AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTOINE D'AGATA: A SIMPLE DESIRE TO EXIST
A conversation with Raphael Shammaa. Translated from French.
A conversation with Raphael Shammaa. Translated from French.
New York, February 7, 2014
Raphael Shammaa: How do you feel discussing your work and being asked a lot of personal questions? You must have known from the start that, due to the nature of your images, people would be curious about a lot of things.
Antoine D’Agata: My images are first and foremost meant to “contaminate” photography as we know it and accept it, “perverting” and undermining pre-formatted assumptions surrounding and supporting the insidious ideology of a culture made out of conventions.
Explaining my work is not a burden to me; rather it is an opportunity to fulfill an obligation which is to be accountable for my work, to stand by it and affirm its object – which I write at length and pointedly about in “ANTICORPS” (Antibody). It’s a theory that is both spontaneous and instinctive, a relentless practice born from personal experience, an experiment through excess, a political questioning about what photography is not and ought to be about, in precise and, most of all, concrete terms.
RS: Do you share your work with anyone before showing it to galleries?
AD: No, mine is an entirely solitary pursuit as most of my time is being spent on the road, on the streets and in hotel rooms in anonymous cities. I invest whatever energy I have left into a perpetual and hopeless search for ever new experiences and encounters. And while the camera is always present, I try to give up technical and aesthetic control of it and focus on existential considerations at hand. At the moment of shooting, I put it all out of my mind, focusing as much as I can on the physical experience.
For instance, I worked for years with the Nicephore Niepce Museum in France and kept mailing unprocessed rolls of film to them. They ended up processing, digitizing and archiving some 1,600 rolls and contact sheets – none of which I was getting to see except once a year. There is a real obstinacy, a necessity for me to just forget, and even deny, the existence of the photographic dimension just to emphasize the experiential aspect of the pursuit.
The important point to focus on though, is the photographer’s intimate relationship to the world, his stance and involvement in the situations he documents – on the physical, political, moral and aesthetics levels. By his active participation in whichever circumstance he evolves in, the photographer takes personal responsibility and then makes his responsibility total. Instead of the subject’s, it is the photographer’s movements, perspective and experience that are being depicted in any given picture.
RS: Why bother with photography at all then?
AD: A good question, and one I don’t have a final answer for; I’ve tried answering it for years and don’t believe there’s a way of making sense out of that contradiction, but I’ll never stop trying. I have forever sought to establish an impossible balance between living fully every moment – which, in the end, is my sole ambition – meaning being at the core of my own existence, whatever the risks, to live my life as fully and intensely as I can in a manner that is as true to my instinct and as politically pertinent as possible and, at the same time, keep documenting it through photography. I feel it’s important not to give up on it, however absurd or pointless it may all seem.
There are additional aspects to photography, the most basic of which being that it provides me with the energy needed to live my existence to its fullest, sometimes beyond my own control or judgment. That’s how I convince and push myself every day to destroy what I’ve achieved and start again from scratch and place myself once more into an intimate relationship with fear, darkness, and the void. Without photography, I would probably fall into the worst yet most commonly adopted choice – moral and physical comfort.
RS: …how does photography do that for you, prod you onto your chosen path?
AD: Existence is about the unceasing search for an intensity-packed life – a sort of recurring, never-ending, forward-moving fleeing, ever looking for loss of equilibrium or a plunge into the void, for self-destruction, self-exploitation. It’s a formless, ever ongoing tragedy where everything ends up being used up. Photography allows me to be alive, to face the absence of meaning surrounding us, and to give this tragedy form, a form that’s tangible, real and which can be shared – and that’s important. It makes it possible for me to fashion a space in which I can simultaneously engage in self-destruction and in the fanatical pursuit of life, while providing a document that, without providing any explanations, bestows shape to these experiences and allows the exploration of their realness, of the various forms they take and their meaning. And of their import.
RS: And of course, you are aware that photography is incapable of conveying what really, really goes on.
AD: My aim is not to provide answers. But all these questions we ask – that some of us ask and others choose not to consider, are my responsibility, and duty, to keep on putting forward and to keep seeking answers for – meaning, to keep diving into the void and exploring the darkness – not in the hope of understanding it all or of attaining anything in particular, but in order not to give up on the exploration. It’s not a matter of explaining or solving anything about darkness itself, it’s a matter of dignity, of being honest when facing my own rage, my own desire, my own fear, not giving in or giving up, and of keeping it up every day, being an actor in my own life and in society, refusing to be a scared and passive consumer.
