Swiss / French creative Thomas Sabatier quit his job in advertising ten years ago, and has now found burgeoning success as a photographer. His existentialist photography series 'Redemption Road' won a place on the shortlist at the D&AD Next Photographer Award 2015. In the interview below he reveals his anti-establishment message, complex post production techniques, and debts to his wife.
Where did the idea for the shoot come from?
The idea of redemption. The fact that the human mind can drift to the point where it no longer recognises itself deeply surprised me. But in those moments of panic when the mind could go insane there is a survival instinct that gives us the strength to come back from hell.
Made a few years after having taken this route myself, my Redemption Road series illustrates that long way back towards the light.
I wanted these to be very aesthetic pictures, probably to reconcile with myself and turn this dark part of my life into something ultimately beautiful.
Also to explain my approach I chose to write a poem rather than a descriptive text because it better reflected the human and psychological dimension of my work. It was then translated by my friend Hugo Tackacs who knew the right words in English to express my feelings.
Describe the process of capturing the images.
The objective was to put me on stage fleeing an invisible threat to an infinitely long road representing time, and in dark landscapes, illustrating my mindset. The American Great Plains with their share of dreams and mystery have naturally emerged as an ideal working base.
The suit and tie I wear symbolises the worker and denounces the exploitation of human beings by the capitalist system causing the burnout.
So I went with my wife and my suit in the United States where we rented a car and crossed the country for 15 days. Every day we were driving in search of inspiring scenery and enough open road and few passersby.
Each photo was taken in natural light. After setting the self-timer of the camera on a tripod and triggering it, my wife gave me ten seconds to get started at full speed toward the goal. Each time we took a dozen shots because, working with film, we had only a vague idea of the final outcome. Was I in the right place? In good posture? With good expression in the eye? All this remained unknown until the development of the films back in France.
What kit do you use?
For this series, I used a Nikon F3 and Kodak Portra 160 NC (neutral colors). I like working with film for two reasons. The first is the elegance and smoothness of the image. The second is the rigorous execution of the shooting that implores you to just focus on what you want.
I chose to use colour film and pass the black and white images through Photoshop. Indeed, once the film is developed and the selection of shots done, the big job of retouching in Photoshop starts.
These alterations had two main objectives: the first was to create a dark day and night by changing different areas of the image: curves, levels, brightness and contrast. The second was to create a feeling of psychosis by duplicating one side of the road and getting a surreal symmetry. This work had to be subtle enough that its impact is unconscious. To achieve these very dark touches with detail, I was working in total darkness to force my eyes to open up. The ultimate goal is that my pictures are presentated on black walls and illuminated in a targeted manner. That is why my photos have a black Marie-Louise.
What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was to find the right routes and work fast. The choice of sets was difficult because we had both their meanings are fair, that the sun is frontal, the light is diffused by the clouds and the roads are both very long and not very busy for us to work without taking too many risks.
It also taught us to be efficient, because repeated races under the intense heat makes you sweat a lot and change the original design.
The key to this project was the simplicity and lightness of the material used to work quickly, and especially the complicity of my wife who was both office stylist, makeup artist and assistant. I take this opportunity to thank her and tip my hat.
How valuable are self-initiated projects?
Personal projects are always interesting because they can be fully expressive with their message. They are also the only way to know if people are receptive to our work and our sensitivity.
How important are competitions and award shows for creatives?
I do not think that is important in the absolute. It gives me a good way to show my work and broaden my audience.
Then everything also depends on the jury. When a prestigious jury, such as that of D&AD, appreciates your work it is necessarily an honour, and real encouragement to continue working. The subjective side of these creative competitions dooes not make them an end in themselves. What matters is to have your convictions and continue.
The D&AD Next Photographer Award unearths the best new photographic talent and promote it back to the industry. The competition is open to new photographers with less than three years professional experience.