Fabien Penso: An Indian “carnet de passage”

Fabien Penso is a French photographer who is often on the move and on the road and whose images reflect personal views of daily life and encounters with the people he meets during his travels. In this interview he introduces us to his own photographic practice and to his long journey to India, which combined riding an Enfield bike with taking close pictures.

Q: Fabien, what is your background?

A: I’m currently a software Engineer. I recently worked for www.causes.com and was living in San Francisco but I left in July 2011 to enjoy traveling again. I’ve worked on computers for the last 15 years, and started photography about 9 years ago. My first camera was a small Nikon reflex but I very quickly bought a Leica M6 with a 35mm Summicron pre aspheric lens and shot Kodak TRI-X. I also processed my own film. I then acquired a Leica M7, M8 and M9. As of today I only have the M7 and M9. I’m thinking about getting the Monochrom since I mostly shoot black and white.

Q: Can you introduce us to your Indian project? What were your main desires and aims with it?

A: I love India. It’s a very photogenic country and a very easy place to photograph people. I actually don’t work on a project base. I enjoy traveling very much and photographing my travels gives me a good reason to travel more. I was looking to ride the famous Indian bike, the Enfield, in the northern parts of India and needed a small setup to carry easily. I ended up traveling about 8,000 kilometers on my bike in the Himalayas and Rajasthan for about 4 months with a laptop, a Leica M9 and a Mamiya7.

Q: All the pictures you selected to be displayed with this interview are portraits: the eyes and gazes of the people photographed seem to constitute a thread running through each photograph. Can you talk a little bit about your photographic practice and research?

A: I focus my photography on people. I see my work more as a “carnet de passage” of the places I visit than a finished body of work that is focused on a specific subject. I enjoy daily life photography as an intimate view of my own life and take close portraits of random subjects I meet during my travels.

I shoot at a close range, usually less than a meter, and most of my photography is done with a 35mm lens. Sometimes I use a 50mm when I want to do close ups. I almost see this lens as a tele. I rarely ask permission when shooting people, but use eye contact to make sure they agree to have their picture taken. I have been printing more of my photography and see it now as the last stage of my work. It does affect the kind of pictures I take a bit as I have that “end result” in mind while shooting.

Q: Can you please comment on this photograph?

A: I woke up very early, maybe around 5 or 6 a.m., to visit the Dalaï Lama temple in McLoad Ganj next to Dharamshala in North India. I noticed some monks about to go pray in a main hall and I followed them. One kid noticed I was shooting pictures. He made sure to yell louder and clearly wanted to appear on the frame as a hard worker.

Q: What photographic teachings can you draw after such a long and intense experience?

A: I think traveling for such a long time with your camera allows you to end up focusing on your gear and on what matters for you as a photographer. I realized I was looking for a light kit where size and weight matters, while still looking for great results in my photography. Because I shoot at a close range I also need something discreet and the M-system does fit well for such work.

Every time I travel I remember the principle of using a single lens with a camera. It’s always a difficult choice to make, and I sometimes end up adding another lens one hour before leaving for my flight. I feel that adding options while traveling isn’t good. Not having to think which lens you’ll use on the field at a specific moment is actually a big relief. I suggest traveling photographers use a simple camera/lens set, with a single film type.

Q: This project was with a Leica M9. In what ways did this camera help you achieve what you were looking for?

A: The small size of the camera while still having excellent results was the deciding factor for me. I also wanted to be able to upload shots while on the road and get feedback through my Facebook page. The DSLRs are too heavy. The telemeter is just the right camera for my kind of use. I also use a Mamiya7 and a Fuji 667 for similar usage, with a larger film format.

Q: What are your next projects?

A: My next project is a photography road book of the Trans Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok. It’s a project I’ve had in mind for a few years. On a camera level I’m looking to go back to film cameras like the Leica M6 for daily life photography and larger format (4×5) for landscapes. I would also like to return to Ladakh.

 Thank you for your time, Fabien!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Fabien on his website, Twitter, and Facebook.