PHOTOGRAPHER ANTOINE D’AGATA LIVES A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
By Alex Sturrock, Antoine D’Agata
Antoine D’Agata is a contentious character in the worlds of photography and art. Signed up by the Magnum photo agency in the period when they started to realise there was little money in photojournalism, his work’s brutal and self-destructive content has a habit of upsetting people.
Born in Marseilles in 1961, D’Agata left France in the early 80s. He later studied at the International Center of Photography in New York alongside Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, with whom he shares a fascination for the seamier side of things. D’Agata has lived a murky and nomadic life. He regularly immerses himself in his subjects, which typically tend to be prostitutes and other marginalised misfits, often throwing himself into dangerous, drug-addled and sex-fuelled situations. We spoke with him about photography as art, honesty, morality and what it’s like to be addicted to the drug ice while living with Cambodian prostitutes.
Vice: Which artists are you interested in, in particular those who aren’t photographers?
Antoine D’Agata: I respect artists who have the courage to live up to the madness of their art. Céline, Artaud or Rimbaud are geniuses not for the dexterity or subtlety of their words but for their truth. I don’t see art as competition or a spectacle but as a privileged space to give a radical form to one’s perspective on the world. Art has long been the hostage of technique and today the criteria would be intelligence, not to say cynicism. But I look at art when I sense there’s space there for excess and despair. I didn’t have a chance to consider the history of art. I look at Georges Grosz because I find there, instinctively, the monstrosity of society, and in Francis Bacon’s, of the flesh. I look at art when it is shouted or vomited, not conceptualised or marketed.
How would you describe your own work—as reportage, as art? Do you feel that photos can be an honest and effective way to convey a situation?
The only type of connection I have to the tradition of reportage is coming up with the most efficient ways to deny, denounce or destroy its prejudice. Beyond humanistic pretence, reportage always conveys twisted or insidious values. Its economic survival has always been dependent on logical means to perpetuate the efficiency and the profitability of a system controlled by the elite for their own benefit. And one has to remember that no photography can pretend to show the truth. A picture only shows a given situation under a very specific perspective, consciously or not, openly or not, relevantly or not. Photographers have to accept they can just convey fragments of illusory realities and relate their own intimate experience of the world. In this process of fictionalising an unreachable truth, it’s up to them to impose their doubts about any photographic truth, or accept being impotent pawns in the mediatic game.
You’ve spoken in the past about photography not being art. What are your thoughts on photography as art? Can you explain how you see photography as opposed to art?
I do think of photography as a perfectly legitimate artistic language, but I believe it is underused or misused most of the time. The world is not made out of what we see but from what we do. Photographers who ignore this state of things—and today, as in the past, most of them do—reduce photography to its capacity for recording reality. They don’t take responsibility for their position while looking at the world and end up assuming voyeuristic, sociological or aesthetic stands. Contrary to writing or painting, you have to confront reality while photographing. The only decent way to do it is to make the best out of your own existence. From a moral point of view, you have to invent your own life, against fear and ignorance, and through the action. Intelligence and beauty don’t compensate for passivity. The only way to keep one’s dignity is to confront human condition and social context through direct action. It is a difficult balance one has to keep between the creation of situations to go through and the development of a narrative technique to share one’s perspective. In this process, life overcomes art at some point, and art perverts life. By deliberately living in this constant tension, I expect to go through existence without having to give up lucidity or experience.
Do you think your work has much in common with, say, that of Nan Goldin’s?
The few photographers who, like Nan Goldin, have influenced me as I was trying to get accustomed to the history of the medium, have struggled to throw back some of the rawness of the world into photography. This language is often reduced to its capacity to be somehow neutral. What Nan Goldin has taught me is to stand up, against all odds, in a political and existential struggle for survival. I don’t feel close to her because of some similar experience of marginal communities, or some alleged obsession with sex and drugs, but because she never gave up. She never hesitated to compromise her health or sanity for the sake of her work and I am just grateful to her for her courage and stubbornness, for staying faithful to her own pain, fear and desire.
You’ve talked before about photography as a language—do you ever feel trapped by the way in which you have communicated in the past, or do you enjoy having a unique voice?
