Life from a Higher Perspective with Magali Chesnel

From France

Interview by: Lisbeth Monéton

You can read the original version in French, here.

Hello Magali,

Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Your journey into aerial photography in a ULM despite your vertigo is incredibly inspiring. You have won several contests and recently won the prestigious “International Landscape Photographer of the Year” award in 2019.

FF: Where and when were you born?

Magali: In Versailles, in 1975

FF: Where do you live?

Magali: In Ferney-Voltaire, Switzerland

FF: Tell us about your artistic career before finding yourself in the world of photography.

Magali: I studied Applied Arts in Rennes, France where drawing and painting were my areas of predilection and excellence. I have always had a strong interest in Art.

My curiosity and search for atypical details led me to projects that were all very original and very ambitious. They pushed me to develop my creativity and artistic capacity. For instance, I found myself painting cows for the Cow Parade of Geneva and Monaco for the UN's 50th Anniversary. I discovered photography quite late in my artistic career. It started in 2016 during my summer vacation in Camargue, France.

FF: How'd you come up with the idea of ​​taking aerial photographs?

Magali: I was on a mountain bike trip visiting the salt marshes of Aigues-Mortes in Camarague when it occurred to me that the colors, from an aerial point of view, would create very interesting graphic shots. However, because I struggle with vertigo, I instantly tried to stop the idea from developing in my head.

The more I peddled, the more my mind was haunted by the potential photos that I could take. When I got back to the hotel, I came across a hand-written wooden sign saying: Try your first flight in a ULM (Ultra Light Motor Aviation) above the salt marsh. I took this as a sign and went to meet the pilot.

I bluffed and made the pilot believe that I had already flown and two days later, I was on a 45 minute flight over the salt marshes with my little Nikon Coolpix. Instantly, I started taking photos face down!

This first flight was a revelation - a turning point in my artistic life, since aerial photography would become one of my great passions.

FF: In more detail, can you tell us about this first flight in Camargue in the ULM (Ultra Light Motor)

Magali: I was on vacation in Camargue because I wanted to discover the region. This first flight was not at all planned since I suffer from vertigo. I was far from imagining that I was going to be taking an ULM. I think, in hindsight, that it was destiny - it felt like a date with this region and that it was written somewhere that I was going to fly over it. This ULM flight gave new life to my artistic career and opened up new horizons.

I boarded this ULM and literally everything felt new:

I flew several hundred meters above the ground with my hair flapping across in my eyes (since then, I've been flying with a helmet).

I also understood that I had to know how to scan the landscape, dare to tell the pilot where to go, and press the shutter button. The 45 minutes went very quickly.

During this first flight, I had the impression of flying over a canvas that looked like an infinite landscape of patches. The colours were as I imagined, almost unreal with coral yellow, green, white, pink, and orange. Watching the wildlife, especially the flamingos flying in schools. The pastel pink water where they are bathing was breathtaking. This visual spectacle naturally invited me to keep my head facing the ground. A point of view that has become my signature.

FF: What does photography offer compared to other Arts?

Magali: In my opinion, it allows you to explore, understand the world, push boundaries, creativity, and meet people. Due to its stealth, it provides testimony of the moment sometimes with an aesthetic, questioning, or shocking statement.

Because it is easier and more accessible to learn, photography has become a very accessible Art form compared to painting or sculpture. It is an Art that moves quickly and gives birth to new emerging talents each year, all over the world, whether amateur or professional. It’s a very exciting breeding ground for any Art lover like me.

FF: In your photos you resemble Mark Rothko, an American painter from 1903-1970. Rothko's goal was to move the viewer and express basic human feelings through his work. I read on your site, that your photos aim to create confusion between reality and illusion, photography and painting. Could you explain what you are looking for?

Magali: My aerial photographic work is to present Nature in all its splendour. To create confusion in the eye of the beholder, and to marvel at an image "like a painting". I like to create confusion between reality and illusion, photography and painting.

The strong contrast and the geometric shapes of the salt marshes naturally recall abstract paintings.

Flying over Camargue for the second time, without a clear idea in my head gave me freedom during the flight to take photos of when landscapes echoed paintings, like those of Rothko. This is how my “Painting-like” series of photos was born.

FF: In 2017, you had a terrible car accident which changed your life. Can you tell us a little bit about how this changed your life?

Magali: Indeed, I was the victim of a car accident in Arles (a small town in France) at the opening of the Rencontres de la Photographie, in July 2017. I then had two very difficult years.

I could no longer walk. I had three spine operations, I lost my job, and suffered from depression. I was bedridden so, I focused on my first set of aerial photos. I spent my time working on them, working on the descriptions and participating in photo competitions at an international level.

My days were filled with pain, doubts, hope, and joy as I began to be more and more recognized by my peers. To avoid sinking into melancholy, I committed myself mentally to work on a "bucket list".

The months passed and my condition improved slowly. I went from being able to sit on a chair to standing for a few hours. I devoted all my energy to what I could do instead of worrying about what I couldn't control.

