Interview with Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand is probably one of the most well-known photographers in the world today. His photos of the Earth have been exhibited all over the planet. Let us first quote from his long and impressive biography.International Newspapers
Yann ARTHUS-BERTRAND has always had a passion for nature and, at the age of 30, he moved to Kenya with his wife, Anne, in order to study the behaviour of lions in the Massai Mara Reserve. Feeling the need to tell the facts through images rather than writing, he then truly became a photographer. This experience is at the origin of his first book, Lions (1981), and gives him the opportunity to discover the beauty of the world from the air aboard a hot-air balloon.
Upon his return to France, he became a photo-journalist specializing in adventure, sports and nature. He has covered ten editions of the Paris-Dakar rally, produced each year the Roland Garros yearbook and took photographs of nature lovers, such as Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In 1989, he decided to gather together 100 of the best French photographers and organize “Three days in France” – an event and a book. As his passion for aerial photography developed, his work was recognized internationally and his pictures have been published in famed reviews, such as Paris-Match, Geo, Life, National Geographic Magazine, etc.
In 1991, he created ALTITUDE, a visual data bank of aerial views assembling the work of photographers from all parts of the world. In 1995, under the patronage of the Ecological Science Department of UNESCO he embarked upon the ambitious project of creating a scientific data bank of the Earth seen from above. This continuing survey of the planet’s ecosystems seen from a new angle still constitutes an important part of his work ; it is reflected in exhibitions and publications allowing the public at large to better comprehend sustainable development and what is at stake there. In parallel, Yann carries on with the systematic inventory of house pets and domestic breeds, photographing animals in the studio or outdoors against a canvas backdrop. Finally, in 2003, he launched the project “6 Billion Others” and sent three cameramen throughout the world to meet the people who live within the places he photographed from the air
Yann ARTHUS-BERTRAND passed through the United Nations in New York, where he participated in a conference on disaster reduction management organized by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). He participated in a cocktail and was leaving that same evening for Paris where he was attending a charity dinner for the NGO “Aviation sans Frontiers” Despite his busy schedule, he kindly took the time to grant us an interview.
Q : We have all seen the photos that you have given to Doctors without Borders, Aviation without Borders and ISDR, which were made into Christmas cards and calendars to raise funds. Why do you engage in these types of activities ?
There are so many people out there—volunteers in particular—doing tremendous and fantastic work, so the least I can do is support them. You know, the more notoriety you get, the more people request your support or assistance. When you do the type of work that I do, the least I can hope is to become a good humanitarian. I adore participating in these events and I don’t think it does my work any harm. On the contrary, I think it raises the value. So the only thing I would like to say is : “thank you”.
Q : You said earlier today that when you started taking photos from the air, it changed your life. In what sense ?
It is true that since I started doing this work fifteen years ago, it has really changed my life. I have strong convictions—or perhaps you could rather say that I understand the huge importance of sustainable development that I did not understand before. I was an “ecologist” and my main concerns were more about saving the hippopotamus, stopping deforestation, etc. Today, I realize that the person really in danger is the human-being.
So, it is true that we are now coming to understand that this huge concept of sustainable development is what comes first : eradicating poverty. Poverty is lack of education, people starving, people without work. We have to resolve all of this if we are going to live together.
Q : What is your main motivation ?
Motivation to change. When I was young I was very ambitious ; I wanted to succeed. When you succeed, you realize that success in your professional life does not mean that you have succeeded in your life as a man. That is something different.
My ambition today is perhaps to succeed in my life as a man, both in the family and professionally, by giving sense to my work. It is perhaps an impossible ambition—the “Graal”.
Q : I have heard that you are soon going to publish another book. It seems that you are also involved in a lot of other things. Would you mind telling us some more about what you are doing ?
In fact, this year I have already finished two books. One book is about France and the other about Algeria. Algeria means a lot to the French as there has been a long and painful history between the two countries. I loved this type of work, as it is bringing people together. Today, Algeria is a rather closed country and I was the first one to be allowed to photograph it. Nobody had seen this kind of photo from Algeria before. I am very satisfied with the result and proud of having been there to take these photos.
If the Algerians have invited me to come and take photos, it implies that they are opening up to the outside world. I am very pleased to be a kind of hyphen, in my own way, between two people who does not really know each other very well.
It is true that I do a lot of things. At this very moment, we are working on a huge operation in France. We are sending out free of charge 2 million posters explaining to children about sustainable development—at last one for each school. I am very engaged in this kind of project informing the general public and making them aware of the importance of sustainable development. It also tells them about our responsibilities—not to mention those of the politicians
Q : But you do not “do” politics ?
Not at all. But perhaps one could say that I do it my way.
Q : It seems as if you have been everywhere. Is there any place you have not been ?
There are a lot of places that I have not visited : China, Saudi Arabia, in the middle of Africa … You cannot go everywhere. My next trip will be to Armenia where I will do an exhibition of my photos .This time, my wife will come with me and we’ll spend four days of holiday there.
Q : If you do have a message you would like to pass on to our readers, what would it be ?
First of all, I do not in general pass on messages. However, I think it is very important to have a strong commitment and convictions. When you have a strong conviction and you defend it with honesty, it is quite easy to pass on the message. I think that politicians and people who sit on international committees have stronger personal ambition than they have convictions. This is, in my sense, one of the reasons why very often we do not succeed. Look at the United Nations as an illustration of how difficult this is, despite the fact that the UN is the only international forum capable of acting as a watch-dog for the world. It is not normal, for instance, that as of today only one-third of the US$500 million promised in assistance to the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan has been donated. For me, this is a scandal, especially when oil prices have increased tremendously over the last year and some countries have become extremely rich.
In particular, I also think about politicians being governed by voters, that is, the general public. In my opinion, I think that it is necessary today for convictions to come from the grass-roots level. This would incite the politicians to have convictions too. Politicians are no different from you and me. If the masses do not have convictions and something to fight for, the politicians don’t either.
We live in a democracy. The courageous people who would like to change the world for a better one are never listened to for the simple reason that the decisions implied might be difficult to make. My message is, look at the photos and try to learn something from it. If you have learned something, it is already a positive sign in itself.