Gilles Mercier, Humanist Photographer

“Photography cannot change the world, but it can show the world, especially when the world is changing.” Gilles Mercier’s work is a beautiful illustration of this quote from Marc Riboud. It is with sensitivity and delicacy that Gilles highlights, in many of his series, the daily lives of minorities and communities that are either forgotten or misunderstood.
Here, he talks about a much more personal project, L’Élégance de vos absences (The Elegance of Your Absences), a journey into his grandfather’s life, started by his father, and around which he has gathered other creatives.

The beginnings

I discovered photography during my law studies in the years 95-97 through the practice of a classmate who frequently showed his street photography work. I was struck by the closeness that could exist through this medium and the photographed subject, by the lyricism that could emerge from it.

“As a freelance photographer […], I heard about a community of people affected by leprosy living in self-sufficiency in Romania.”

I then invested in a Nikkon FE2 equipped with a 35mm lens in order to be able to build my vision through this prism, while discovering the work of Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Eugène Richard….

After a few exhibitions of various subjects but always around street photography, I decided to come to Paris in order to improve my skills by integrating the professional world of image, working with the LUMEN collective or the Explorer agency for example.

Zona de Alb ©Gilles Mercier

The first story

As a freelance photographer working for the Raoul Follereau Foundation, I heard about a community of people affected by leprosy living in self-sufficiency in Romania.

Instinctively, I gathered some information about a first trip, contacted local journalists working for Courier International to get more information to supplement the press articles.

2 months later in 1999, my plane landed in Bucharest to carry out the first part of the ZONA DE ALB series.

“I left them profoundly changed, with the intimate conviction that my wish was to intervene with the most deprived in France.”

Zona de Alb ©Gilles Mercier

Personal commitment

In 1999, in order to deconstruct linguistic and cultural barriers, I would spend several weeks living there in order to share their daily lives.

We share meals, fishing trips, more intimate moments where each glance, each gesture evokes much more than these unbridled but incomprehensible words at the time despite our French, German, English and Russian interlingual exchanges.

I left them profoundly changed, with the intimate conviction that my wish was to intervene with the most deprived in France.

“I am deeply moved by men and women, who live under the thumb of their social minority […]”

In 2016, I finally decided to continue this documentary work and found some of my fellow travelers. I find Theodore’s children and I no longer wonder about my place, my role.

I note that scientific and social advances have not followed the same path.

Care, death and inactivity are part of their daily lives, but the on-site medical and technical team, as small as it is today, is the link in their social life.

The last 14 residents are strongly attached to this village they built and none of them are resolved to abandon this land to the uncertain future due to budgetary restrictions and the disappearance of these sick people who have been struck by divine retaliation.

My Innerself ©Gilles Mercier

The inspirations

I am deeply moved by men and women, who live under the thumb of their social minority and who are or may be forgotten in their rights because of their silence and modesty.

I recently met young adults suffering from schizophrenia as part of a mission (social housing management). Their desire to claim their intact share immediately led me to set up free speech workshops transcribed in the form of a photographic reportage with the Fondation des Oeuvres Falleret.

“Black and white has this malleability, both during shooting and in post-production and lab work, which fascinates me.”

Exhausted by medical treatments, they are nevertheless present on a daily basis in the context of green space projects in order to break the isolation they may experience, in order to share and communicate, in order to find a framework and balance.

Through this work, I wanted to illustrate the will they show to build their life projects, to become someone “ordinary”. This work transcribes without filters their words, their view of their disease.

My Innerself ©Gilles Mercier

The choice of black and white

Black and white has this malleability, both during shooting and in post-production and lab work, which fascinates me. In addition, I was probably too influenced by the works of various photographers from the 40s and 70s 😉

“I recently decided to open the manuscript “Maxime”, which my father gave me at the end of his life.”

But of course I remain sensitive to all types of approaches, especially those of Bernard Plossu or Bertrand Descamps, and no door is closed. I will soon approach mixed media techniques as part of the work “L’élégance de vos absences” and build a multiform narrative composed of black and white and color photographs.

L’élégance de vos absences ©Gilles Mercier

L’élégance de vos absences

I recently decided to open the manuscript “Maxime”, which my father gave me at the end of his life. An essay whose purpose is to trace the life of Captain Pierre Roger MERCIER “MAXIME”, my grandfather, officer of the French army then regional leader of the maquis of Auvergne executed in Hartheim (Austria) on September 2, 1944.

I therefore decided to set up an artistic team around a work of memory transmission with the collaboration of Florent Bossard (illustrator), Alexandre Liebert and Yann Tissier ( filmmakers).

In order to prepare these documentaries that will question the memory of the emblematic places that marked Pierre Mercier’s journey, I have surrounded myself with historians such as Fabrice Grenard and Thomas Fontaine in order to be able to positively confront the family narrative with the historical one.

“This multidisciplinary writing work […] will be a tribute to the forgotten ones of the Second World War.”

The first Opus (created in 2019) will take place in Compiègne, due to Pierre’s stay at the Royallieu camps, whose memorial will also give us its support and we will benefit from an artist’s residency with the Centre Culturel de Namur at the Abattoirs de Bomel.

L’élégance de vos absences ©Gilles Mercier

This work will thus seek to take the path of a poetic composition that wishes to transmit the questioning around collective memory, resilience.

We will, in the form of mosaics, assemble the different forms of writing, photographs, archives, testimonies, illustrations and videos. I will use photography to convey the emotion of places of memory in response to the symbolic power of photographic archives. Through their intimacy and authenticity, the correspondences will bring a time of rest, a rhythm to these different paintings of a family history that echoes the current context of families affected by armed conflict.

This multidisciplinary writing work (photographs, videos, illustrations, sound recordings) will be a tribute to the forgotten ones of the Second World War. But for that we must carry out the KissKissBankBank campaign, for which we reached 64% on 07/11.  We still have to collect 1600 euros before 22/11.

Text and images by Gilles Mercier

You can discover Gilles’ work on his website, and support his project ” L’élégance de vos absences ” by going to KissKissBankBank