Loose Joints – Changing the dialogue of photography in the South of France

«We are always looking to find projects that push the dialogue forward about contemporary photography», Lewis Chaplin, co-founder of Loose Joints. Creating a space to be, work and generate ideas

Creating a space to be, work and generate ideas

Loose Joints is an independent publishing house, and design studio focused on photography based in the southern port city of Marseille. As we talk about the central location of their space and its ability to bring wanderers in from off the street, Lewis Chaplin – co-founder along with Sarah Piegay Espenon – recounts: «People in Marseille are curious, which is a great thing». Their new addition of a bookshop, Ensemble – opened earlier this year in July – is devoted to displaying contemporary photography in Marseille. «This is a dream as two people passionately engaged with bookmaking» he says as he points behind him to a copper brown paneled wall which behind takes you to the bookshop. It houses many of the books that Loose Joints publish, along with other selected works of independent art and photography publishers internationally. 

Lewis describes how their input in the layout and design of both studio and the bookshop was nothing less than intentional by him and his co-owner Sarah Piegay Espenon. All the furniture in the front of the space is made from lightweight ply and is on wheels, making it easy to hold events or rearrange the space. Sarah and Lewis designed all of it in collaboration with industrial designers and friends, CP-RV; all furniture and lighting used in the bookshop is available to purchase as well. «That’s what we are gradually building with Ensemble, to use it as a space to showcase excellent design, alongside photography» says Lewis. 

A pet project into a full-time business

​​Loose Joints is owned and managed by Lewis and his business partner, Sarah Piegay Espenon. «Loose Joints originally started as a space for Sarah and I to begin exploring little ideas to do with printed matter, it began as a pet project, something we did alongside other jobs. Over time it organically grew into something bigger».

They started publishing work of their own and collaborating with other people around 2014, making zines and other creative works. They occupied a studio in London for five years before moving to sunny Marseille. Lewis depicts the move as a natural one for both him and Sarah and Loose Joints itself. With Brexit and their growing connections to creatives not just in London but internationally, Lewis says, «it started to feel like it wasn’t necessary for us to be in London and continue to work on the projects we liked». 

For any small business, being independent and self-sufficient is hard. Loose Joints are self-sustaining in that they edit, design, and publish all their books themselves. Alongside Loose Joints, Lewis and Sarah are graphic designers, working on their titles as well as other freelance work. 

Lewis explains how in wanting to take their work to another level, staying in London meant sacrificing quality and time and neglecting the full range of work they could publish, from underrepresented artists to emerging and younger talents too. By moving, their ability to take risks and be progressive through their work is less restrained, allowing them to construct thoughtful and discerning dialogues through the books that they publish. «We work hard at what we do, but to be in a city that’s by the sea, with good food and with the sun, it makes a difference». 

Marseille is France’s second-largest city and is often described as a place of culture, art, and architectural interest. Lewis says, «There’s a lot of creative people here, a lot of artists, a lot of people to do with photography». Marseille is home to a main European port and industrial center. It is a demographically diverse place, with people from all parts of the Mediterranean and across Europe and Africa. Lewis adds that many people have moved there, as with other cites, throughout the pandemic, after realising that perhaps their work could be done anywhere or because they longed for a slower and more affordable way of life. 

Zanele Muholi. Loose Joints
Luis Alberto Rodriguez book, ‘People of the Mud’, Loose Joints Publishing

Merging new ideas into Marseille

«It’s quite exciting right now», he says. «Having the shop, meeting and introducing people to new and exciting photographic voices, not just us but by other editors as well that we sell here. Our selection of books and artists is a bit younger and maybe international than what was available in Marseille before». 

He says there wasn’t anywhere in Marseille that sold a contemporary mixture of independent and international photobooks before. «In Marseille, there is an established photographic scene but it is less international and more traditional. We are excited to be showing and presenting work that’s broader and more international».

