French Photographer Tries to Express His Subjects’ Souls

For decades, French photographer William Ropp has tried to express the soul of his subjects through his portraits, going beyond the social facade they exhibit to the world.

“This involves complicity with the model,” he said. “I explain to people that it is not them as such that I photograph but rather their thoughts, their essence.”

'Portrait Beauty in the Dark' (Soun Sayon)
‘Portrait Beauty in the Dark’ (Soun Sayon)

Mr. Ropp asks his subjects to close their eyes and get into their dreams.

“Having their eyes closed, they are no longer concerned with having a camera in front of them, which is in fact an aggression— after all, we call it shooting,” he said. “So I try to create an intimate cocoon for my model.”

Then when Mr. Ropp tells them to open their eyes, he is able to capture their expressions without the social veneer his subjects usually wear.

“It’s a fleeting and specific moment as people are not back to reality, are still within their dreams,” he said.

Last month, the 54-year-old photographer, who lives in France, came to Phnom Penh to teach his techniques to 10 Cambodians enrolled in the Institut Francais’ yearlong photography course called Studio Image, which is ongoing.

His photos and the photos his students took during the workshop feature in the exhibition “The Mysterious Art of The Portrait” opening tonight at the institute.

The four-week program included two weekends of fieldwork during which Mr. Ropp and his students set up a studio at the Phnom Penh International Airport and Siem Reap International Airport, where they took photos of airport employees. (Cambodia Airports is funding Studio Image.)

'Worker' (William Ropp)
‘Worker’ (William Ropp)

During the workshop, he explained to his students the various techniques he has used for taking photos over the years.

“What I like the most is a technique for…taking photos in a room without light,” said Khiev Kanel, a 27-year-old bank employee enrolled in the course. This technique consists of turning off all the lights in a room and using either a flashlight or light from a mobile phone to illuminate the subject, with darkness creating a relaxing environment for the subject.

“He did not only teach us new techniques for portrait: He also taught us how to approach and deal with people so we can do our photography work,” said Soun Sayon, a 29-year-old engineer and Studio Image student.

“The airport employees and construction workers…were very busy, but he was able to communicate with them and have them agree to do their portraits,” he said.

At the airports, Mr. Sayon managed to reflect in his photos the complexity of people beyond their workplace personas. His photo entitled “Portrait Beauty in the Dark” features a man in construction safety gear gazing into a distant reality.

Portrait of immigration officer (William Ropp)
Portrait of immigration officer (William Ropp)

In his own photos, Mr. Ropp added a backdrop that reflected each subject’s styles, as they were not in their home environment.

“As I explain to students, whatever post-production program or Photoshop you use, you will never be able to give a soul to a photo if it was not there to start with. You may be able to embellish, to do things. But the soul, the fundamental essence, you can’t give a photo.”

This lesson comes through in the effect of the ornate backgrounds chosen by Mr. Ropp for his portraits of airport employees.

Mr. Ropp’s ninth book, shot in Ethiopia and entitled “Ethiopique,” was released in June. His photos are part of the permanent collections at several museums including the Musee de l’Elysee in Switzerland, the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in France, the Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark, and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition at the Institut Francais opens Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

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