Stocky, and looking somewhat like a large, Steiff teddy bear, Pierre-Michel Virot speaks intently if not slightly gruffly in English, as if to ensure that you have understood precisely what he has just said. “It is not that my photography has changed,” he explains. “It’s just that I am constantly developing new approaches.” This includes fine art photographic prints, which have been exhibited both in Switzerland but also the Musée Riattu in Arles in southern France.
This is part of an ongoing series highlighting the work of photographers and film-makers across the world.
“I still do subjects that I am commissioned to cover in different parts of the world, like India or Nepal. But I am also working a lot with models and with light, such as making daylight look like night, or the other way round. It’s another way of looking at things,” he says.
Virot, who was born in Geneva but has lived much of his life abroad, notably in the United States and Japan, probably stands out as someone who has done more photography on HIV/AIDS than anyone else. This is because, as he explains, he has been repeatedly dispatched on assignment across the planet by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, both Geneva-based agencies. “So wherever I go, I am constantly seeking ways of illustrating what it has done both to people and the world, plus also taking pictures for myself,” he says.
Now living back in Geneva with his partner and two children, Virot continues to travel, but spends time on various photo projects in Switzerland itself. Much of Virot’s work has been published in leading national and international publications ranging from the New York Times, Financial Times and Newsweek to Sports Illustrated, Entrevue and The Lancet. He has been involved with various television features and specials as well as exhibitions highlighting HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, he has been published jointly with Brazilian Sebastião Salgado, a world-renowned social documentary photographer of workers and environmental themes.
Virot, who is also a commercial helicopter pilot-cum-instructor, maintains that his vision is to use high quality imagery as a means of engaging people, both young and old. Much of this is directed specifically through educational initiatives, particularly in the developing world. Regularly commissioned by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), another Geneva organization, Virot is particularly fascinated by its Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. Together with UNESCO, this seeks to hook up the world via Internet, particularly amongst neglected communities in Africa and elsewhere.
As a photographer, Virot first started out with Le Matin, a Swiss daily where he worked for four years. This was a great time, he recalls with a knowing grin. “It enabled me to meet all sorts of singers and rock stars.” He also worked on various long-term reporting projects, such as child trafficking, notably TF1, France’s leading commercial TV network, and its prime programme, 52 sur la Une. His pictures featured for several years in the channel’s regular introtheme. He also has a permanent exhibition at UNAIDS headquarters, plus has had exhibitions in Geneva, Zug and Zurich of Nu Noir, a black and white collection of nude figures, as well as an exhibit in 2011 on transgender living.
Global Geneva contributor Mark Hartford is a New York-based freelance journalist and writer, who often reports out of Europe, Africa and Asia.