I picked up my brushes and painted a self-portrait that will forever remind me of the storm I went through, the courage I needed and the way I learned to use my mind in a positive way, as a tool. I wanted this phase of life to improve my outlook of life in the future.

I bought a drone to overcome the fact that flying was not possible for me and this acquisition opened up other artistic perspectives in terms of aerial photography.

FF: You are represented by the Art Gallery ARTOUI in Berlin, Germany. What are your expectations with this collaboration?

Magali: I expect to be represented by art professionals who bet on my success. I gain visibility and greater presence in the art world, in addition to being recognized through competitions.

FF: What were your biggest doubts and fears when starting your photographic project and how did you overcome them?

Magali: To date, I have never had any doubts or fears with my photographic projects. I believe in what I do. I put everything into perspective since my accident. With aerial photography, I depend on good weather and on forces that I cannot control so I manage around it.

My biggest fear might be to lose my drone and not be able to recover the memory card haha. I am very careful.

FF: What are the fundamental beliefs that have really helped you through difficult times?

Magali: The storms in life undeniably make us stronger and never last forever. You should never lose hope, and never give up!

I remind myself to learn to use my mind in a positive way so that difficult periods don't cloud my future, instead they improve it.

FF: Can you highlight one of the experiences that taught you the most?

Magali: At 8 years old, I won my first drawing competition. The theme of the competition was to draw our vacation. Instead, I drew my brother and I playing in a field with straw bales. I had decided not to draw my vacation by the sea so that I could stand out from other potential vacation drawings.

I won the first prize. The prize was to give all the schoolchildren a box of apple juice. It was a real pleasure to toast with my friends. I realized that this way of thinking, and of reasoning, is key - Don't do like everyone else, dare to think differently.

FF: To what do you attribute your success?

Magali: Perseverance. I never let myself be influenced. I follow my convictions. I focus more on how I can persevere than on the excuses and the reasons why something will not work.

FF: What is success for you?

Magali: This question always has a subjective answer since that depends on everyone. For me, success is to materialize my dreams, my aspirations, and my ideas. To get there, I have to be ready to fall, experience disappointment, and suffer setbacks but that does not mean that I give up what I have in mind - I always persist.

I have learned to follow my instincts. The go for new adventures even at the cost of having to face my fears. This way of thinking has allowed me to move forward in life, to be happy and proud of my choices.

I make sure that situations do not dictate my life - my desires dictate my life and that how success is guaranteed!

FF: What is the next step?

Magali: Take a trip to Latin America to take astrophotography. It's a discipline that blends astronomy and photography by photographing celestial objects.

FF: Looking back, could you start all over again?

Magali: No, I would go forward.

Rapid Fire questions:

FF: How do you prepare for photoshoot days?

Magali: Before I go to a site, I can spend hours on Google Earth, the satellite version. I love to explore a spot that I have in mind from an aerial point of view. I check the weather and the winds. I charge all my batteries: camera, drone, remote control, and mobile. I put them in my bag, with water, a hat and I leave with no specific goal. All I know is that there will be plenty of opportunities to snap.

FF: What are your favourite activities on a day off?

Magali: Swimming, seeing friends, eating by Lake Geneva, making exhibitions, taking photos, reading magazines (National Geographic, Aesthetica Magazine), or even working on my website.

FF: What inspires you in life?

Magali: Landscapes. I love turning unflattering, harmless landscapes into beautiful, captivating photos. People who follow my work say that "I can create beauty from the ugly". Isn't that inspiring?

I am also incredibly inspired by people who persist despite their difficulties like J.K. Rowling who found a way to transform obstacles into opportunities. These “self-made people” are very inspiring.

FF: Is there one woman who inspires you more than others?

Magali: Not just one, many! They are creators, artists, researchers, explorers ... each of whom, in their own way and on their own scale, shattered prejudices to change the world. They've fought endless battles and each with the strength of an unbelievable character. These female figures have revolutionized our lives and made them freer, easier and bigger. To list a few: Séraphine de Senlis, JK Rowling, Camille Claudel, Coco Chanel, Frida Khalo, Mary Jackson, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, George Sand, Mary Cassatt.

FF: If you could travel anywhere for a day, where would you go?

Magali: Easter Island.

FF: Describe your life in one word?

Magali: Atypical

FF: In 3 words, how do your friends describe you?

Magali: Generous, perfectionist, artistic

FF: What is your favourite book/film?

Magali: The book: Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography by Daniel Girardin & Christian Parker

The films: The Bridges over Madison County, Midnight in Paris and Planet of the Apes.

FF: Do you have a motto that guides you?

Magali: “My instinct is my main guide" by Björk

FF: What is your best advice for those who want to live their dreams?

Magali: Follow your instincts, dare to think out of the box, face your fears!

Thank you very much Magali for letting us enter your fascinating universe and sharing your wisdom.

We admire your courage and perseverance. We would like to emphasize your beautiful words - "I devoted all my energy to what I could do instead of worrying about what I could not control."

We hope that these words inspire many women!

We wish you all the best with your future projects and we look forward to following your career.

To follow Magali, here are her links:

Instagram: @Magalichesnel


With Love,



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