Making Images Dialectical, interview with Etienne Hatt, Art Press n°408, 2014
How did you approach this survey of your work, La Traversée, your retrospective at Jeu de Paume?
As its title indicates, the exhibition has been an opportunity to journey through my different corpuses and set up a dialogue between series made over a score of years. This was both a perspective and, on this scale, a novelty. It’s also a journey in the history of the people who have become important figures in my work, and who crop up three times in the exhibition. I am talking about the Gorgans, a Roma family, whom I met in 1995 when I was a student at the school in Arles. The exhibition begins and ends with them. They are the children in the photo booth in 1995, the yelling teenagers in 2001 and the adults lit by the firelight in 2013. These figures are informed by histories of representation and look out on other corpuses of images which concern them, which face them. Prison, which most of them have experienced, concerns them, like the social housing where they now live, as inner migrants.
The themes of confinement, architecture and urbanism, or again migration, are indeed strongly present in your work. How do you explain their recurrence and their declension in series that are formally very different?
A kind of necessity led me to these subjects. I have always been interested by the margins of things. It is the movement, tension and violence of the contact between the periphery and the middle that constitute the material of my work. When the center is displaced towards the margins, it can cause a housing block to implode, build an internment camp for nomads or a prison where people come to yell and cry. Brecht spoke of the violence of the banks that hold in the river, more than the violence of the river. The violence of the friction between the two produces images that, in my case, differ in accordance with the nature of the subject. My work thus has this protean character which can also be explained by the use of photographs that I didn’t take.
Placed in juxtaposition—for example, the series on the panoptical architecture of prisons and on the Hurleurs (Yellers), those people who try to communicate with the prisoners from the outside—your work seems to be structured by a dialectic of the norm, which often links with the authority of the photographic apparatus and its disruption. Is that the core of your work?
The question of the norm and of the nature of the gaze are central concerns of mine, it’s true. Every photograph is a discourse on the world, an idea we have about it. A postcard of housing developments and a photograph of a block imploding are two different discourses about the same place. What interests me is setting up a dialogue between these discourses, making the images dialectical. I photograph fragile, mobile situations, whereas the photographic apparatus itself is “sedentary” and authoritarian, in the sense that it frames, withholds and fixes things. That’s no doubt why every corpus is constituted by counter-shots, discontinuities and figures who are informed by different iconographies, as if they refused to be reduced to one form.
What is the rereading of your work put forward by Jeu de Paume?
Up to now, my reading of my work has been chronological and thematic. When I showed series I kept each corpus apart, making it dialogue with other series. The bodies of migrants on the Parisian sidewalk were confronted with the jungle of Calais. The photomat pictures of children looked out to the ID photos of their grandfather, a survivor of the camps. When I caught up with the Gorgan family in 2012, more than ten years after the first images I made with them, I felt that it was possible to dismantle my work and reassemble it in a completely different way. Each member of the family became a character sustaining a set of images in which he appeared, but from a variety of corpuses. The Jeu de Paume show presents these two possible approaches. The ensembles are presented in series, chronologically, with the exception of one recent piece, Giovanni, made up of fifteen photos where that person appears, made between 1995 and 2013. He is present in photomat pictures, in documentary images, as a yeller (Hurleur), as a family man (in 2012), or in the form of vernacular images that belonged to him and that I have integrated into this ensemble. The exhibition opens and closes on these two different ways of editing my work.
It also features Le Feu, a new series. When Jeu de Paume asked me to produce a work for the exhibition, I thought again of those burning caravans that I saw when I was living in Arles with the Romas. They have this custom of burning a dead person’s caravan. I staged this moment and photographed it, as well as the Gorgans in a counter-shot. These images go much further than the simple staging of a ritual that is specific to the Roma. They question the viewer about the nature of what is represented, especially in the current context of violent political discourse about that community. The faces are lit up by a last glow but we sense a disturbing darkness coming.
At the same time, you are exhibiting L’Asile des photographies at La Maison Rouge. This is a project you worked on with historian Philippe Artières in the archives of the psychiatric hospital in Picauville, Normandy. Was the plan here to do what you did with the camp of nomads in Saliers in the late 1990s, that is, to tell the story of a place?
More than the story of a place, it’s a story of the photographs of the place. We really did feel that we were discovering an iconographic treasure trove covering all the different practices of photography (press photography, war photos, ID photos, family snaps, architectural photos, postcards, etc.). It also constituted a history of psychiatry that was different from the one we’re used to seeing. We therefore made a montage which runs through all the different corpuses and recaptures our experience when we discovered the images. We knew nothing about the photographers or about the people represented, and we felt it was important to preserve this anonymity, not to try to recognize the “madman.” I approach the work on the camp at Saliers from the opposite direction. It was very important to identify the people who had been interned and to find out what happened there. It was therefore necessary to carry out a real historical investigation, with my photos serving primarily to identify and embody this history. A device created a back-and-forth dynamic between the images of the anthropometric notebooks from the war and portraits of those same people I had photographed fifty-five years after their internment. If I was to say that these events really happened, I had to know the facts and recognize the victims.
You are also showing an installation, Le Dortoir des agités (Dormitory of the Disturbed), made up beds and mattresses. Is this a way of putting photography behind you?
Le Dortoir des agités is an installation that revisits photographic archives: images taken in Italian asylums and, especially, the photos taken at La Salpêtrière, Paris, under Professor Charcot, who had made hysteria both a subject of study and an object of representation. For me, the images of patients having fits constituted a ghost image of psychiatry, one absent from the archives at Picauville, whom I wanted to bring back by recreating a dormitory. The mattresses are roped to the bedsteads and convulsed in forms that are identical to the form of the photographed patients. It’s a way to move away from photography and come back to it in a different form.
Translation, C. Penwarden
Making Images Dialectical, interview with Etienne Hatt, Art Press n°408, 2014