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Taking it slow

THEO PANAYIDES meets a respected photographer who travels to Asia for the beauty of the light there, and has found the same qualities in Cyprus


Jean-Marc Payot looks nonplussed (to be fair, most people would) when I ask him to describe his personality. ‘Where to begin?’ his Gallic shrug – Gallic by way of Switzerland – seems to be saying. Fortunately his wife Athena is sitting next to me, and attempts to pick up the slack. He has two parts, she explains carefully.

I’m a Gemini, puts in Jean-Marc.

“One part wants to go quickly, the other would like to think and go slowly. When he is disturbed, he goes very fast.”

Is he disturbed right now? Hard to say. He doesn’t seem to be going fast, on the other hand it’s always a bit disturbing being in a hospital. We’re sitting in the tiny canteen of the Apollonion in Nicosia, surrounded by squalling children and the mixture of fear and forbearance that seeps into hospital corridors like a bad smell. Jean-Marc is fresh from a well-attended lecture called ‘Beloved India’ at the 6×6 Centre for Photography in Limassol, where he exhibited a number of recent photographs from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu – but now he and Athena have come to Nicosia for their annual check-up. Why he chose to have it here, as opposed to the South of France or his native Lausanne, is a question with no obvious answer.

The Payots have been coming to Cyprus every year for the past 20 years, always in October and November; Jean-Marc has psoriasis, a skin condition whose effects can be ameliorated by swimming in the sea, and he takes full advantage of our early-autumn beaches. As for the rest of the year, “we don’t stay very long in Lausanne, we stay two or three weeks to see our friends and family. We are most of the time in the South of France,” in a place near Avignon “where the light is also beautiful – or during the winter in Asia, to travel.”

The reference to Asia is significant, ditto the reference to beautiful light – because Jean-Marc is a photographer, and almost all his work is done in Asia. His website ( is divided into sections titled ‘Burma’, ‘India’, ‘Iran’, ‘Laos’, ‘Central Asia’ (and yes, even ‘Cyprus’). He first went East as a young man of 23 (he’s now 71), taking a job as assistant on a documentary being filmed by a well-known Swiss director named Henry Brandt. The film was a commission for the World Health Organisation, its subject being contagious diseases in what was then the Third World; “I saw famine, malnutrition, a lot of diseases. Poverty, of course. People living in the slums, people queuing for the injection for leprosy, one woman with smallpox…”

profile-BurmaBut there was beauty too: in India the four-man crew (Brandt and Jean-Marc, plus a doctor and a cameraman) filmed the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest pilgrimage – it takes place every six years – with literally millions of Hindus gathering to bathe in the sacred Ganges. Jean-Marc recalls sleeping in tents near the river and being woken on the first morning by “a very strange noise”, like a soft patting sound with the volume turned up to infinity: it was the muffled trudge of naked footsteps on the sand, a throng of barefoot pilgrims padding down to the water (“Thousands of feet! Incredible!”). Later, in the Philippines, he recalls visiting Tacloban, the city recently devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, back when it was just a quiet village: “I remember they cooked for us a small pig in the ashes, and played music. It was so beautiful”.

The crew shot 120 hours of footage in six months; the film took two years to complete – but then it was done, and it was time to move on. The obvious next step would’ve been to find a job in TV, ending up as a cameraman or journalist – but it wasn’t so simple. Payot is a well-known name in Switzerland, a major chain of bookshops and publishing house, founded by Jean-Marc’s great-grandfather in 1875 then expanded by three generations of Payots. “I said to my father ‘Please leave me two or three years to see the world’,” recalls Jean-Marc; but the two years were up, and now it was time to take his place in the family business. “So I worked like a crazy man for 20 years,” he explains with wry resignation – opening shops, modernising the company and supervising the publishing arm in Paris, always with an eye to the profit-and-loss account. These, you might say, were the years of the ‘part that wants to go quickly’.

There was another reason why Jean-Marc might’ve wanted to settle down after his two years of intense travelling. He was newly married, and in fact had married Athena just before setting off to pitch his tent in the world’s fetid slums and malarial swamplands. The couple have been together for 48 years, and have three daughters and 10 grandchildren (one daughter accounts for half the grandchildren; unsurprisingly, she doesn’t work). I observe their interaction as they sit opposite each other in the cramped canteen at the Apollonion; they look broadly similar – two trim, dapper senior citizens – and behave like, well, an old married couple.

