For French iconographer and archive researcher Fabrice Héron, the job of archive researchers is “at the crossroads between [that of] historian and journalist.”
Getting his start in archival work during his studies at France’s Institut National Audiovisuel (INA) and while working at the media library at France Televisions, Héron has since built a career spanning over twenty years researching hundreds of subjects for television, feature documentary and feature fiction films from Attentats: Le visage de la terreur for France 3 to Nabil Ayouch’s Razzia, as well as consulting with publishers, museums and galleries. One of his recent projects had him researching and clearing amateur and professional footage from the 2011 protests that sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war. My Favorite Fabric directed by Gaya Jiji and produced by Gloria Films, will be presented in the Official Selection for ‘Un Certain Regard’ at the 2018 Festival de Cannes.
We caught up with Fabrice to learn about his latest work and hear his thoughts on the future of archival research in the television and film industries in France and beyond.
“We’re always searching for something – whether an image, information or a contact,” he said while telling us about another documentary for ARTE he recently worked on about the bizarre practice of ‘human zoos’ in the 19th century. “This was a very interesting research project that took me all over the world, and for which we found beautiful documents in all forms – from posters and prints to newsreels and video. As a researcher its interesting to work with this diversity of forms. This is very pleasing.”
To conduct research at a global scale without a massive budget, Héron and his team in Paris focused much of their effort on primary research and surveying what had been produced at the time before going out and seeking out images. Consulting universities with collections of ethnographic film and research institutions in France and the US also had a great impact on the project, currently in post-production.
Not only working on traditional documentaries, Héron cites his recent work on Samuel Jouy’s Sparring, a featuring film starring Mathieu Kassovitz, as an opportunity to “get out of the classic archives and work with new sources.” The film, which tells the stories of boxers whose job it is to serve as sparring partners – taking punches day and in and day out from the best boxers in the world – uses archives for its end sequence showing footage from boxers themselves, federations around the world, as well as television coverage of high-profile matches.
Besides the growing use of archival material in fiction features and television series, through his experience Héron also seen a growing interest from companies in preserving and exploiting their audiovisual heritage to create new brand experiences for consumers. A recent film he worked on for L’Oréal had him seeking out the copyright holders for fashion photos from the 1930s. Though he was able to find the photos, finding the photographer proved difficult.
“It was a real investigative job that took multiple entire days of work,” Héron said. “At the end, we eventually tracked down the son of the photographer, who had no idea of his father’s work! With his help, we were able to clear the rights, and he was able to discover his father’s talent after all this time. It’s a perfect example of the journalistic side of the work, which can be more like genealogical work.”
“Clearing rights is almost as important as researching images,” Héron said. “Everyday we’re confronted with the question of rights, and we should be able to respond to the needs of our clients.”
To promote this important aspect of the work of archive researchers, documentalistes, as they’re called in Héron’s native France, he teaches at INA as well as at the Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers where he runs a workshop on audiovisual research. His workshop putting students in real research situations, and emphasizes the importance of intellectual property rights.
“It’s important to transmit, to share experience and points of view, to inspire others to take up this work and to give them the motivation and keys to success,” he said of his teaching work. “It’s also important to valorize our work in the industry. Today everyone can find images on Google or Getty. What we bring is that we can find the best sources very quickly and guarantee budgets, provide advice and propose alternatives to make sure the most relevant images make it into the project.”
“We translate words into images, making vague concepts into actionable lines of research that will allow us to find and use images in new ways. We combine the artistic, technical and juridical.”
Insofar as his own research and clearance work is concerned, Héron privileges a production-centric approach to working with different directors and productions.
“I always put myself at the service of the director as much as possible,” he said. “Depending on the person we will either work closely together on the research, or – if they’re more independent – we will work with more autonomy, and I’ll be able to deliver images as we go along to feed their creativity.”
“Often we will work directly with the producer, who will link all the members of the team if the director isn’t as available,” Héron adds. “Sometimes I even work closer with the editor. If I know someone working on the project and we already have a working relationship, I know I’ll be able to put the research into action.”
“The more detail we have on the expectations for the project, the better and more efficient the research will be,” he says. “We can’t know everything about everything, so the initial research is an extremely important phase of any project.”
Paradoxically, Héron admits, the job of archive researchers can be somewhat lonely. “We do our research alone,” he says, “but at the same time we’re rarely alone, because we’re always linked with people who need images and people who have them. We are constantly working with people at sources, people with useful information, sales agents, photographers, as well as the producers. We’re always on the phone with someone, so we’re rarely alone.”
With changes in the production ecosystem, in how media is consumed, and especially with the proliferation of new sources of material old and new, the job or archive researchers is evolving. Héron sees some differences in how researchers in different markets have adapted differently to the changing realities of archival footage research.
“[In France,] we haven’t been open to change or sharing,” he admits. “We’ve been defending our territory. In general, everyone is on their own with their little network. In France, we are lacking new means by which to exchange and share.”
Focal International and other similar organizations like the PIAF (Professionnels des Images et de l’Archive de la Francophonie) based in France have played the role of providing an organizational platform for researchers in Europe and around the world. Informal groups of professional archive researchers exist in North America and Europe alike, but there is more to be done, he says, to bridge the gap between researchers in different cultures and countries or even within different professional circles in the same area of the world. “Archive Valley is a very good way to go in this direction,” Héron says. (Thanks Fabrice! We think so too!)
Members of the ANI (a trade organization for professional iconographers), Héron tells us, now include more freelancers and ‘transmedia iconographers’ working on different kinds of projects in various media. For him iconography and archive research is the same work, but separated into two métiers. At ANI there is a sort of solidarity between members, he adds, as one can see in events aimed at bringing people together and working with others. In comparison, he thinks PIAF isn’t quite the same.
“Archive researchers come from different backgrounds,” Héron says. “We become documentalistes by accident. There are a few pioneers, but even they came from all different backgrounds. Some were historians, some directors, and so on. At some point there was a catalyst that turned them to audiovisual research. For a long time in France it wasn’t very professionalized.”
While they often share the work of finding images with assistant directors or associate producers, the archive researcher is ultimately exclusively concerned with images and had the final responsibility for securing rights. Héron finds that more spaces for exchange among professional researchers would bring positive change to an industry where he finds some professionals are stuck in their ways.
“It’s a job that needs a platform like Archive Valley to get people out of their routine, to get them together to share,” he said. “Even if it’s a commercial app, I think the sharing and networking aspects are very interesting. I think it will work internationally faster than in France, but we’re obliged to do the same at some point.”
“It’s great that on Archive Valley I can contact Miho in Japan and Mark in Germany,” he adds. “It responds to our needs because today the subjects and sources are so international that we need more and more to search in other countries. This saves us a lot of time, so even if it means using some of the budget to hire another researcher to consult on our research, it works out well for everyone.”
Ultimately for Héron, the future of archive research rests in creating new connections – with researchers around the world, as well as with new sources of footage.
“We need to multiply our points of view,” he said. “There are sources lying dormant around the world, full of new perspectives. We need to find a way to share these treasures.”