I’ve been following Plants of Babylon (aka François) on Instagram for about a year now. Like me, François has a penchant for taking photos of plants that have somehow risen up through the concrete or grown in a windblown patch of dirt embedded in a brick wall. What I love most about François’ photographs is their ability to capture the plants in situ, so to speak, their ability to communicate intentionality of a plant’s choice of where to grow and how to grow where it does. In other words, the objects of his photographs seem to be actors not only in their own lives, but in the urban space around them. The way a Siberian elm hugs a piece of PVC pipping or carpet weed accentuates the curvature of a manhole convey a sense of symbiosis between the inanimate and the living, the wild and the urban.
Recently I had the pleasure of catching up with François over email and got to ask him about his Plants of Babylon.
City Plants: How did you get interested in photographing “weeds”? Was there an “aha!” moment when you noticed them? Or was it a gradual recognition?
Plants of Babylon: I have always been interested in plants and nature in general, especially when I was a kid. On one New Year’s Eve when I was 5 or 6, I tried to save the oysters by putting them in a fish tank with some table salt.
Another time when I was 5 I made a scene because my dad had mowed the lawn and cut my sea of daisies.
But, there is in fact an “aha!” moment. In 2005, I was working in warehouse of an hardware store and I notice a kind of dandelion flowering out of the concrete. I decide to immortalize it straight away with the low quality camera of my phone. I remember, the quality of the photo was so poor!
I knew when I made this picture that it was the first one of a long series… I felt like a crazy Pokemon go player, I have to catch them all! I wanted to make a collection, a testimony of nature’s resilience.
CP: What is it about “Plants of Babylon” that you find interesting?
PoB: That you can find life in the most sterile urban landscape. It reminded me some french hip hop lyrics by “Puzzle” where the rapper says “…and even if I see that there is nothing that grows on concrete…” I always want to say to that rapper that he doesn’t look close enough, you can find stuff growing even on concrete. Nature hates a vacuum. I always found that this project/subject speaks for itself.
CP: Why do you call your project Plants of Babylon?
PoB: At the beginning it was Les plantes et Babylone, The Plants and Babylon. When I had to translate it into English it sounded better to my ears with “of” instead of “and.” The term “Babylon” means city which, according to me, has a little bit negative connotation. In the Bible, Babylon is a symbol of corruption and decadence.
This term is also used a lot by the Rastafari people, for them Babylon is the place that Man has built to protect himself from Nature and it represents all the madness of those who think they don’t need nature and have separated themselves from it. And finally this expression has been used by plenty of ecological activists too… So, the Plants of Babylon.
CP: What interests you about the plants that you photograph? And how do you choose which ones you post? Is it that the are especially urban? Or that they have a particularly interesting color variance? Or that they’re growing in seemingly impossible circumstances? Or some combination of all of these?
PoB: Yes it’s a combination of all this. The plant(s) have to be isolated in the middle of the town planning in “seemingly impossible circumstances,” as you say. I also give a special attention to the kind of plants : trees, flowers, and medicals. Edibles plants are my favorites. And I try to do the most artistic shoot as possible. I think my art and design formation help me for this part.
CP: What’s your process of exploration? Are these plants you come across on your daily commute? Or do you go out looking for them? If you go out looking for them, how do you chose where you will go?
PoB: I don’t have any process of exploration. They are the plants that I come across during my everyday life. But I’m always looking for them. I walk a lot, when I have to go to the city I park my car outside the city center and look for plants on my way in. I also make a lots of pictures on my travels during holidays. When I was in Guadeloupe visiting some friends I always made them stop the car, “Hey ! wait, I see something… Park the car.” And it’s often that friends bring me to places they have spotted, places that make them think about my photos.
The only time I decided to go out intentionally to take pictures was after Alice Vincent wrote an article about my instagram in the “Telegraph.” I hadn’t posted anything for awhile, I decided to go spend an afternoon in Montpellier just to take photos. I strolled everywhere all afternoon taking pictures, for the new followers I was getting thanks to her.
CP: Have you traveled outside your home city to look for Plants of Babylon? If so where? What would your dream location be?
PoB: Before I had some health problems I was thinking about making a world tour of the Plants of Babylon. I wanted to go to all the big cities in the world. I wanted to pass by Pripyat, the deserted city near Tchernobyl were nature has really taken over, as well as Sarajevo in Serbia, where I was thinking about looking for plants that are growing in bullet holes.
I wanted to take a particular attention to tropicals regions, because they have a lush ecosystem that can colonize anything, with lots of epiphytic plants who don’t need soil at all. Perfect places for my subject. I would love to go to New York City too because it’s such a photogenic city! And Japan and other asiatic regions because I love their writing, which can be captured in my pictures.
All photos credit of Plants of Babylon.
François is a photographer and artist hailing from Saint-Étienne, France who says of himself, “I’m only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”