Stanislas Guigui: “All My Characters Have the Same Value: Courage”

Photographer and traveler Stanislas Guigui told Bird In Flight, what kind of people end up in a Colombian shantytown and how best to spend time with cabaret dancers so that your neighbors hate you.

Stanislas Guigui, 46 years old

French photographer, member of Agence VU’. Born in Paris, specializes in Colombia and South America. Lived three years in El Cartucho, the slum of Bogota. The author of two books: Cabaret New Burlesque (2011) about life on the stage and behind the scenes of a Parisian burlesque show; and Atras del Muro (2014) about El Cartucho. His solo exhibitions have been held in galleries in France, Italy, Spain and China.

I was 9 years old when my dad bought a VHS player. In the beginning we only had 3 movies, but I watched them everyday during summer holidays. At that time, I realized that I would become a photographer or cinéma director. Then I started to take my father’s camera and, when he’d develop the film, he used to find some of my pictures.

I love cartoons and movies. They are still most of my inspiration. The work of other photographers isn’t especially interesting, since everybody photographs something. There are geniuses, but it’s not possible to follow them all. Classical literature is the most important thing in the world: Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Robert Lewis Stevenson.

I love people. They’re interesting and beautiful. It’s more interesting to shoot the cracks of the soul, rather than smooth or sleek people. I get along with different people. They’re not just models for me. I cannot keep distance from them. I share many moments of life with the people in the photographs.

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I don’t have heroes. I respect the people I work with, and they also respect me. When I was in Cartucho, I ate there and I slept there. I didn’t go there for the pictures. My way of photographing is similar to being a good friend, a lover or a doctor. People open their doors, show you their bodies, parts of their souls.

I really never felt comfortable at home and in my family. I’m different. Maybe it’s because I’m half jew, and half Christian? My characters are viewed as freaks, but they are also human.

Locals are rebels — hungry, courageous, dark. I live now in the red light district in Santa Fe in Bogota. Everybody tells me it’s dangerous, noisy, dirty. Six deaths in two months. Fights. Police. But I feel well with them. It’s not for the adrenaline. The people are gentle and easy. Everything here is fast. No complications. No judgements. And so many people with unbelievable lives and incredible personalities.

El Cartucho is a kingdom of thieves. The cour des miracles in Notre Dame de Paris de Victor Hugo. A huge district in the city center that accepts only beggars, thieves, drugs addicts, and street kids. You can buy everything there: weapons, cocaine, crack. Everybody has a gun or knife and is a member of some gang. They live against each other and against the police. Colombia has had a civil war since 1948 with six million displaced people.There were too many people on the streets, so the police put them in El Cartucho, where most of them fall into addiction and delinquency. They don’t have a choice. Their backs are against the walls society uses to cut them off.

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Once I was kidnapped by a gang, but thanks to my friends, I was able to get free. It’s risky to go to an unknown place alone with a camera. The police don’t come to search for your corpse. Imagine how much money your camera and lenses are worth to them. One gram of coke is $2!

It would be easy to show Cartucho as a rat hole. But it’s not only this. I think there are two kinds of photographers: those who show what people can’t or don’t see, and those who interpret reality. I’m somewhere between. I don’t always shoot what I see, but what I feel. This is my own interpretation of reality.

World press, advertising and fashion campaigns, an exhibition in MOMA and a retrospective at the Jeu de Paume or at Le Grand Palais in Paris? No. I just want to continue and to be paid for it.

The hardest part is the waiting. Waiting for people to agree to be photographed. Waiting for money to buy a plane ticket to get the story that you want. And travel. Because after September 11th, I hate planes and all that security shit. I hate sitting in a chair for many hours, and I’m a big smoker. Every time I take a plane, I feel like I’m in jail. Also, I have photophobia, so sometimes taking pictures with a digital camera really hurts my eyes.

I have no goals. World press, advertising and fashion campaigns, an exhibition in MOMA and a retrospective at the Jeu de Paume or at Le Grand Palais in Paris? No. I just want to continue and to be paid for it.

