Australian-born photojournalist Tony Maniaty, based in Paris and Sydney, will open his photography exhibition and unveil his photobook, ‘Our Hearts Are Still Open / Nos Cœurs Sont Toujours Ouverts’ this Sunday, as part of Sydney’s annual Head On Photo Festival. The exhibition and photobook contain images documenting the life of the French people as they tackled the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, their greatest crisis in a generation.
ABOUT TONY MANIATY
Tony Maniaty also spent two years based in Paris as SBS Television’s European Correspondent, and 2020 living in Provence and the French capital. As well as photojournalism, his career has included broadcast journalism with the ABC and SBS, writing fiction, and Associate Professor of Creative Practice at The University of Technology, Sydney. His writing and photography has been published in magazines and newspapers worldwide.
Tony chats to us about his photography exhibition and upcoming photobook, ‘Our Hearts Are Still Open / Nos Cœurs Sont Toujours Ouverts’. Read the interview below.
Tony, you’re an Australian-born photojournalist who is based between Paris and Sydney. How long have you been living in Paris on and off?
Although I was born in Australia with a Greek background, Paris has become my second home. I first visited Paris as a young backpacker, and in 1989 I won a scholarship to the Cité Internationale des Arts , to complete another novel, ‘Smyrna’. It went on to be shortlisted for Australia’s premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, which of course added to the influence Paris had over me! I fell in love with the city. I decided to stay, and spent the next two years based in Paris as SBS Television’s European Correspondent. I’ve been back many times over the years, and spent all of 2020 in the city.
When did you get your first camera? What made you choose to become a photographer?
As a teenager I was inspired by a British magazine Creative Camera, where I first saw the photography of French greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis – those timeless images of Paris. Just out of high school I was offered a journalism cadetship with the ABC, so I mixed my love of photography with reporting news and making TV documentaries. My first serious camera was a Pentax SLR, but in my early twenties I bought a second-hand Leica M2, the classic camera used by my Magnum agency heroes. I’ve had several Leicas over the years – one of them stolen at gunpoint in Brazil! (They’re the sort of camera that can get you into trouble.) These days I use a Leica M10 and Leica Q, both excellent for street work. I’m a happy convert to digital photography, the era of breathing chemical fumes in the darkroom is thankfully over and my lungs are happy.
You were also SBS Television’s European correspondent based in Paris for two years. Did you have any French language or French life experience before taking on that role? What were your highlights during these two years?
About the French language, a major confession: I’ve had a long and torturous history of trying to become fluent. I studied French in high school, then off and on for years with extremely patient teachers. My time working for SBS in Paris helped, but mostly I was ‘out of town’, travelling around Europe on assignment. (As a journalist reporting for Australian TV audiences, you naturally try to interview people who speak good English.) My French did improve a lot in France last year, but once the discussion turns deeply to politics or literature, I get lost! Nevertheless, I adore the language.
That period of upheaval, from 1989-1992, was exceptional for any Paris-based correspondent – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, the rise of the EU as a power bloc, and of course François Mitterrand at the helm of France. They were heady days indeed, all the elements for serious news stories were there. I got to meet some of the major players and deepened my understanding of the European mentality – quite different from the Australian in many ways. It’s interesting that some of the stories I reported for ‘Dateline’ then are again in the headlines – immigration, the rise of nationalism, the shift to the right in politics, and so on. After three decades, these issues still dominate Europe, and the future is unclear.
One of the stories I most enjoyed working on was a one-hour documentary on the Franco-German relationship, in all its historical complexity. One day I found myself in Reims interviewing two icons of the French champagne industry in the same courtyard: Henri Krug and Christian Pol Roger, with their respective German and French backgrounds. It was a wonderful metaphor for how two warring nations could, in a single generation, become friends and allies.
Having lived in France for several years, you’ve got a good feel for la vie française. How would you describe French life and how would you say it differs to Australian life?
Despite the obvious differences – the French love of formality, the casual manners of most Australians – I’ve found many similarities between the two societies. They’re both functioning democracies with considerable respect for institutions, for fairness and equality, for freedom of speech. Once you get outside ‘le coin’ of Paris, it’s surprising how much the French and Australian lifestyles are similar – the love of the outdoors, of weekend family gatherings, BBQs and the beach. And it’s hard to find an Australian who doesn’t love all things French! (With the obvious exception of a certain Prime Minister…)
You’re not just behind the lens, you’ve also worked in broadcast journalism, writing fiction, and as Associate Professor of Creative Practices at The University of Technology, Sydney. Do each of these roles fulfil a different need?
All these roles – which are perhaps less diverse than they seem – stem from an intense curiosity about the world around me. I began photography and fiction writing in high school, was incredibly lucky to get into ABC News while a teenager, and spent several decades in the world of TV news and current affairs. I tried to ‘escape’ several times to more creative pursuits, only to be pulled back: the last time, in 1996, as Executive Producer of ABC’s ‘7.30 Report’.
After that I moved into university lecturing, where I was able to bring together all my professional and creative skills and interests. And gradually, photography re-entered my world in a powerful way. I find it hard when people ask about ‘my profession’ these days, I seem to have too many. I’d like to describe myself simply as an ‘enthusiast’. Are you allowed to put that on government forms?
The Our Hearts Are Still Open exhibition
You’re about to show a solo exhibition of Paris photographs taken during 2020 at the peak of the COVID pandemic called Our Hearts Are Still Open. These photographs document French life through the crisis, how did you find that?
