Photos that shock: discover the brilliant Gérard Rancinan

The man who shot the Dalia Lama, Fidel Castro and the Pope tells us why even the most powerful of world leaders is afraid when he steps in front of the camera.

Matthew Priest March 22, 2015

For someone whose work can be described as twisted, aggressively sarcastic and, at times, grotesque, French photographer Gérard Rancinan is a ray of sunshine.

The multi-award-winning photojournalist had covered wars, riots and natural disasters, before finding his true calling in portrait photography – shooting the likes of the Dalia Lama, Fidel Castro and the Pope – and vastly critical cultural compositions. The 62-year-old is in great form during his brief 48-hour sojourn in Dubai, when he had time to sit down with EDGAR for a chat...

So Gerard, would you say that you are a photographer or an artist?
I am a photographer. I say that because an artist can be anything: a painter, a sculpture, a musician, a cook – to be an artist is like having no responsibility, to be a photographer is different. I am a witness of my surroundings, a witness of humanity. Someone once taught me that as a photographer you have the ability to stop time; that you are in competition with god.

You started out as a photojournalist, covering wars and riots. How difficult was that on an emotional level?
It was hard. I started as a reporter and you are confronted with the worst of humanity, but I learned a lot. Regardless of whether you are in a war zone, or at the Olympic Games you learn a lot of things. Being a reporter meant going into the field and capturing very specific images of poor people in bad situations, but today it is different, I try to look at things through a wider lens – like an editorialist. I don’t care about making nice pictures. I want to see pictures with meaning behind them. Press power Gerard Rancinan

Is that why you left photojournalism?
I had a lot of success during that job, shooting for LIFE, Vanity Fair, TIME – all the big publications. I am also the only person to have won the World Press Photo of the Year six times. In fact, sometimes I forget how many times I won the award, and my wife has to remind me!

But today I have a different life. As a photojournalist, your job is to look at things with a very sharp focus, and not the bigger picture. I prefer to do what I am doing today, because I am freer to make my decisions. There are no assignments, and I can create pieces that explore wider concepts of humanity.Soldiers save our valuesYour pieces are somewhere between classic art and contemporary society. Why do you link these things together?
I try to explain that all the history of art is linked. From the very beginning when the first human drew on a cave wall, the creation of art was finished. The rest of it was just repetition. I am very close to classic art, that I see as an important part of my inspiration. For example, my piece Radeau des Illusions is inspired by Théodore Géricault’s Radeau de la Meduse (1818), but I wanted to make a piece that represented the contemporary issues of immigration: refugees, tourists, expatriates – all of them.

We tried to find another style, but the most efficient way of doing it was to reinterpret Géricault. I don’t trust artists who say that their work is completely new, and that they have invented something. It is impossible. raft of illusionsYou have previously shot profiles of Fidel Castro, the Pope, the Dalia Lama and others. Do you prefer doing that type of work?
I love doing those shoots, but only because I chose what I was shooting. I went to shoot Castro, because I wanted to, not because I was assigned to. With Bill Gates it was a bit tough because he never smiled, but Castro was fantastic.

There is a huge responsibility that comes with being a photographer, because you can capture a moment of someone that will remain that way forever. When you are in front of a world leader, they are so powerful, but in front of the camera, for a fraction of a second, you can tell that they are very afraid. They understand the right image can make you iconic, the wrong one can be devastating. Their image is in your hands, so suddenly you become the boss. It is all about perception and Castro knew that. Fidel Castro by Gerard Rancinan So Castro didn’t have any input into his portrait?
No. When I arrived in Havana, he met me and said: “Gerard, you are a great photographer. Now, what do you want to do?” I didn’t know Havana, so I had to come up with something on the spot! I said: “Mr President, tomorrow we will go to the cliffs, and I will take a picture of you defying America!” He nodded and said “no problem”!Batman Girls Gerard Rancinan.Your piece Batman Girls recently sold for a record sum at auction. What are you trying to say with this piece?
The Batman piece was part of my Trilogy of the Modern exhibition. It is a very dark idea behind the piece. It talks about the perfect, rich family. The man is in finance work and makes a lot of money, his trophy wife is completely depressive and spends a lot of money on LV and Hermès bags, and she dreams of saving the world, but she never will because she cannot even save herself, and their assembly-line children will be even worse.

When we exhibited it in London for the first time, an Italian banker dressed in black came in to the gallery and bought it immediately. He didn’t ask me any questions, he just explained that it would fit really well with the aesthetics of his apartment in Milan. I didn’t want to explain to him what it was about, because it was essentially about him! Details: Gérard Rancinan's work was shown at The Opera Gallery, DIFC. For more of their artists, visit