Sébastien Millier Documentary Photography: A Sublime Visual Lyric

An Exclusive Interview with the Photographer

A Portrait, Photography by Sébastien Millier

Camera in hand, Sébastien Millier is busy unravelling the precious chronicle of an undulating landscape, Broken Hill. The name of Broken Hill, located in the far west of outback New South Wales, Australia, seems almost ironical. The wide-open vista is covered by cupric red soil. Sunlight plays here all day long.

The eerie silence of the desert is broken only by the vehicles and the heavy machinery at work. They are busy unearthing and transporting the precious metal both above and beneath the earth’s crust. But that is not all. If you strain your ears long enough you will hear the voices of working men and women, the sound of their bustling activities and even sighs.

On this sun-soaked forsaken land, Sébastien Millier is also busy shifting the Golden Soil. He intends to reveal the tales of the Broken Hill. His efforts, as documented in the Golden Soil, earned him awards and admirations from Prix de la Photographie, Paris, International Photography Awards (IPA) and Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize, Sydney in 2013.

Sébastien Millier’s photographic exploits do not end with Golden Soil by any means. His commissioned project Pay With A Kiss also received the Caples Award in 2013. From Nuit Blanche to Debris, Sébastien Millier’s photography explore the cycle of life and decay. It raises some serious questions about what lies Beneath the Surface. Learn more about this curious traveller and photographer’s journey from his own mouth.

Tell us of your childhood experiences and how the influence therein helped shape your life?

I grew up in a working–class suburb of Paris. My childhood was happy but, as a teenager, I was somewhat frustrated not to have found the opportunity to express myself. Despite the absence of any artistic influence in my family, my parents were always supportive of my choices. I’d say that this experience taught me the concepts of humility and resilience.

Portraits, Photography by Sebastien Millier

How did you fall in love with the charm of photography and its bewitching power of storytelling? Have you also received formal training?

I’d say it came gradually. Early on, I was attracted by literature and the power of words. Then poetry showed me some ingenuous ways to tell a story and develop ideas. The idea of storytelling through images only came afterwards.

I’m an autodidact. I didn’t receive any formal training in photography. I earned a science degree at a university in Paris and then took a break to travel and think about what I’d like to do with my life. I was lucky enough to meet great people at the right moment and they opened my mind and my eyes in many ways.

How the changing vista from France to Australia affected your life and provided creative inspiration? From and beyond the world of photography who have been your greatest sources of learning and motivation?

When radical changes take place, the personal balance is shaken to the core and during the rebuilding phase it tends to include new parameters. After my move to Australia, and mainly because of the language, I had to think again of my relationship to my family, especially my kids. Even if I was prepared, these changes proved to be big ones. On the other hand, they let me escape the natural weight of my life in France and allowed me to have a more global and clear vision of my own history.

Great humanistic photographers like W E Smith and Robert Capa had an early influence on me. More recently, UK based photographer Nadav Kander made a big impression on me. Also, the German duo Billy & Hells for their beautiful portraits…

A few weeks ago, during a trip to Paris, I rediscovered the power of Sebastiao Salgado’s pictures through a fantastic exhibition at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie called Genesis. Honestly, it was one of the best photographic exhibitions I’ve ever seen.

For my work, I like to be inspired by many different things from my day–to–day life. Generally, I like to derive inspiration from simple things, embracing them and adapting them to my taste while trying to ensure that they remain as simple as before.

A man at a french bistro, Photography by Sebastien Millier
French Bistro

For the sake of visual storytelling, how do you capture the depth of human emotion within a photographic frame? How important does human interaction become to portray the true self of the subject?

I like to think in terms of series when I tell stories but I try to create images that can also stand alone. I’m currently thinking about how I can use my taste for storytelling to enter into the world of motion. I like to prepare the main subject of my series beforehand; I often photograph people very intuitively and try to catch what affects me during a shoot.

For my personal work, I’m often working with non–professional talents. It’s not easy but I like that. They sometimes bring forth fresh ideas and attitudes.

What are the plus points and challenges you face while working within the limits of commercial projects?

