Antoine d’Agata

Another photographer who is supposed to continue the Sultan/Goldin legacy is Antoine d’Agata. I found his work on the Magnum website, which really surprised me, since his images don’t appear to adhere to the photo cooperative’s guiding principles.

Shot with long exposure times, the images are mostly of people engaged in sex acts; at first glance intimate, they simultaneously reject intimacy by making it impossible to inspect the protagonists’ features. Faces are turned into blurs of expression and limbs are blended to create strange creatures, strikingly reminiscent of Bacon paintings:

Which I think is the effect he was after. I assume that he came across this phenomenon by accident and then began to exploit it further. On the Magnum website, D’Agata says that he never photographs what he doesn’t actively participate in, so we can assume that he is one of the copulating protagonists:

I never photograph if I’m not a full participant in the situation I am interfering in or provoking. I slowly abandoned the position behind the camera to integrate myself in the images, as a mere character of the situations I depict. The process was brutal. Distancing myself from straightforward documentary photography, I document what I live and I live the situations I document. By transgressing the border that separates the photographer from the photographed, I become the object of my photography, a forced actor of my own premeditated scenario. The craving and the pain, through the sexual act, take me back to my own body. I face up, in my flesh, to the disorder of the world, to its violence and indignity. It is not a question of opening my eyes to this excess and horror, but letting it contaminate me, for better or worse.”

His series of dilapidated Egyptian buildings in the style of the Bechers:

Another project he did on migrants in Europe:

I like this work, it’s very simple, but very tactile, accessible. People in sombre clothing, photographed in grey weather in drab surroundings from behind. The work defies verbal description, and that’s where its success lies. Possibly if an image is easily described, then its visual impact is less. Maybe this is a directly proportional opposite.

But apart from a decent shot here and there, it seems that d’Agata simply travels the world with his Magnum press pass, finds some sleazy hotel or brothel and pays prostitutes to strip and have sex while he films them; sex tourism that he gets paid for. The images are simply captioned country, city and year:

I wonder what HCB thought of these images! I know he was also fond of the brothels in Mexico, but I don’t think he went this far with his images! I wonder what feminists think of them!? Although d’Agata has definitely evolved a style of his own – taking the blurred, out of focus or grainy image to the extremes in an almost anti-documentary aesthetic, I’m really not convinced with his body of work.

It would be interesting to see some of his contact sheets – I wonder how much complete garbage he produces!

Another series shows child prostitutes in Cambodia, and it appears that he has used ridiculously high ISO to increase the noise and render the faces unidentifiable, which to me gives a clear message about loss of identity of the underage women forced into sex work:


This goes back to my idea about using noise as part of the artwork, and I think it works in this case. We associate grainy images with gritty reality, seediness, possibly voyeurism (or at least without consent), and illegality. These images of sex workers contain all those allusions, since the very ‘trade’ of prostitution is all of the above. I can’t figure out if they are originals or rephotographed photos: à la Prince (does it matter?) – indeed, d’Agata is not averse to photographing scenes from porn movies on a television screen. If his work is attempting to expose the ugly realities of sex work, isn’t it a bit hypocritical of him to engage in sex acts and photograph these women in their exploited position? Have I missed something? What did Magnum miss?

Speaking in an interview, d’Agata says of his pictures: “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.” So my intuition was correct – this is anti-documentary, in the sense that it doesn’t conform to conventions and questions their limitations and enforced ideologies.

If I read this interview in full, maybe I can get an insight into his reasons and motivation for the kind of work that he does. He says that he worked with the Nicephore Niepce Museum in France, and ended up mailing them some 1600 unprocessed rolls of film. Just as I thought, another Winogrand – for these people the act of photographing is an end in itself, the results are simply by products of a way of life: “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.” D’Agata takes this idea further:

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 the photographer’s movements, perspective and experience that are being depicted in any given picture.”

This is an interesting thought, and is quite right after all, since it is the photographer who has chosen to show this or that particular occurrence in this or that particular way. Notwithstanding the tenets of the original documentarians, who tried to deny the position of the cameraman and remove any aesthetic choices from the shot – which I have never agreed with, anyway. D’Agata has something here.

Which begs the question, so why bother with photography at all? To begin with, d’Agata claims that he cannot make sense of the contradiction:

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.”

Integrity to his own decision, his chosen way of life, but then he also says that photography gives him energy (possibly purpose, structure?) and that without it he’d slip into “the worst yet most commonly adopted choice – moral and physical comfort“, that of mediocre existence, of banal acceptance of the status quo. I think this is what all photographers who have touched me are doing through their work – the camera is a kind of revolutionary tool, a way of somehow revealing and questioning those aspects of life that often go ignored, but are signs of our moral and spiritual decay.

D’Agata speaks of his own attitude to existence as: “…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.” He speaks of his generation, a generation that saw many people die of AIDS, and of his own peripatetic lifestyle (10 years on the road with no fixed abode, no real possessions to speak of) and substance abuse. Photography allows him to document his own lifestyle:

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.”

