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Who am I? Why did I become a photographer? Why had I always dreamed of traveling, even as a tiny child? How can such a passionate feeling be explained? How can I describe the work I have been doing for such a long time?

In my early days as a photographer with Sygma, some of my colleagues would scoff when I said I just wanted to earn a bit of money to set off on another trip. They would say: “Why do you want to go away again, when you can stay here and travel, and earn money at the same time?”

So I stayed; and I traveled; and I earned money. I was there in a real-life situation, but it was different compared to the real-life experience of the free-lance traveler that I had had in the past and which I still found enticing. I have always loathed luxury hotels and beautiful people, yet the comfortable prospect of being part of an organization and, even more importantly, of having a not very visionary vision of real-life situation, almost prevailed over my childhood dreams, over the dreams of the traveler in search of tiny scraps of happiness, even short-lived, of moments of wonderment gazing at a stage where very little happens, but where everything happens.

So off I went.

My story is nothing special. My mother’s parents and her 13-year-old sister were deported during the war. The trains came back empty, but the rumbling would live on, a never-ending echo of deeds unspeakable. When I was a child, my mother would often talk about her mother and sister, and weep.

It was not long before my parents’ relationship fell apart, with endless arguments, spats and fights. I was a quiet, lonely little boy, and soon became very good at geography; somehow knowledge of the world, albeit relative and abstract, would help me forget the raised voices of two people for whom communication was impossible but who happened to be the most important people in my life.

I became a photographer and I traveled the world. I went off in search of stories I might be able to tell, without really understanding what was at stake in the endless, relentless quest, persevering without stopping to draw breath, the sum total being expressed solely in quantitative terms: the number of airplanes taken, the number of films seen and the number of countries visited. The exercise consisted of fleeing ever faster, like a snowball turning into an avalanche, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. I had dreamed of something else.

Then one day I found what I was looking for, in eastern Europe, on a road where men were chatting, speaking a language that most people around them could not understand. Suddenly I was thrown back into the past, to my past life in a town in provincial France where survivors had tried to turn a life spent continually on the run into an ordinary existence, doing so with discretion, while also acclaiming their new-found honor in the country that had taken them in and which had been the stuff of dreams for their parents, for their forbears who had been handed over as vassals to executioners for eradication.

I had been attracted to eastern Europe as that was where my family had its roots and past history; this transplanting could not be short-lived. Credence should never be given to those who refuse to accept differences. The journey heading east, to eastern Europe, had begun as an exercise in investigative journalism. By the end, the journey was a quest for identity. My forbears were from what was once the largest minority in Europe. Finally I would be able to endow my work with meaning.
Photography, travel and my quest had suddenly coincided. To discover my identity, I had to find where I had come from. On that day my venture as a photographer and my personal venture in life became one.
Alain Keler

Alain Keler

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