In the vast realm of photography, where every snapshot can tell a myriad of tales, there stands a man whose lens has traveled continents, capturing the essence of the human spirit. Pascal Mannaerts, an internationally acclaimed freelance photographer, has ventured into the deepest enclaves of cultures and geographies, always with a passionate zeal to share the stories of the people he meets. From the vibrant hues of India to the remote terrains of Tajikistan, Pascal's journey is a testament to the belief that the world is best seen through a human lens. Today, we delve into the chapters of his life, understanding the magic behind his photos and the heart that beats for the untold stories of our world.
Retro Kolkata: Pascal, your journey from discovering photography during your student years to becoming an internationally recognized freelance photographer is truly inspirational. Can you share how you nurtured your passion and skill over the years?
Pascal : Since I was a kid, I’ve always traveled around the world. First with my family and then, growing up, I started to regularly discover new places, backpacking with my camera and my notebooks. For me, photography has always been closely linked to travel. I learned photography when I was traveling. I am a self-taught photographer. At the beginning, there was a simple and powerful dream: I just wanted to discover the world! I dreamt of the unknown, of open spaces and adventures, of discovering different cultures. Photography reflected this spontaneous desire that I had to immortalize my experiences and my discoveries, to capture their essence and their beauty.
Basically, I'm a lawyer, I studied law at university in Brussels. I worked in this field for more than 10 years and I traveled whenever possible during my free time. When I was back home, I shared my pictures with my relatives but also on the internet, and my photos began to be noticed and published little by little by some big names such as National Geographic, Géo, The Guardian, BBC exetera. I was really happy about that. Later, I made the choice to evolve in this way and to follow this road, and that’s where I am today. Passion took over and I'm very happy about it. My passion for traveling brought me to Asia, India, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. I work on assignments or on personal projects that I then try to publish.
What interests me in this activity of photographer is the sharing of all these experiences around the world. This is what drives me forward: discovering, being inspired and creative through photography. And then sharing the result of this creativity, with as many people as possible. Then the loop is complete.
Retro Kolkata : Your first visit to India in 2000 was the catalyst for many return engagements. What aspects of India's culture, landscape, and people have drawn you back repeatedly?
Pascal : Indeed, since my first visit to India in 2000, I have returned 14 times. India has been a real favorite for me and this, since the beginning. I will always remember that very first time when we arrived in the middle of the night in Delhi, with a friend, in July 2000. We left the airport in the middle of the night and took a taxi to the New Delhi railway station, where we had spotted a hotel. I will always remember that feeling I had the next morning, when I went out on the street for the first time and discovered this everything that suddenly came to me, right to my face. I thought... "Oh wow!". This intensity, this chaos too. Something clicked and I immediately felt that it was going to be different.
There is a very paradoxical aspect for me when I am in India: India is an inexhaustible source of inspirations of all kinds, I always discover new things, new places, new aspects of Indian culture, which is rich and infinite. It is like, every time, a new journey in the unknown.... and on the other hand, I feel like home! It is a perfect balance between the unknown and the new that I want to explore, and this reassuring feeling of well-being and benevolence or kindness that I can feel everywhere in the country. It's a real magic for me when I'm in India. And I must admit that this feeling, I feel it just as strongly in India in particular. That must be why I keep coming back again and again.
More concretely, there are so many things that attract me to India. I mean, in India, there is everything. India is a world in itself. Whether it's the ancestral traditions that are still very much alive today, but also the modernity at the top, and the infinities of nuances between the two, there are so many things to see, to live, and to cover in photography. The places fascinate me of course, but there are also the people, the Indians, and the encounters and interactions that I experience with them when I travel in the country. I specify that I always travel in India solo and independently, in particular by using local transports, to try to be as close as possible to what and who I want to discover. Any trip is therefore always a real adventure and all these experiences are always really intense. India is really an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me, both photographic and human, even existential, and that's why I find myself there regularly. For me India has no equal.
