In the frame: Australian photographer in Normandy

Gregory Wait left his native Australia to become a professional photographer in Normandy. He tells Annaliza Davis more

Most mornings, Gregory Wait enjoys a breakfast of toast and blackberry jam while gazing out over the beach, before then grabbing his keys and heading off to his studio – which is another seafront apartment all of 10 paces away from his own front door. The town he and his wife Françoise now call home, Villers-sur-Mer, is between Le Havre and Caen, in Calvados, and Greg is a professional photographer here. Villers is a picturesque and rather elegant seaside spot. It is popular with Parisians, being just two hours away from the capital; a great location for a working photographer.

“We – Françoise and I – never planned to live in Normandy originally,” explains Greg, “but we sort of fell in love with the place.”

Greg grew up in Australia, where he studied to become a vet. Before launching his veterinary career, he decided to get some money together to go travelling for a year, so he went to work in Western Australia. This was to be the start of his photographic career.

“It was accidental, really. There was a big bust-up in the place where I was staying, and the police got called in. Once they’d taken away the bad guys and everyone had left, there was just this camera sitting on the table. It was a Pentax Reflex and I figured it’d be a shame to leave it behind.”

Greg started to experiment with the camera, before heading off on his travels to Asia where he got a job working with a US Aid Project in Bangladesh. This not only led to his taking photographs professionally, but also saw the start of a lifelong connection.

“The Aid Project needed photos, so I began taking shots for them – this was back in 1976 or 1977. The first subject I worked on was a refugee camp of Burmese Muslims. I never did go back to uni.”

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As is true for many people, Greg’s move to France came out of a chance encounter: a French woman he met in Dhaka.

“She talked about this beautiful farm in the Lot area in France, it all sounded so idyllic. She said that I should fly out there to see her, which I did once I had the money for the flight. The farm was indeed beautiful but it was a total wreck, so I became one of those foreigners doing up a French ruin and quickly learnt some renovation skills.”

Their relationship wasn’t to last, but then Greg then met Françoise – one of the neighbours – and they have been together ever since.

“For about nine years, we travelled abroad in the winter, taking pictures, then ran a summer horse-riding business in the Lot. It was a good time, and our daughter Juliette (now 28) was born there. Then we decided that the only way to develop my work and create a more stable income was to move closer to a city.”

Françoise is originally from Paris but didn’t want to live there, and although Greg would have loved to live in New York, they felt it wouldn’t be the right place to bring up a child, so they compromised and headed for Sydney. Here, Greg set up a photographic gallery. Although a trained doctor, Françoise handled all the administrative side of the business, while Greg ran the creative side. His work grew to include more corporate work and a second daughter, Lucy (now 23) arrived. By the end of 1991, however, after five years in Australia, it was time to return to France.

“The girls were the only grandchildren for my parents,” explains Françoise, “and at that time my mother was ill, so it seemed a good time to return to France. We decided to live somewhere in the south for the sun, but when we arrived, we borrowed my parents’ holiday flat in the Norman coastal town of Houlgate, and next thing we knew, we’d fallen in love with the area. Greg quickly found some big clients here, so we stayed.”

“We found a lovely three-storey farm with plenty of land in Cambremer,” says Greg. “It was a real passion, restoring the old building, and when the kids were little we had ponies, sheep, chickens; the works. Once they were a bit older, in 2001, we moved to Villers-sur-Mer; then a couple of years ago, after the girls had flown the nest, we found our apartment and traded in the garden for a sea view and window boxes. It’s funny, it’s no pretty French cottage, but we soon realised: when you’re inside, you’re not looking at it, you’re just enjoying the views!”

Greg never planned to settle in France but slowly, over the years, the country has got under his skin.

“When I first arrived in the Lot, I was in my early twenties, spoke no French and was totally in at the deep end. The first six months were hugely frustrating. You have someone opposite you, talking away and occasionally laughing and you have no idea why; you just try to keep up.

“These days it’s all the same to me. I can read French no trouble; the slang and the double meanings are just as clear in English or in French. Of course, because I learnt French as an adult, I’ll always have an accent, and when I’m writing something important, I still get Françoise to check it, but we’ve always spoken French together.”

Interestingly, when the family moved back from Australia, Greg decided to continue talking English to his daughters even though the rest of the family spoke French.

“Dinner times could be pretty interesting! I’d be speaking to Françoise in French, and to my daughters in English, they’d reply in French but I’d still answer in English. We’d send them to Australia once a year, sometimes to England; we came close to giving up but we kept it going.”

“Now, they appreciate it,” smiles Françoise. “Both girls work in Paris. They both learnt to speak other languages very easily. Being bilingual is such a great gift.”

“What’s strange is that their accent isn’t French or Australian, it’s kind of neutral,” says Greg, “whereas you can immediately hear I’m Australian, but back home they tell me I have a French accent!”

Greg’s work as a photographer is going well and he still has the same passion for this craft.

“I’m not one for special effects; I just like to take a good shot. I have some great clients and I’m lucky to make my living doing something I love, but also I like to think that it has something to do with the quality of my work as well.”

Many of Greg’s most recognisable images are in black and white, which remains his preferred approach.

“If I do colour photography, I’ll do it when the light is beautiful: earliest light of the day, last light of the evening. But you can’t always have those conditions, so black and white is the way to go.

“Also, I have this theory. Life is colour so when you look at a colour shot, it has a direct route eye-to-brain; for me, black and white can’t do that, it has to go eye-to-guts-to-brain. It’s a different experience, emotionally.”

Some of Greg’s black and white photographs of war veterans have been collected into a book entitled Gentlemen Soldiers, which is due for publication in March 2014. The portraits create a unique atmosphere, with quotes from the soldiers themselves. As 2014 marks 70 years since the D-Day landings, the iconic shots will resonate with both visitors and residents throughout Normandy.

So, does the man himself have any words of wisdom for those dreaming of following in his photographer footsteps?

“First of all, it’s a darn sight easier if you marry a French person!” laughs Greg. “But you know what? If you really want to do something, you just do it. Believe in it and work at it and hope you get some lucky breaks, you know? Don’t focus on what might not work. Go for it with the right attitude and you’ll create your own luck that way.” LF

www.gregorywait.odexpo.com

Gentlemen Soldiers will be published by OREP Éditions in March 2014