Renaud Philippe’s Impermanence

by Photo Life

Did you enjoy Emmanuelle’s article on Renaud Philippe in the last issue? We’ve managed to get our hands on a few copies of his beautiful book, Impermanence, and now you can buy it right here in our online shop! To give you a feel for this evocative work, here’s an interview we did with Renaud in a café in Quebec City in 2016.

Renaud Philippe has a gift for capturing emotions, and his first book project is no exception. He explains, “I just had to do it. For ten years, I’d been saying ‘a book, a book,’ and this project could only be realized in the form of a book.”

“This project” is Impermanence, a work that exists in the space between documentary and photographic essay. This reflection on instability was motivated by the fact that Bangkok is sinking into the ground at a rate of 2 to 5 cm each year. Certain areas have lost 1.7 metres in the last 60 years! Nevertheless, industries continue to pump out groundwater and build taller and taller skyscrapers.

“I just had to do it. For ten years, I’d been saying ‘a book, a book,’ and this project could only be realized in the form of a book.”

Bangkok

“I hadn’t necessarily planned to go to Thailand, but I was selected for an artistic residence. And it was through this exchange that I was able to document Bangkok. It started out as a two-week visit, but I extended my trip. Two weeks was much too short to produce, choose and present this series. So I stayed an extra week to be able to step back and have more perspective on my work.” Renaud made the decision to develop the project over time and returned two more times to deepen his understanding. “During my second visit, I knew that it was about the idea of impermanence. I went from working on a fact to working on this idea.” On his last visit, he focused on seeking out specific images needed to express his vision fully.

Although the documentary aspect is a sort of throughline for the images, the project goes well beyond a standard documentary approach. “It’s still information. The information flows more freely, but it’s still information. Looking at the book, we understand in the end that there’s a danger. Through our way of living, our way of being, our way of consuming, we put ourselves in peril. There’s something behind almost every single photo, a reason. I didn’t include images out of context simply because they evoked impermanence: they were taken in places that have been greatly affected by climate change. Once there in those places, I allowed myself to follow my instinct.”

Creativity worked its magic, and this is an intentional and disarmingly heartfelt work. Renaud stresses that it’s important that we’re happy with the work we do and that we shouldn’t necessarily do every little thing other people want us to do. “When you’re the one in charge, it’s harder to ask yourself questions about the message you want to communicate.” When it comes to commissioned work, he says, “I want to have fun. That’s where I am right now. Over the years, you work and work and take the most contracts possible. Now it’s satisfying to be able to work the way I want to. When people approach me about something, it’s because they like my way of doing things.”

Putting his heart and soul into his projects also helps him make connections that end up leading to more connections later on. This is how he keeps his work cohesive and avoids staying on the surface. “The media will send a photographer somewhere for three days. In three days, you hardly have time to absorb the situation. You have time to be surprised and can make astounding images, but those images are often clichés.” This approach can result in striking images, but it doesn’t allow time for a subject to be explored fully.

The Book

“It’s my first book. One day, I read the quote ‘The first book that you make always ends up being crap, so work really hard on it.’ And I told myself that I didn’t want that.” That’s why he put all his effort into making the container worthy of the content. Not only thinking of the layout and fonts, he wanted the entire design to reflect the spirit of the work. He didn’t want the graphic design to interfere with the images, but “it’s about what is felt: the choice of materials, the format. Those things influence the way the message is interpreted. It’s about impermanence; it’s not about something solid but something fragile and delicate.”

“It’s my first book. One day, I read the quote ‘The first book that you make always ends up being crap, so work really hard on it.’ And I told myself that I didn’t want that.”

A Carbon-Neutral Project

Renaud wouldn’t even consider working on an environmental project that would drastically raise his carbon footprint. “Three trips to Bangkok is about what an Ethiopian’s carbon footprint is for four years. It’s mind-blowing!” So he bought carbon credits to compensate for his increased footprint through tree planting. “It’s offset. And now I no longer take a plane without buying carbon credits to cancel out the environmental cost.”

Impermanence by Renaud Philippe is available for purchase here.

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