Photography Sam Hellmann

This photographer grew up watching her mother on TV

Sam Hellmann’s mum, Rachel Bourlier, was a staple on French talk shows in the 2000s. Here, she shares photos she shot of her via the TV as a child.

by Douglas Greenwood
18 January 2021, 8:30am

Photography Sam Hellmann

As a child, French fashion and documentary photographer Sam Hellmann would turn on the television and see her mother staring back at her. “It always felt both natural and strange at the same time,” she says, watching the woman who gave birth to her, the journalist Rachel Bourlier, appear on screen as the host of national talk shows like Zap 8 in the mid-noughties. It was a time of platinum highlights, Piz Buin tans and flashy jewellery; trends that, since those days, have been recreated and memorialised by fashion editorials and Instagram accounts -- a nostalgia for a not-so-distant era.

These looks, similarly championed by hotel heiresses and Hollywood stars, harbour memories of an era that saw tabloids lose their grip on celebrity culture as we swayed towards the internet instead. But for Sam, that time-specific aesthetic is one she ties to years in which her mother was beamed into millions of homes across France every night of the week; a two-fold form of nostalgia. She looks back on it now in pictures she’s taken of her mother’s many appearances, stretching back as far as 2005 when, aged 12, she started taking photos of her through the screen. Sam continued this project, born of a personal impulse, for three years.

In doing so, she was looking for something that only she, as her mother’s daughter, could see: honesty and warmth behind the necessary, protective TV exterior. It’s something Sam still does to this day, permeating her subjects so that we see them in ways perhaps even they are not used to: asleep, in dazed states, naked on the toilet, or in the bath. This is a skill she learned through her unique segue into the industry: a graduate of film school, she was tasked to capture those fleeting, unstaged moments of honesty as a movie set photographer. 

Rachel Bourlier by Sam Hellmann

The results are a strange study of family and distance: the dichotomy of feeling close to someone on show to the world every day; how a teenager claimed closeness to a woman everyone knew, but she had blood ties to. What started as a childhood experiment, some 16 years later has become a limited edition untitled zine that scrutinises the definition of performance, and explores the ways in which we attempt to separate our private and public selves when we’re on show. “Her work is to be aware of the camera,” Sam says. “My work is to capture the moments when she isn’t.”

Though her mum has given up the TV talk show gig now, she still makes appearances on television and radio from time to time. Here, Sam explains her early thought process behind these formative photos that would eventually transform into an accidental retrospective, and how she frames her mother now that her inquisitive hobby has become her livelihood. 

Rachel Bourlier by Sam Hellmann

One of the first photos you remember taking was a portrait of your mother through the TV screen in 2005. What was life like back then? What do you remember about that day?
I’m not exactly sure it was the first photo I ever took, but it was definitely one of the first times I remember being challenged while taking one. I wanted to capture her smile, her laugh, an expression, the moment when something happened at the second it happened. It’s unpredictable and it’s real. I remember bits of things from back then, like wearing pyjamas while watching her with my grandmother, who would be sitting on the couch while my face was two centimetres away from the screen, taking photos the entire time. I remember her coming home late and how I’d stay awake to be here when she’d arrive. Then she’d tell me the insights of the show in the bathroom while removing her makeup. Tonnes of cotton pads with foundation on. 

How often would you watch her? 
I would (and still do) watch every single one of her shows!

Did you ever want to follow a similar career path as her? 
Never! I was so shy growing up, it didn’t even cross my mind to follow in her footsteps. I could barely speak in front of my class, so being on television was like the ultimate nightmare for me. One of the reasons why I’ve always admired her so much is because she is many things I am not. 

You took these photos for three years as a kid. Most photographers hate the idea of their 'teething' stage being seen. Why, then, did you decide to compile work from your youth?
The more I work as a photographer, the more I go back into my archives and enjoy seeing the pictures I took when I was younger. There was no Instagram back then, I wasn’t taking photos to show them off; had no references to other photographers -- being one wasn’t even something I was thinking about. It feels like it was the purest way to take a shot. Now, it’s pretty much what I keep trying to go back to.

Rachel Bourlier by Sam Hellmann

Do you still take photos of your mother now? And beyond being shot through a screen, how has the framing changed as you've grown older?
I do, but not enough in my opinion. Taking photos of her requires ninja skills. In 2005, I was trying to catch the real emotion behind the screen: a laugh, a look, her listening to someone… but of course she always knew she was being filmed.

Even though I still take pictures of her on television, I’m more interested in real life portraits of her now. I want to go deeper and try to catch that moment before she realises I took her picture; who she is when people aren’t around, when the lights turn off and the show is over. 

Rachel Bourlier by Sam Hellmann
Rachel Bourlier by Sam Hellmann

Follow Sam Hellmann on Instagram here, then follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more photography.