Category Archives: People

A haven for entrepreneurs

Story and photos by Ella Ehlers

Long known for its cultural and historical significance, Arles is now developing a reputation as a hub for entrepreneurship. The city aids new businesses financially and supports them with resources and networking opportunities. 

Using local products is an important value for many entrepreneurs here, especially for those in the food and beverage industry, who can draw from the fields of rice, lavender, durum wheat and herbs that grow in the region.

Arles holds an Entrepreneurs Day each year where new and aspiring business owners can learn everything they need to know to start and sustain their companies. The annual event begins with practical workshops on real estate, financing, and legal and tax issues.  Next comes a pitch session where entrepreneurs can pose their idea to a jury of professionals and get feedback. In the afternoon, participants meet in small groups to further develop their ideas and meet potential partners. 

This special day in Arles brings entrepreneurs together and lets them fully implement their business plans. 

Initiative Pays d’Arles, a member of the National Initiative France network, is another source of support for entrepreneurs in Arles. Established in 1998, this initiative provides technical and financial support to entrepreneurs in the region. In 2021, Initiative Pays d’Arles supported 272 companies and gave out 1.6 million euros in no-interest loans. 

Magdalena Lataillade, the economic development officer at the Chamber of Trades and Crafts of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, said, “Arles is home to 150 businesses, and 70% of them are micro-businesses,” which are companies that have only one employee, the entrepreneur. 

Magdalena Lataillade, the economic development officer at the Chamber of Trades and Crafts of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, helps businesses in Arles.

Lataillade explained that Arles is a city where many people want to start their own businesses, but there is only room for so many. Lataillade’s office supports new businesses by providing them with a cheaper space to rent and helps them network with other artisans in the area. 

The Chamber of Trades and Crafts has three spaces in Arles offered to entrepreneurs at low rents to help them get started. Entrepreneurs struggle with money in the first year, so these spaces are helpful for these new businesses.   

“It depends on how they do, but often, in the first year, many businesses make less than €10,000 (about $11,000 at the current exchange rate),” she said. “People do this because of a passion, not because of the money.”

Because Arles is surrounded by orchards, rice fields and other agricultural lands, many entrepreneurs incorporate local ingredients into their products. Natural resources like salt and crops such as rice, flowers, spices and herbs can be turned into food, beverages,  sachets and other products.

Many images come to mind when imagining an entrepreneur, but they all have one thing in common: hard work. Thomas Bigourdan, the creator and owner of Bigourdan, a gin distillery in the city center of Arles, proved that persistence and hard work are essential in his business. 

“You cannot give up after one challenge,” said Bigourdan, who started the distillery in 2018.

Florent de Oliveria, the founder of the Brasserie Arlesienne Artisanale Craft Beer, better known as BAA Beer, also saw Arles as a good place to start a beverage company.

 During an interview, Oliveria explained that “this company is very time-consuming which has led to a divorce and less time with my kids.” This is just one example of how devoted the entrepreneurs in Arles are to their companies. Oliveria is very hardworking but also has a contagious passion for his work. 

“Lots of businesses are created every year,” Lataillade said. “But only the strong ones make it.”

Meet two entrepreneurs from the Arles region:

Thomas Bigourdan, founder of Bigourdan Distillerie de Camargue

Florent de Oliveria, founder of the Brasserie Arlesienne Artisanale Craft Beer

A gin that tastes of the Camargue

By Sophie Wyckoff

After 14 years working in marketing and communications for L’Occitane en Provence in London, Thomas Bigourdan was ready for a change. A visit to a gin distillery gave him an idea.

“It was while I was visiting a distillery in the East of London that I started imagining my distillery,” he said.

In 2018, he founded Bigourdan Distillerie de Camargue, a gin distillery in Arles, that uses local products like immortelle (eternal flower), lavender, sage and thyme from the region to create a unique flavor. The gin is made from 13 ingredients, most of them grown in the Camargue.

“I wanted to make a ‘real’ London Dry, fairly classic and recognizable, then give it a sharp, almost brutal Camargue temperament,” he said in an interview posted on the company’s website. “I started from the sensations and impressions that can be experienced in the Camargue – the gasp, the salt crunching underfoot, the sand burned by the sun – to translate them into taste.”

Bigourdan said immortelle, tiny yellow flowers picked from the Camargue, give a warm and dry finish to the gin. Immortelle is also an antimicrobial compound that promotes skin cell regeneration and is used as an essential oil.

Customers browse in the Bigourdan shop in Arles. Photo by Sophie Wyckoff.

Currently, two flavors of gin are available to purchase, the original and the limited edition summer flavor, which includes essence of citrus. The limited edition is distilled in two batches which contain 500 liters, so when the product is gone, it’s gone. The original flavor and limited edition summer flavor come in a 50-centiliter bottle. The original sells for 41 euros, and the summer flavor for 43 euros.

