Mellany Robinson, interview published in « next level », édition 01, volume 03, 2004.
In the early 19th century, Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon : a prison consisting of an enclosed architectural space, in which each floor would be open to the gaze of another, to create a « transparen » space. This formed part of a chain of observation, culminating in the « all-seeing-eye » of the central control tower. Your photographs of the prison guard seem to be a subversion of this idea –the « watchers » being watched. Was this your intention ?
The panopticon was a autopian model of architecture, aiming to establish absolute control through looking. It was not only the space that was rendered transparent -the bodies of the detainees were continualyy observed by the invisible eye. The eye became the central organ of power, control and punishment. Although the model of Bentham was not applied directly, prisons inherited the idea of this model.
What interested me in the project was the inversion of this device, to give invisibility to the prisoners and to put the custodians into the position of the observed. The voyeur is both looked at and also surveys everything beyond. In a certain sense, the eye is turned back on itself.
Your prison portraits seem to have been taken from a detached viewpoint : in the distnace you have placed betwenn you and your subject, the static nature of the subject and also in the black and white film used (somehow, it makes these images seem more like « evidence », rather than traditional « portraits »). In contrast, your portraits taken in Barcelona and Avignon are close-up and colorful, the subjects full of expression. Do you see the two series complementing each other, as an illustration of the contrast between the two situations ; or are they very different bodies of work ?
The portraits taken in Barcelona and Avignon form part of the series of «shouters». They show the people who communicate –by shouting- with prisoners. The shouting is not only practical but in a sense, they resist the violence of imprisonment, they are also victims. Their cries and expression are in contrast to the coldness and emptiness of the images of the prison interior. The prison guards turn their backs on us, they do not want to see the outside and seem to be at one with th espace of the prison. Their's is the « space inside » -silent, anonymous and grey and the « bodies outside » shout facing the wall.
Do you develop a close relationship with your subjects, or do you prefer to approach the work from an impartial viewpoint ?
It depends. When I began this work, i had a friend who was in prison (these are his children that I photographed in Avignon). But in the relationship that I have with the people that I photograph, I always try to establish a distance in the image. My point of view is always exterior, even if I am involved with the subject matter that I photograph.
You have an interest in displaced communities, the « invisibles » people. In photographing them, are you attempting to remind us of their existence, with their own history and reality ?
Specifiically photographic questions in trying to show people who live on the margins of society. How to photograph the « invisible » ? How to take a picture of those who possess a form a opicity ? how to take these images these images when the history of photography has rendered these communities invisible ? Paradoxically, those who do not want to be seen are often the ones who are observed the most and this can be found in the history of photography, with the development of the practice of scientific and police photography. The project on the gypsies was an attempt to question the devices employed by anthropological and police photography. With my work on prisons, I wanted to document imprisonment without ever showing the incarcerated people. The prisoners are there but never present in the image. It is a photography which shows absence and gives the view of the non-visible.
In doing this, do you feel that you are contributing to what Foucault regards as a creation of the « object of knowledge » : in identifying and documenting these people, they become part of what has been described as « anew representation of society», which began with the photographs of criminals and mental patients taken in the 19th century by Charcot, Bertillon and oters ?
My work is influenced by the human sciences but there is not the method or the finality. I do not look to identify or document people to confine them once again in a framework. I attent to establish a new proposition which questions the act of seeing. I like Foucault's idea of an archaelogy : a map or an archive which constitutes a new way of thinking. I like to work at the margins of photography and to defend an approach which transverses the medium. I make images which set-up but which are also a contribution to an archive of iomages. What do a picture by Bertillon and a portrait by Thomas Ruff have in common ? Nothing, and yet they are both photographs. There is a schizophrenia in the medium an dit is this madness that I wish to invest in.
You have identified the limitations of photography in previous work –your pictures of descendants of gypsies from the concentration camp at Arles were accompanied by oral testimonies from camp inmates. However, you have coosen to take portraits of people shouting. My first response when looking at them was to wonder « who are they shouting at ? and what are they saying ? » Do you see these images as standing alone without captions to elicit this response, or is it important for the viewer to understand what they are shouting about ?
In my previous project on the history bof the concentration camp at Saliers, the work of an historian was required as much as that of a photographer. I twas important to be able to relate to the subjects –to put words to faces, to create a history that we could never know so that it could become real for us. The image alone could not suffice. On the other hand, the words of the shouting people do not concern us –their words are addressed to others who remain outside of the image. What counts here is the expression of their cries, their bodies- the tension of resistance.