Phil Le Gal – Days of Mercy

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“From the moment I looked into my dad’s camera I remember thinking the world looked better in that frame,” says 37-year-old Phil Le Gal of his love for photography.

As a teenager growing up in Brittany, he always carried a camera, “practising photography casually”. Then, 11 years ago, he moved to London and enrolled in several short courses at Central Saint Martins before starting a foundation degree focused on professional photography. “I was very interested, but I just couldn’t find my way. I couldn’t see myself doing fashion or food photography.” And that’s when he discovered documentary – “it was my answer to engaging with the world around me” – which led to him documenting aspects of life in Nigeria, China and former Soviet countries.

But after working in such remote places, “I became aware of the unintentional, unwanted, almost ‘colonial’ aspect of my work. Going abroad thinking you’ll take more meaningful photographs is a mistake that’s easily made; I knew I wanted to work on a subject about my home, but I had left Brittany decades earlier and was observing my birthplace with a foreigner’s gaze. With this distant view, I identified many characteristics unique to the region,” among which is the annual ‘Pardon’ (meaning forgiveness in French).

Days of Mercy, Le Gal’s final-year project, delves into Brittany’s rich cultural heritage and the abundance of pagan festivals and religious processions that stem from the Christianisation of the region, many of which take place between May and September. “Pardons are typically Breton customs, where Christians dressed in traditional costumes go on a pilgrimage to a saint’s tomb, or to a dedicated place, and beg forgiveness. Although I’m from Brittany, I was not familiar with these ceremonies and didn’t have any connections with the pilgrims. At times I was puzzled by what I was seeing; every Pardon is unique, but the general aim is to seek redemption from a specific saint.”

Locating the ceremonies proved surprisingly difficult. “The most important Pardons are usually mentioned in a local newspaper, but most are passed on by word of mouth.” He chose which Pardons to feature according to their aesthetic potential, then called ahead to ask permission to photograph the processions and rituals. “I cannot stress enough how paramount the locals’ knowledge has been for the realisation of this documentary.”

Days of Mercy was recently on show at Where We Stand, a collective exhibition featuring the work of Class of 2014 MA students of photojournalism and documentary photography at LCC. “I used to feel like I was visiting a foreign country whenever I went back home, but this project gave me the opportunity to revisit my birthplace and rediscover its many treasures.”

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