This article was originally published on VICE France.
For centuries, we've known that Earth is a sphere. Flat Earthers, however, are not convinced. Since English author Samuel Rowbotham revived the flat Earth idea at the end of the 19th century, this small but vibrant community has been set on proving that our planet is actually as flat as a pancake.
Most Flat Earthers are happy to simply conduct small visual experiments to prove their beliefs, while others are ready to go the extra mile. In February of 2020, Flat Earther “Mad” Mike Hughes died after launching himself into the sky in a homemade rocket whose parachutes failed to deploy. In 2017, he survived the same experiment, but didn’t see anything special – and for Flat Earthers, nothing is more important than seeing.
For photographer Philippe Braquenier, the Flat Earthers’ visual quest is linked to the "cultural and political power” that images have on our society. In his series “Earth Not a Globe”, he has reproduced iconic images from the Flat Earth community in order to “question the act of seeing in the post-truth era”.
The project is an elegant way of reminding us that "facts are subjective, truth has become a suspicious notion, reality is a social construct and humans are intrinsically biased", as he writes in the introduction to his book.
VICE: When and why did you decide to find out more about Flat Earthers?
Philippe Braquenier: After Donald Trump was first elected, when the term "alternative fact" took off. I read articles about Flat Earthers and had a realisation: it's all about the use of images. During Trump’s inauguration, a Reuters photographer took a picture that seemed to show no one was attending the ceremony. Trump disputed the picture by saying that it was taken at a different time. Flat Earthers have a similar thought pattern. They compile photos and videos to prove their theories and reject everything that has been produced by institutions. For them, NASA’s photos are just 3D simulations.
What are the main beliefs in the Flat Earther community?
Most subscribe to the vision of Rowbotham. His theory was that the Earth is flat and surrounded by a wall of ice that holds in the water of the oceans. Others think that we live on an infinite plane, like a video game world that continues as we advance. Someone even came up with a theory that we live in a Pac-Man world: we arrive at one end and, without realising it, we are teleported to the other side of the world.
It's actually pretty poetic.
Yes, rather. They interpret the world in their own way, with a certain poetry. I tried to reproduce that in the images by removing, not providing, explanations.
Let's assume the Earth is flat. Why would we hide that?
Many reasons – one of the main ones is religion. The goal would be to push us away from God. If we believe that we are only a grain of sand in the universe, and the cosmos doesn't revolve around us, we move away from the idea that we could be created by a divine entity.
Did you start hanging out with Flat Earthers because of the project?
Not at all. I signed up to forums, followed Instagram accounts, Flat Earther pages and everything they put out there. I did more than a year of pure documentation before taking my first picture. I wanted to create a distance and thoroughly play the part on the wrong side of science.
But isn’t Mark Sargent, a prominent Flat Earther, in one photo?
It’s not. I replicated the T-shirt he always wears and then I asked someone who looks like him to put it on. We’re balancing the line between fiction and documentary. For this series, I made identical reproductions of the images depicting Flat Earthers’ experiments. They’re based on facts, but it’s all staged.
For example, the “Mad” Mike Hughes take-off photo is a montage. I took it in South America, in a desert that looks exactly like where he launched in Arizona. They are almost the same plants, the same mountain range, the same lighting conditions… and then the smoke comes from high definition military pictures that I found on the internet.
What kind of reaction do you expect from Flat Earthers?
No idea. I think they’ll be a little upset.
How did your infiltration of their corner of the internet go, by the way?
A little crazy, but very interesting. In general, they are quite intelligent people who rely on scientific theories. It can be instructive, but they omit a lot of details that could counter their theories. They "forget" elements, they use scientific reasoning for some things but not others, even if it leads them to contradict themselves. Most of the time, they rely on what they believe they see and feel firsthand.
Have you been confronted with arguments that made you doubt yourself?
Yes, that happened. Sometimes Flat Earthers go into very complicated, well-researched theories about fluid mechanics or thermodynamics. When I was trying to understand where they were going with them, I wondered whether they were just bullshitting or not. But they always omit something small that allows their presentation to work in their favour.
Can you tell me more about the photograph entitled "Fragment of the Firmament"?
It is a piece of the Mont-Dieu meteorite, which is at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Flat Earthers believe that meteorites are actually pieces of the firmament [the heavens, or the sky, in Biblical cosmology] that fell to Earth. According to them, their reflective nature explains the appearance of the sky.
For me, the most intriguing one is "Eye level construction".
I was in Indonesia to find inspiration for the project, because there is a big community of Flat Earthers there. I came across this kind of sculpture-like structure, and I wondered: ‘What on earth was it constructed for?’ It reminded me of Flat Earthers who do experiments to look at the horizon at different heights. Everything is based at eye level for them. This structure represented this state of mind, which is a little difficult to convert into an image.