Retro Kolkata : Your travels over the past decade have spanned Asia, Africa, Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East. How do these diverse geographies influence your photography, and what are the common human elements you aim to capture in your work?
Pascal : When I’m on the road, the encounters and interactions that I have with the local people are my priority. I always place the human being as the main focus in my photographic work. I would say that the common human elements that I try to translate into my photographic approach evolve around two main axes. First, what I would group around the concepts of "identities" and "realities". And second, what I would call "feelings" or "emotions”. I like to present people around the world and what they are, and what they live, but also to translate into images a whole series of emotions of their realities, of their daily lives…feelings or emotions that they express themselves or that I feel myself, when I go to them. And then about this, you realize that humans and their emotions are universal, even if their identity is different each time.
Retro Kolkata : You have said that curiosity and a passion for images have been fused with a profound attraction to the human element. Can you elaborate on how these factors drive your approach to photography?
Pascal : I started photography with what I would call “travel photography”. I showed in pictures the experiences that I lived during my journeys, mainly the encounters that I made but also the moments lived around the world. It was all about the point of view of the traveler, who wanted to translate into images what he was living on the road. All this, while always feeling and showing spontaneously through my work this deep attraction for the human element, which remains central to my photographic approach.
Little by little, with time and experience, I completed my photographic approach with an approach that I would describe more as “journalistic” or “documentary”. I mean that, over time, I also focused on all kinds of more general realities, which I encountered while traveling. These realities which no longer concerned only my own experience as a traveler, and my point of view as a traveler, but which are much more global and general. Social or environmental realities, for example, which I wanted to show in my photographic work.
This is why I have divided my website into two main sections. The “travel” section, where my travel pictures are presented, from the traveller's point of view. And the “stories” section, where I present all the reportages that I have done on more specific issues, whether social or environmental.
Retro Kolkata : You have been published in prominent publications like National Geographic, BBC, Geo, and The Guardian, among others. How does it feel to see your work recognized on such renowned platforms, and how has it impacted your career?
Pascal : Sharing and publications are essential to my photographic activity. Without sharing my photographs, my activity would lose all meaning. I think the same goes for any artistic creation activity. Before I even thought about taking things more seriously and making it my main activity, I quickly realized that, while traveling, I had this fundamental need to create something from all these experiences. Simply living them is already very good....but that wasn't enough for me. I needed more! I had the need to use these inspirations to create something that remains, to immortalize my experiences.
Before photography, I used to write a lot while travelling. Then, photography took more and more space and I had this essential need to share these photographs, not to keep them only for me. I started by sharing them once back home with my friends and family, then via social networks. They were quickly spotted and published by the press. Obviously, this was for me an incredible source of happiness and this gave all its meaning to my photographic approach. It gave me an incredible energy that pushed me to continue and direct my life in this direction. I want to say that when there is publication, the circle closes, the creative process is completed and the goal is achieved.
However, as photographers, we must clearly make a difference between personal projects and assignments that we may be asked for. My publications result either from personal projects or from assignments. But it is not because you have had publications in big names in the press that things can be taken for granted and that people will come to you on a completely regular and certain basis to order photographic projects that would again for sure be published in the press...and which would allow you to make a decent living from your photographic activities. The networks are indeed already full and opportunities can become rare. Carrying out a personal photo project by oneself, and therefore trying to go through to the final publication, is therefore definitely not easy and is a challenge. This is what, among other things, keeps the flame of passion alive.
Retro Kolkata : You've exhibited your photographs in various countries, including France, Belgium, Brazil, and India. How does the experience of showcasing your work in an exhibition differ from publication in a magazine or book?
Pascal : Exhibitions and publications in the paper or web press are completely complementary for me. One does not go without the other. And both offer immense satisfaction. The exchanges and feedback following these publications or exhibitions are of course very different. For an exhibition, it is very pleasant to meet the public who comes to the exhibition and have real face-to-face exchanges at that time. There is therefore a whole additional human dimension in the context of an exhibition, which one does not necessarily have in the context of a publication.