RS: But dignity, isn’t it a concept after all? Isn’t its meaning dependent on each individual?
AD: For me, it’s not a concept, dignity is real, tangible, evident; I see it in the everyday gestures and attitudes of those who are left bare, in that world in which the have-nothings live in a state of strict destitution to which they find themselves relegated.
RS: And that state is what’s left after everything has been taken away from them?
AD: Exactly. They find themselves where they are because they have been denied, stripped of everything. Not there out of choice. And when someone is left with nothing that’s what they must exist from. They find ways to exist, no matter how unpalatable, unacceptable, cruel, immoral or brutal. And it is in that particular context, after these people have been stripped bare and humiliated that I detect dignity in its purest form – when their own naked flesh is the only remaining asset, when surviving boils down to fulfilling the most desperate of desires, when nothing is left to lose and when, through the intensities of lust and crime humanity can finally be regained .In the everyday world, a world which affords comforts, encourages fear and supports silence, lies, hypocrisy, cynicism and laziness, people protect themselves to the point of numbness, ending up lifeless.
Photography affords me access to the world of darkness where it is possible for me to feel and exist, where other people also exist – albeit under tragic circumstances, in pain and in adversity, but where they nevertheless do exist, sharing their own brand of love, of solidarity and compassion.
But in that other, polite daylight world, all I find is lies and indifference.
RS: Is it lies or amnesia?
AD: Both. Amnesia is the result of lying to one’s self. Lies and comfort are essentially tied.
RS: You are well-known today and the public responds positively to your work. The other night at International Center of Photography/ICP everyone applauded your presentation. Let me ask you, how did people react to your work at first, before you were known?
AD: Their reaction, I think, is complex because I make an effort to present truth in some acceptable form, through images whose forms are emotionally recognizable and identifiable, and some that can at times even be seductive or enhanced via their own intrinsic beauty… I do it to draw the viewer in, to lure him into his own forgotten rage, his own hunger… Whereas other, cruder, more brutal images with poor lighting which do convey the same intensity, the same beauty and pack the same compassion or tenderness, these remain inaccessible to the public. All they see is the flesh. So there is repulsion at times, because of the poverty and violence depicted.
RS: Why would they applaud then?
AD: My images are not violent images. They are somewhat abstract. They show pain, fear, desire; they speak of things known to all. They are less violent or explicit than what’s in the media.
RS: Are they more abstract or more taboo?
AD: Francis Bacon said something to the effect that his work was not about violence but about our horror in the face of it. My images are charged with the full range of what we can feel, understand, experience, which is more emotional, more abstract and existential than violence itself. In the course of my life I have witnessed people having intercourse with animals, people dying, people shedding tears mixed with blood… none of that is in my work. All I show is desire and fear, both of which are part of tasting life to its last, provided one has the fortitude for it.
Desire and fear go hand-in-hand. Desire without fear is about unchecked consumerism, about unbridled pleasure-seeking and constant thirsting for gratification. Fear without desire, on the other hand, stands for power – political, economic, and for comfort, tied to our fear of existing, of being, our fear of rebelling against established values.
Desire and fear working together pave the way to understanding one’s limits and to learn how to opt in favour of desire. It’s about linking enjoyment to thought. I don’t, therefore, have any reason to renounce neither desire nor fear.
I want to keep on walking the streets of large cities at night, moving towards whatever or whoever is moving towards me, and fear is critical to this process, and so is desire. I want to exist, to gorge myself – I do not want to give up any of it.
RS: How does your career as a photographer play into all of this?
AD: My practice is entirely dedicated to servicing my beingness, making it possible for me to afford moving around, going back and forth. It’s my only luxury and my only tangible asset – I’ve lived without a fixed residence or personal possessions for 10 years, claiming freedom of movement as my only form of affluence: I get all that through photography. So it’s a sort of compromise – to be kept under control.
RS: What is the compromise being made?
AD: Making prints, signing prints, exchanging them for money.
AD: Yes, operating in a marketplace which lacks legitimacy, which is vain, meaningless and of no interest to me, but which I have to deal with and make a living from so, I deal with the art world – a world I have no regard for but from which I get everything I need to keep going. I take what I need from it and feed on the frustration and the anger of being denied total freedom.
RS: Does that in a way compel you to accept reality as it is?
AD: Yes and no, the compromises I submit to are truly minimal. Once in a while I am asked to sign a piece of paper which results in great freedom of movement with deep repercussions on my existence. Teaching too is a compromise, but a compromise with benefits as well.
RS: These are compromises in the sense that you are asked to engage into something that is not of primary importance to you.
