I was sometimes in the middle of the protestors, sometimes in the middle of the police and occasionally between the two – a no man's land full of tension.
I wanted to be like those famous photojournalists, to be at the heart of the conflict, and the yellow vest protest in Paris was the first truly violent demonstration I’d encountered. I was feeling invincible until an explosive gas grenade detonated at my feet. I lost consciousness for a minute. When I came to, I couldn’t see anything and all I could hear was a shrill whistle. France is the only country in Europe to use grenades, which scatter rubber pellets and emit tear gas, as a weapon against civilians. I got up with the urge to vomit but I kept taking pictures. I realized how important this moment was and knew there were stories I wanted to tell.
The Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris is one of the most famous streets in the world. During the yellow vest revolt at the end of 2018, the boulevard was no longer a place where the richest people went to shop, instead, the street became a place for those suffering from the growing economic, social and political inequalities to voice their opinions and make a stand.
When I heard about this movement and what was going on in Paris, I had no choice but to take my camera and board the first train to the City of Light. It was at the very beginning of the revolt when the government didn't fully realize the magnitude of the movement so the Avenue was still open.
When I arrived, in the morning, some parts of the street were already bathed in tear gas. The riots continued all day and ended very late at night, continuing the day after. All day I was walking around Paris, following the smell of burning cars and the sound of explosions. I was sometimes in the middle of the protestors, sometimes in the middle of the police and occasionally between the two – a no man's land full of tension.
This photo was taken on the Avenue at nightfall when the protest was becoming more violent, there were fires and smoke everywhere. It was sometimes difficult to breathe without a gas mask. With my camera's 35mm focal length, I had to be in the heart of the action. For this particular shot, I was about to walk next to the fire when I saw a man with a captivating gaze and an extravagant outfit walk towards me. I acted quickly and took the picture.
I never work below a 1/125 shutter speed. When photographing the streets, timing is critical. A split second is enough to lose a picture, but if you know your kit well enough, you don’t even have to look through the lens. In these conditions, it can even be dangerous to look through your lens for too long, as your eye is taken off potential missiles. For this particular photograph, the area and situation was rather calm. I had two seconds to take the shot, which was more than enough to compose the composition.
In photography contrast is everything. With this picture, the contrast is not only in the light, shadows and colors, there’s another contrast there – something leaning more towards differing ideologies. In the Avenue des Champs Elysées, where all the biggest fashion designers have their shops, this man walks in a colorful ski suit, wearing comical sunglasses and bearing a plastic chest piece for protection. He takes on a somewhat surreal superhero figure in a dystopian world.
Enjoy Arnaud Guillard's portfolio here.
Guillard is currently undertaking a Masters degree student in videogames and cinema at the University of Montreal. His photograph was shortlisted in our Open competition, Street Photography category, in the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards.
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Just beyond the frame
For this new series we’ve asked photographers behind some of the best images submitted to the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards to tell us how they created their successful shot