Sometimes, you just observe, sometimes you desperately want to help. But most often you want to share. In that world of darkness, you have to be close to the people, otherwise they won’t accept you. My reportages are experiences of life, friendship. If you want to help. then you need to understand the problem and show it.

Cuchillo Bohemio was simple. It was one of my last rumbas in Bogota some years ago. In a tavern I used to go with friends, we organized a big fiesta with hookers, mariachis, street people. And after a few hours of hot music, girls and a lot of alcohols, these two men started to fight. Weapons are very usual. It was crazy, because everybody around was shouting and whistling. Fortunately they stopped before first blood. This series was bought by the Musée Niecephore Niepce in France.

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I feel sad when people don’t like my pictures of them. Or when they suffer too much. When something unjust happens to them. I am happy when I share good moments or discover something new. When I take good pictures and when people are happy to pose for me. Photography is an act of communication for me.

Cabaret New Burlesque was my second project after Cartucho. I was just finishing a movie and after all these years of violence and misery, I wanted something more easy and cool. I love women and I saw some images of this troupe when I was in Colombia. I contacted them, and they invited me on their tour of Europe. I was quickly integrated into the band and it was a lot of fun. Then we made the book and exhibitions, and four years later, we are still good friends. When they came to Marseille, we had a crazy party and my neighbours hated me for the noise and all the mess.
Everybody asked me to shoot them in color and sell the pictures to the press. But I did not. Those women remind me the 1930s in the USA and, for me, their beauty is totally nontemporal. So my vision was black and white. I don’t work for a magazine and the most important thing for me is doing what I feel. The main goal of the project was achieved: I made a book. The rest is not important, and I really don’t mind if magazines don’t buy my work. I don’t consider myself a journalist. I hope some of my photos will at least be framed in nice places. After all, magazines end up in the bathroom.

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About Mongol Warriors, we live in a society that separates people and at the same time models them as one. Global shit culture. Mongols warriors are out of their time and I know they will disappear sooner or later.

For me, there is a big difference between a man who is capable of hunting for food and one who is able only to buy a steak at a supermarket. I like strong people. Fighters. And in my work, all the characters are from the same family: pirates, thieves, gypsies, freaks, indians, cowboys and Mongol warriors. They are all similar. They all have the same value: courage. They live by their own rules. It was like a child’s dream for me, Michel Strogoff from the Jules Verne book. A long time ago, when I first saw these people on TV, I knew they were beautiful.

Many photographers work exactly the same way – the same frames, colors, style. I am not a technician and I don’t belong to a school. The style of Atras del Muro was an accident. Everything was overexposed. Because of my photophobia, I take very contrasting pictures. A little trashy sometimes, but I like it. I’ve tried different cameras, and I always take the same kind of pictures. Exactly the same.

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There are no taboos. Death, sex — I shoot everything. The only thing I won’t take a picture of is an embarrassing scene. And I don’t shoot people I don’t like. Sometimes people would like to see another image of themselves, but they are like they are and there is no discussion. If they don’t like their image, I cannot do anything about it. But I won’t shoot them in bad situation. I don’t like voyeurism.
In Marseille I was in a really small bar looking for new models. A woman offered to sleep with me but I told her that I was only looking for a model. We went to her flat just a few streets away. She was a bit drunk and I knew it was gonna be fast. When we arrived she went to the toilet. In the mean time I took out my camera, arranged the lights. When she got out of the bathroom, she had her pants at her knees. She jumped on her bed to get naked and finished with her legs wide open. I put a blanket on her and left. Five minutes later, she was pursuing and insulting me in the street. I have the whole sequence in images but I never show the last part where she is ugly, drunk and indecent. If she’d done it on purpose with no alcohol, they would be different photos. But they show her in a negative light, so they does not exist. The moral is simple. If good wins, I continue shooting. If it loses, I help.

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Charlie Chaplin said that life must be a wonderful adventure. I still believe in a better world but I think it will come from people. Not from governments. I am a pure anarchist, and the more I go, the less I believe in theories and systems. I don’t have any respect for money and I believe that most politicians are all liars and corrupt bastards. I am an artist and I don’t have the solutions. But I know that we have to live together, not against each other.

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