Lewis’ and Sarah’s approach to publishing and the artists they engage with is far removed from the exclusivity you might expect as commissioning editors and creatives. Lewis explains that their approach is split roughly 50/50 between artists who approach them with projects, and with projects that emerge from their own research and outreach to new photographers. «If we see someone who’s got an interesting approach to photography and we think there is the possibility to make an interesting project together in the future we’ll often reach out and open up a dialogue with them», says Lewis. 

He references the artist Rahim Fortune, an American, Texas, and New York-based photographer who focuses on documentary photography practice, looking at culture, geography, and self-expression through an American lens. Loose Joints contacted him and developed a dialogue which formed over the course of many years. They published Rahim’s book, I Can’t Stand to See You Cry, in April 2021, and it was nominated for PhotoBook of the Year at Paris Photo–Aperture PhotoBook Awards in 2021. 

Loose Joints maintain an open submissions policy where they look at everything once a month. «Anybody anywhere is free to send us projects and we do look at all of it. Once a month, we do a great big review, and it’s a big task to commit ourselves to; we get about 120 submissions a month», he says.

Lewis continues, «It’s not about whether the thing that person has sent out to us is finished and clean and ready to go. We like it when we can see a great spark of an idea and then we can get involved and propose ways to develop it through edit, concept, design».

Engaging with work that can tell many stories, not just one

As a graduate with a background in Anthropology, Lewis explains that he and Sarah are often drawn to projects that, like Anthropology, use a specific and intimate description of a particular place or idea, as an allegory to tell broader stories about contemporary experiences globally. «For us, good photographic projects do exactly that – they may speak about something specific and personal, but with a broader message». 

Lewis explains that Sarah is instrumental in this process, doing a significant amount of research and development to discover and initiate conversations with dynamic new image makers.

In asking Lewis about other studios and publishers in Marseille, he speaks fondly of Chose Commune, a French independent publishing house owned and managed by Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi. «Like us, her interests in photography and publishing are very personal. Cecile publishes work that she responds personally and instinctively to and has quite a defined vision of what type of thing she wants to do», Lewis says. He adds, «She has the same attitude about making very refined books, and not doing too many of them whilst also being quite international».

Lewis explains that the majority of the books they publish are new and contemporary works. He says, «We are always looking to find projects that push the dialogue forward about contemporary photographic stories, rather than looking backwards». Although he does reveal that they have two books coming out next year looking at archives from the 80s and 90s.

«We try to stay open-minded as a publisher and avoid having strict criteria» he says. Lewis tells me that one of the archive books they are publishing this year is by a female photojournalist, Robin Graubard. Robin is in her 70s and has never published a book before. Lewis explains that Sarah came across a handful of photos of her work online, and decided to reach out as they were curious to learn more. «She was in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Serbia and across Eastern Europe during the fall of communism and the Yugoslavia war. She did incredible work, most of which has barely seen the light of day. The work is colorful; it’s all shot on slide film, it doesn’t feel like the kind of reportage work that most people have seen from that time».

This summer, Loose Joints and the Mahler & LeWitt Studios are running a book award and artist residency. Entitled ‘Publishing Performance’, the opportunity is free and open to all, with the winner receiving a month in Spoleto, Italy as artist-in-resident to develop work, for a book to be published by Loose Joints in 2023.

Loose Joints

Independent publishing house collaborating with leading and emerging artists on contemporary approaches to photography in book form, founded in London in 2015 by Sarah Piegay Espenon and Lewis Chaplin. Loose Joints circulates new perspectives through a dedicated list seeking to elevate underrepresented voices in contemporary visual discourse. Each title is the result of close collaboration with artists from start to finish, with all design, editing and production done in-house. Loose Joints also operates independently as a design studio, working across publishing and the arts. Loose Joints is currently based in Marseille, where it also runs Ensemble, a bookshop and gallery dedicated to contemporary photography.

Anna Doherty

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.