Encounters behind the lens
Interview with the photographer Julien Benhamou
Paris, 20/05/2018

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Modestly introducing himself as show photographer, which is what he has been doing over the past ten years for the Opéra national de Paris, Julien Benhamou is actually more than that. To grasp the essence of a narrative requires a deep understanding of movement and motion, of the human body and its somatic speech, undoubtedly the most tangible and expressive part of a story. Through his infinitesimal exposure times and sharp flashes, Julien knows how to guide the spectator behind the visible realm. He reveals to our amazed eyes some of the rare moments when the impetus defeats gravity, when the spirit triumphs over the matter and when humans verge on the sacred.

The relation to space – to the ever-changing and sometimes tortured geography of the human body – is one of the most salient aspects of Julien’s work. Nevertheless, the relation to time is equally conspicuous and enthralling. Is it possible to get hold of a fleeting expression or emotion and make it immortal? Can one liberate the movement and the living from time’s tyranny? Julien masters the rules of this game. On the stage of the Parisian Opera, the performers and the dancers that he shoots aren’t only ephemerides on a billboard: they become immortals, and just like gods in a Greek temple, they will live forever in the backstage of time.

We had the pleasure and chance to work with Julien for Liquides Imaginaires’ brand image campaign “Parfums d’élévation”. Sharing his keen interest in elevation, transcendence and other gravity defying gestures, we have invited Julien for a dialogue about what drives and inspires his photographic work.

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Liquides Imaginaires: Julien, can you tell us a couple of words about you and your work?

Julien Benhamou: I’m a scene photographer specialized in portraiture and dance. I have initiated my researches into the movement and the human body about ten years ago. Right now I am working with the Opéra de Paris, with the performers and their bodies. I hold an endless fascination for the movement of elevation and for freezing the moment. Yes, my work is about freezing the movement. Two words that define my work: poetical and aesthetic.

LI: The movement, the imagination and the narrative are key to a scene photographer. These themes also happen to be central to Liquides Imaginaires. How did you find the brief for the “Parfums d’élévation” campaign?

JB: Indeed, elevation is one of my day-to-day artistic quests. The elevation and the frozen moment are pivotal to my work. The creative mission proposed by Liquides Imaginaires was in tune with my work and with my own interrogations.

From the beginning, Philippe had a very clear idea in mind. We have started working and thinking together about how to convey the notion of elevation: we have immediately come to something vaporous, fluid, airy, light, in movement or floating. After settling on the broad-strokes, I have proposed the casting and the setup elements. Initially, the project was meant to be exclusively photographic, but we have gradually realized that filming would be appropriate, so we have done a video too.

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LI: Which emotions associated to the feeling of elevation did you wish to get across?

JB: I wanted to express something positive. One of the pictures highlights the hands moving towards the sky. The performers were very beautiful and expressive, in a sense of fluidity and abandonment. As I see it, elevation is primarily upbeat.

LI: What did inspire you in working with a brand such as Liquides Imaginaires?

JB: Working with perfumes and, most of all, working with Philippe, who is such a passionate person. I wondered how to achieve the projection of the perfume on the human body.

LI: Let’s do a spontaneous imagination exercice. 

Which would be your photographic answer for illustrating the idea of return to the sacred?

JB: I see a connection between the earth and the air, not necessarily in a movement of elevation. Feet anchored to the ground and arms up in the air.

How would you picture an imaginary space?

JB: This makes me think of clouds, winter, something cottony and mellow, in any case…

How about an imaginary time?

JB: A gigantic hourglass!

LI: Which features come into your mind when you think of Liquides Imaginaires? Which are in your view the main assets of the brand?

JB: First of all, I think about the elements: water, earth, fire. I see an explosion of elements, something extremely powerful. These perfumes have a story to tell, they put forward a narrative both ancestral and modern, similar to a present-day shaman.

LI: How would you describe Philippe?

JB: Sensitive, creative, imaginative.


LI: If the brand was a historical character, fictional or mythological, which one would it be?

JB: Éros! Personally, I believe there is something very intense in relation to perfumes and, moreover, to this brand.

LI: In your work, we can notice a fine balance between reality and fantasy, matter and spirit, between the tangible and the immaterial worlds. How do you manage to reveal the volatile and ephemeral side of things through photography?

JB: In what I do, magic happens as a result of the frozen moment. My purpose is to bring to light something that exists, but we’re just not able to see. When it comes to leaps and movements, we perceive a continuum, we see a continuous motion. Thanks to photography, when we freeze a frame, we can access alternative versions of reality, invisible to the naked eye.

LI: Photography and perfume pertain to senses that don’t come in contact with one another. How can we visually depict a perfume, is it a challenge for you?

JB: I wouldn’t say it was a challenge. People are accustomed to imagery and visuals in the world of perfumes. I think it is possible and it makes sense to take photos of a scent. It’s just as illustrating an idea and this is most of the times the object of my work. It was all very coherent to me.

LI: What is elevation made of?

JB: Mysticism. The fact of surpassing oneself. The divine. The supernatural. An ancestral touch. Poetry. Dreams. It’s made of exhilarating feelings, love, joy, only positive emotions. It’s like the soul would try to express itself.