Guillaume Beaudoin is a photographer and director. His first book, Empreinte, gives a photographic account of his travels throughout the South Pacific Islands, his work with The Ocean Cleanup, and his various encounters along the way. Highly sensitive to climate issues, he questions the impact of the Western way of life on both the environment and on humans. In the context of our current tipping point, Beaudoin’s work forces us to consider our place at this crossroads before the point of no return.
Where did your interest in photography come from?
My mother is an artist. From a rather young age, she encouraged my interest in visual arts. But it was during my snowboarding trips that I picked up a camera seriously for the first time. My interest in film developed over the course of our adventures on the road, and it has enriched my approach to photography. My frames are almost always horizontal, and I focus manually. It’s a little silly because it’s so inefficient — seriously, who works like that?
What are you hoping to capture in your subjects?
To be honest, it’s not always that clear. It’s rather intuitive. Above all, I’m looking for a story. Sometimes it comes out through context, the environment, a gaze, the light, or action. Change, as a subject, touches me deeply.
People who are at a crossroads make excellent subjects. Movements, currents, and upheavals bring out strong and human traits.
Is there a story or a place that really left its mark on you?
There’s been so many. Meeting Agnès Benet, the defender of the Tahitian whales, was particularly touching. Her generosity and volunteer investment in the cause is so inspiring. You can read my book for the full story of her achievements. She introduced me to a whole marine world that I barely knew. Thanks to her, I later found myself just inches away from a whale: our eyes met for one moment. That was the highlight of crossing the South Pacific for me.
I also shared a deeply touching moment with Matthew Chauvin on board the Ocean Cleanup. Before collaborating on that project, he’d been working on fishing boats in harsh conditions and an environment in which he felt out of place. We talked about it while sharpening knives. You could feel his loneliness. Ocean Cleanup seemed to give him a glimmer of hope, opening up a whole range of other possibilities. I talk about his experience in my book, but I hadn’t heard from him since. Just recently, he wrote to me to tell me how decisive the experience was for him. He’s now married and runs his own company on the West Coast of the U.S.
Mossua’s story is also memorable. A member of the Baka people of Gabon and an orphan, he was raised in the jungle by his grandparents. The government forced his community to leave the forest, but he keeps returning whenever he can.
He guided us through the Baka’s fishing and trapping practices. His knowledge, and his community’s knowledge, is extraordinary. Looking back, I’m sad that a lot of these ancestral practices are being lost. Their knowledge is invaluable to humanity.
What do you want to communicate through your photos?
I find beauty in difference particularly touching. Diversity shapes culture. In so many ways, our world is homogenizing right now: so many crops are monocultures — and have been for a long time — and the trend is growing in our forests too. I witnessed the jungles of Indonesia be transformed into palm forests for palm oil production. What gets lost in this homogenization is often invisible, and it’s of course difficult to grasp the value of something you can’t see. Yet everything is interconnected.
A scientist I met had established that an increased variety of coral in a place makes each species more resistant and more capable. I truly believe this applies to humans too. We have to celebrate difference.
Is there a particular cause or organization you’d like to talk about, that’s close to your heart?
There are tons of causes I’d like to talk about. The situation of Indigenous people across the world is deeply upsetting. I recently got involved in the movement for the Baka people, as I explain at the end of my book. We worked with the Baka community in Gabon when shooting the TV5 series Tribal. They were forced to leave the jungle by government order. They were promised a school, a road, and papers, but none of that ever happened. Many years later, their way of life is still restricted. They’re victims of alcohol and other social problems that often arise in this kind of situation.
Working with Survival International, I set up a small team to support their cause. We hope to persuade the government to at least grant them an identity and papers, letting them access the health-care system and to allow them to move around freely within the country. They currently don’t even have this bare minimum.
What three Instagram accounts most inspire you?
That’s not easy. I tend to take inspiration from people whose work is very different from my own. The work of @lou__escobar deserves more attention, and @brunopontiroli’s paintings are truly unreal. Closer to home, my climbing partner @Kristofbrandl does extraordinary work. Obviously, there are so many accounts worth checking out. I could have just as easily picked three others.
In the past few years, you’ve been to more than 60 countries, had such memorable encounters, and photographed the world from the ground, underwater, and the sky . . . What do all these places and people have in common for you?
[Laughs] That’s a huge question! These projects have taught me that there is beauty everywhere when you stop to really look. That’s why it’s important to set goals when you travel. There are times when I might have missed beautiful stories if what I was seeking hadn’t been clear.
Your encounter with children on Tanna Island in the Vanuatu Archipelago is remarkable. Could you describe it for us?
Vanuatu is a special place, and the people I met there had a big impact on me. Near the end of my travels in the Pacific, I was asking myself questions about individual responsibility and climate change. The end of my trip was approaching, and I wanted greater clarity in documenting what I’d gathered. We docked in a small bay, then I hitched by boat to Tanna. The people there deeply moved me. They’re certainly the most welcoming people in the world, and there was also a spirit of freedom I hadn’t seen elsewhere in the region.
I witnessed the happiness of the youngest ones left to their own devices in nature. A series of photos of these children on Tanna was born. All the thinking that came out of this experience helped me answer several questions that had gone unanswered up to that point, to direct my own efforts in giving an account of climate change.
How did these journeys and encounters help you grow as a human?
Empreinte was first of all a search for meaning. My initial quest in my trip through the Pacific was to understand how individuals place themselves in this world of accelerated change. More concretely, how do we individually face these huge climate issues, these problems that are so much larger than us? These are complex questions that I can’t pretend to be able to solve, but I can say that little by little, I have found some answers. I hugely questioned my approach, and I understood that a documentary process would make me more authentic. I had to put in a lot of effort at a personal level. The project transformed me, and today I see things in a more positive light than I did three years ago.
What’s the most important issue you talk about in your book?
Through my travels, I’ve had the opportunity both to witness the damage that we’re doing to our environment and to talk to scientists to better understand what this damage entails. There are two kinds of damages: first, those that result from air pollution and cause climate change, things like coral bleaching; second, damage related to development, like wildlife loss due to deforestation. We hear a lot less talk about the latter, but it’s just as important to protecting life on earth.
Visiting remote communities, I encountered lifestyles that are intimately linked to nature and respectful of its resources. It changed my perspective on my daily life.
Our system today is based on consumption, but this system is actually marginal in human history. Individual ownership is a good example: we all have our own car, our own lawn mower, our own equipment for every sport we do, our own tools. The nomadic peoples that I visited have existed for hundreds of years with sharing at the heart of their resource management. To ensure the survival of our environment, we have to start questioning our way of life, our way of inhabiting the world. These reflections are important in a context where the global population is growing and our resources are limited.
Find out more about Guillaume’s work here
Guillaume Beaudoin is a cinematographer, director, and photographer. Since 2008, he has worked on several documentary, advertising, and fiction projects, including the TV5 series Les Flots and Tribal. Through his work, he has captured poignant and spectacular images around the world, from up above with drones or from below through scuba diving. In 2017, he took a year of sabbatical and travelled the South Pacific, hitchhiking from sailboat to sailboat to document local initiatives combatting climate change. He also took part in a three-month mission with The Ocean Cleanup to remove trash from the Great Pacific garbage patch. This fall, his book Empreinte will come out with Parfum d’Encre, a division of the Courte Échelle group (currently available in French only).