It does sound a bit narcissistic, but then he goes on to talk about the dignity of the people and situations he photographs, those who have been stripped of everything still find ways to exist that may be unpalatable, immoral or brutal from outside, but in which he finds “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“: dignity through lust and crime? This goes against my idea of dignity, which would be a refusal to stoop to low levels in order to merely survive, but d’Agata continues: “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.” In the dark, marginal world where he exists, he claims there is a particular brand of love and compassion, a solidarity in the face of pain and adversity, whereas the daylight world of polite comfort he finds is merely filled with lies and indifference.

D’Agata claims that his images are less violent than those in the media, and he may have a point; he expands on this by paraphrasing Francis Bacon (I knew there was a link!) as having said that his work was not about violence, but about our horror in the face of it (actually, looking for this quote I came across the last interview with Bacon, and it is actually surprising how close his outlook was to d’Agata’s, particularly on existence, atheism, morals and success, as well as the process of creating art). He says that his images are charged with the whole gamut of what humans can feel and experience, and this is more emotional than the depiction of 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.” Actually, when you think about it, the violence is all in the imagination of the beholder when it comes to his photographs.

He has some very shrewd observations about desire and fear, which he claims are the cornerstone to his work, and they combine to help one understand one’s limits:

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.”

Opting for desire rather than fear, linking enjoyment to thought – enjoyment without thought being mere gratification. I like this guy’s ideas, not necessarily all of them, or his way of life, but he definitely has some interesting things to say.

He says that photography is a means to be able to continue his way of life, exchanging signed prints for money, transacting with 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.” And as if to forestall any accusations of hypocrisy, he quickly adds that he takes what he needs (in his eyes it’s a one-way relationship) and then he “feed(s) on the frustration and the anger of being denied total freedom.” The compromise, as he puts it, of signing a piece of paper that results in his own freedom of movement – a truly hedonistic lifestyle.

“…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.”

He talks of being an actor in his own life, not just a witness, and encouraging young people to do the same. I think that this is more than ever true in our contemporary culture of passive consumerism (Kurt Cobain said it best – “here we are now, entertain us!“). working within the system, and yet at the same time against it, he expounds on his aim to contaminate art or photography, or both:

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 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.

I felt this passage was so important that I underlined it all. This is kind of the epiphany that I have been going through with photography, especially with documentary work. After studying the work of National Geographic photographers at the last level, I have become deeply disillusioned with the kind of ‘tourist gaze’ that the magazine, its editors, writers and photographers, advocate. They are really only glorified snapshots designed to reinforce stereotypes and hegemonic world order structures without questioning the economics or history behind the peoples it purports to reveal. True commitment means integrity, and I think that d’Agata is not here recommending necessarily that we choose the path that he has chosen, but I think that as photographers we can learn something from his decision and his words, and we should be aware that we are responsible for our acts, and the very act of photographing is often more important than the results obtained. I personally use my camera as a vehicle to meet people, to get closer to them, to communicate with them, and to get them to tell their stories (actually it’s the stories themselves that interest me more now than the pictures!).

He talks frankly about the loss of friends to the AIDS epidemic, and that the fact that he managed to outlive them acts as some sort of guilty impetus to keep him constantly delving deeper and deeper, in much the same way that the disease made the people it affected take more and more drugs and have more sex and take more risks, a compulsive frenzy: “…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.

He says that he is an atheist, and that everything is just 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.” He explains that dignity for him lies in the fact that women who are dying of AIDS can enjoy orgasms, despite the fact that they have been denied recognition – they have “rise(n) to the level of their destitution and live their lives as full human beings

His daytime work he says is centred on those things he finds ugly or brutal, things he doesn’t identify with like factories or crowded institutional buildings, to better help him understand how to survive the political, economic and institutional violence they inflict. Living on the margins of society, someone from the outside would think that his world is full of violence, but I think what d’Agata is trying to show us is that it’s the other way round, that the real violence is being done to us by the system, a system seemingly innocuous, and one that the majority subscribe to for fear of the unknown, he shows us this in stark focus; while the dark night that he reveals to us contains the detritus, those portions of society mostly harmed by this institutionalization, those overlooked, avoided, the lower end of Galton’s bell curve, the diseased and impoverished, but it is here that he finds warmth, flesh, desire and passion. Now I understand hi position and what he is rebelling against with his photography.

In answer to the rather blunt question of which is more important, drugs or art, he said this:

“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.”

I often feel the same, that photography gives me the discipline needed to get through the other parts of life.

Enjoyment is everywhere you look in society, enjoyment allied to hope, to fear. Enjoyment bereft of fear stands for television watching, for pornography, consumerism…

Never a truer word spoken! Living life close to the edge, confronting death every moment, or at least being aware of it, that it can strike one down at any moment, to many would seem irresponsible and reckless, but d’Agata turns this wild and reckless behaviour into his craft, and once you understand a little more where he’s coming from, it’s hard not to warm to his ambition.

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