WHO ARE YOU… Paps Touré
Paps Touré has been wandering around Paris with his camera since 2010, documenting the city’s daily life in unedited, monochrome photos. We went to meet him, accompanied by the photographer Gabrielle Malewski.
Who are you?
My name is Paps, I’m 35. I grew up at Danube, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. It’s hard to define yourself… Let’s say I’m a photographer, and an artist. People know me through photos, but I’ve done lots of things on the side, like developing my own clothing line.
How long have you been taking photos?
Almost four years. I didn’t get my love of photography from nowhere. At the start I took photos of my dogs. I’ve always had dogs – I prefer them to humans. After that I stated taking photos of people in the street.
I was coming out of Boulogne one day. I’d just bought my first camera – a Nikon – and I stopped at Stalingrad, near La Chappelle. I saw a bridge and a homeless guy was watching the trains. That image was the first time I used my camera. I only saw the photo a month later when I was sorting my photos at mine. Even I wasn’t expecting such a great result, and I decided to keep going. That photo was the beginning. And that’s actually what I called it: “The Beginning.”
All of your photos are taken in the street. Where is this attachment from?
I dropped out of school really early, and just hung around in the street where I lived. At the time I never left my street, I was the sort of guy you really didn’t want to meet. I’ll never forget that time, and so everything I do is either linked to the street in general, or to the 19th arrondissement. The neighbourhood suits me, there’s a huge ethnical diversity, and you blend in with the crowd pretty easily.
You’ve been selling your photos at Colette for a little while, and more recently at Drouot. How did that happen?
Human interaction. I met people who introduced me to others, and everything just kind of took off. It meant I could meet people I never thought I’d have access to, like contemporary art collectors. I’d never thought that I could sell photos to them, or that I could sell my work at Drouot, in Dubai, go to Miami for the Art Basel. I never thought that one day I’d be taking photos in the streets of New York…
I’m never sure of what I’m doing, but people give my work value. I’m constantly questioning myself, but at the same time I’ve decided to do what I like, and not to pretend…
And then, I just turned up in my pyjamas
I could easily have gone to see a collector like that. They’re not buying my image, they’re buying my work.
Isn’t turning up in pyjamas to see a collector also a way of creating an image?
Everyone has their own way of seeing things. I would never judge someone on their appearance. I’ve often been bowled over my people who came up to me in the street, who had a scruffy look. I’m lucky I didn’t judge them, because those are the people who have done me the biggest favours.
On day on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, I took a photo of a homeless guy in front of a Habitat store.
A couple thought I was taking a photo of them. They asked to see it, and said “there’s a homeless guy ruining the photo.” Instead of getting all heated about it, I explained to them that I was actually taking a photo of him. The couple turned out to be contemporary art collectors, and they’ve since introduced me to a lot of people.
What is it like to sell photos you’ve taken in the street, which can often show a very harsh side of society, to collectors who make up a cultural and economic elite known for keeping a closed circle?
I think it’s cool. I think art should be accessible to everyone. When I take a photo, I capture an instant of life which is kind of comical, it’s got emotion. I ride around Paris on my bike and I photograph things that I’m touched by.
What blows my mind is that the people who look at and buy my photos are also in Paris. But they’re seeing things they’d never normally see, even though I haven’t retouched the photos at all.
My work as a photographer is to be a witness, and to share what I see with as many people as possible. If people then buy my photos to show off or make themselves feel better, I think it’s none of my business.
The little “social side” is the idea of becoming aware of what’s around us. I always tell the story of the homeless guys I photograph. Like the one in front of Cartier, for example. I don’t do close ups. There’s a contrast which might make people smile – I try and add something to my subject. I would never put down the nature of the person, or criticise them. That’s really important, especially with this sort of photo.
Is it easy to interact with people, homeless people in particular, when there’s a camera in between you?
There’s a relationship of trust which is built between us. When I take a photo I never warn the person beforehand, but we talk about it afterwards. I automatically delete it if the person doesn’t want me to publish the photo, but the natural side of the photo remains intact. I find it quite easy to interact with homeless people, because we talk as equals. I sit down with them, we eat together, it’s chilled. My mum makes the food, and I give it to them. Today no one is safe from serious problems, or seeing their lives turned upside down. I was once on the street in Paris, ten years ago, before I started taking photos. I was only there for a week, but I saw how people looked at me. I sympathise with them, unconsciously. I understand these people, I see myself in them.
You say that when you meet a homeless person, you sit down on the floor with them. It’s no small thing.
My dogs see me standing up, I’m not going to sit down with my dogs.
When you go and talk to a homeless person and you stay standing up, it’s like you’re dominating them, as if you were their boss. If I really want to show the person interest and respect, we need to be on the same level.
Sitting down on the floor doesn’t kill me. I know that afterwards I’m going to go back home, lie down in my bed, mess around on Facebook and watch telly on my widescreen. It’s just a question of wanting to, and often all they want is for me to talk to them.
Do you show everything?
No. You can’t sell everything, show everything, reveal everything. There are an increasing number of groups going out to give food to homeless people, and more and more people getting involved. It’s great, it’s a decent gesture. But what exasperates me a little is when people take photos of themselves doing it, and put them online. I’ve seen some pretty hard-core scenes. In urban “homeless” photography, there’s a limit between photography and voyeurism, and I’ve taken a few which are a bit too close to voyeurism. I prefer to keep them to myself. It’s a win-win situation. Someone trusts you, so there are some thing you have to keep to yourself. And if I showed every single photo I’ve taken of homeless people, it would take forever!
Your sales are going up. How do you feel about that?
It’s always cool to sell photos, but I’d feel bad if there were only collectors who bought them. I want to stay involved in my world of photography, and alongside people who are close to me. I recently did two or three days of collages in Paris. I did one with a large-format photo of my dogs. I got some people to meet me and I gave away my posters for free. There are people who maybe don’t have 3,000 euros to spend on a photo. And on 1 March I’m organising a gathering on the rue de la Solidarité, in front of my parents’ place, for an auction. I’m going to sell 40 photos, and the starting price will be more like 200 euros. That way, the people following me from the start can also afford my photos. That’s what art is to me.
You shouldn’t lock it up or make it inaccessible. If not it stops being art.
The day when your photos will be worth 30,000 euros each, you’ll still do that in the street in front of your flat?
Of course. Remember that!
“La rue est à nous, XIX” Auction on 1 March 2015 at 2pm in front of 2 rue de la Solidarité, 75019 Paris.