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The Questionnaire : Sébastien Valiela by Carole Schmitz


Sébastien Valiela: Determined.

Passionate about photography from an early age, Sébastien Valiela is now one of the world’s most renowned paparazzi. He revealed the existence of Mazarine Pingeot, adulterous daughter of French President François Mitterrand, in 1994, and President François Hollande’s affair with actress Julie Gayet in 2014.

He has earned his reputation, and while he has made his passion his profession, he also shamelessly admits that he never stopped having fun for over 30 years behind his telephoto lens. With over 600 magazine covers to his credit, and constantly on the alert to get “the” scoop, he has spent his life taking planes like others take the metro. Now retired, Sébastien has set down his bags in Marrakech, where he is sure to embark on new photographic adventures.

But it was on the occasion of the release of his book “Iconic” by Editions Fauves on September 20th, that we put Sébastien Valiela to the test of our Questionnaire. This book is a souvenir album of his hectic years, and the photos recall the blessed days of paper before the advent of social networks, a time when communication was less important than information, a bygone era in short.


Instagram: svaliela


When did you first become interested in photography?
Sébastien Valiela: It goes back to my childhood. I’d just turned 6 or 7, and I remember that my parents regularly bought Paris-Match at the time. So these were the first images I saw other than family photos. They were often B&W photos. It intrigued me a lot, and I wondered how these images had been made. And as far back as I can remember, that’s when I said to myself that this is what I wanted to do when I grew up.

The man or woman in the picture who inspires you?
Sébastien Valiela: Helmut Newton. I love the man as much as I love his work.

What image would you like to have made?
Sébastien Valiela : I, absolutely, would have loved to have taken THE photo of JFK and Marilyn. The one that would leave no doubt about the nature of their relationship.

Which one moved you the most?
Sébastien Valiela : The image that moved me as much as it angered me was that of Omayra Sanchez, the little Colombian girl with the big black eyes who found herself trapped in the debris carried by the current following the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Ill-equipped rescue workers were unable to free her, and dozens of photographers and cameramen had their lenses trained on her, following her slow agony. It was 1985, I was just a teenager, but I remember being marked by these images. I couldn’t understand how all those people could stand there and watch her die for more than two days.

A key image in your personal pantheon?
Sébastien Valiela : Without a doubt, the one that made me known to the general public, i.e. the one taken outside Le Divellec’s restaurant in Paris with Mazarine Pingeot and François Mitterrand, revealing the existence of the hidden daughter of the then President of the Republic.

A photographic memory from your childhood?
Sébastien Valiela: I was 12 years old when I got my first SLR camera, and right after that I had my first experience in a lab.

The image that obsesses you?
Sébastien Valiela : Probably the images extracted from Abraham Zapruder’s little 26″ amateur film of the Kennedy assassination, in which we can see JFK’s head being thrown back and forth, which, if there had been only one shooter, would have contradicted the initial conclusions of the Warren Report’s theory that Oswald’s shot came from the back of the limousine.

The image you have of yourself?
Sébastien Valiela: That’s a hard question to answer. Deep down, I think I’m a nice guy, but it’s true that people often have a false image of me because of my job.

With no budget limit, what would be the work of art you’d most like to acquire?
Sébastien Valiela : A photograph by Helmut Newton, Gregory Crewdson or Gary Bernstein.

In your opinion, what’s the quality needed to be a “good” photographer?
Sébastien Valiela: You have to be observant, and no doubt about  being a technician when it comes to studio images.

The secret of the perfect image, if it exists?
Sébastien Valiela: Perfection is illusory and depends on each one of us.

Who would you like to photograph?
Sébastien Valiela : The Dalai Lama. His aura is such that the images could only be magnificent.

An essential photo book?
Sébastien Valiela : Newton’s Sumo

Your childhood camera?
Sébastien Valiela : A Fujika STX1

The one you use today?
Sébastien Valiela: A Nikon D6

Your favorite drug?
Sébastien Valiela: Adrenalin.

What’s the best way for you to switch off?
Sébastien Valiela: Go to the movies, the theater or a concert.

What’s your relationship with images?
Sébastien Valiela: Fusional, because I’m always thinking in terms of photography, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing.

Your greatest quality?
Sébastien Valiela: Being a dreamer.

Your latest folly?
Sébastien Valiela: A Nikon D6, which I’m currently using.

An image to illustrate a new banknote?

The job you wouldn’t have liked to do?
Sébastien Valiela : Any job that would require me to be locked up all day.

Your greatest professional extravagance?
Sébastien Valiela : Making a round trip to Thailand for a ten minutes session of photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

What’s the difference between photography and art photography?
Sébastien Valiela: It’s probably a question of talent, I’d say. But it also depends on how you use it.

What city, country or culture do you dream of discovering?
Sébastien Valiela : As you can imagine, I’ve traveled a lot over the years, but I’ve never been to Canada, which seems to me to be a good mix between Europe and the United States.

The place you never tire of?
Sébastien Valiela: Today, I’d say Marrakech.

Your biggest regret?
Sébastien Valiela : Not moving to the United States ten years earlier.

In terms of social networks, are you more into Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok and why?
Sébastien Valiela: Instagram.

Color or B&W?
Sébastien Valiela: Professionally, by necessity, I’d say color, and for personal taste, B&W.

Daylight or studio light?
Sébastien Valiela : Daylight.

In your opinion, which is the most photogenic city?
Sébastien Valiela : I’m hesitating between Rome and Venice.

If God existed, would you ask him to pose for you, or would you opt for a selfie with him?
Sébastien Valiela: I’d ask him to pose for me, of course!

If I could organize your ideal dinner party, who would be at the table?
Sébastien Valiela: Steven Spielberg and Buzz Aldrin, to share a real moment with them.

What’s missing in today’s world?
Sébastien Valiela: A sense of perspective on our place in the universe. As Ronald Reagan said in a speech to the United Nations, “If there were an extraterrestrial threat, everyone might forget the differences between peoples and the wars that pit us against each other.” So our existential problems would then probably seem trivial.

If you had to start all over again?
Sébastien Valiela: I’d do it all over again, but 10 years earlier in the United States.

Your final words?
Sébastien Valiela: Thank you for this moment, as Valery (Giscard d’Estaing) would say!

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