On commercial projects, you have to go straight to the point because you often have a limited time to shoot. Everything has to be ready when you go behind your camera. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have the liberty to improvise sometimes but you have to take decisions very quickly. It’s a pretty good exercise and with time it becomes easier. A commercial project is also a good way to meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds and work with them as a team.

Tell us of the genesis of the project, ‘Beneath the Surface’ and its unique premise.

I love street photography. When it’s possible, I try to take photos that have the spontaneity of reportage. As I mentioned before, I usually work a lot on the concepts and the ideas in advance, sometimes for days or even for weeks, so when the time comes, I’m ready to go with a clear mind.

This project was special. Surprisingly, I didn’t know a lot about where I wanted to end. I walked for a few days in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney, sponging the atmosphere and meeting interesting characters. I shot some of them very quickly on location using natural light, others were shot in the second round with a bit of preparation (like the girl with the skateboard). After a while, a pattern emerged and the story popped–up. I’m not particularly attracted by the subject, death, but I will not escape from the reality either. My father’s health quickly declined the past few years and he’s now very sick. This series was a kind of tribute to him.

Beneath the Surface, Photography by Sebastien Millier
Beneath the Surface

‘Golden Soil’ facilitated your connection with a community of workers, namely the miners, of whom not much is known. Tell us about the experience that you have gathered during the course of the project and how it has left you enriched?

Firstly, I was surprised. Surprised by the young people I met. Some, men and women, were about 20 years old and are already working hard for some time, of course in a much better condition than before but still very harsh.

It was also a great opportunity to dive into the outback atmosphere of Australia and see how important it is to be part of a community for them. They work and live in a location continuously for about ten days, round the clock, without having a break. So, good relationship with others is crucial.

Golden Soil, Photography by Sebastien Millier
Golden Soil

What prompts you in tracing the history of discarded objects as you have done in, ‘Debris’ and ‘Pyro’?

Close–up pictures are the birth of a new world, a world where the infinitely small meets the infinitely great.

I started ‘Debris’ after having my first child. I used to go to the park with him and became more attentive to what lay on the ground. How surprised I was by the diversity of abandoned objects!
Before they disappear forever, I wanted to freeze them in their natural environment. So, for more convenience, I decided to build similar lighting conditions in my studio and collected real objects from outside. It’s only later I understood the strong connection that exists between the nascent life and the Debris disappearing into the ground. A sort of life cycle.

Debris, Photography by Sebastien Millier

Tell us of your hobbies and interests beyond photography.

I’m reading a lot and many books made a big impression on me. I admire narrative writers as Joseph Kessel and Victor Hugo for example. Also, the world of Samuel Beckett and his unique ways to combine words.

I love poetry too. When I moved to Australia, I left many books in France. Fortunately, I have a notebook full of excerpts from great authors and I’m using it all the time to find new ideas.

As I am an image–maker, I am used to focussing more on pictures when I’m watching a movie. It’s a shame because sometimes, I’m missing great stories only because I didn’t like the images/frame. I’m now trying to also focus on different parts of the story.

I love so many movies but let’s say 2001, The Space Odyssey not only for the beautiful pictures and atmosphere but also for the human parable. And, more recently, I was very impressed by The Time That Remains, a movie from the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman; full of great ideas and also very funny. I also admire the work of French director Jacques Audiard who brilliantly combines simple ideas innovatively. For me, The Prophet was just a masterpiece.

We are surrounded by thousands of pictures and the visual senses are predominant. I think, to better capture the beauty of our world, we need to step back a bit and learn again how to use other senses to appreciate what surrounds us. After that, the images can come again with a fresh taste.

How would you define your artistic evolution so far?

Difficult to answer. It is a continuous exchange between ourselves and the world surrounding us. I would say I know much better now where I want to conclude a project. On this particular point, my move to Australia was crucial. Often, everything is already there; we just need to understand and organise it. It is a long process but when it happens, it is unique.

Portrait of Sébastien Millier

Sébastien Millier prefers…

I love to always discover new destinations. On the other side of the world or two blocks away, it doesn’t matter a lot. The main thing is to share my curiosity with people I appreciate and discover new ways of thinking.

About food, what I can say is that French cuisine is not the only good food in the world!

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Sébastien Millier