On top of gin, Bigourdan also produces and sells three ready-to-serve cocktails. Negroni Matador uses the Immortelle plant for a maple syrup taste, Soho Negroni is a sweet orange taste, and the N°1 Negroni has a lemon and orange zest that grows at the foot of the distillery. The three bottles are packaged together for a selling price of 52 euros. 

Photo by Sophie Wyckoff.

Bigourdan initially faced many challenges as a solo entrepreneur. He states how stressful his job was and how “you do everything on your own and can only count on yourself.”

Ukrainian refugees resettle in Arles

Story and photos by Gabriela Calvillo Alvarez

As Iryna K. and her 10-year-old son Alex fled the war in Ukraine, migrating from Germany to Ireland to Arles, he would draw pictures showing how he would find a way to go home. 

“First, he denied the war,” said Iryna, 40, who asked that her last name not be published. “He said the war didn’t exist. He told me he wanted to return. Every evening, he would draw me a map of how he would escape. ‘Mom, I will go by this frontier, that frontier,’ and so on.” 

The mother and son left Ukraine in May 2022, not long after the war began. They had lived all her life in Kyiv, where the bombardment was intense from the beginning.

Russian leaders, she said, “hoped that in three days Kyiv would be occupied, that they would impose their government, and that then the war would be finished. Anyway, you see that it still continues.”

Iryna is part of a loose network of women and children who are trying to find their footing in Arles. Many of them have families back home in Ukraine and are waiting to return, while others have decided to stay. 

“I know that last year, we had many people come in, maybe 150,” said Iryna, whose family remains in Ukraine. “But now, a lot of them have left so it’s hard to have an exact number.”

Iryna K. stands in the garden of her home in Arles.

As of July 2023, nearly 6 million refugees from Ukraine are recorded to be in Europe, according to the UN Refugee Agency. France does not have an official database for this information but a report from the U.S. Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit states that as of Jan. 2023, 119,000 Ukrainian refugees are currently in France. 

Arles was one of the cities that provided a haven for Ukrainian refugees. Initially, no official resources were available and it was just a people-helping-people effort. Because she was one of the few who could speak both Ukrainian and French, Iryna served as a bridge for those coming to Arles. While she had secure housing with a local family, she helped connect other women to Arlesians willing to host refugees. 

However, one of the challenges these women face when they arrive here is a lack of work opportunities. Since the city is dependent on tourism, especially during the summer months, it’s harder to have a stable income during the off seasons, such as winter and fall. 

“Arles doesn’t give you many possibilities to realize your professional potential,” Iryna said. “You can go work at a hotel or a restaurant, but you don’t have a lot of choices.”

Iryna was a unique case. Upon her arrival in Arles, she began an association called Ukraine en Provence to help provide resources to other Ukrainian women who have resettled in the region. 

“I did everything because I understood that if I was home alone, with all my thoughts, it would be unsupportable,” Iryna said. “It’s too heavy. It was very difficult to manage my own feelings and in addition, I had to manage [my son’s] feelings, too.”

Iryna K. and her son, Alex, have made a home in Arles even as they miss their family in Ukraine.

Last year, she offered a Ukrainian course, in partnership with the Arles à la carte language school, to teach the history and language of the country to locals interested in learning more about the Ukrainian community.

“For French people, it’s very difficult to understand some particularities of Ukraine,” she said. 

“So I decided to write a little book that’s like Ukrainian in 30 days.”

Iryna studied languages at a university in Ukraine and speaks English and Italian, as well as French and Ukrainian. These skills helped her communicate and find work.

For most Ukrainian refugees, however, language has been another obstacle. Halyna Mamchur, 35, didn’t know any French when she and her daughter, Maria, arrived in Arles over a year ago. She came here at the suggestion of a French friend she knew from art school in Ukraine.

“It’s been a very difficult and beautiful time for me, this one year,” she said. “I met very happy people and I think I try to be happy, too.”

Four months after she arrived, she decided to pick up drawing once more as a way to process her feelings about leaving her country. Her paintings often contain images of her family and faces combined with bird features, to symbolize freedom and strength.

“For me, it’s a normal artist’s life,” said Mamchur. “It’s my emotions and it’s my experience with people, with my friends, with my parents.”

Mamchur’s friend, Nadja Bailly, 37, studied art in Ukraine for a year with Halyna and they’ve been friends ever since. Bailly has been involved in helping the Ukrainian community since the very beginning of the war. She was one of the few who could translate for those coming into town for safety. 

“At the beginning, nobody knew what Ukraine was. Nobody knew its history or the language. But now they do. Everyone knows,” Bailly said. 

While some people like Iryna are settling in Arles, others have decided to go back to Ukraine. Mamchur is one of those women. She left last month. 

“Maybe when the war is finished, I’ll come back together with my family,” Mamchur said. “Right now, I understand that I only want to live in my country. Maria and I speak Ukrainian, we sing Ukrainian, and I love it.” 