I am not sure I’ll ever have the strength to make myself understood in a clear and coherent way. I came late to photography as a desperate attempt to stay alive, and I don’t have the discipline or energy to always make sense in the way I try to communicate my understanding of things. My books are careless and full of flaws, my images are messy and my writing is awkward. But all these are just tools, not quite assimilated yet, in an absolutely determined search, that allows no concession or compromise. It is difficult to be as excessive as I am in my work and be completely efficient. Every book, every exhibition, every assignment is just one more small compromise I have to accept. Mistakes are my only possible way, but my route is my own.
Nan once said to me that everyone always says to her how dark your work is, but she thinks it looks like you are having a great time.
I guess reality is never as dark as the way I used to depict it, but I can’t ignore the feelings that overwhelm me when I go through the horror of the world. Meanwhile, I leave out of my pictures the most dramatic and sordid elements, the appalling conditions of living faced by most of my characters. I try to express, in the most precise and arbitrary way, the indefinable and unbearable beauty of keeping alive, physically, mentally and emotionally, for those who don’t own anything but their own bodies and sell them to survive.
Most of my photographic strategies are aimed at reaching the highest levels of pleasure or unconsciousness and, in this sense, sex and drugs are highly enjoyable working methods. Part of my recent work could be easily described as some chaotic and biased sociology of ecstasy. I live my life with people who use pleasure as a way to impose their existence and identity in a world that denies them every right. But pleasure can’t be separated from pain and alienation. Pleasure is still a dark territory to me and I am exhausted exploring its limits. It’s just a route. Satisfaction isn’t the aim. Feeling might be the point. I’m hooked on adrenaline.
I have read you talk about “innocent images”. Do you see your own images as innocent?
My images are innocent because they are accidental. I’ve used every possible method I’ve been able to come up with to give up control. I’ll use whatever I can put my hand on—alcohol, drugs, rage, sex or fear—to push my own limits and make sure the final image is not an illustration or a statement. This doesn’t mean I won’t be a maniac when it comes to building the coherence of the work later. Each image is to some degree independent from my will. Each one is more a product of my nervous system than of my brain. And in the world we live in, I see this type of innocence as subversive in the contemporary struggle between the obscene forces of abstraction, of moral, of religion and the mechanics of the flesh. The instinct against the mind, the ultimate strength of those whose only way to emancipate themselves from physical deprivation, is orgy.
So being high actively helps in creating that innocence?
Through the tension released in narcotic drunkenness, through these bare moments of high emotional fragility, I can explore a sense of annihilation born out of it that I couldn’t reach otherwise. I said drugs allow me not to think too much. They give me the raw energy to break all barriers, and to go beyond acceptable limits. They open a perspective on new possible strategies. As far as I am concerned, I’m done with fighting inhibition through excessive consumption of alcohol. But there’s a new generation of synthetic drugs which allow you to destroy yourself while, on the way, damaging the efficiency and sanity of the system. While fucking and getting high, I reduce myself to a state that is a weird mix of flesh, emptiness and panic. A bare state of being, a most innocent way to experience the world that is essential before trying to make sense out of it.
I think when Nan was really high she saw and photographed the world very differently. Do you think that your work is shaped in a similar way?
Like Nan, I do what I can to create my own route. Like her, I don’t like the idea of looking at the world and I speak about my experiences. It is occasionally acceptable to be a viewer, a spectator, but I use drugs because they make me act and react differently. Drugs can’t be reduced to some mystical way to open a perception of reality. I value the hardest and most physical drugs, which alter and intensify the confrontation to reality. Not the ones which allow you to escape to some fuzzy, comfortable or exotic state of mind. It all comes down to not being a consumer but to take the risk of your own destiny. To consume drugs the way you would consume a TV reality show wouldn’t help. Drugs help me to feel, with my nerves and my stomach, where real life takes place. I don’t know what real life is but I can’t bear feeling anesthetised any more. I try every day to dig out the raw forces of instinct. In modern society, pleasure is the only norm. Everything is done to eradicate all traces of desire, rage, violence, pain, fear and all types of animal drive. Through drugs, through excess, I try to fall back to these essential levels of uncontrolled emotion.
