What I’ve Learned: A Photographer’s Journey is a Masters of Photography series dedicated to our students, exploring the stories behind the imagery they have created. For other student interviews check out our blog posts.
Alan Cottenet works as a personal driver for a CEO in Paris, France. He’s father of a 4 year old boy and spent several years living in Rio de Janeiro, a city he’s incredibly fond of. He plans to quit his job as a driver to pursue his dream of being a photographer, and we definitely think he has what it takes.
Alan first gained our attention when he uploaded the below photo to the photostream. Alan’s work encompasses both colour and black and white, his street scenes and interiors seen from the street embrace wonderful juxtapositions of people, reflections, internal light and external light, he captures moments, looks and body language in all his work. What intrigues us is the sense of backstory in all his work, leading up to the point of capture.
How long have you been into photography?
A first tryout in 2014/15 ended up brutally as I wasn’t satisfied the way my pictures looked. Made a new try in May 2018. Since then, I never stopped shooting, even for a day. And I’m still not satisfied… Always had loads of love and high interest for photography but never really felt like shooting. I had to make products photography for a previous job but that’s it. At this time I could learn basis from studio photography and generalities about photography and editing. It helped in a way.
What made you want to start taking photographs?
I needed to start taking photographs to reconnect with my son and my parents earlier this year. I’m living too far from them and felt the importance having photographs to take away with me. This way I could connect with them anytime and give posterity to our great moments, laughs and joys.
“This is also a testimony for my son and hopefully for the people one day soon. I hope he will see these photographs in decades and say ‘Oh really it looked like that! People were dressed this way! My father was doing this that day…’ I’m documenting my life and my lifetime and hope someday it will be timeless for everybody out there, my son first.”
What do you enjoy in photography?
Photography is making me free. It is also the perfect ally to my passion for walking. I love turning this ordinary life, those ordinary moments into something. In this point, I could identify a lot in the words of Joel Meyerowitz about the ordinary things/life/moments. Photography is poetry. My poetry. A meditation. Also the most sensitive way to express myself and my feelings. I’m better with images than words for my loved one. Wether I’m in a state of deep joy, anger or whatever I can let things out with photographs. It is now a way of living and being a part of this world. It’s making me happy. Simple as that.
This is also a testimony for my son and hopefully for the people one day soon. I hope he will see these photographs in decades and say ‘Oh really it looked like that! People were dressed this way! My father was doing this that day…’ I’m documenting my life and my lifetime and hope someday it will be timeless for everybody out there, my son first.
What is your favourite piece of kit?
Equipment has been a tough time. I bought my first camera, a Fuji X100F, 15 days ago! I was saving from May until now but it was still too expensive… My parents decided to pay a part of it to encourage me… Lucky. Camera is a fix 35mm lens. A digital crop at 50mm which I’m using depending the situations and moments. I’m now saving to buy the 50mm lens converter because I obviously have appeal for this focal length. Then I’ll have it all. It is my ultimate camera. A lethal weapon. Compact, silent shutter, intuitive. Feel it was made for me. Immediately knew where all the controls were and will stick to it for the next century !!
I really wanted a discreet camera to remain unseen which is quite difficult considering I’m 6ft3 As I had no money still few months ago, i started shooting with what I had; an iPhone from my company and a Pentax ME super. Shooting Film has definitely poured me into photography and I decided to have my own darkroom to avoid costs of developing but mostly to control every aspects of my photography. It was like a revelation and confirmed I had to make a living with photography one way or another. Now shooting both film and digital.
“Photography is poetry. My poetry. A meditation. Also the most sensitive way to express myself and my feelings. I’m better with images than words for my loved one. Whether I’m in a state of deep joy, anger or whatever I can let things out with photographs.”
What was the most influential moment in inspiring your photography?
A personal story I’ll write a few words about. Foremost the birth of my actual son but also the premature loss of my first child. It’s all related. Felt I had to immortalise everything. Relax I’m all good, sorry for the ambiance.
What does your photography say about you as a person?
What does my photography say about me as a person ? Wow. I don’t know actually. I just hope it gives a beautiful image of humans in general. People are beautiful. I hope it’s sweet and generous. With a strong love for humanity, a respect for working and middle class, a care for the isolated one, the poor who are truly important to me, coming from the heart for personal reasons. I hope it is social in a good way because I want my photography to be useful at the end.
Whether for good vibrations, smiling, laughing and emotional state or to denounce something I’m feeling bad about, denounce some of the injustices of our world. I’m a deeply involved person, physically and mentally, in everything I do. These are not the things my photography is saying about me… But what I aim to show and express through my photography that matters to me.