AD: Precisely. But having taught some 1,100 students in the past 10 years, there is something taking place on the order of transmission, of ideological communication, of “contamination” – a word I am really attached to.
RS: And that really matters to you.
AD: Yes, it is the primary purpose of my work – “contaminating” that conventional sense of propriety, that sense of doing the photographically appropriate thing. I work within the system and, simultaneously, against it, reminding young people they can be actors in their own lives instead of witnesses, striking blows as surgically precise as I am able to, blows against the logics of production, of profitability, of normalcy.
RS: To what end?
AD: To get photography back to its true purpose. Photography has been reduced to a state of shallowness and emptiness, of pettiness I would say, resulting from practices focused on discovering new formal aspects and inventing personal and original ways to look at reality – culminating in works that are trivial, useless, futile – new versions of reality, sort of. My object then is to get photography back to requiring true commitment, to being a language that is unique by its potential subtlety and rawness, a language resulting from personal experience, the product of situations the author finds himself in; so that photography is not a way to look at the world, but a way to live the world, to take a position, to be of the world, in such a way that everything stands for something – distance, movement, so that photography is an entirely physically related art, purely existential, anchored in reality which is what I strive to explain and push for. It is that characteristic, unique to photography – to the exclusion of all other forms of art, which connects it to life itself, makes it a tangible presence. The photographer is then accountable not for his images, but for his acts.
That’s what I’ve done with my work by making sure I enter the image, by being present within the image physically as well as through my actions and my images becoming inextricably fused, which is something that runs counter to everything that’s been done in photography from its very early beginnings.
Photography has been shackled by rules governing style, composition, lighting.
RS: I’ve heard you use the term “art” sometimes with disdain and at other times with conviction, intimating the word carries multiple connotations for you.
AD: I use it with conviction when I bring it back to its most primitive meaning and function: art as language, as a simple way to express something where words alone fail, something about being, existing, surviving. When I refer to photography as an institution, as an economy hinging on accepted norms, on arrangements resulting from laziness and greed, that’s when I speak of it as being trite.
RS: So then, how does it feel when you’re referred to as an artist, since that’s the manner in which you are being perceived?
AD: At this juncture, I ignore which part of me, or of my work people accept or reject. I cannot afford the luxury of taking note of what people think. I need to live within the realm of my own thinking and of my own actions, and not allow myself to be distracted by neither rejection nor apologia because of their weakening effects upon me. My allegiance lies elsewhere.
RS: I’d like to talk about something of particular interest which is that, some time after the death of your photographer friend, you espoused photography to help restore structure to your life. You also fathered two children with your deceased friend’s wife. In the end, your friend’s death changed your life in two significant ways. And the question that comes to mind is whether you sometimes ponder the impact that single event has had on your life.
AD: Beyond that one friend, it is to my whole generation that I feel accountable. I live in constant remembrance of and respect for my generation, a generation I pay homage to, a generation that was decimated by the AIDS epidemic – and as expected, it was the wildest and the most dashing among us that went first; and I’ve always harbored a sense of guilt and shame for having survived them, and I believe that somewhere within my desire to constantly outdo myself and push further into risky territory there’s something that has to do with trying to live up to all these friendships that were swallowed up by disease; and a dedication to remaining faithful to their memory.
As these young men were dying from the effects of sex and drugs, a compulsive frenzy fueled by the extreme lifestyle of the street arose among survivors to keep living, to keep existing, driving us deeper and deeper into extreme behaviors, into more and more sex, more and more drugs. We needed to feel alive.
And I desperately strive to exist, even today, and fight; because, for me, there is no choice other than going on feeling, going on surviving the economic brutality of the world and feeding my own fears and desires … My present strategy is identical to what it was thirty years ago, I am sorry to say – meaning, I still cling to living a solitary life.
RS: Yet today, as opposed to thirty years ago, you have access to a megaphone.
AD: Of course. And I use it in the most relevant and appropriate way I can. But the substratum remains the same. When I refer to desire and fear I refer to some of the dangerous places that I keep going to, where people engage in the most extreme, brutal and insane behaviors. I do it to live and share with these women some of the most beautiful moments and most solid friendships ever, in utmost truthfulness and accomplice-ship.
And that’s what I tried to achieve in my latest, just completed, 2-hour video in which I recorded 24 women I’ve known intimately and photographed, each speaking in her own native language, a video which was translated and edited later on.
RS: Which languages were these?
AD: It’s a random mix of Khmer, Japanese, Russian, Norwegian, Georgian, these women having a limited capacity to communicate in English.
