One side of Jean-Michel Gires plays a centre-stage role in the gritty Alberta oil sands. He is the engineer-CEO who just won federal approval for his employer, French oil giant Total SA , to build the fifth bitumen mine near Fort McMurray.
But his other side creates extraordinary photos that play on reflections of light and colour against water and glass. Before a recent Calgary fundraiser exhibiting his works, the 53-year-old CEO of Total’s Canadian unit explained how he balances his two passions.
You started taking pictures 11 years ago in Venezuela and you have published two photo books. How do you fit it all in?
It is now a pretty organized hobby. How else could I do it in a very busy life? With photography, you just need to have your camera with you. Even if I use a reflex camera, I have it [in a case]next to my belt, so I can have my arms free to do whatever I want – to go skiing, climbing, hiking, or visiting our plants.
So you can draw the camera in a flash?
Whenever I’m trying to take a photo in a matter of seconds, it’s like being a cowboy [he mimics a Western-movie quick draw, including the sound of a pistol shot] But you have to train yourself to move quickly. If you had to stop for, say, three minutes, people would be furious. I couldn’t do that in the context of my business trips. So I open the camera and it is in the box – it’s all digital. Then I can print the shots I want and share them better.
Do your photo exhibitions have a business purpose, besides fundraising for charity?
We are still trying to establish ourselves in Calgary, so we want to be better recognized. We have some branding issues and if you organize a business cocktail [party] you want to bring something a little different as positioning – maybe, a kind of surprise – and something for the spouses, as well. In my experience, they are not very interested in our oil sands stories.
You focused last year’s exhibition on reflections in downtown Calgary buildings. What did you do for this year’s event?
I’m still using the same trick of reflections, but this exhibit shows reflections on water surfaces. The wind and waves mean the surface is never completely flat, so the reflections reframe what you see in a different way. That is the trick impressionists have been using in their paintings. You reframe and reshape and find effects that are very close to the painting universe.
But I also have plenty of landscapes, people, animals – I have 60,000 photos in my digital library. I promote the reflections photos because they are a bit more original.
You work in the oil sands where, frankly, there is a lot of ugliness. Does your photography play a role there?
Engineers are used to transforming nature into new objects – by choosing raw materials, taking a piece of land, and organizing that transformation. It’s done efficiently, but efficiency increasingly means paying attention to all the dimensions, including the environmental footprint. When we progress on the environmental side, we find more elegant solutions – the process is more efficient, uses less energy, or removes less material.
I’m still in my engineering role when I do that, but photos help understand it. When you fly over the oil sands, it may look like a disaster or something after the war. We have to gain access to the ore near the surface – and we get that access by going through overburden, and start extracting the ore. There is a movement of materials, which is organized in a way that can be described through photography.
There are different ways to take the photos. If you want one particular vision, you can take them up-close on a rainy day, a bad day. Or take a wider angle to help understand how it is all organized. Or look at local impact: “Here we are mining, but next to it, you have a very large ecosystem, and in the end our commitment is to start reclaiming the land.” Photos are a good way to explain things.
So you’re the one who usually photographs the sites?
I am the most organized one [to do it] I’m the principal provider for our communications. It helps support development of better solutions. Even if you are approaching a reality that is not easy to explain – or looks ugly in the first place – you can use photos to better explain, and understand what it means to be progressing. Otherwise, you stay theoretical, and there is very little that you can understand about mines if you are not a miner.
For your personal photos, people must say, ‘You’re an engineer – you can’t create these beautiful things.’
I’m not just a bloody engineer – I am trying to be a man and a leader and standing on my feet in this 21st century and trying feel the different dimensions of what I have to do. I try capturing the beauty, not only the ugly. It is much more interesting to be sharing the beauty – that’s what most people would be after.
Why talk so much about sharing?
That’s how you influence – it’s how you bond, how you create networks, and have stakeholders you can rely on. We need that capacity to attract contractors, employees and partners, such as Suncor. Do you want to play the game, integrate yourself in Alberta, and be committed to the long-term success of the oil sands? I am absolutely convinced that collaboration is a model that can deliver much better results than being a bunch of mavericks competing directly with each other.
Are you left-brain logical or right-brain creative?
I like a balance, but probably I’m a more rational guy because of so much training in engineering.
I like to understand and explain, but the type of emotion you get in artistic practice and when you share these things – it provides better balance. It helps relax me and feel good about environment, and the beauty of what is around.
Did you do photography in the old era of dark rooms?
No, I don’t like darkness. I am a pure son of the digital era.... I was a little frustrated with the previous technology because it takes a lot of time before you can reveal what you are after. With this, you can visualize directly what you do.
President and CEO, Total E&P Canada Ltd., Calgary
Born: Near Paris. 53 years ago.
Education: Graduated from France’s Ecole Polytechnique
Career highlights: Joined Total in 1988.
Rose to president of TotalFinaElf in Venezuela
2002- 2009: Executive vice-president, sustainable development for Total.
2009: Appointed head of Canadian subsidiarys