The sight of anything unusual flying through the air usually induces a fanciful leap of the heart. French photographer Laurent Chehere’s series Flying Houses takes the varied buildings from different arrondissements of Paris and turns them into whimsical airborne montages. Through the series, Laurent’s intention was to take ‘sad buildings’ – apartments, cinemas and even circus tents – left to wilt in the shadow of anonymity and give them new life by telling their stories, whether true or fantasised. For Laurent himself, photography – along with wandering the far reaches of the world – is the perfect way to nourish his own imagination.
I grew up … in the eastern part of Paris in Ménilmontant. These days it’s a bit of a ‘bobo’ (bourgeois-bohemian) neighbourhood but there’s still a really interesting mix of people – you have a lot of Chinese, Arabs and people from Mali. Growing up around so many different cultures, I always dreamed of being able to travel around the world.
I always had a camera … when I was a child – all different cameras from the seventies and eighties. I remember that, each year, my father would film our vacations on an 8 mm camera and after that he would create a montage. Then he would shoot a pack shot using our toys to spell out the name of the place we had been to on our holidays.
I did a one-month internship … in an advertising agency when I was 20. It was really just by chance – I didn’t have any interest in design before that but I had studied art at school. At the end of the month, the guy asked me if I wanted to go back to school and learn about advertising, or if I wanted to just keep going and learn it on the job. I chose to keep going and I never looked back.
I worked in an advertising agency … for 14 years, and that’s how I learned to develop my eye. Because I was an art director, my job was to find ideas and work with photographers and directors. Eventually I realised that my own true path was photography and I left my job six years ago to become a photographer.
Advertising is really frustrating … because your job is to find the best ideas but, in general, by the end of the project the client has killed the idea. It’s frustrating because at the start you feel like you can make something great, but in the end you can’t. At the same time, it’s a very good ‘school’ in a way, because I learned to write scripts, to direct and to do photography and I also learned a lot from working with different graphic designers. But after a while you realise that eventually you will have to leave that ‘school’ and do something different, otherwise you’ll just keep working on the same brief with the same result.
I wasn’t scared to leave my job … because as soon as I quit, I went directly to Australia to spend some time with a friend of mine there. He had been an art director for DDB Paris but had been fired, so he decided to go to Australia and went travelling around it in caravan. That was really my first big trip and I spent two-and-a-half months just travelling around. Then people kept saying to me: ‘Why don’t you go to South America? It’s the same distance from Paris as Australia is.’ So then I spent four months exploring South America. After that, I just couldn’t stop travelling.
I love reportage photography … but it doesn’t always pay well. Once I was paid 80 euros for six pictures of a Chinese dam, but then you can be paid 4,000 euros just for shooting balls in the National Lottery. This is the reality of photography. I’m still working in advertising, but I try only to work on things that I like. The money from my advertising work pays for me to do the travelling and reportage that I love. I was in Bolivia last year for the fifth time, shooting reportage in a mine, because that’s what I love to do.
The Flying Houses series … is, for me, the perfect mix between reportage and conceptual ideas. I saw interesting houses in the street, but the streets themselves weren’t interesting, so I thought it would be a good idea to isolate the houses and to use that idea. When you look at a house on the street, it’s very different to seeing it isolated. If it’s by itself, it could be a fortress or something massive, but on a street it just looks really small and blends in. It’s really interesting to see how architecture can change when you put it in a different context.
I really wanted to tell a story … through the series and think about the people who lived inside these buildings and whether they were happy or not and stuff like that. Whenever I walk down the street, for example, and I smell someone cooking something, I look at a building and think maybe the people inside cooking are African, because it smells spicy – things like that. You can really come up with stories for all the people who live inside these buildings, which is what I did for Flying Houses.
It’s a fun way to create something … because once I have drawn the building, I can choose the elements I want it to have, like windows and graffiti, etc. and then I go out and shoot them in good light on the streets of Paris and add them in Photoshop.
The circus tent … came from a circus in the north of Paris close to the Boulevard Périphérique – the ring road – around the city. It’s a grey area with lots of cars and young gypsies asking for money, and there’s this circus right in the middle of it. I was also inspired by Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, which is about an arch angel who fell in love with a trapezist. It’s beautiful and poetic, but dark at the same time. So I put a lot of references from that – and also from Fellini films – in the circus tent image.
It was Paris that inspired me … to do the Flying Houses series. I was inspired by The Red Balloon, which, coincidentally, was shot by Albert Lamorisse on my street in Ménilmontant in 1956. That movie really was a very poetic depiction of a particularly poor area in Paris. People always ask me if I was inspired by the movie Up, and I tell them that there were a lot of other movies that came before that! But it’s funny because I read somewhere that the script writer for Up was also inspired by The Red Balloon.
I love architecture in general … but I don’t really like the Haussmann architecture of Paris because you have 4,000 versions of the same building. Haussmann was kind of like a dictator of architecture – Hitler just didn’t have time to do the same thing! The parts of Paris I do like are Belleville, Ménilmontant, La Chapelle and the suburbs, because those are the places where you can see the old Paris – it’s disappearing, but you can see it.
The greatest challenge for me … has been just to be able to find a way to do what I want to do. Everybody is a photographer these days, so you have to be better and more inventive if you want to be a professional photographer.
My advice to people is … to just do it. Often people talk about being lucky or not lucky in your life, but I don’t think it’s a question of chance. In life you have choices – you do something or you don’t. And maybe you have different reasons for it, but in the end it’s your decision. You either take a chance or you don’t – but I say just do it