Removing the Veil with Brigitte Lacombe

As a renowned travel and portrait photographer, French-born, New York-based Brigitte Lacombe has traveled all over the world on assignments including the sets of amazing movies like Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds, Nine, The Road, and Doubt. Her work has appeared in many publications, The New Yorker, Time and GQ to name a few. She has also published two books of her own, “Cinema | Theater” and “Anima | Persona.” In April 2010 Brigitte flew to Rajasthan, India along with Heifer International staff and a team from BLT Helps. Accompanied by her two Leica M9s, Brigitte documented the work of Heifer International in the district of Alwar.

Sequestered in their homes, the women of Alwar are given little education outside of what will make them good wives. But with the help of non-profit Heifer International and local partner organizations like Ibtada, rural women are paving the way out of poverty for themselves and their daughters. The team sat with women from five villages who shared the stories of their journeys from oppression and poverty to empowerment. Brigitte’s photographs provide a glimpse into the lives of the women who are working diligently to change the course of the future for their daughters and their communities. Heifer International, BLT Helps and Brigitte were kind enough to share her photos and thoughts of the trip with us.

Q: You’ve traveled all over the world. How does this trip differ?

A: Well, most of my travel is done for Condé Nast Traveler, which I’ve been working with for over 20 years. So it’s about a city, or it’s about a country, or about a part of a country. But here, it really was about a very specific program. And it’s completely different. This is a humanitarian project. Usually, when I travel on other assignments, I do not always spend as much time in the intimacy of the people I encounter. And in this case, we really got to be with people and their families. We were so generously invited in, to be part of their lives for the little amount of time we were there.

Q: What inspires you about Heifer International?

A: It’s a very simple idea that’s extremely generous and very smart. I’m convinced that it’s a wonderful project, now that I’ve seen it firsthand.

Q: You visited a number of villages with Heifer International. Were the women in their self-help groups receptive to being photographed?

A: Yes, very much. I was very taken to see how welcomed we were, the simplicity and the generosity, the directness of all these women. They were very engaged with us, and with me and the camera. It was impressive and wonderful to not have one moment of impatience or hostility from anyone on the entire trip – as you encounter sometimes when you travel with a camera. I was wondering how it was for them, to have us all arrive like a storm and just take over everything for a few hours. And then we vanish, and they’re back to their life. How do they process all of that? We have to process this incredible encounter ourselves. Everybody was extremely generous to us!

Q: And the children?

A: Well, the children, what can I say? They are uncontrollable! (laughs) Extreme enthusiasts! We’re the subject of complete ridicule to them. They are interested, but they are also very mocking, which is nice, but if you try to do something quiet, that’s not, of course, the best. (laughs)

Q: How would you compare shooting on-location to shooting in a studio?

A: It is very different: in a studio, you control everything – the light, the sound, the mood of the studio. And in the field (outside), especially on a project like this, you are just recording what is happening. You have very little control. You have to be even more attentive. It is thrilling.

Even though I was working in reportage mode in the last few days in these villages, I also took some portraits of the women, recreating a kind of a mock studio. You can do both, really, when you’re out and about traveling. You can always recreate a portrait studio situation anywhere by finding the right light and making a private and quiet space.

Q: Do you have any tips for fledgling photographers?

A: It’s never about the equipment that you have, or your technique, it’s about being extremely open and very attentive, and being a very, very present but silent observer. It’s about your approach to people, your interest and your compassion.

Thank you to Heifer International, BLT Helps and Brigitte for sharing photos and thoughts of the trip with us!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about the trip and Heifer International’s efforts in India, read ‘Removing the Veil’. Heifer International’s website can be found at http://www.heifer.org/ and BLT Helps website is located at http://www.blthelps.com/.

For more on Brigitte Lacombe, please visit her website http://www.brigittelacombe.com.