The Photographer Who Really Takes His Time
The award-winning photographer Jérémie Jung can take years to tell one story with his photos. We chated about his methods and working with fixers.
You focused on the Baltic States and Estonia. Why did you choose such a small and random place on the world map?
It was actually random! I came to Estonia for the first time for an assignment in 2011. I’d just finished my photo journalism training in Paris. Before that, I was a web designer working for an NGO in the city. When I became a photojournalist I was asked to document one of their projects in southern Estonia. At that time, I could just put Estonia on a map. I stayed on a bit longer and quickly made friends. I later went back for a holiday, for New Year’s Eve, for leisure.
There’s a lot of competition out there. I wanted to find something that I don’t know about, so that it would be interesting for me and my friends. I Googled and found the island of Kihnu. An article that popped up said that Kihnu was a matriarchal island. How come there’s a matriarchal society in Europe I never heard about, I wondered. I later discovered that it’s not really true.
So you were at the very beginning of your new career and you were looking for something special to report about…
…or something I’d never heard about! I soon realised that Kihnu is quite famous. Nevertheless, I decided to continue. In photography it’s said that everything is already done, so just do it with your own eyes and you’ll tell the story differently anyway.
And then you discovered Setomaa, the historical area of the Seto people divided between Estonia and Russia. You went to Setomaa after Kihnu, ended up publishing a book, won a prestigious award and got published in National Geographic. Sounds like a dream project!
Things clicked somehow. I had an exhibition in a museum in Paris as part of Estonia’s 100th anniversary celebrations. The editors thought that it would be a good idea to compile my work in a book as there was a popular bookshop in the museum.
Everyone’s a photographer nowadays. How come you managed get the breakthrough and stand out with your work? What did you do right?
I went to Kihnu many times. Maybe my story and what I wanted to say was slightly truer than the matriarchal cliché. Foreign journalists usually go there just for a few days and they don’t often really understand it. They maybe first read the Wikipedia article and sell this idea to their editors. Once they come to the island with this idea, it will have to be produced.
How many times did you go there?
Many brief times. The first time was in the spring of 2013. The last time during Christmas.
Did you live with the locals?
Not the first time. I booked a room in a bed-and-breakfast. I was like I’m—discreet. Before going, I asked a woman who’s very active in the community there if she could help me take photos in Kihnu. She said to just come over and we’ll see. So I did. I chose a day when there was a celebration, so that I could mingle and everyone could see me. Everyone remained themselves and didn’t care about me, so I could do my thing. Of course when you take pictures people usually change somewhat, but they ignored me. At the end of my stay I didn’t know what to do anymore. Everyone was at home and I didn’t want to knock on doors and bother people. After only a few days, I came back home with a few pictures and showed them to my friend. He told me I had some great pictures and that I should return. My friends and colleagues, who are also photographers, pushed me to go back.
At first, you thought that you’d only go to Kihnu for a couple of days and you’ll have your story, right?
Yes. I thought I had my story. I thought that I’d found my matriarchy, which I had in mind when I came.
So you also came for the same story everyone else did?
Yes, because this is what I read about. Several sources claimed it and I believed it. Only that my story had a small difference, because I met the mayor of Kihnu and he was a man, so I was thinking that this is not really a matriarchy. But okay, whatever, I thought. When I returned, people told me: “Ah, so you really are interested in us if you came back!” I thought that if they tell me this, then maybe I should dig some more. The last time I went there was Christmas 2017. I stayed with a family and understood much more. As a photographer, this intimacy was very good, but it takes a long time to get there.
How did you approach the family you lived with? To ask someone whether you could live with them must be quite weird.
When I came back to Kihnu, I always met the same people. There are only 500 inhabitants. Anytime I had something published, I’d send it to them. A lady once told me: “Next time you come, you’ll stay in our home.”
They invited you?
Yes. I’m not a good journalist, who can get his foot in the door and say: “I need this, let me in!” I’m too shy for that, especially in a different language.
How did you speak to them then?
In English and later in broken Estonian, which made a difference. As a foreigner, when you try to make an effort to speak in a language that’s not very well known, it opens more doors.
Why did you get interested in Setomaa in the first place?
A friend told me that on the euro coin the shape of Estonia is a bit different than it is in reality, because the whole of Setomaa is on the coin. She explained that Setomaa was part of Estonia, but the border moved. Setos wanted to be in Estonia, but it’s not possible. You have this disagreement. I realised that there’s this Setomaa kingdom, even if the kingdom only lasts for a few days. You can talk about it in a way that it’s a kind of a modern fairytale if you include all this. They don’t live in the past, but build something new out of old roots. So it’s a culture that’s still alive and not so conservative. They call building new traditions on old roots ‘etnofuturism’.
People are letting you in and letting you take pictures. Often you don’t even have to ask. How do you do that?
Estonia’s a small country. On a global scale, people don’t talk that much about its issues and culture. If a foreigner comes and shows an interest, people like to come up with everything they have.
