The Historic Photography of #MarcRiboud

“When somebody asks me what my best photograph is, I answer, I hope to do it tomorrow and thus try to change my way of seeing.” Marc Riboud

Written by: Julius Gavroche

Few photographic journalists traveled the 20th century as Marc Riboud, both in space and time. And though he would photograph many of the powerful of the events of the age, Riboud’s eye never left the daily life of the many who created and moved events behind the limelight; indeed, who made those events possible. With the eye of a child, he opened himself to the world. Or in his own words, “My obsession is to photograph life in what it has of most intense and to do so as intensely as possible”. (Público 01/09/2016)

As the individual that he was, he was the child and militant of the French resistance. As a photographer, he was the student of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. (He would leave the photography group Magnum, founded by Cartier-Bresson and Capa, in 1979, having no sympathy with the competition for glory that came to characterise the agency). And his passions would take him to Maoist China, Japan, India, the war of Vietnam and Cambodia, revolutionary Cuba, the independence struggles in Africa, the United States in the 1960s, May 68 in France, the Iranian revolution, and beyond.

His eye was an engaged one, to use a term he disliked; yet engaged not by political identification, but in the same way that a child’s eye is: curious, sympathetic, open. The ugly and the beautiful are captured equally in his lens, but with a subtlety that defies moral judgement. We see without thinking, and we are thereby invited to think. We see without direction, sloganeering, and the world’s joys and tragedies show themselves. Marc Riboud’s art has us see differently, and to continue to do so, even after we no longer behold his photographs.


Marc Riboud died at the age of 93 this last 30th of August. We here modestly celebrate and share his innocent eye …

Excerpts from an interview of 1987, with Frank Horvat. For the full interview, click here.
I never wanted to be a witness. I just went into the world – or rather around the planet.

I don’t like the word “witnessing”. In the Sixties, I often returned to Vietnam, not because I believed in what was called “concerned photography”, nor to be a witness, but simply to have a close look at events that so many people were talking about from a distance. It was difficult, at the time, to not feel sympathetic to the Vietnamese, who were holding out against the American bombs. Sympathy, after all, is a better approach to understanding than indifference, or than the so called objectivity, that some preach but that in fact is impossible, in photography as in any other field.

Places are like friends, you want to keep in contact with them, to be informed about their changes and to find out how they evolve. In the Sixties and Seventies I often went back to Vietnam, China and India. Important things were happening there, and for me it was natural to return, without any preconceived ideas about what I would find : you can’t foresee what’s going to surprise you.

The idea of photography as evidence is pure bullshit. A photo is no more proof of any reality than what you may hear being said by someone in a bus. We only record details, small fragments of the world. This cannot allow any judgement, even if the sum of these details may convey a point of view.

I think you should simply present what you discover. The ideal would be to return to the vision you had when you were a child: only children can really see, without any preconceived ideas.

I’m curious about everything that’s foreign to me, and all the more as it’s more foreign. The people I photograph seem to me very different from myself. There was a fashion, for a while, of becoming a miner to photograph miners, or a muslim to photograph muslims, etc. I don’t believe in this, because if you become like the other, the surprise is gone. You better remain yourself and let yourself be surprised.

Photographers … shouldn’t think of themselves as witnesses, only because they walk around with a camera. Forget about witnessing. Say to yourself that photography is a little everyday job. Stick to your curiosity, live it as a passion, nourish it by giving up as many ties as possible with your home place, because ties make you worry, and when you worry you don’t see so well – which is why children see better than grown-ups and why illiterate people have a better visual memory. I don’t think about witnessing. I like to photograph people, but I may feel just as interested in misty mountains or in still lives – as long as they allow some visual combination. Though I prefer moving subjects, because photography is mainly about capturing one instant rather than another, catching it when it’s ripe, freezing the movement at the right time. Like the right note in music, or the right balance in architecture. The pleasure is all the greater when the challenge is tougher, for instance when the elements to be assembled are more varied, more mobile or less
predictable.That’s what I look for and why I prefer China to Australia: simply because in China things seem to move a little more.

We must establish our criteria, like a frame we build little by little. But once it’s built, we may discover new openings beyond it. If there was only the frame, we would soon slide into aestheticism.
Luckily, life doesn’t allow frames to last, reality is a visual chaos, a cluster of shapes continuousy mixed and superimposed, a muddle that we must prune in order to find an order that is understandable to others and that can be separated from the rest. To choose is our way to take a bearing, to find out where we are. We cannot create forms, as painters and sculptors do, but our purpose is the same : to simplify what we see, in order to make it understandable.

The line of vision, when it comes down to it, is our dreaming. We should relearn to see as we did in our childhood, with the same pleasure in discovery, the same surprise at everything around us. But this dreaming must be performed with strictness. Dreaming and strictness are not in contradiction, they are but different aspects of the same activity. As with music : no other form of expression is constructed with such mathematical precision, and yet it grips our senses and our guts. Technique and sensitivity go together, one cannot exist without the other.

The target of our line of sight is reality – but our framing can transform it into a dream.

There are different ways of presenting what’s important. The advertising shot you took for a champagne brand, where you only show a naked shoulder, seems more sensual to me than any photograph of spread legs. In the same way, the experience of violence can be conveyed by photographing day to day relations between human beings, without having to show corpses!

It’s easy to explain. To photograph a naked woman, you either have to pay one to get undressed, or to photograph the woman you love. Both make me feel uneasy. Though I would be delighted to wander about in a forest full of young, beautiful and naked women. If you can tell me of such a place, I’ll rush there. But what exactly do you mean by eroticism? The sexual act isn’t usually performed in front of other people, to photograph one I would have to stage it – except that I don’t know how to stage. If, while walking around, I came across an erotic scene, then possibly… But then my shyness would hold me back, as when I’m faced with suffering. If I see someone suffering in a hospital bed, I don’t reach out for my camera – and particularly not if that person is close to me. Any erotic situation I watched would either be between people who don’t know they are being observed, or between people close to me. In either case, there would be a line I couldn’t cross, I would feel as if I were committing rape. All the erotic photos I’ve seen, and where I could sense some kind of emotion, were staged. And staging is an art by itself, I wouldn’t know how to stage a photo in which the emotion seemed genuine.”

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