An interview with Françoise Callier

There are lots of very busy people here at the 8th Angkor Photo Festival. This throng of hard-working people includes young talents from around Asia seeking recognition, agencies hunting for new talent, and the ones eagerly going to workshops, seeking mentoring from experienced photographers. The busiest of these participants is almost certainly Françoise Callier, General Coordinator of the Festival.

Since this is the first time Greenpeace has been a participant at the festival, I thought it would be interesting to find out what the host thinks about us and the environment. I wanted to interview the busiest person at this event.

11 December 2012

Photography workshop at the Angkor Photo Festival


That explained why, after two attempts, I still couldn’t find her in the office. I had tried once on the first day of the festival and, again, on a second day. I decided to send her an email on the third day. It must have been around 10:30 at night. “I might not get a response until the whole festival is over, if at all,” I thought. “She might not even check her emails during the festival.” After all, now that the festival had successfully kicked off and everything was right on track. Well, at 30 minutes after midnight, she responded.

“She works hard. She checks her email at midnight” would be one’s usual reaction, but I only thought, “WOW! this is a serious party girl!” Of course, in my mind, she stays up each night drinking until midnight and then goes to check her emails. Of course, in my mind, that’s what a Belgian girl would do in Angkor. Don’t even ask me why. It just is. Or probably I was thinking of that Silly Lila penguin she created.

I walked into her office at 13:00, as we had arranged. There she was, a lady in her sixties with a 20-year-old’s confident, trotting walk. The small half office/half gallery her team was working in was more like a café packed with very young and chic looking people. “They are all the young talent from Asia,” Françoise said with a slight air of pride as we moved into the real café next door to do the interview. She started to talk, even before I popped my first question. It was almost like we were two old friends catching up with each other.

“Education is everything,” she started. “Greenpeace pictures of the wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectricity were very good and inspiring. At this moment, awareness of climate change is still low in Cambodia. Only some government people and business people are aware of the needs for, and potential of, renewable energy.”

Greenpeace has put together three sets of pictures to tell stories of how the sun, wind, and water are bringing clean renewable energy to people in Thailand, China, and India.

“For those who do not understand much about climate change, impact pictures, especially pictures of people whose lives are being affected by climate change, will communicate much more directly with the audience.”

“Look at these pictures. They were from the floods that hit Siem Reap last year, “Francoise brought her laptop out and quickly found an album. She let me go through the pictures at my own pace. Some of them were flooded streets that had been turned into swimming pools. Some were benches with the seating part totally submerged in water, only showing the top of the back. Some were “tuk-tuk” sitting around without any business.

One, in particular, struck me. It was of a traditional wooden monk dormitory house in dark grey, the same colour that shows the centuries of rain and sun on the Angkor statues. The only bright colour in that picture was three orange monk robes hanging to dry in front of the house.

For six weeks last year, Siem Reap remained under waist-high flood water. The flood, as said to be one of the worst for years, damaged, or even wiped away, about 197,000 families’ houses and allegedly took 250 people’s lives across Cambodia.

“Are they pictures of flood, or climate change?” Françoise asked, and, without waiting for any answers, moved on to tell me that the photos were taken by a local 16-year-old kid who participated in last year’s free workshop. These have been the pride of the Angkor Photo Festival since its launch in 2005.

“Everything is free. The exhibitions are free, the slideshows are free, and the workshops are free. We want our festival to be open to everyone. We are here to discover, educate, and share.” Those words made her eyes shine. She reached to another table and snapped a cigarette from a young girl’s hands and stole a drag. No wonder she can create the Silly Lila penguin! She has the heart of a teacher! I thought.

“Nowadays, more photographers are interested in covering pollution. The problems are so bad that they are part of everyone’s everyday life. We are all affected,” She sighed. “The earth is like a person. We have our blood and the earth has its rivers and the sea. We have our flesh and bones, and the earth has its land and mountains. We have our souls and the earth has us and the languages and cultures. The planet gets sick as well, and we must take care of it.”

She said she really liked the Chinese photographer, Lu Guang’s, work. She has seen his work of China’s water pollution, the destruction of the grasslands caused by coal mines, and, most importantly, the people who are losing their health and their livelihoods to pollution.

“I had some Chinese photographers, however, staying in my house in France a few years ago, and they were leaving the lights on overnight at first. And I had to remind them to turn off their lights when they didn’t need them.” That seemed like a funny anecdote in her mind but I failed to see the connection between them and Lu Guang. Then she said: “It is a small habit, but each small habit by every person counts.”

“Good pictures can really wake people up. Or whip them up,” Françoise laughed. “I applauded when I saw the pictures of Greenpeace paragliding over the nuclear power plants in France earlier this year. That showed everyone how safe the nuclear facility was. Is.” I had the urge to tell her about how some of our activists even hid in nuclear power plants overnight in Sweden, without being noticed or found by the security guards. “There are photos at the festival showing the Fukushima aftermath from last March,” she added, with a heavier tone. “My friends in Japan said they trusted their government before that, but not now. How could you?” “Sometimes, I am so angry,” she added. Then, she noticed a kitten with half a tail coming into the café, and looked up at me with a smile.

After waving goodbye we left her in the café with the kitten and her young photographer friends from Asia. My colleague, Sudhanshu, said to me “She is such a Greenpeace person, isn’t she?”