Last year, photographer Kenny Germé took his mom into the New York offices of illesteva, a sleek eyewear label which had tasked him with shooting a new campaign. In this impromptu meeting, his mom became a muse. “They asked if I could shoot her, but I was like ‘no, she’s super shy,’” he laughs, recalling the conversation. Despite her hesitation, Germé returned to his family home in Paris and, within a few days, set about building a makeshift studio. Now, his mom is nestled amongst elite models and star musicians on his Instagram grid, looking every inch the superstar with her teased afro and candid half-smile.
This charisma permeates Germé’s work. In his world, models become fleshed-out protagonists with storylines and personalities that burn through the screen. He attributes his narrative flair to a childhood spent growing up in Drancy, a northeastern Paris suburb often demonized in mainstream media. “It tires me that suburbs are always portrayed as ghettos,” he explains. Germé remembers his childhood differently: he has fond memories of immigrants from former colonies co-existing peacefully, and working hard to make ends meet. “There’s a beautiful diversity there, and even if you don’t know it, you become a hustler.”
Germé immediately understood the disconnect between the Drancy he knew and the sensationalist coverage of suburbs on the news. As a result, he developed a “hunger for reporting the truth,” which spawned a teenage dream of becoming a war reporter. When he was eight years-old, his mom moved his family into central Paris to help him realize these dreams. “That’s when I discovered racism, social intolerance and discrimination, which I never knew in the suburbs.” Still, this hustler spirit propelled him through a literature course, and drove him to work twice as hard. “These other kids had these rich, white families with bookshelves full of beautiful literature,” he explains. “I had to build that myself.”
Now 29 years-old, Germé tells stories through images instead. 'The Godfather’ is exemplary; conceived at short notice just 24 hours before Paris eased into lockdown, the photo-series is a poignant commentary on legacy, love and heritage. Styled by Edem Dossou, the editorial reimagines the archetypal masculinity conjured up by the ‘godfather’ character, and reframes it visually through looks which range from PVC Balmain to floor-length Balenciaga. Ultimately, Germé’s aim was to explore notions of role models and generational wisdom. Here, he recalls the process of bringing these ideas to life.
KG: "For me this picture is the presentation of the new protégé. Showing to the world the new Godson, the Godfather to become. He is wrapped up in this sort of blanket like a new born baby, still fragile and to protect but still very strong, like a messiah. It represents our fragile future that we should look upon in order to be bright and positive, it has a lot to offer but we shouldn’t spoil it."
"I wanted a strong, godfather figure that you would kind of fear, but also respect. You know that through [model Cherif’s] look, it’s almost like an ancestor looking you straight in the eye. This portrait was the first look, the first set-up, the first everything. I told him right away: you’re the boss, you’re the godfather. I said to be bossy and proud of himself – not just proud because he’s handsome, but because of who he is inside, too. I wanted that family portrait vibe, but also I was thinking about portraits in galleries because you can stare at those paintings for hours. He gave me that, straight-up!"
"I wanted from Cheritha a mix of very solid, strong, fierce and 'ready to conquer the world' attitude, but also some candid shots that were was just simply a kid. As a kid, I was often having my arm on top of my head as a relaxing pause, and noticed many kids were doing it as well. So on this shot, his attitude still long, very strong, but with that candid kid pausing, a perfect balance between strength and innocence."
"This image is the idea of the strong adult carrying the kid on his shoulders. I’m always carrying my future around with me, but this kid knows that he’s next; that soon, this image will be reversed, and he’ll be carrying an adult on his shoulders. The fashion is all Burberry, by Riccardo Tisci. I like the jacket, because it gives an image of protection: it’s like a blanket that covers up, but it’s almost like a bulletproof vest, as well. It’s like 'OK, I’m protecting my protégé, my godson, my future. I’m carrying and protecting my future.' The colors match, as well. It’s almost like the same DNA going from one to the other."
"I wanted to have a very intimate close 'natural' family portrait shot. As if both models weren’t aware of me being there, just being laid back and candid. There were some natural rays of light entering the studio and I set up a continuous light outside of it too, to recreate the window blinds that we have in most of my island (Martinique) houses and in most of post colonial house. Furthermore, this light set up gave this mid-summer afternoon and this warm vibe that was perfect to match an intimate shot. On top of that, Cherif naturally put his hand on Cheritha’ shoulder and looked upon him as the protective figure that the Godfather should be. This scenery happened so naturally that it was a perfect allegory of 'intimate' and 'candid' for me."
"This portrait of Cheritha is just showing him as a candid kid, looking away to his future. There were the same natural rays of light entering the studio, and I wanted to play with them to give this peaceful mid-summer late afternoon vibe that would underline this candid atmosphere."
"This shot was a key element and starting point of the whole concept of this story playing on this legacy of heritage and knowledge going from one generation to the other. The youngest generation looks to the eldest as an example, an inspiration, and as kids we all wore (at least once) our parents clothes to play their role, to be them for a moment. And that’s exactly what is happening here as Cheritha looks upon Cherif one as a role model, mimicking him."
"This shot is also part of these Godfather, ancestor, emperor types of portraits that you would see hanging in the boss' office, in an old castle, or in a gallery. The exaggerated shoulders of this Balenciaga coat emphasizes this leader and role model position and attitude."
"I wanted to depict this Godfather-to-be attitude with Cheritha, like a mini Godfather, a mini adult, a mini role model. Even if he was all lost in these adult sized clothes, his attitude remained strong and not 'funny.' It was Cheritha’s very first shooting, and both Edem and I were amazed by this strong attitude he gave, like a professional (adult) model. He fulfilled this role with perfection. On this shot he gave this insurance that our future can be solid, that the next generation has strong shoulders on which we can count on."
"With this shot I wanted to show that the heritage and knowledge was successfully passed from one to the other. The models are almost on the same level, and there's even this candid finger link, that represent the affection towards each other. They remain strong, fierce. On this image you see two Godfathers. I used dimmed light coming-from-above and a black backdrop to really focus the attention on them almost becoming one. At the end, we are also our future."
Keep up with Kenny Germé right here.