As far as your own work goes, what purpose do you feel it serves? Did you have an aim in mind when you set out to work in Cambodia, for example?
I wasn’t looking for any kind of exotic context for any specific perversion. But I had the sense of a place where barriers are few and I knew I would encounter more of those people who are victims of global social violence and find, in their own despair, the strength to invent new ways to survive. In Cambodia, this happens through the use of new generations of cheap street drugs related to methamphetamine. I grew tired of the idea of transgression. But I tend to give a chance to immorality, the way it’s been traditionally defined. Life is an impasse, and we have to make the best out of it. But I have my limits, due to my own cultural background. I don’t have that many but they are not flexible. I don’t make a moral issue out of it. It’s just a matter of desire and integrity. To be on the side of innocence has always been at the heart of each one of my moves. I stick to this. It is not an ideology. It’s an intimate philosophy, born out of experience and pain. I have been accused by some anonymous voices on the internet of many things. They are cowardly and insidious attacks. I know where I stand and don’t feel I have to justify myself. As far as what others do with their lives, I don’t judge but react to what I see and feel with my eyes, my heart and my brain.
What do you make of criticism of your work on the grounds that you are exploitative?
As for most photographers, it is essential to me to deserve the trust of people I get close to. But unlike them, my ambition is to abolish any kind of political, emotional or physical distance with my subject. This process can only happen if you constantly show respect, love and compassion. My work quickly became even more of an autobiographical journal. This was my very personal way to step away from the traditional documentary photography methods, which I find very frustrating and hypocritical. There’s a part of cowardice in the usual position of documentary photography in between voyeurism and safety. This is where exploitation lies. The last few years, I have been experimenting with new working methods, slowly abandoning the position behind the camera to enter the image itself, as a character within my own images. That’s the only legitimate position. Photography is the only artistic language that has to be elaborate in the very same time that the experience it relates is taking place. I just use photography in the most coherent way, while experimenting with the world in the most intense way, trying to be responsible for my actions and acknowledging the existence and feelings of the persons I photograph.
The only strategy I can come up with is to follow people all the way in their excessive way of life. I never know where I am headed to but using photography, the way I use it, allows me to escape from the lethargic world that surrounds us. I am the actor of a scenario I develop in a very conscious manner. Self-destruction can be premeditated. More and more, I rely on other people to do the actual shooting, while keeping control, as much as possible, of the light, the perspective, the position of the camera, the angle of the lens towards the subject, the shutter speed. Of course, I lose some kind of control in this process but it allows me to stay, in an absolute way, something other than a mere spectator. The essential in the nature of the situation I provoke is the tension that is released beyond my control. My own personal strategy to go through the violence of the world isn’t to avoid it but to go for it, and not to hurt anybody but myself on the way.
Your images are very intense and sometimes feel violent. Does that reflect the relationships you have with some of the people in them?
The violence of the communities I submerge myself into is proportional and adapted to the violence of the economic and political elite. Any weapon will do. I see sex, drugs and criminality as perfectly legitimate ways to stay alive when you are treated as a non-accountable entity. To share time with my characters in the most authentic way, I need to go beyond sympathy or empathy. I don’t want to understand the people I photograph. I want to be with them, but inside them. I don’t want to look at the pain, but feel the pain. Solidarity has to go through the flesh. Words and thoughts are not worth much. They just help to identify the nature of the gap between the other and myself. The common experience of sex and drugs helps me to fill the gap. Prostitutes and drug addicts resist economic oppression and social alienation with their own body and destiny. Violence is part of that process; it’s part of that world. Most people I meet in the margins of the cities had no choice and adapted to the conditions of life imposed upon them.
As far as I am concerned it’s been a more conscious process in my case, but in the end we share the same position in the world. I learned to accept better the legitimate and scandalous nature of ecstasy or violence. I learned to endure the pain: physically, nervously, and emotionally. I do everything I can to make sure I keep being vulnerable. I do everything I can to make sure fear never overcomes desire, and desire never overcomes compassion.
I’ve had no home for years. I have the same nomadic habits I had all my life. I don’t see my personal odyssey as a coming back to any mythical home. Movement towards the void, fear of the unknown and the instinct of survival define human existence. I try to live up and survive to my convictions, mistakes and doubts.