Sebastien Tokalian is French. My first acquaintance with him was through a friend. I heard that Sebastien sold all his possession and started a long bicycle trip. During the journey, he took a lot of photos. This year, he will participate in the Pingyao International Photography Festival, which makes me curious and excitement. Thus, I invited him for this interview.
Sebastien looks very sturdy, his face covered with beard. Dark skin, tattoos run through his arms. He walks with huge steps. On a first glimpse, one will find him an athletic person, which is very common among the foreign photographers.
Before the interview, I have viewed one set of his works. I am very fond of the dynamics from his photos, just as he said in the interview: “I will completely forget the world I live in, when I travel outside on my bicycle.” Thus, the story begins here.
Answer: Sebastien Tokalian
1. Q: Can you tell us how you start photography?
A: Before, I was a skateboarder, and I had a skateboard store in France for 20 years. It was in 1990, when I was only 21 years old and I opened my store. At that time, I was very young. I loved skateboarding, and also loved this kind of life. I did not think too much before I opened the store. Of course, when running my store, I would take some photos to the products for publicity. Later, I learned photography by myself and started to shoot advertising films. In 2012, great changes occurred in my life, and I thought I had to make a clean break to my past life. Thus, I sold my store which I ran for more than 10 years. Then, I bought myself a bicycle and began my aimless ride trip.
It sounds like a very old fashioned story, but I just wanted to make a change to my life, and travel is the best way to forget. Meanwhile, I decided to take some picture on my journey, so I could hold such a feeling. Therefore, I bought a Leica M Monochrome, and I started shooting that way.
2. Q: What happened to enable you to make such a change in your life?
A: When I was young, I was a skateboarder and met my ex-girlfriend. She was an American. In order to stay with her, I went to the United States and lived in her parents’ house. Later, something huge happened in her family, and we returned to France.
So I can put it this way. I ran the store to fill myself with a busy life so that I did not have to think about the life problems.
3. Q: How did you take pictures on the road?
A: I used to run the skateboard store and I also took photos of the products and even shoot some advertising films. However, taking pictures on the road was entirely different. At the beginning, I traveled to the well-known attractions like the other tourists. The photos I took were all the beautiful blue sky and images with rich tone, but I found these pictures almost the same. One day all of a sudden, I pressed the shutter when I rode my bicycle, and a blurred photo appeared before my eyes. I found it can perfectly express my emotions at the time. Thereafter, I used this way to take more pictures. So to speak, I am more like painting with a camera rather than record.
4. Q: Why are you fond of black and white photos?
A: When I first started to learn shooting, I used color camera. Later I found that black and white one is what I really want. The black and white photos are enchanting. Now, everyone is talking about skills and techniques, yet I prefer the black and white camera that is simple and helps me to concentrate on the feelings I want to express, rather than letting me confined to external conditions.
When I take photos, technique is the last thing I will consider. All my focus is on shooting. I have my own camera pre-settings, such as slow shutter and fixed filter, which are never changed during my daily shooting. This can eliminate unnecessary distractions.
5. Q: Indeed. This explains why there are so many blurred and moving things in your photos.
A: I would not like to simply copy the things I see. I want to describe my feelings about them.
6. Q: Were these photos taken during the move inspired by your love for skateboard in the past?
A: When I ride a bike, I often move very fast and crazy as if I was on a skateboard. I would rather shuttle among the cars in a city and bring the skills to play skateboard in riding bike. I often twist the bike to feel the speed changes that have been featured by my shootings.
7. Q: Could you describe how you spend a day during your travel shooting?
A: I often sleep in a camp when I am in the wild. There was a time when I was troubled by serious sleeping problems. During that period, I always red some Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s works and also learnt Stephen LaBerge’s “lucid dream” that helped me to sleep.
I would look up to the sky when I cannot fall asleep. Every time, I could find something special and wish to record them by my photos. In the morning, I would make some coffee or tea and keep on riding. The route I choose is often random. I know where to start and where to end, yet I choose the road between the starting place and an ending point out of instinct. You know, it is very tiring to shoot for a whole day and riding gives me a lot of space to think. My bike weighs 70 kg, very heavy. To me, shooting is more like a break during my riding. Since I often think about a lot of things when riding, shooting helps me withdraw from thinking and shift my attention to other things.
Of course, I would take photos when I am riding, and often miracles happen at this time.
8．Q：It seems that your photographs are seeking a unique style?
A: Yes, people see the same thing, but take totally different photos.
I have a photo of tree, and it looks like an outstretched palm. Actually, I saw it the moment when I stopped to pee.
There is another photo. When I was bicycling, a beautiful waterfall suddenly appeared, and it was the afternoon, so I immediately decided to end that day’s cycling and took a rest there. Then this photo was produced. I want to emphasize again that, I love black-and-white photos, which have a kind of unique charm. If you take a color photo, it will be just a waterfall, while in the black-and-white tone, it could be a waterfall, or a ray of sunlight spilled from the sky. There will be infinite possibilities.
9. Q: Have you ever been influenced by other people in the study of photography?
A: The first man who influenced me was Henri Cartier-Bresson. I watched all of his videos and interviews on YouTube. He is a good story-teller, and he was a painter before, so he pays particular attention to the composition of a picture. From then on, I started to realize that photography can do many things.
However, though his photos are quite interesting, they are not what I want. I then went to see many paintings by Paul Cezanne, and I really like his style. No one knows why he painted like that, and Cezanne had totally overturned the previous painting methods. I think he just wanted to paint things in his imagination, instead of what he saw. I started to think, why I shoot, I think maybe photography is just like painting using a camera.
10. Q: Last, could you share with us your travelling routes?
A: From 2012 to 2013, I travelled on the Alps around my home.
In 2014, I started to camp. I crossed France, reached to the northern part of Spain, and then I crossed Portugal, reached to Morocco.
In 2015, I rode to Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily.
In 2016, Corsica Island, Sardinia, Sicily, South Italy, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, France.
For this article, special thanks to Kong Ning, Klavdij Sluban.