Charles Fréger’s “Wilder Mann” series captures the costumes and customs from Pagan festivals spanning 18 countries. While for anyone else, this would be a daunting task, Fréger is experienced—he has been pointing his camera at people in uniform for years: Whether sumo wrestlers, water polo players, legionnaires, or majorettes, Fréger’s diverse subjects share a dress code within their contemporary tribes, and we are dying to find out why.
Artsy: In past series you have photographed people in uniforms from diverse social tribes, clans, and communities. What is it about these subjects that draws you in? Is it the history or costume or dress?
Charles Fréger: It’s not just that they’re dressed up in the same way. What they wear is like a confrontation—sometimes we call it a costume; there is a certain complexity in the way they are dressed, and that is what I’m interested in. So like the Chinese Opera, royal guards ... this kind of stuff. I started with something very minimal, like the water polo players, and then I moved on to something with a lot of details, like the series called “Fantasias”, which had huge costumes.
Artsy: Where do you find these communities? For example, your “Wilder Mann” series was captured in festivals sweeping the continent of Europe—how did you learn about these masquerades?
CF: Often books are the only documents that I find. It can also be by coincidence; I hear about something somewhere and then I start to do research about it. [For “Wilder Mann”], I wanted something much more radical in costume, and with a certain brutality. I heard about one group in Australia, which I think is how it started. I went there, and then I heard about [one in] Croatia and I heard about [one in] Hungary. So I went there and then went to Sardinia. After that I started to really research [the subject].
Artsy: Are you interested in the mythologies behinds the clans in “Wilder Mann” and can you talk about the types of mythologies explored?
CF: You have three or four kinds of characters in all these groups. You have the bear, which is the main one and the most important one. Then the goat or any animal with horns, in fact, which can also be associated to the devil. And then what they call the Wild Man. So from that, everywhere I went I could meet some of these characters, which were not directly connected, so they have different names but very similar masquerades.
Artsy: Was it difficult entering into these communities? How did the process unfold?
CF: Some yes, some no. With all my projects, it’s always the same. I work on one project from beginning to end. When I started to feel that the “Wilder Mann” project had potential visually, I found that there were a lot [of these festivals], from Scotland, to Finland, to Portugal to Greece. It started to be really interesting—you get into it and you become a kind of specialist of it. After that, photographically it meant a lot of traveling, visiting the villages, meeting people, and choosing the landscape and the characters. I never photograph everybody; I select which kind of character I’m interested in, which means that I avoid doing an anthropological research. I’m not saying that if there are twelve characters in the group, I’m going to [photograph] all twelve. I want to do something organic, animal, and wild. I was not really interested in colorful things except for a few. I really wanted to focus on this animality.
Artsy: Some of these rituals have been passed down since ancient shamanism. Will they persevere? Or do you feel you’re capturing a disappearing practice?
CF: Often when people look at these pictures they believe that [this type of masquerade/ritual is] disappearing. It’s often people from cities thinking that. But it’s exactly the opposite. These traditions have been strong a long long time. Nobody is really able to say when it started but maybe from around the Neolithic time. After that, it’s been really incorporated into Christianity. But the masquerade never really disappeared.
Artsy: Can you talk about one country that you visited that stuck with you?
CF: Sardinia is amazing. It’s one of the first places I visited [for this series], because you can find 30-40 villages with such groups. The tradition is always based on a certain kind of animal and someone controlling the animal so you may have a group of guys dressed like goats. The animals are controlled. There is a group of guys who are hunters, they capture them and they kill them, so they act like they are killing them and then they wake up and they start again. So the masquerade has to do with the cycle of life—the winter—so a lot of the stories are about that. It’s also often connected to farming ... all of these rituals are basically fertility rituals, like in Africa. The masquerades start about November and finish in March or April.
Artsy: How long do you usually spend on location, and how do you approach your subjects?
CF: Usually from 1-2 days. Sometimes I’m in touch with people before, [but sometimes they don’t speak the same language]—but then I get someone [to help], like in Macedonia or Romania, or sometimes I’m helped by anthropologists from national museums.
Artsy: What are you working on now?
CF: Last year, I started a project on traditional caps from the Britanny [France] area, where there is a big tradition of these caps often made of silk. They’re called coiffes in French.
Artsy: As you’re based in Normandy, this project won’t take you as far from home then?
CF: I discovered it’s not necessary to go so far; sometimes it’s good!
See Fréger’s current exhibitions, on view at Yossi Milo Gallery, through May 18, 2013, and at The Gallery at Hermès, through June 8th, 2013. Learn more about the artist by visiting his profile on Artsy.