by Tiago Dias Dos Santos

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Arktikugol' 

Léo, how did your relationship with Photography started? When did you start taking pictures and what memories do you hold of those first shots?

Léo Delafontaine (LD): I started to take pictures around 12, with an old Nikkormat given by my father (of course). One afternoon, I decided to photograph an old and abandoned building in Paris suburbs. Unfortunately I only kept memories of this first shooting: my godmother, who put the film in the camera, made some mistake and the film did not move forward and I didn’t get any images. Otherwise, my first personal project was made in 2007 and I'm a freelancer since 2010.

Tell us about your educational path. What was your relationship with photography at that time? And what are your best memories of your studies? 

LD: I studied French Literature, especially the link between French Naturalism and Photography in the 19th century, and Photography. First at the university and then in Louis-Lumière school. I'm not sure it was my best memories, but I had the chance to follow Jean-Claude Moineau's courses at the university and he definitely and forever changed my vision of Photography.

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to better understand your work? What courses were you passionate about and which have remained meaningful for you?  

LD: I already talked about Jean-Claude Moineau (Paris, 2008). But there was also Christian Caujolle (Louis-Lumière) and François-Xavier Molia (Paris, 2010). I don't remember a specific course but they taught me to be honest with myself and my work. And to always work more.

What do you think about teaching methodology in the era of digital and social networking?  

LD: I think every photographer has to find his own methodology. I'm not sure that's something you can learn except by yourself.

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Arktikugol' 

About your work now. In which ways would you say your work and research evolved since your first years? And how would you described your personal research in general?

LD: I tried, maybe not all the time, but let's say most of the time to change my way to photograph. I don't want to repeat myself, I'm not interested in doing the same kind of project over and over, with the same style. So I'd say that my research is constantly evolving and switching between fun and more serious projects.

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

LD: Not really. I'm working these days with a Nikon D800. But that’s not important to me.

Tell us about ‘D’Abraham’ 

LD: In 2011, the Beauvais photo festival (Les Photaumnales) invited me for an artist residency about religion. So I spent 5 months taking pictures of the three monotheist religions in Beauvais. 

‘Micronations’ is a beautiful discovery of places most of us never heard about. How was the research and process of finding them? Are there any more “micronations” for you to show us in the future?  

LD: Bruno Fuligni listed more than 400 micronations around the world. But I only visited 12 of them. I always liked small places with an improbable history. I took pictures in Kosovo, or in Paris, TX, or in a small and isolated coal mine in the arctic. I like to think that during my work I would go everywhere, meet everybody, etc. I want to be exhaustive. I know it's illusory but it's a great leitmotiv! At the beginning I discovered the principality of Sealand. I thought “Wow!”, this is the perfect place for me to start a new project. After some research, I found out that Sealand was not an isolated phenomenon, and that I could make a world micronation tour. And I was really surprised that no photographer before me had already the same idea! I began in february 2012 with the republic of Saugeais. because the micronation is located in France and it was obviously easier for me to start there. It was the first one and it's still my favourite! Then I travelled during the summer of 2012 in Australia, the US, the UK, Denmark and Italy. The first step was to contact and select the micronations to know their history, if they were still active, photogenic and with a territory because I was not interested as a photographer by the internet micronations. I found them online very easily. You can find some really well documented lists about that. I chose 12 micronations representative of the phenomenon in 6 countries and 3 continents.

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Micronations' 

The sense of isolation is easily felt in your work ‘Arktikugol’. How easily did you connect with the place and the people? Tell us a little about that work process. 

LD: The photographs show a sparse and harsh natural environment, that's true. The winter in Barentsburg is really brutal. Low temperatures (as low as -30°), polar night (no sun at all for four months), no way to go outside the village... The social life is almost non existent. People go from home to work and from work to home, that's it. Up until four years ago, people didn't even had internet access. Back in the day, you could experienced a complete isolation in Barentsburg. Actually, there is a restaurant and a bar. But it's only for tourists. Prices are in norwegian krones (NOK), they are way to expensive for the workers. But there’s another reason. There is no cash money in Barentsburg for the workers. They can only pay in roubles with a magnetic card given by the trust Arktikugol. So for them, there is a canteen and a supermarket with prices in roubles. The workers and the tourists are completely separated world. They cannot mix together, it’s impossible because of the language and the monetary border created by the trust. And you cannot leave the village without a rifle! According to the law in Svalbard, you have to carry a weapon to protect yourself against polar bears (in Svalbard, there are more polar bears than inhabitants).

