For seven years, fashion photographer Koto Bolofo became almost invisible as he spent days and nights shooting and documenting the sacred inner workings of the iconic French brand Hermès at its headquarters. He trailed the so-far faceless and unknown artisans and craftsmen of the luxe giant to unveil his epic 11-volume tome La Maison (Steidl). The books, which individually cover all the different departments, are an ode to the enthralling expertise that goes into each of the items. The photographer, in an exclusive tête-à-tête with Malvika Sah, talks about his latest project, passion for photography and the secret world of Hermès
How and when did your passion for photography develop?
It happened by accident. As a kid, I had no interest in photography whatsoever. My father possessed a humble film camera. My interest started when I was about 17-18 years old and went to college in West London. It was an Arts college and I had enrolled in a five-year course, where our first year included all the elements of arts like drawing, painting, pottery, photography and graphics. I wasn’t really good at drawing or painting but I knew I wanted to do something artistic though I didn’t know what it was. In that year, we had a three-week photography course where they taught us how to use a camera, take pictures and develop them in the dark room. I’d never been inside a dark room before and when I saw this white piece of paper in dim red light immersed in a liquid emerge with an image on it, I was hooked!
Do you remember the first photograph you ever took?
I think it was an abstract piece of texture in college.
You gained access to photograph anything you liked inside the Hermès workshop. How did that happen?
I’m very childish and entirely mad. I’ve been working with Hermès as a freelance photographer for the last 15 years on special projects commissioned by them. I was doing Le Monde d’Hermès — a nice elegant brochure, and then got bored. I found that I was doing the same thing, like always eating the same croissant. I was more interested to find out how these things were made and who made them. I promised myself that I was going to try and get an appointment with Mr Jean-Louis Dumas – (the chairman of Hermès at the time). When I did, I told him: ‘Monsieur, I think Hermès is dead!.’ He just stared at me and I told him that what I was actually trying to say was that everything was going in a circle and I wanted to depict what really was behind the scenes – who makes this handbag, who makes that shoe – focus on those invisible people whom we never see, the shadow people.
He asked me: ‘Exactly, which country do you come from?’ South Africa, I said. And he asked, ‘Where exactly in South Africa?’ to which I replied that I came from a small country in South Africa called Lesotho. He jumped up saying: ‘You are from the Lesotho tribe!’ He then told me that his great grandfather had been a missionary in Lesotho. And my tribesmen protected his great grandfather from the Zulu attacks on the mission. Therefore I was his cousin! He later told everyone that I was his cousin and the only person who could call him Jean-Louis, and do whatever I wanted, for however long, in Hermès and that’s how it all began.
Which item was the most challenging for you to capture?
I think the most fascinating yet challenging was Jeane-Claude Ellena, the perfume composer. Initially I didn’t even know there was a terminology like that. When I went to photograph him I imagined that there would be fields of lavender or gardens of roses where I would click pictures of him. Instead the elegantly dressed man told me that wasn’t happening because he made perfumes in his head and had all the formulae in his head, so there wasn’t anything I could shoot. It is like a person has music in his head but you can’t see it. What do you want to show? That was the challenge. So at one time, he rubbed the perfume made from the formula of a lipstick on the palm of a young girl and smelt it, and I shot that! It was really interesting to create the invisible.
Any particular reason for choosing a film camera over a digital one?
In my days, the digital camera didn’t exist. So this camera is my tool for what I can call my craft. Also, with a digital camera you become lazy as you are constantly clicking and later get confused as to which one to take. Today’s culture is the throwaway culture where you are constantly deleting things from your computers and cameras but in a film camera you only have 36 trials and you have to conceive a picture in that canvas in that many trials. All aspects of your brain are working at the same time to get that perfect shot. When your subjects see that they respect you; people look at my camera and say, ‘Oh, you are a real photographer!’
How did you manage to keep the project a secret for seven years?
This was where the greatness of Jean-Louis came in. He called me to his office and said, ‘I love my people at Hermès, but I would prefer that you not tell them anything about the whole project.’ I was appalled! But the secret to doing it all was intense observation. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even take pictures, so the cameras were of no interest to the craftsmen. I call the Hermès factories a beehive. The bees are caught in this hive, they are working and making beautiful things, and then they stop noticing you. They are so focussed while they are working that after a while they stop noticing you.
Are you guided by instincts or study?
I am a self-taught photographer. I have learnt everything from my experiences. My technical knowledge is zero. I work with only natural light. My basic instincts are of what the camera can do. I call myself a hunter who is out to get his prey. My agenda is very simple: I have to find a way of getting the picture I want.
What are your passions other than photography?
I love my garden. Most of my ideas come from my garden. I have an organic, herbal and a vegetable garden. While I am working there, suddenly an idea comes and I quickly write it down. In fact, I do the heaviest work in the garden and it clears my mind.
What inspires you?
My motto is ‘Another day, another smile’. I come from South Africa and when I look back at the days of my forefathers, I think I wouldn’t be able to do the things I am doing today. What really inspires me is to say if I am doing it, we can all do it. It’s not about the shade of a colour. When you are doing good work and meet good people then what matters is the quality of work.
Your favourite Hermès accessory?
It has to be the Kelly bags, because they were especially made for me to photograph, from the beginning.
(Koto Bolofo’s work will be on display at the Hermès flagship store in Mumbai from June 8-July 15. A special preview of the show – in collaboration with Verve – will be held on June 7.)
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