Impressions: A Provençal Creative Retreat

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Where

The picturesque villages of Saignon and Gout, in the Luberon region of Provence.


What

A five-day, winter retreat with base at the charming art gallery-cum-b&b Chambres Avec Vue, where participants took on a series of experiences such as truffle hunting and brocante shopping, seasonal cooking and foraged-flower arranging, as well as on workshops spanning from chiaroscuro photography to food & travel writing to video-making.


Who

Brought together by Ruth Ribeaucourt of The French Muse, the retreat was mentored by Aimee Twigger (dark photography), Nora Jaccaud (video storytelling), Elodie Love (florals) and myself (bright/hard-light photography + food writing). Giuseppina Mabilia of cookery school Venise en Provence kept us excellently fed throughout and lent us her home (and olive grove!) for a picnic shoot, while antiquaries Valerie and Sebastian of Ad Libitum decorated the dinner salon as if it were a time machine, transporting us to a different time and place for a very special night.

About

This retreat turned out to be not just the chance to spend a week in one of the most stunning places on earth, but also one of the most fulfilling creative endeavours I have embarked on in a very long time. A week filled with all sorts of epiphanies, and with a deep sense of human connection that goes well beyond the mere act of being in the same place doing the same things for very similar reasons.

Too many times, reading about these dreamy retreats in dreamy locations, I have the impression that something is missing — mostly, an element of honesty. But what’s also missing, it seems, is the acknowledgment that we all — mentors and participants — show up with hopes and goals and strengths and weaknesses and leave with different ones. We are all human. We all learn. Ultimately, it’s the intensity of the exchange that’s so pivotal. Accustomed as we are to work in solitude, we now get to watch each other create, or fail at doing so, or struggle, or be on a flow, or have that spark of momentous inspiration, or search for it high and low. It’s a lesson in empathy. Which is why, beyond the beautiful arrangements and props and the stunning settings (just look at this fairy-tale-like garden set-up in this olive orchard, with the mimosas and the beeswax candles and the bentwood chairs — isn’t it pretty?), beyond all that, what’s truly climactic about these retreats to me is what I call “the shift”. The shift in our vision, in our understanding of certain aspects of the creative process, in our confidence to approach it in our own time, with our own resources.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about the photography workshops, in particular – as both a mentor and a active participant – is that experimentation was not just embraced, but encouraged. Of course, we had canonically beautiful still lives set up as a styling exercise. But then, there was also plenty of freestyle going on, each of us building scenes according to our taste and whim. And it was mind-blowing and different. It was “creation” the way it looks when it’s freed from the self-consciousness we fall into when it comes to expose ourselves on social media — when it comes to be liked. And it was awesome to witness.

What was also awesome to witness? Watching participants and mentors capture a scene I had styled from all angles and with a wide range of camera settings; edit their images according to their taste and vision (rather than following some pre-established rule); and finally share their dramatically different, unique-to-each results before my bewildered eyes. The strong, unfiltered light was a challenge that resulted in lots of trial and error, but also in lots of different outcomes, each led by one’s eye and sensitivity for brighter or darker moods, or for warmer or colder tones, or sharp or muted contrasts. The takeaway? As long as you follow your inclinations and encourage others to do the same, you can have a hundred people shooting the exact same scene (as it often happens on these types of retreats!) and still have photos looking nothing like the next person’s. And that, as mundane as it might sound, was a revelation.