I flew to Paris from Sydney in January 2020, with the intention of resuming my life there, but COVID followed me. Very quickly I came under the same pressures as everyone else. I was trying to write a novel, but my creative focus shifted from the isolation of writing to a more confronting engagement with COVID-19 – heading out day and night with my camera to document the changed life of the streets, sans crowds, sans traffic, everyone masked and worried. All around, a pervading sense of anxiety had replaced the joie de vivre of the city.
This was Paris as none of us had ever seen it before. The grand magasins, evacuated. Boulevards empty, bistros closed. Museums and galleries, all without visitors. But something else emerged: the usual anonymity of Paris, and the problems of moving around one of the world’s busiest tourist destinations, was replaced by a sense of shared humanity and much gentler rhythms. The vigorous pursuit of daily life gave way to simple thanks, for being alive. It was a very powerful and strange time.
As a journalist I had covered disasters and war, but none of that prepared me for COVID’s impact. My camera became a weapon, not against the virus but against loneliness and isolation and fear. By documenting Paris on the streets, I was connecting not only with those around me but also with the world beyond, because the pandemic itself was without borders.
One morning as I was leaving the boulangerie, I commented to the owner that Paris had become a ghost town. ‘Oui’, she called out, cheerily. ‘The bars and cafés are closed, monsieur, but our hearts are still open!’ That summed up the true spirit of the Parisians, and gave me the title for the photo exhibition.
How many photographs comprise the exhibition? You’ve shot the photos that comprise the exhibition Our Hearts Are Still Open in black and white, which seemingly takes us to a bygone era. What made you decide to shoot/print in black and white?
The show has 25 large images, all in black-and-white. I prefer to shoot in monochrome. The great Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank once said that black-white were the true ‘colours’ of photography, because they symbolized the alternatives of hope and despair that define the human condition. In my case, I think it allows me to get to the essence of the scene, to balance forms with light and shade. With our eyes, we see the world in colour all the time. To me that’s the appeal of black-and-white: seeing things differently, without the usual rainbow distractions. It’s very strong.
You’re said to have been inspired by masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau in this project. How do these two masters inspire you in this project and in your everyday work?
Strangely, I didn’t set out to replicate the work or style of these iconic masters of French photography, but at its core, Paris is still the city it was in their era. So perhaps subconsciously I was channelling those giants, because without mass tourism and traffic jams during the confinement, the city looked surprisingly as it might have in the 1950s. I was certainly attempting to recapture the very deep spirit of humanism that shines through their work – values that have slipped over the subsequent years but we were suddenly reminded of again in the pandemic. I was looking to capture a sense of optimism rather than gloom, which was the exact opposite of what we saw nightly on the TV news: endless stories about suffering, rising death tolls, crisis…
How do you think that optimism emerged in the photographs?
Well, I hope there’s a sense of gentleness, touched in a few cases with mild humour and quiet irony. We all discovered, perhaps to our surprise, that life in a pandemic can still be enjoyed no matter what the world throws at us. Between each of these photographs runs an invisible thread of human dignity, and in some unspoken way, every person I photographed was touching the next.
You’ve produced a book of the Paris images, also called Our Hearts Are Still Open. Do you see the book reflecting this moment, or more an archival record of an extraordinary period in human history?
Well, I hope both. Originally I saw the book as being a clear visual response to the COVID pandemic as it played out in Paris, and I asked the philosopher Raimond Gaita if he would write a short foreword. Raimond is best known for his memoir of a tough childhood in rural Victoria, ‘Romulus, My Father’, which became a successful movie. He offered instead to write a major essay around the deeper meaning of the pandemic, of how it might be seen as representing love and hope in human beings everywhere. That wonderful essay, ‘Assessing Our Humanity’, sits quite rightly at the heart of the book, so that my Paris images become also a visual metaphor for the world and its response to events we still cannot fully understand.
The book is rather unique in that it’s a collaboration between a photojournalist and a philosopher: as a street photographer, you have to act decisively, impulsively, whereas the philosopher spends his life thinking deeply about the nature of things. By turning the COVID discussion away from the medical and the political, together we’ve given voice to something much deeper in all of us, our need for a common humanity.
Video trailer for the exhibition:
KEY INFO FOR OUR HEARTS ARE STILL OPEN / NOS CŒURS SONT TOUJOURS OUVERTS
WHAT: Our Hearts Are Still Open / Nos Cœurs Sont Toujours Ouverts photographic exhibition
WHERE: Kirribilli Centre Gallery, 16-18 Fitzroy Street, Kirribilli, Sydney. By rail: Milsons Point
Station. Parking is limited.
WHEN: 14 November – 5 December 2021.
The viewing hours for the exhibition are as follows:
Sunday 14th November 1 – 5pm
Monday 15th November 12 – 2pm
Thursday 18th November 12:30 – 2:30pm
Sunday 21st November 1 – 5pm
Monday 22nd November 12 – 2pm
Thursday 25th November 12:30 – 2:30pm
Sunday 5th December 1- 5pm
HOW: Simply attend the exhibition during its opening hours. Please note that NSW Government COVID-19 regulations apply.
HOW MUCH: Free
Will you be attending the Our hearts are still open exhibition?
For other events happening around Australia and online in November, take a look at our What’s on in November article.