Martine Franck photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, date unknown
Martine Franck was born in Antwerp in 1938. She spent her childhood in England and America, returning to Europe to study art history in Madrid and Paris. After struggling through her thesis, a trip to the Far East with close friend Ariane Mnouchkine, the now world-renowned theater director, sharpened her focus on photography. Starting out as a trainee at Time Life in 1963, Franck met and married legendary photographer and artist Henri Cartier-Bresson, later becoming one of a select few women with the influential Magnum Photos agency. She subsequently traveled extensively, photographing diverse and particular parts of the world's population within their own milieu, all with an equal measure of respect and compassion. Her latest book, Women/Femmes, is published by Steidl this month. Here Franck talks to us about intimacy, loneliness and determination.
I am always attracted to people who say “no,” who go their own way. Women on the whole, I think, to get wherever they are, need a certain amount of courage, persistence and very definite ideas, and that I admire. I haven’t really suffered being a woman; I’ve always done the things I wanted to do. I think sometimes it is an advantage. I was in India working with Muslim women in the villages, and I can assure you it would have been impossible to photograph them if I were a man. A lot of women can be very lonely. I have been lonely too, many times in my life, and it’s something I feel empathy towards.
Compassion is something I have learned from studying Buddhism. I hope I have compassion; one doesn’t always, not when you don’t like people or don’t like situations, but when I photograph someone I try to put myself in their place. These women in India that I have been photographing, I have absolutely nothing in common with, but at the same time I feel a deep concern about their way of living, their way of surviving, their way of protesting. It’s an identification, a way of identifying yourself in the person you are photographing.
I always find that it adds something if you have, not just a black background, not just a white background, but some element of a subject's environment, or the architecture, or something they like, an object. But what I am really looking for when I am photographing a person is the light in their eyes, the glint, their expression, their hands––their hands are very important. When I photograph someone, I talk to them a lot, so that they think about the questions and not about me. I think it’s really important to talk to people, to question them, to discuss and to try and create a certain intimacy.
I like to photograph people who have been forgotten from society. I have done a lot on old age, quite a lot on exiles. It’s like with the Tibetans: you don’t want them to be forgotten, you don’t want their culture to disappear, you don’t want them to lose their roots. I took photographs of the aged when I was very young, and I can tell you that now I am getting closer to the age of those people I was photographing then, I find it maybe too close to home! At the time, I was looking for a subject that was universal, something that is going to happen to us all. You have all these great notions when ageing is far away. It’s very interesting to look at from a distance, but when you get closer to it, it’s less exciting I think. I am now more interested in the younger generation.
I think it’s important for photography to be curious, to keep up with what is going on in the world; in the world of politics, of art, the more you understand what is going on, the better your photographs will be.