Guillaume Simoneau Photographed the End of His War-Torn Relationship

It’s one thing to <i>have</i> to have your life under the microscope of the public eye, but it’s another to offer it up voluntarily.

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Jul 22 2013, 8:46pm

It’s one thing to have to have your life under the microscope of the public eye, but it’s another to offer it up voluntarily. Celebrities, politicians—they are constantly under the public gaze without much of a choice. Quebecer Guillaume Simoneau is neither celebrity nor politician. Guillaume is a photographer, who recently published a new book of photos titled, Love and War, about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Caroline Annandale (also not a celebrity).

Guillaume’s book examines the on-and-off again relationship with Caroline in a fragmented, memory-induced series. The photos aren’t in chronological order, but the few words help give context and understanding to the events. The story, as seen through the eyes of the photographer, shows the affair from his perspective: blissful years together before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Caroline’s eventual enlistment into the American army, their break-up, her marriage to another soldier, her service in Iraq, her divorce, the short time in which the photography and his subject were together again.

The story is strikingly intimate, yet subtle in its approach. You feel like you’re crossing into the bedroom of the two ex-lovers, reading his text messages and pulling old photos from his computer.

The idea came as an accident to Guillaume who had received funding to work on a project about Caroline’s reinsertion into civil life as a veteran of war. When she broke up with him that final time, Guillaume was forced to reconsider his options. He found himself looking through old photos and saved text messages from his ex-girlfriend and what he compiled from there, he said, was too strong to not share with the public.

What he compiled is now a book, published by Montreal’s Les Territoires publishing and Dewi Lewis, a UK-based publisher and curator. I called up Guillaume after he returned from his book launch in Arles, France and we talked about the book, his relationship with Caroline and the use of different mediums in the project.

VICE: Hey Guillaume! How did the launch go?
Guillaume Simoneau:
Well, we did the launch in Arles with almost no publicity in the sense that copies arrived to the publisher and the publisher had to leave a couple of days later for Arles. So we didn’t send it out to blogs or curators. We just made an event on Facebook and used word of mouth and the response there was incredible.

What was the feeling you got from the piece when you looked at the finished product? What resonated with you?
I went back into my archives and I dug in and put this body of work together. At the time I was shocked. I did not expect that.  The feelings that I had right away were too strong. I was like, okay buddy you’re going to have to deal with this shit. What you have in front of you right now, you know you’re going to want to show it to people because it’s too strong. It’s your personal life that you’re going to have to put in the public sphere and you’re going to have to deal with that because it’s a story that needs to be told.

To me the piece is a reflection on memory. Most people will experience conflict or a situation by not being at the centre of it but by being in the peripheries. You accumulate visuals; you accumulate sounds; you accumulate your memories and they stay with you. They’re totally partial and objective. To be able to tell this love story in the sense that it’s a reconstruction and yes it’s totally impartial and objective was very appealing. If you were to ask Caroline about this book, or tell her to tell her side of the story, it would be a completely different story and probably with tons of contradictions.

When I put the piece together it was able to bring the subject matter of our conflict and war to the public’s attention to a super intimate and personal story, which we don’t see much of. If anything VICE is doing it more and more and it makes journalism so much more interesting to just admit right off the bat that it’s subjective because a person does it.

Has Caroline seen the piece?
She has seen the body of work, yes. She had to agree to allow me to go ahead with the publication.

Did she tell you what she thought about it?
She was okay with the body of work but she wanted to make sure the body of work, the introduction, nothing was dissing the army or soldiers. It was important to her that I hold respect for that, which was a no brainer for me. It was never going to be a piece against war or soldiers. From that I can deduct that she feels, from the body of work itself, it’s respectful and I feel like it can be pretty flattering (again I’m speculating) that someone would do a similar body of work about your life at the time. It must be an intriguing, flattering and mysterious thing to have done.

For sure. It must be interesting for the subject to get to see how the photographer sees you (as the subject)?
Yeah, absolutely.

Did your perception of war change over the time of your relationship?
Oh drastically. It’s not even being with Caroline. The ocean of war material that comes to us every day through media is really what changed my perception the most. Traveling back and forth from Atlanta, Georgia and spending time with soldiers there, spending time with civilians there, spending times in the suburbs of Atlanta and realizing how much being in the military means something and is a viable and totally legitimate option for someone growing up and coming of age there. When you’re there, man, you realize there is no option. Either you work at Starbucks or you drive your car or you join the military. And oh look, this option, turns out you gain an incredible amount of respect from your community when you get back. These guys are treated like Kings back home around the community. It provides a lot of answers to kids that need a lot of answers to problems they have in their life. It gives you structure; it gives you money; it gives you a purpose; it gives you eventual tons of respect and attention.

Spending a lot of time there made me reconcile with it because obviously when I heard that Caroline was joining the army I was completely judgmental like most people, but spending time there, I have the most respect for soldiers. Now my anger is towards the decision-makers not the soldiers. Anyone put in these insane positions would behave insanely sometimes. It’s madness. If there’s a war there’s a need for soldiers. The problem is with the decision-makers and not the guys on the other end of the stick.

Did you see a change in Caroline’s perception of the military?
I haven’t been in touch with her enough post breakup and really that’s when her reinsertion happened. If I was in touch with her today I’m sure I would have a good idea of that. What I can tell you is that I’ve noticed changes in Caroline, pre and post-war. That’s for sure.

You make a point show that the photos aren’t placed chronologically. How did you decide on the sequence?
It was important to not go chronologically. I did try it out to see what would happen and it becomes really uninteresting. I think, fundamentally, when people read a story they like not being served the whole platter full for them to just eat. They like the mystery, they like piecing it together. In the same way, you can make a parallel to our relationship, you don’t just drop all your cards in the beginning, it’s a mystery game so you give and hold some of your cards.

In the book, the titles are very calculated in the sense that what I give in terms of information and what I don’t give. I give just enough info to help put the puzzle together but you’re going to have to put in an effort to figure it out. That’s definitely something I wanted and I’ve been given amazing comments on. Good sequencing is about heightening the charge of your work just by the sequencing and the information you give.

The two text messages especially, when I read them, they really pulled on my heartstrings. Did you always know you had to have the messages in the piece?
No I didn’t. When I had that phone (the one in the images)—and because I’m a stupid romantic—I would keep the communications between Caroline and I saved on my phone. So when it came time to put the body of work together I put all the images together first, extracting images from my phone as well, I was searching through my phone and I saw these messages and was like, wait a minute… I knew I could take a picture of the texts and use them. Right away I was like, there’s something there for sure. So I included them and they became crucial to the sequencing and how this story was told.

Those messages are what I hear the most about in the work.

Follow Ken on Twitter: @kjrwall

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Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

Guillaume Simoneau

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