RS: At ICP, referring to your children, you said: they mean everything to me. You seemed emotional as you spoke the words. Were you in fact emotional?
AD: My four children have a hold on me; they are the only individuals towards whom I feel responsible. My other responsibilities are conditional, limited; they lie apart from friendship, philosophy or ideology; or aesthetics. My four daughters though, I feel accountable to. I owe them my presence – I owe them being alive and being available to them. It is because of them that I obligate myself to stay alive.
I am grateful for that aspect of things, and yet it remains a complex matter because when I get to that place where I get the sense that I am nearing something wild, extreme, brutal – a certain level of truth and madness, I feel the brakes being applied, I feel being pulled back from the brink. I owe my children the necessity I’ve imposed upon myself to be fearless and, at the same time, to try staying alive. So it’s complicated but beautiful. It may even be love!
RS: A wise man once said: what the mind invents the mind destroys; the real is not invented and cannot be destroyed.
In the course of your life you have seen any number of things and people destroyed. What has endured throughout? What do you consider to be real, true? What cannot and will never be destroyed?
AD: For me, what is indestructible is Greatness, Tragedy, Beauty, Destiny. These smashed, shipwrecked destinies, humanity destroyed, these men and women crushed under the weight and violence of the economic machinery, of course, bodies have been destroyed and names forgotten, still, what remains is the majesty of such destinies.
Earlier we talked about destitute people who rise to the level of their destitution and live their lives as full humans.
RS: Is that what you feel dignity stands for?
AD: Yes. Dignity is about dealing with destiny at its own level, without answers, without escape routes, all the while accepting the inherent violence and the greatness of it all. This dignity is the by-product of our limitations and ignorance, both properly ours. I am an atheist and believe in nothing outside of dust. All else and, yes, art – in its accepted forms, is a mind invention, a play with mirrors, while my own photography – or rather the experience related to it, remains indestructible and true.
My book Anticorps – along with my determination to destroy trivial art, restores art to its legitimate purpose. My images portray live experiences of pain or pleasure, real sweat, actual sperm and real blood.
Women whose still images were shown last night at ICP having sex are in fact enjoying orgasm – while dying from AIDS because they, their condition and their desperate financial situation are denied recognition. And that’s what it’s really about – not about fussing over a photographic image’s controlled blur or grain size.
RS: You characterize the taking of your daytime pictures of damaged and scarred buildings as dissociated exercises, as opposed to your nighttime work which you describe as personal and intimate.
AD: I am equally invested when taking these images as I am with my nighttime images, the difference being that for my daytime images I strive to use logic, discernment, clarity. I also make it a point to photograph those places and situations which inspire repulsion or horror in me. I take pictures of war. I try to understand, I visit factories, densely populated institutional buildings – all the things I find ugly, brutal, violent – the sort of violence I don’t identify with, that is foreign to me, that comes from greed, in order to get closer, to better see, to better understand how to survive this violence and in order make a statement about my belief regarding this sort of world – even though it doesn’t come naturally to me to do it, and yet it is my duty to go on doing it.
RS: And you discharge this duty conscientiously.
AD: Yes, conscientiously. Because it concerns that aspect of violence which is political, institutional, economic – which I fight against, a sort of violence different from the one found in my world of darkness. And to do so I need to get closer, to know it better and face its brutality. And then there is the violence in my world of darkness – even more brutal – inadmissible in many ways, yet unavoidable and which exists in reaction to institutionalized violence. This second form is part of me and I am part of it. It is a mix of humanity and horror and hopelessness. It is at once tragic, magnificent, unbearable. It’s the world I grew up in, lived in, and continue to live in. I defend this violence that exists on the margins and this type of social deviance; I defend it against all types of social norms because I need that space for freedom and to go on living; I’ll fight for it to the bitter end.
I am unable to go on living without this form of violence; it’s about everything that keeps me alive.
RS: In other words, the lifestyle you lead both stirs and quenches these two basic needs of yours, desire and fear.
AD: Exactly. That’s the only way to put it since that interplay between desire and fear accurately reflects my attempt to live my destiny as a human being at its fullest.
RS: Which has the stronger pull on you, art in the way you engage in it, or the freedom afforded through drugs? You keep toggling between the two. Which would you be ready to give up just to have the other?
AD: For me, the two have become indistinguishable from one another. To actually enjoy and thoroughly partake in this type of freedom – this freedom that opens up for me through my choice of a particular lifestyle and through chemical use, the access to lawless environments, to spaces on the margins of any rules or controls, to live it fully – both sensibly and foolishly, I need the discipline and the language derived through art in order to give shape and form to it all.