Inspiring the next generation of visual journalists

Story and photos by Sam Guzman

As a young child growing up in an orphanage after his parents were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Jean Bizimana had little experience with photography, either behind or in front of a camera. When he was 8 years old, he learned how to take pictures with Through The Eyes of Children, a program that helps unsafe or vulnerable kids learn photography and videography.

“The objective of the project was not to turn us into photographers but it was to give us a way of forgetting our past experiences of the genocide, war and conflicts that we had been through,” Bizimana said.

Inspired by his experiences of telling stories with a camera, Bizimana became a photojournalist. (You can view his work here:

Now, at the age of 32, Bizimana is a part of a mentorship program sponsored by VII Academy that was created to help promising young photographers from the Majority World, who may not have access to formal photography education, hone their skills. The program, which started with a site in Sarajevo, opened a new location in Arles in February. 

Sharafat Ali talks with Gary Knight, CEO of VII Academy and Foundation at the program’s final reception.

Gary Knight, co-founder of VII Academy, says one of his goals for the program is “to ensure that very well trained, ethically based, young photojournalists are out there in the world, calling truth to power, holding the political classes and the corporate classes to account on behalf of the public.”

As a photojournalist, Knight traveled the world from 1988 to 2017, shooting conflict zones in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, Knight and other photojournalists joined together to create the VII Photo Agency. Later, as the digital revolution changed the revenue models for media, they formed the VII Foundation as a way to support photojournalism and make it sustainable.

Knight brought the academy to Arles because, as the host of the annual Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and the home of France’s most prominent photography school, it already had a dialogue around photography.

“I think what we can do here is bring a little more diversity to the conversation,” Knight said.

VII Academy, the educational wing of the VII Foundation, provides tuition-free training in visual journalism. In the mentorship program, mentees undergo training for five weeks, working on such concrete skills as sequencing photos, editing photos, working with curators and writing pitches for stories. Workshops are taught by seasoned veteran photographers from around the world who understand the demands and challenges of shooting in marginalized communities.

Bizimana said in Rwanda, most people don’t understand the power of photography to tell important stories. 

“When you grow up in a country where no one understands photography, it’s kind of challenging,” Bizimana said. “Everything we learned from YouTube. We don’t have photography schools, we don’t have photography libraries.”

The Through Eyes of Children program, however, gave him the opportunity to learn. The organization lent him a camera, and he learned basic techniques. This was the spark that he needed to want to become a photographer. 

As he developed his photography skills, he sold his photographs to help pay for his studies, as well as raise funds for some of the children from the orphanage. Since there are no photography schools in Rwanda, however, he studied computer science at university. 

Bizimana attended photography workshops to deepen his skills. In 2015 he joined Gary Knight’s Canon Masterclass, a program on how to use professional cameras to make stories. That’s when he started his career. He joined his local news group, IGIHE, in Rwanda. He quit after he realized their style didn’t give him the creative freedom he craved.

Bizimana was a part of the first cohort of mentees to study at the new location in Arles, which is based in a renovated salthouse near the banks of the Rhone River. His cohort included young photographers from Nepal, India, Kashmir, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as two from the United States.

According to Knight, the mentees have developed “very strong friendships, they have a global community.”

Ali, 30, is another mentee in the program. He was born in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. He started doing photography in 2013, shooting the impressive landscapes around him. But he eventually stopped.

“It might be a paradise for outsiders, but to us, it’s a hell,” said Ali, who has been documenting conflict in the region and didn’t want his full name used.

For the past 10 years he’s shifted his focus from the places to the people. 

“My people always fascinate me, because they have stories to tell,” Ali said. To him, conflict brings anxiousness and misery, and he wanted to cover that, not just beautiful scenes. His work focuses on the harsh realities in his home country, 

Another mentee, Joshua Irwandi, from Jakarta, Indonesia, described the program as a retreat. 

Joshua Irwandi, left, talks with mentor Philip Blenkinsop after the final showcase of mentees’ work.

“I get to rest my head a little bit and then actually look at people’s work. I mean, just looking at this exhibition here, you know, like, how do people see things?” Irwandi asked. (You can view Irwandi’s work here:

Knight said he encourages the mentees to think big. “What I hope to encourage them is to be… more ambitious, and more confident about the space that they occupy in the media.”

He also hopes that the relationships they formed in the mentoring program endure.

“Now they have very strong friendships,” Knight said. “They have a global community.”

Bizimana, who participated in a VII Academy program in his home country, hopes that VII Academy will return to Rwanda, so that others can learn like he did. He hopes to teach as Knight and other professors have taught him at the academy. That’s why he wants to be a journalist, he said, so he can give back to others.

Because Rwanda has little tradition of photojournalism, the 1994 Rwandan Civil War and other news in the country has mostly been photographed by international photographers who helicopter in to record the story and then leave.

“My goal is for people to say, ‘Oh we have this professional photographer in Rwanda, now we don’t need to send someone else. Because he’s there and is on the same level.”