On the occasion of the 20th edition of the Prix Picto de la Mode, LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker sat down with the head of the award’s jury, Paolo Roversi. Roversi is one of Paris’ most respected fashion photographers, shooting for the city’s top brands and the continent’s most respected magazines. But what sets Roversi apart is his commitment to the art of photography, rather than the business of selling clothes. In his words, “I am a portrait photographer. I treat fashion photography like a portraitist…It is the atmosphere and the mood of a portrait which brings clothes to life.”

Here are some of the highlights of their conversation, offered in Roversi’s spare, elliptical, yet pointed phrases—

Self portrait. Studio 9 rue Paul Fort. Paris, May 25, 2011 © Paolo Roversi

On the Importance of Masters

“We make paintings after other paintings. We write books after reading other books. One of my most important lessons: find your great masters. They will nourish you.

“As Umberto Eco wrote [and many others before him, fittingly], ‘We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.’”

On His Inspirations

“I think the best photographers take inspiration from many sources, not just from other photographers or even, necessarily, visual images.

“For me, the primary sources are literature, cinema, and music. These feed into my work in unexpected or even unconscious ways. This afternoon when I was shooting, perhaps I was thinking about the music I listened to this morning or the film I saw last week.

“Life always enters into my work in various ways. I try to stay open to it, and you should too. To be a good photographer—and to remain a good photographer—you need to be malleable, flexible, never too narrow. We change every day, and it’s important to be sensitive to these changes. Don’t shut them out: they are essential.”

Clementine. Studio 9 rue Paul Fort. Paris, July 15, 2015 © Paolo Roversi

On Photography Today

“We are not all photographers. We think we are, but we are not. Photography is a language with many styles and vocabularies. For example, everyone can write a postcard—but very few people can write a poem.

“I think one thing that the field is lacking is that there are not enough obsessives. Obsession is the great motor of creativity. Find your obsessions, your reasons for becoming a photographer. Find your pleasure—and not a cerebral one! Photography should not be devoir [an obligation or a duty; also the word for homework]. Photography is and should feel like a liberty! When it stops feeling that way for me, I will stop.”

The Line Between Personal and Professional

“There are always jobs and commissions to be done. But don’t let them ruin your personal expression. If an assignment is too rigid, don’t do it. Find another assignment or make up your own.

“For me, there is no difference between personal and professional work. If this difference exists, then the professional work won’t really be my own. It won’t be me. I will just be doing it for another and there is nothing gained from that.

“As much as possible, remain honest and spontaneous in whatever you do. Most of all, remain honest with yourself. Never trick yourself and then you won’t trick others either. In the long run, you will gain little from deception. Stay alive, stay spontaneous, stay honest.”

Molly. Paris 2015 © Paolo Roversi

Honesty in Photography

“It’s true, photography appears to consist mainly of surfaces. Fashion, especially, seems to concern itself with surfaces. But the key to great photography is to create a depth, a mysteriousness, a novel within the frame. Seek to find something beneath the surface of what’s visible.

“For me, photography is not a representation—photography allows us to enter into another world. It’s a place of expression, to search for and say something.

“I believe that photography is poetry. To make this poetry, and make it true to yourself, requires courage. Seek this courage, guard it carefully, and the work will come.”

—Paolo Roversi

Below, we have included a selection of images from the top laureates of this year’s prize. To see more of their work, visit the Prix Picto website.

Also, to see more of Roversi’s work, don’t miss his upcoming exhibition in Milan, at the Photo Vogue Festival (running from November 16-19, 2017). This is the only international festival devoted to fashion photography.