.
You mean following trends in photography?
There is an article about there being a lot more contests now and a lot of photographers doing stories to win contests instead of working with their instincts and their own feelings. The contests are bad things, because there are more and more. They are paying contests, most of them. I was talking to someone and they asked, “How’s the festival going?” I said, it’s going well but for money, and they asked, “Oh why don’t you make a contest?” I said, no. Also, there is another thing, at more and more festivals you have to pay a fee to submit your work. That is a form of segregation because a lot of good photographers cannot afford it.
It would seem that photographers are not so widely exposed outside their own countries or the region, why do you think this is so?
In France, there were 60 festivals and there were very few non-Occidental photographers. I am always very puzzled with that, because I think I would like to see Bangladesh by a Bangladeshi photographer. Of course, as they are from the country they speak the language first, they have access to more things and they can make long-term projects that most of the time are more interesting.
And they give an insider perspective.
So why not showcase more local photographers?
It can be hard to find sometimes. Digging on the Internet, it takes a lot of time. But, it is slowly changing. I see in Perpignan, more and more they are showing Asian and other photography. In Paris, there is a photo biennale that is very interesting called Photoquai – it shows only non-Occidental photographers. They have curators from different countries, so people who know about photography in their own country. For me it is a very good initiative. It is a discovery for the people in France. They don’t know the photographers.
And that is one way you are helping to promote these photographers internationally?
Yes, absolutely. Curating for festivals, whether it is for exhibitions or slideshows, it depends on the asking.
In your support of photographers, I understand that when Asian photographers are passing through Paris they end up staying with you.
(Laughs) yes, even Shahidul is coming this year. Normally I don’t take people I don’t know anymore, because it has happened I have three at the same time in my apartment. If I can help I do, but I don’t say yes automatically (laughs).
You’ve had many success stories from Angkor, can you tell us about a few of them.
I met Sean Lee in Singapore. He had 13 photos to show me. It was his first story about his family. But you could feel the talent. So I made an exhibition. Then Sean was in the workshop. One night, I saw this beautiful blonde girl entering the office (laughs) and it was Sean as a transvestite. He made the story here during the workshop, and it went (pop) all over the world.
Later he made another story called Homework. He made photos of his family, staged in all sorts of poses. It was fun and they were touching. All the atmosphere of the family changed. I remember Sean was Skyping me and his father was in the background (mimics jumping around). “Oh Francoise I have a lot of ideas!” (laughs) It was an incredible change he made, doing these two stories.
There is Maika Elan from Vietnam who started a project here about gays called The Pink Choice, and that has also gone a long way.
I’m trying with my curation to help the photographers to show their work in other countries. Some have become quite famous. I think in Photoquai this year there were eight photographers whom we have showed before.
And there is Sohrab Hura, another workshop alumnus who is now a Magnum nominee.
Sohrab doesn’t want to tell, but since last year, I thought it’s not good for the festival to always be me curating. I am getting a bit old. Since last year, there is Kosuke (Okahara) and Sohrab helping me with the selection.
What fresh perspective do they bring?
They know more photographers than I do and they can advise. It’s another eye, a different way of looking at things. Sometimes Sohrab says, “This one is fantastic!” And I say I don’t like it. But after awhile, I think he is completely right. I wouldn’t have chosen that work myself.
What sort of work do you choose?
I’m quite eclectic. The kind of work we don’t show is conceptual photography. I don’t like it that much, as usually I don’t understand what they want to tell. I’m more interested in documentary photography and also a lot of personal stories.
Now that Angkor is in its 11th year, are you and the team taking a pause and thinking of the festival’s direction?
I think we are in the right direction. It might make me sound pretentious (laughs). Also this festival is really like a family, you know. People are making friends at the workshop, and then the next year they are coming back to see their friends. It’s a very friendly festival. It is easy for young photographers to show their work to the director of an agency or an editor of a magazine. There is no hierarchy, everybody is a bit the same. Jean Françoise Leroy of Perpignan came twice, once to see the festival, once as an invited curator. At Perpignan if you want to see the director, it’s a whole different story, but there are also 3000 people there. In fact, we don’t really want to grow too big. We want to do better what we do but to remain with the same atmosphere.
We are one of the only festivals where you get everything for free. The workshops, the exhibitions, everything for free. That does not happen very often and maybe that’s why there are more Asian people coming.
Is there a possibility that if funding becomes too much of a problem, Angkor will cease to be free?
No, I don’t think so. That is one of our priorities, to keep it free.
Thanks to Françoise Callier for taking the time to do the interview. As an aside, I volunteered at the festival this year, and it was an engaging and inspiring experience. Thanks to Jessica Lim for facilitating the process.