Directors statement

We were war photographers, witnesses of an endless succession of conflicts, civil wars, disasters and misery. Every photographer is attracted to beauty and for us, came a time when we could only find beauty in nature. We had first encountered the elephants in Burma and in 1999, we had made our first documentary film about timber elephants.

What is it about elephants that brings so much fascination? Elephant are a myth and a child's dream at the same time.

Details of the animals' lives were kept in little books by the handlers: biographies of elephants dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.
With a lifespan of more or less seventy years, elephants are very close to humans. Childhood, puberty, maturity, we share the same time schedule. The bare skin on their faces seems to reveal their moods and their temperaments.
We lived months with the elephants and it was a privilege. Soon we were able to recognize their features and their characters. Each one had a different face. From mere representative of their species, we came to consider them as individuals...then persons.

How could we share these emotions with others? By giving them the chance of the experience...
For that, we needed high-resolution negatives to make one-to-one scale prints so people could stand at the foot of a life-sized elephant portrait and see each tiny hair, each pore of the skin and each wrinkle without artifact.
If people could differentiate animals one from the other, they would eventually acknowledge them as individuals and, at last, feel empathy.

a reference...
At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis, an American photographer traveled across the United States to produce a series of portraits of Native American Indians. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much Indian traditional life as possible before it disappeared. The magic portraits are the only testimony of the Indians' past grandeur.
It is with Curtis’ photographs in mind that we set out on our journey through South-East Asia. Our camera, although modern, resembles the wooden cameras that were created in the 1880s. It uses film holder plates and the photographer covers his head with a black cloth while framing the subject. The depth of field is very narrow and the subject cannot move...impossible to do with elephants?

Elephants' past
Our quest began at the source, in Burma, where domesticated elephants still live and work in the forests the way they have been doing for centuries.

we became the memories of the elephants...
Considering the travel restrictions inside the country, we were extremely lucky to be allowed back to the location of our first documentary. We met again the elephants we had known ten years earlier. Most of them were still alive and working and we could find out what had happened to individuals in this lapse of time. We filmed a ten-year-old youngster whose birth we had witnessed in 1999 and his little brother who was born in the meantime. It was a unique opportunity to show true flashbacks in the film instead of mere reconstitutions.
Nan Cho, a female, posed in front of the camera. There was a baby at her side and they stood in front of a river. She was born in 1947. At the end of the photo shoot, they turned around and walked away.
We witnessed the capture of wild elephants from the forest and the unbearably violent training of young calves. In both events, we found extreme human brutality but also that the ancient sophisticated techniques used by the catchers or the trainers are in themselves an acknowledgment of the intelligence of their victims.

it was like a war zone... Burmese elephant handlers say that the purpose of training is to break the spirit of the animal. The sentence itself sounds like recognition of their soul.

Burma is at a turning point in its history and soon the world the elephants have known will be changing dramatically. Like in the rest of South-East Asia, logging will be forbidden eventually and captive elephants will face an uncertain future. We traveled to three other countries - Thailand, India and Sri Lanka - to find out how different cultures influence the fate of the animals and their future.

From the past in Burma to the future in Thailand, in a time machine...
Thailand has put its national emblem in stables. Most Thai elephants are born in captivity and the jungle disappeared from their memories long ago. Here, people believe that elephants will disappear from the wild and that their only chance of survival lies in captivity. Thailand breeds elephants with all the contradictions inherent to a modern human society: profit and efficiency, boredom and relative safety. However, tourism together with progress brought a new element to the elephants' lives: compassion and this new empathy shed light on the fates of individuals.
Missing the forest...

Missing the forest...
We choose to visit Kerala at the time of the biggest elephant festival of all, the Thrissur Pooram where bulls stand like statues for hours in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of screaming men. Another type of violence comes from the prospect of danger.
Kerala collects male elephants as status symbols: the bigger, the more dangerous animals potentially are, the more respected and powerful will be their owners.

back to the wild to find the original...
Sri Lanka seems to propose another option: the abolition of slavery pure and simple; the end of domestication. There are a few remaining captive elephants here and soon they will be counted on the fingers of one hand. Elephants are wild animals and should be in national parks. People do not accept elephants in chains anymore, thinking that one day we will wonder how we could possibly inflict such predicaments to elephants. Sri Lanka is a small island and conflicts with farmers are an ongoing battle. Is there potentially enough space left to send the elephants back to the forest?

... the future is uncertain.
The key is the forest.

... the future is uncertain.
The key is the forest.

"As long as there will be the forest, the elephants will be there."

We gathered a collection of life size portraits - instant memories of 200 elephants - a herd of individual beings who can speak for themselves.