Which photographer or book has had the biggest impact on you? Why?
I could name dozens. Henri Cartier-Bresson. His book Photographe and his biography L’œil du Siècle (eye of the century) by Pierre Assouline (following their written and spoken correspondances). Why? To me, because he brought a whole new level in photography. He was always higher, ahead of time and things, taking out the small unexpected detail about things and human being, showing what we all wanted to see, what we would not see or showing…nothing but what he wants!
He was composing like no others. See it, frame it, shoot it. Bang. That’s it. Intuitive and intuitional, animal instinct, smart, sensitive, out of the box thinking, rough and tough, ambivalent, contradictory, salvage. He made photography visible, simple and accessible to everybody. Consistently explaining the same key points. Giving keys to succeed in a way. Seems so innate to him I felt it was possible for everyone. Even if he said ‘at the end, either you have it… Or you don’t…’ He invites to enlarge your world, your vision. Making the technical part yours but not essential. Learning how to frame and shoot! These are the reasons why.
Are you working on a photography project? OR do you have one in mind or one that you’d like to start?
My main project, for now and yet have to make it clearer, is Paris, differently. That’s my pretentious idea. Like HCB said (him again) ‘landscapes have eternity’. I feel this as well. Everybody can photograph Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. I want to show Paris as a Parisianer, on a daily basis with ordinary places, moments, people, workers, scenes. Sort of a Doisneau approach. We are surrounded by beauty and I’m lucky living in such an inspiring city. We still have typical French/Parisian things to offer.
On the other hand, big avenues are full of lights while small streets (people are living in) are full of trash and rats. That’s a city most of the people are in love with but don’t know much about from the inside. I want to document as well Paris off the beaten path. In every aspects. Poverty, immigration and integration issues, sports, our history and culture, religions that are living together and fighting sometimes, the impressive dirtiness.
What I love from this project is that I can take out various subjects from it and document them my way depending on my mood. It’s endless and a lifetime project. I can document everything in here. I mean we have 20 districts within Paris! 20 projects! Plus suburb areas, cafés/restaurants, architecture, tourists, Parisians, students, flowers, parks, homeless and so on… There is always something I can connect to and express depending on my state of mind. It will be long but will worth it hopefully.
“Actually I can’t stand my photographs anymore after the finding/framing/shooting/
editing process… I put my heart and soul every time it is possible. It’s like a drug, an addiction to joy in the making. But at the end, for some reasons, it’s never sufficient to me.”
What are your favourite photographs that you have taken?
I don’t have a favourite picture, I’m sorry. Still trying to build it. Actually I can’t stand my photographs anymore after the finding/framing/shooting/
What is your favourite photograph (that is not from you)?
Kabuki Actor Funeral by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Please let me just mention Saul Leiter. Any of his. His work is immense.
“This course benefited me in the most important aspects of photography and as a human being : It gave me self confidence and the wings I needed to fly. I now feel everything’s possible.”
How did the course benefit you?
This course benefited me in the most important aspects of photography and as a human being : It gave me self confidence and the wings I needed to fly. I now feel everything’s possible. I went further and it’s only the beginning. Still have a lot to learn but I’m already a better version of myself. Joel Meyerowitz is absolutely incredible. Warm and caring. Expressive, serene, calm… His empathy, love for poetry and beautiful things are like no other. He empowers you at each lesson, long or short one. He comforted me by speaking of instincts, intuition. It’s helping me defining my own sensibility/approach. Last but not least, seeing him in action is a chance.
In the course you have taken with us, what was your favourite lesson (please tell us which course and which title) and why?
For now, 50% of the course from Joel Meyerowitz it’s lesson number 12 ‘The Meyerowitz colour zone system’. This lesson taught me how to see the world again. How to see it in COLOUR again. It’s like I’m discovering everything again with new eyes. A gift that was just about few technical adjustments and light. When well exposed, the world in colour photography is a gem and totally new to me. Also number 3 ‘Looking at pictures’ because when you learn how to speak about a photograph, you learn how to make one as well.
“If I had to choose one piece of advice it would be: trust your instinct. I repeat for anybody out there: follow and trust your instincts”
What is the best piece of photographic advice you have come across?
Being instinctive. If I had to choose one piece of advice it would be: trust your instinct. I repeat for anybody out there: follow and trust your instincts! Using the light properly too. Going full manual following Meyerowitz colour zone system (again!). Feel the place I’m in, wether i like it or not. Always finding a way to photograph something wherever I am. Being in a place I hate is now impossible. I always have this ‘YES!’ shot making me happy!
A Photographer’s Journey credits.
Photo 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 by Alan Cottenet
Photo 6 by Henri Cartier-Bresson