Retro Kolkata : As a photographer, what is your philosophy or vision when you're documenting the world and its diverse cultures? Pascal : I would say that my key words are, among others, love, empathy, curiosity, respect. It is in this state of mind that I work. It's probably because, basically, a priori I like people, that I do what I do. I am naturally curious about human diversity. I like to feel nomadic, discovering and moving. I like discovering people and what they are. I like going to meet them. Photography meets all these needs for me, like nothing else can. It's a way for me to share, to feed on this sharing, to create and share in return. This process has become essential to my life.
Retro Kolkata : Could you share one or two of your most memorable photography experiences and why they hold such a significant place in your heart? Pascal : I am thinking for example of this photo that I took during the Holi photos in the Meera Sahbhagni widows' ashram in Vrindavan.
For several months, I was busy on a photo project about the widows of Vrindavan. It was a very strong and intense period of my life. This photo project was really very rich emotionally.
I had created strong ties with some of these ladies. The day I took this photo, it had been years since the widows had celebrated Holi, and they were finally rediscovering the joy of taking part in these celebrations. I remember the pure happiness floating in the air that day. It was like a consecration. It was wonderful. This photo is dear to my heart both for the beauty of the moments that I experienced that day, but also for the stories of the widows that it evokes for me, and for the memories that it brings back to me in particular.
I also think of this photo I took on the shores of Lake Karakul in the province of Gbao, Pamir region, in Tajikistan.
We had been on the road for several weeks in this isolated place which is a real “end of the world”. We were near the village of Karakul, a very small village of a few houses, looking like a ghost town. A real impression of eternity reigned all around us, we felt so small and humble in front of this almighty nature. It was the end of the day, there was not a trace of life on the horizon and suddenly this herd of yaks arrived in front of us. They spontaneously returned to the village for the night. A magical and timeless moment. A complete return to nature with the animal kingdom and nature as sole masters.
Retro Kolkata : Photography, like any art, evolves with technology and trends. How have you seen your own photography style change over the years, and where do you see it going in the future? Pascal : Over time, I have become more attentive to technical details when taking pictures. From the beginning, and even today, I give the priority to the spontaneity of the moment, over the technical details of shooting. But over time, I learned to be attentive to that dimension as well. Even if I always remain convinced that a strong photo is one that gives off real emotion, rather than one that is technically perfect.
Another element that comes to mind is the photographer's relationship to social networks, which are constantly evolving and which have fundamentally changed the way we share our photographs for more than ten years now.
I see that there is clearly a type of photography that appeals on social networks and in particular on Instagram. I admit that in my case, social networks are a way to share my photographs, but they have never been for me an end in themselves. I therefore remain above all faithful to my intuitions and to my own way of directing my work.
Retro Kolkata : Lastly, looking ahead, are there any particular projects, locations, or themes you're excited about exploring in your work? What should we look forward to from Pascal Mannaerts in the coming years? Pascal : I have several topics in mind, which I would like to cover in the next few months or years. Social or environmental subjects, oriented towards India, Asia, Africa and Europe.
Also, I recently assembled many photo collections that I grouped around themes, and not just by destination. I have already presented some of them on my website www.parcheminsdailleurs.com in the "themes" section. Over the years to come, I intend to enlarge these series of photos but also to exploit other themes that I have not yet presented on my site.
I also have the project of a second book which will be published soon, taking up a whole series of my travel photos, some of which have not yet been published. Surprise in a few months. Stay tuned.
As the curtain falls on our intimate dialogue with Pascal Mannaerts, it becomes evident that his camera is but an extension of his soul, which seeks to bridge worlds and narrate tales of myriad emotions, identities, and realities. Pascal's dedication to his craft goes beyond the desire for fame or accolades; it is driven by a genuine love for humanity and an insatiable curiosity for the world's diversity. While technology and trends may evolve, the timeless essence of human connection that Pascal captures remains a constant. As we await the next chapters of his visual journey, it's a reminder to all of us that in the grand tapestry of life, it's the people who are the true destination.