‘The world’s biggest bribe scandal’, they called it. The claims were indeed dramatic, and cracked code in leaked documents had exposed it all. Multi-million dollar bribes had allegedly been paid. The hands of corrupt officials in unstable states like Libya and Iraq had supposedly been plentifully greased so that some of the world’s biggest brands could get their own mitts on precious oil reserves. Allegedly orchestrating the ‘arrangements’ was a small, jet-setting family based in Monaco. Last summer, I was assigned to make a portrait of the middle son in this ‘family business’.
The call about this Saturday morning portrait shoot came at 5 pm the day before. The Guardian was planning an annual ‘Conversations’ special for the weekend magazine, and an extra celebrity pairing had been added to the feature last-minute. Time was tight to get the photographers’ work to the designer for layout, and the fact that one subject was on holiday in the South of France was not going to scupper the plan. Could I help in a tight spot? When I said yes, I had no idea how tight the spot would turn out to be.
Lakhdar lives a simple, anonymous life in the South of France, in a little village in the hills above Nice. He has children, enjoys gardening, and likes quietly watching the world go by from the terrace of his local café. Yet few of his neighbours know that his story has been told in the international press. Prior to his arrival on the French Riviera, Lakhdar Boumediene spent 7 years incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay and was the first detainee to win a court case for his release. I was commissioned as photographer to take the portrait for his biography.
Ouarzazate, ‘the doorway to the desert’, is home to Morocco’s biggest film studios. Sent on assignment for magazine Aramco World, travel writer Tristan Rutherford and I had a fascinating insight into the town and the film industry for which it is known. Thanks to its range of semi-desert landscapes, sheer space and local resources, this exceptional town has welcomed the filming of scenes from hundreds of international TV series and feature films, from Game of Thrones and Gladiator to the original Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia.
The little boat lurched violently in the swell off the coast of Marseille. I hugged my photographer’s bag tightly, trying keep it safe above the rising water level at my feet. “Don’t worry, its not leaking too fast, we should make it back to port in time”, shouted Carlo, just above the noise of the wind. I was out at sea with a Sunday Times Magazine journalist, my assistant Lou and physicist Carlo Rovelli. A best-selling author, Rovelli is a specialist in black holes and the proud owner of a slightly dilapidated pointu fishing boat.
A mere 30-minute drive from France, on a hilltop high above the Italian Riviera, lies a rather unusual village. Located at the end of a long, winding road, this sleepy, medieval bourg is home to little over 300 people and looks like countless others in Italy or the neighbouring South of France. Yet it is a one-off, both in historical and contemporary terms, and has garnered more than its fair share of international press interest. It has declared itself is a micronation, proclaiming independence from Italy. I recently had a somewhat unique photographer assignment there: one that included portraits of sect leaders, knights and a princess…
Considering its tiny size, Monaco is home to a disproportionate number of athletes. Around 60 pro cyclists alone live in Monaco and train in the kindly South of France climate. As a photographer on the French Riviera, I am often commissioned to make portraits of sportspeople there. But, until recently, I had never photographed a female pro cyclist. British road racer Lizzie Deignan was 2015 world champion and silver medallist at the London Olympics. On the verge of the release of her autobiography, a year after a drugs test storm that left her reputation in tatters, the Guardian Weekend assigned me to make Lizzie’s portrait for a cover story.
“Have you warmed up now?” “Yes, thank god! Oooooh it was freezing upstairs!!!”, Mary J Blige giggled back. Away to my right I could see Clint Eastwood, drinking a beer with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Al Gore was laughing loudly at a big joke he’d just cracked to my left. I slid as smoothly as possible past Julianne Moore, deep in conversation with Eva Longoria, to catch Dustin Hoffman who I’d just spotted – it looked like he was about to leave. The term ‘exclusive’ doesn’t do this event justice. It is, quite simply, THE PARTY of the Cannes Film Festival.
France is holding its breath. The first round of the presidential election is but a few days away, and it is arguably the most unpredictable one for some time. At the very least, France will see a change of president, and it is likely that he or she will be affiliated to a party that hasn’t governed before. One hot topic for the press is the unprecedented – and, for many, alarming – popularity of the far-right Front National party candidate, Marine Le Pen. Swiss Sunday newspaper NZZ recently sent me to western Provence, to the traditional heartland of le Front National in the South of France. My photographer’s mission? To go boldly forth and make portraits of the people who will cast their vote in favour of the ‘FN’ [Front National]…
The remote mountain valley of Breil-sur-Roya has something of a rebellious history. Word has it that the community once tried to make a break for administrative independence from Nice; in wartime, Jews were harboured there; it is also a rare commune in the South of France to have voted in a left-wing mayor. Now Breil-sur-Roya is rebelling again. Villagers have been breaking the law by providing shelter and food to illegal migrants who have crossed the Italy-France border on foot.