Put on their folk costumes like in the cover photo of your Seto story…
Yes! When she did that I’d been staying at her parents’ home for some days already. She’d probably heard about me. It’s just like making friends: you connect with people and visit them without making photos all the time. It’s just a human relationship. When you do long-term projects like this, it’s okay to have personal relationships. When jumping from one place to another, it would be difficult to keep all of those relationships. When I do shorter projects I sometimes tell people that maybe we’ll only do this project and maybe we won’t hear from each other for some time afterwards.
What’s the minimum time you would stay at one place?
I did a project a year ago and it was a bit too short for me. I spent some three weeks there.
Yes. I got the material I went there for, but I didn’t feel satisfied because I was jumping from one place to another. Sometimes I was too pushy to get what I needed. I had a deadline.
Was it the Russia story?
It was in Dagestan, yes. I’d have loved to stay longer. I worked with a fixer, who helped me a lot, and I couldn’t have done it without him. The situation there isn’t easy.
You probably need to know the language?
Yes, and Dagestan has many Russian army checkpoints, so if you don’t speak Russian, you can’t manage. Even if in the villages it’s okay.
We’ve worked with photographers at our agency who first tell us that they don’t need a fixer [a local—usually a journalist—who helps out foreign journalists] in the field. They say that they’ll only take pictures and won’t talk. But usually in the end they’ll still need to speak to people, so they’d find someone among the locals who could at least speak a couple of words.
I also ask people to help me sometimes. When I wanted to speak to the people living near the borders in Estonia or Russia, there was always someone who could help.
Who was the fixer you worked with in Russia?
He was a really good journalist and photographer who could speak English. Not many people can speak English there.
International journalists talk about their amazing projects, but behind their work is often a fixer. A person who’s barely and rarely ever spoken of for some reason. You told me before that you don’t really like working with fixers, because you like to get into the subject yourself, but how was your experience with your fixer?
I hadn’t had many experiences with fixers before, so I couldn’t really tell him what I needed. When we did an interview and I asked something, there was interaction between a local and him, and not between a local and me. Without a fixer I don’t have that problem. Without a fixer, often a situation which I don’t expect can open up. For example, they can propose something like that girl in Setomaa with the folk costume. I think with a fixer this photo in Setomaa wouldn’t have happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have lived with the family, because the two of us would’ve taken up too much space. Having a fixer influences the interaction, the space you take up. The fixer may also influence with his experience, the way he approaches the culture. My fixer was a local from Dagestan. There are a lot of tribes and he was from one of them. We visited many of them with different languages and groups of Muslims. He was from a group, sometimes we visited other groups and it was very difficult for this reason. Maybe as a foreigner, locals wouldn’t judge me through the fixer.
But do you think you could’ve done this job without him?
I couldn’t have! It was a cultural context that wasn’t mine at all. We have many things in common with Estonians. I felt it when I crossed the border in Setomaa. On the Russian side, only 200 metres across the border, everything was very different.
You said that you spent three weeks on the story about tightrope walkers in Dagestan. Was the fixer with you the whole time?
More or less. I was there for two weeks, then I went home and came back again. It was initially meant to be a very short project for Snapchat. I was given a budget of one week and told to manage it myself. I took a bit more than a week and made it into two weeks, because I wasn’t satisfied with myself. When I got back, they said that they’d make the story bigger, not just for Snapchat, but also for the paper. They sent me back to get more pictures. We were more or less together the whole time with the fixer. Only when we went back to Makhachkala, the capital, we separated, because I needed some time to edit my photos and send them to National Geographic.
But two weeks side by side with someone can be quite intense, right?
Yes, sometimes I wanted to be alone. If he could just drop me somewhere and leave.
Why couldn’t you?
These places are so remote. You travel for the whole day in the mountains. It wouldn’t have made sense.
My experience is the same. It feels like you’re suddenly in a relationship with someone you’ve just met. It’s very special.
Maybe it helps to build something beforehand with the fixer. Then he or she’d better understand what you need. But I can say that the fixer I had is a friend now and I know that he’d always help me if I went back.
For sure! Do you think it would have been good for you to get to know this fixer before you arrived?
Yes, I was a bit stressed. I sent him questions and many enquiries, but he replied very slowly. My arrival date was approaching and I wanted to have everything organised and it seemed that he could just disappear, but I then realised that this is what he’s like. In the end it was okay, but I think it’s important to have a good connection before. On the other hand, the fixer wouldn’t be paid for creating this connection, it’s just for my own comfort. I only pay the fixer when I’m there and when I use his services. I decided not to abuse him too much, but relax and let’s see. Then it was okay.
And you got published in National Geographic!
But this is thanks to Setomaa. There’s this a festival in Southern France, Visa Pour l’Image, where all the photo editors come. I showed my images from Setomaa. One of them told me to send the story to him again when he was back in the office and he said he’ll see if they can publish it. Once you make a connection there, people reply to you, otherwise they never reply to your emails. I think they’re very busy, dealing with a lot of enquiries.
So you approached this editor yourself?
There’s a portfolio review. You subscribe beforehand and you can have 20 minutes, kind of a speed date. Everyone’s there. If you know how to talk to the people in this industry, you can propose to show your work outside this workshop, I’m sure it would be okay. But I’m not able to do that.
Interviewed by Marian Männi