Without either one of them I would already be dead, destroyed, totally used up. Art imposes its discipline on me. In Anticorps I refer to photography as a form of martial art hinging on desire, yet requiring discipline, rigor and a strategy for pushing the envelope as far as can humanly be managed. So the strategy is a factor. My daily experience is the product of a nefarious blend of discipline and madness.
RS: Ying and Yang rule the roost.
AD: Yes, exactly. That’s what accounts for the richness of the experience. Enjoyment is everywhere you look in society, enjoyment allied to hope, to fear. Enjoyment bereft of fear stands for television watching, for pornography, consumerism.
RS: You refer to fear, what is fear for you?
AD: Fear is involved when contemplating being nothing and inching ever closer to our own death. Fear is what holds us back and prevents most of us from taking necessary yet inadmissible risks; forcing most men to give up their right to skepticism, their dignity, their courage as they lapse into a life of illusion, of abnegation, of obliviousness. It’s never a matter of understanding death; it’s about rising to the challenge of our own death by living side-by-side with it incessantly, right up against it every day. It’s about opening to the experience of living at such tight proximity to our own death.
RS: How do you represent existence?
AD: It’s everything we’ve already talked about or even less.
RS: Regarding your professional practice – a practice which affords you a certain type of freedom, do you think the public will eventually look for a different type of work from you?
AD: My task is too difficult, too insane, too obsessive to allow me to consider doing anything else. My only option is to persist and go beyond my own limits. On the other hand, it is up to either viewers of my work or photographers, to review, question and reconsider their own expectations and viewpoints. It’s not for me to reconsider my intimate choices about existence, I can only try to live up to my own choices, and hope others will pick up the torch, take the risks and follow their own paths.
RS: It’s all up to them, then?
AD: That’s where “contamination”, mentioned earlier, comes in. I am sensing definite frustration among younger artists and photographers, a yearning for clear-sightedness, a growing rejection of all types of lies which constitute the core of contemporary art: puritanism, cynism, glitter, phoniness, frivolity, greed but that may be too optimistic, art should not be saved.
RS: And what happens to those who become contaminated?
AD: They will attempt to experience the desire to exist, to live.
RS: Do you know of some who have become contaminated?
AD: Yes, the problem is that those that come to mind have been getting lost, some are no longer around or gave up trying, death, failure, madness. It’s a perilous, impossible path, one has to accept living along those lines.
RS: Those who awaken to that type of reality.
AD: Their pain will deepen, their daily lives will change for the worse. Their mind, nerves, organs will fail, their flesh will fall apart. These situations are untenable. Living more fully intensifies reality.
RS: A man is born, struggles his whole life to express his deepest reality, and then is shown the door. It’s the same scenario for everyone. What do you think of this scenario?
AD: Our only choice is living head held high without slowing the pace or looking away.
RS: So we keep walking towards the edge of the cliff without slowing the pace, fully awake, aware of what’s coming, head held high. What happens next?
AD: The fullest possible experience of the void, the ecstasy of being alive, fearing death yet playing with it, there’s dignity in such a choice of destiny, as horrific and inadmissible as it may be, as absurd as it may be, there is beauty in it, the allure of the absurd. Making the most out of nothingness, and not giving up, whatever the price.
RS: Is there a logic to all this?
AD: There can’t be. We don’t know anything.
RS: Is this absence of logic intended?
AD: That’s a tricky question .
Born in Marseilles, Antoine d’Agata left France in 1983 and remained overseas for the next ten years. Finding himself in New York in 1990, he pursued an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography, where his teachers included Larry Clark and Nan Goldin.
During his time in New York, in 1991-92, d’Agata worked as an intern in the editorial department of Magnum, but despite his experiences and training in the US, after his return to France in 1993 he took a four-year break from photography. His first books of photographs, De Mala Muerte and Mala Noche, were published in 1998, and the following year Galerie Vu began distributing his work. In 2001 he published Hometown and won the Niépce Prize for young photographers. He continued to publish regularly: Vortex and Insomnia appeared in 2003, accompanying his exhibition 1001 Nuits, which opened in Paris in September; Stigma was published in 2004, and Manifeste in 2005.
In 2004 D’Agata joined Magnum Photos and in the same year, shot his first short film, Le Ventre du Monde (The World’s Belly); this experiment led to his long feature film Aka Ana, shot in 2006 in Tokyo.
Since 2005 Antoine d’Agata has had no settled place of residence but has worked around the world.