People working in Barentsburg are mostly from Donetsk, Ukraine. One could think that it will create some link between people. But in my opinion, people are really alone in Barentsburg. They've got a few friends, most of the time daily coworkers but that's it. A few reasons: a huge turnover of workers (they sign for a two years contract), they work really hard, no places to socialise, no restaurant, no bar, no cinema... At the end of the day, people just want to go home and rest. Also, people in Barentsburg hang only with people from their community and with people who share their political opinion. Barentsburg is russian, but most of the workers come from Donetsk. So the war going on in Ukraine is very sensitive. You can find pro russian, pro ukrainian and so on, so tadjiks hang with tadjiks, pro russian hang with pro russian, etc.

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Arktikugol' 

What intrigued me the most about Barentsburg is that a small village with 400 people can be the symbol of all the great conflicts of the 20th century. The Svalbard were given to Norway after the WWI as default choice. Barentsburg was a highly strategic place for Russia during WWII and the Cold War and now because of the new maritime trade route in the arctic sea. For almost 90 years Barentsburg was the symbol of the Soviet Union. Back in the days, everything was free for the workers, there was no unemployment, no hierarchy. It was a privilege to work here. It was the complete realisation of the soviet utopia, maybe the only one in the history of Communism. But now, Barentsburg symbolises the new face of Russia, their pursuit of control of the Arctic, their search of gas and oil... It's a small village lost in the middle of nowhere but it has always shown the actual face of Russia.

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Arktikugol' 

My goal was to make a portrait of the city, of what is it like to live over there. So I wanted to go everywhere and talk to everybody. On the first days, we knocked on every door just to introduce ourselves. We went to the sports center, to the school, to the textile factory, to the mine, we spoke to russians, ukrainians but also to tajiks and armenians who are really depreciated here. At the beginning we have been seen like tourists, but as soon as you speak in russian and explain that you will spend a whole month here, they look at you differently. On the boat to Barentsburg, a guide told us: « One month in Barentsburg? I bet that you will leave this shitty place in less than a week...» In a way, I understand why he was surprised. On our first trip there, there was nothing for tourists. But when you are a photographer it's completely different. At the end of the first trip, there was still a lot to do. That's why I went there three times. Now I can say that I went everywhere in Barentsburg. I spent most of my free time with Valeriy, a young guy from Ukraine. He's in charge of the sports center in Barentsburg. All year long, he works over there from 11am to 9pm. He was easy to find and always ready for a cup of tea. He looks like a viking or a heavy metal fan: long hair, long beard, very muscular. His look was really strange for Barentsburg. He found a job here to help his mom who stayed in Donetsk. Valeriy speaks a little english, almost the only one in Barentsburg. Strangely, I spent a lot of time with him but I almost never took a picture of him. Maybe in my mind he was not really an inhabitant of Barentsburg. He was so different from the others!

You’ve worked in the Pyrenees for some time. What can we expect from ‘Pyrène’? What has been your focus in this project? 

LD: Last fall, I spent 2 months in the Pyrenees for an artist residency. After a few days there my initial project seemed to be very dull and irrelevant. But I met people, I did a lot of hiking in the area and I took pictures with no goal. So I guess my project in the Pyrenees is about me, freed from the constraints of a project. And it was really refreshing and salutary. I look forward to go back there.

© Léo Delafontaine from the series 'Pyrène' 

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?  

LD: Yurian Quintanas, Stéphane Lavoué, Rob Hornstra, Mathieu Gafsou and of course Alec Soth.

Three books of photography that you recommend. 

LD: 'My Last Day At Seventeen' by Doug Dubois, 'Sublime Cultivation' by Christopher Rodriguez, 'Grey Skies Black Birds' by Stéphanie Borcard and Nicolas Métraux.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring? 

LD: 'Photographies Soudanaises' by Claude Iverné at the Niepce Museum in Chalon. Some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. And the prints are amazing.

© Claude Iverné Vestige d’une cafétéria / Jardin du 6 avril / Khartoum / Juin 2001 © Claude Iverné / Elnour 

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future. 

LD: I'm working on a new book with my project in the Arctic (Arktikugol), I'd like to continue very soon to take pictures in the Pyrenees and I hope to start a new project this summer. Something completely different from my previous projects of course.


Léo Delafontaine