The Weird and Wonderful Thing Gilles Bensimon Does Before Every Shoot

by Ashley Baker

For the past 25 years, photographer and creative director Gilles Bensimon has prepared for his shoots by crafting beautiful talismans, which he relies on to bring good luck to each specific project. Now, his photographs of these gris-gris are being exhibited at Gobbi Fine Art in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. Over breakfast at Balthazar, Bensimon explains the project.

Sagaponack (Gilles Bensimon)

You’re one of the most celebrated photographers in the world. Why do you need any luck?
Well, I’ve been a photographer for some years, you can say [Laughs], but you’re only as good as your last picture. I’m lucky enough to still be working, but I’m always nervous before any shoot. For a lot of photographers, especially the good ones who make a lot of money, shooting can become just a job. For me, the magical part of photography is the ability to create an image that reflects a moment in time. This is why I spend most of my time working for magazines. But when you’re shooting, many things can happen — the location is never what you expect, the weather can change… I can’t help it. I’m so anxious!

How long have you been making the gris-gris?
About 25 years. At the beginning, [the concept] was less developed, and the materials were more organic — I’d pick up something like a piece of wood, a shell, or a rock. Now, I will use anything I find.

Yucatan (Gilles Bensimon)

Such as?
A piece of plastic, glass… I’m always happy if I find a little piece of glass or mirror. When the first human beings started to make glass, it must have been a miracle for them! From sand and fire, they discovered transparency.

Jervis Bay (Gilles Bensimon)

What happens to the gris-gris after the shoot?
Sometimes, the models or stylists or art directors take them. For me, the usage is done. After the shoot, they have no more power. For example, I was shooting with Kim Kardashian West [for Vogue Australia]. Obviously, we didn’t want to have any paparazzi around, so we found a remote beach outside of Sydney, near to where the aborigines live. There were so many people who wanted to watch, and it was a great shoot. I left the gris-gris on a tree there, because I knew they would look at it. If I go back again one day, I will make another one.

#theKim @kimkardashian @vogueaustralia #jarvisbay @cantarr

A post shared by Gilles Bensimon (@gilles_bensimon) on

How many of these have you made recently?
Well, I’ve already shot 12 cover stories since the beginning of the year. [Laughs] I go all over the world. I live in New York, but I’m just back from a week in Australia and five days in Israel… I was shooting a cover for Maxim there.

How do you prepare for a day on set?
I try to be like an athlete — when I was young, I boxed — and so I’m very focused. Before the shoot, I go to the gym — I row for two hours. I want to exert myself and get bored. But then I don’t exercise when I’m on location, because I don’t do anything that reminds me of vacation. I don’t eat much, and I’m not really a drinker. I wake up early, I get ready, and I want things to start. I enjoy this a lot! As soon as I start shooting, I’m not anxious anymore. I love to work fast and make many pictures; I try to create great energy to make [the shoot] move.

Do you wear any sort of a uniform?
When I arrived in America, I bought some khaki T-shirts from Calvin Klein. I always wear one of them — even though they’re in bad shape now. [Laughs] I usually wear them with white pants. Sometimes, I scream at the hairdresser, because I never like the hair — I wish I could do it myself, but I’m not a hairdresser! — but I really do love the people I collaborate with. It’s a great pleasure to do this kind of work.

Do you have one gris-gris that you consider to be the luckiest?
The next one, obviously. [Laughs]

Chez Pierre (Gilles Bensimon)

How did Sebastien Gobbi convince you to exhibit your photographs of the gris-gris?
He saw a picture of them, and I said, “If you want a print, I will print you one.” But he said, “No, I want to do something more with them.” So I did some research and we asked 30 people to give us a quote about their own gris-gris for the catalog [for the exhibition].

What were some of your favorites?
Carla [Bruni] said something very nice about me — very lyrical. Elle [Macpherson] talked about the number 11, and in the introduction, Diana [Picasso] wrote a long, scholarly piece about the gris-gris. Kim Kardashian contributed, too. She wrote me back 10 minutes after I sent her a note — she’s always like that! She wrote, “I’m sorry to answer so late. I am just back from Japan!” She’s great.

What are your plans for the summer?
I’m going to Biarritz. If I’m lucky, it’s raining. If I’m not lucky, it’s raining! [Laughs] I go to bed early, I read, I swim, and I never eat or drink that much. I’m 74! Someone asked me recently if I was afraid of death. I don’t give a damn. I’m only afraid that I won’t have the time to do what I want. Give me some work to do! 

Check out the full issue of The Daily Summer here for more great stories. 

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