Jean-Marc is quieter, with rheumy blue eyes and a dry style punctuated by short, expressive gestures: his favourite is to shake his fist quickly – think of a man shaking a ketchup bottle, with the bottle turned towards him – when he says something was “a shock”, or perhaps “very strong” (from the French très fort). Athena’s more excitable, prone to building him up when she feels he’s being too modest; she jumps in, launching into lengthy explanations, then piously refuses to sit next to Jean-Marc and talk into my tape-recorder – as if to say ‘My husband’s the one being interviewed, I wouldn’t dream of interfering’ – then jumps in again on the next question. (“Alors, Athena, you want to do the interview?” he protests in mock-exasperation, and she clams up again.) They have much in common: she’s also a photographer, though she shoots in colour while he prefers black-and-white. But they also have differences. Athena’s a practising Catholic who prays ever day, Jean-Marc – though of Protestant origin – is an atheist, or more accurately an agnostic.

This matters more than you’d think – because Jean-Marc Payot had had enough of ‘going quickly’ after 20 years as a businessman. By the mid-80s his father had died, his daughters were in their teens and none of them had any interest in managing bookshops – so, in 1986, he sold the business, and Payot was owned by a non-Payot for the first time in 110 years. The first consequence of this was that he and Athena had enough money to last them – with a bit of frugal management – for the rest of their lives. The second consequence was that his contemplative side, the ‘part that wants to go slowly’ came to the fore. Not only did he devote himself, from his mid-40s onwards, to taking photos, he also concentrated on taking photos with a spiritual bent: his website shows monks, mystics, temples, many of the images bathed in white light, like small epiphanies.

“I am interested in all that concerns the spiritual life, because I asked myself a lot of questions about this. I don’t have a faith in God, but I’m asking questions – what happens with the soul, what happens after life and so on … I believe there is Something, and I am very interested to be in contact with this Something”. His visual style similarly aims for the transcendent: “What I like in photography is exactly the literal sense – to write with light, ‘photo’, ‘graph’. I am a real photographer because I write with light. If there is not a good light, I don’t take any photos. I photograph only in the morning and late in the day, when the light is beautiful, and I photograph only with black-and-white – and with film, because digital is good but the result is not the same … This is a sort of magic writing. I am excited by this. I am addicted to this sort of images.”

Does the magic happen easier in Asia? “In Asia they know a lot about this way of communication,” he replies, meaning communication with the ineffable Something. “They know much more than we know in the Christian religion”. He’s experienced “very strong meetings,” he confirms, citing a random encounter with a monk on a hill road in Burma: “He looked in my eyes and I feel something very warm going down” – he indicates his throat – “slowly, slowly, slowly, coming here three times” – Jean-Marc revolves his hand around his stomach – “then coming out, and it was done”.

What was it?

“It was compassion, it was strength, it was light. It was a will to communicate, without any words. This is a very strange experience. And this never happened to me in Switzerland, or in France, but in Burma.”

It happened in India too, of course – that early experience with the Kumbh Mela, back when he was young and impressionable. I suspect he was marked by that two-year journey in the late 60s, especially filtered through the 20 years of corporate hustle that followed. “It was very stressful, [but] I did my best,” he says diplomatically of his years as the Payot in charge of Payot – though he also recalls that Athena (who worked in the company as a bookseller) didn’t want him to sell, “but I tell her if I continue I will kill myself”. Ever since his mid-40s, “I’m free,” says Jean-Marc. Maybe it goes even deeper, this need for freedom: at one point he mentions that his late mother was “very full of authority, and very selfish”, which doesn’t sound like an easy relationship. Maybe the quest for a restless, unrestricted existence has been with him all his life. Is it very important for him to feel free? “Always,” he replies instantly.

Most would say he’s managed quite well. He doesn’t make a living from photography (though he’s sold photos, and books of photos), then again he doesn’t need to. He and Athena flit from France to Lausanne to Cyprus – where he laments the growing pollution and endless ugly villas but loves the light (it’s “very similar to the light of India”) and also loves the feeling of being on an island – to points further east. Next year he’d like to try a “real meditation”, says Jean-Marc, maybe find a Buddhist monastery and look inwards for a couple of months, trying to find that elusive Something before it’s too late. “I am over 70,” he notes. “I have to select what I will do. Because now I see some limit in front of me.”

One thing bothers me slightly. Athena mentions in passing that her husband sometimes uses his wealth to help young photographers in Switzerland (he says nothing, being too modest to confirm or deny) – but what about the subjects he finds in developing countries, who are surely worse-off than he is? Wouldn’t it be better to give them help, instead of taking their photos? Jean-Marc shrugs noncommittally. Sometimes he’ll help, of course, when someone’s sick or in trouble – but he’s not there to offer help. “It’s not my purpose”.

So he’ll just turn up, like a tourist –

“No, no,” he interrupts. “I am not at all like a tourist.”

My mistake. So he goes to these places like an artist –

“Not like an artist.”

What then? “Un témoin,” he says quietly. “Like a witness. Like somebody who will observe, and give testimony of what he has seen”. In the best Swiss tradition, Jean-Marc Payot – publisher, traveller, man of two parts – is a neutral. He’s content to record, showing all the things he finds enthralling. Other cultures, other people, and the constant yearning for Something.

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