Antoine D’Agata may seem like any other photographer on paper. But although he's a member of the ever-influencing Magnum Photo Agency and widely exhibited, published, and respected, he's also breaking every single rule in the book. He loses control to enhance the honesty of his pictures with the help of drugs, his best friends are prostitutes, and he's lived without a fixed address for years.
Antoine grew up as part of the French punk scene of the late 1970s during what he calls "Marseilles’ l’age d’or of Heroin". He later began dealing the drug on the street when he moved to London's Brixton. After two years, he felt that he had to leave. With merely $2,000 in his pockets he travelled for nine months through South America, chasing adrenaline highs during the revolution in Nicaragua and got heavily intoxicated at checkpoints throughout El Salvador’s civil war.
He eventually arrived in New York where he thought his life was about to end. Photography became his saviour, something to focus on and hold on to. Based on his life experiences, the International Centre for Photography took him in as a free-of-charge guinea pig. With teachers such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark he sharpened his sense of what photography meant to him.
Last May, when I met Antoine in Oslo and interviewed him for Norwegian magazine Natt & Dag, he was in high spirits, constantly smoking cigarettes and showing me excerpts of what has now become ICE (Images en Manoeuvres Editions) – his darkest book yet. The work is a huge collection of images and text gathered by Antoine during a lengthy stay in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh where he lived with prostitutes. But as his photographic output gradually waned due to spending too much time being high on amphetamines, the point of focus of the book ultimately became the text as he tried to make sense of his years on the road.
Antoine is currently back on track with a huge show at
Le Bal in Paris last summer and a new monograph, Anticorps (Éditions Xavier Barral), which is out now. And considering that it has been three years since the last time VICE spoke to him, I thought it was about time to catch up again.
VICE: Last time we met you were just back from the war in Libya. What was that about?
Antoine D’Agata: To wake up to reality. After long months in Cambodia I needed to get out of the narcotic nightmare. It did me good, but I stopped shooting for a while after Libya. I was ready for it, but it still scared me.
This year I have worked with immigrants in Europe. I need to have that balance, to sometimes return to reality. There’s no real balance possible between the crazy night and sex-filled world, the wars as well as economics and politics. But this impossible in-between is where I want to be. It’s what I’m looking for. It also makes total sense. The night world that we often reduce to less spectacular aspects like the sensual, romantic side comes from economics. In reality it’s an inferno that is part of the world we live in and it's connected to everything we do in this world.
You’ve been very productive this year. How has that played into the vagabond life?
It’s strange, because last year was so busy with books and exhibitions. I did spend one month in Mexico and one month in Japan and made contact with the night world there. It’s been very hectic, a lot of work. I just finished a movie now that is currently playing at film festivals.
Is this work from Cambodia? Last year you mentioned you were interviewing prostitutes.
Exactly. There are encounters with ten girls. One is from Cambodia. One is from Norway. India, Thailand, USA, Cuba. I have worked on this in ten countries over the last three or four years. I shot it in between making pictures. Now I want to escape from all this and go back to be the invisible nobody. Just talk to people and shoot pictures. It’s like starting from scratch. That’s a good feeling.
Are you still doing work for Magnum?
Very little. I do most of my work outside of Magnum. I don’t trust the agency these days, and I don’t feel like they are defending me. It feels like they are scared of the work I’m making. I think Magnum is becoming a corrupt place. I feel very uncomfortable with many of their commercial, financial and political moves.
Do you even need Magnum?
I don’t need them financially. For me, Magnum is a strategic arena, a place where an ideological discussion can take place. I’m trying to impose what I think Magnum should be – straight, honest documentary photography. I’m not interested in the corporate or commercial aspect. What Magnum does wrong these days is using the myth, using the history to make as much money as possible. It should be about discovering, searching, exploring, inventing. New ways to look, new ways to be, to live photography. That’s my goal. The best place to do this is within Magnum. So for me it’s the best place to fight.
Your work is very political. You always take a standpoint.
Yes. But people tend to stop looking after the first level. Naked bodies, flesh, drugs.
Both aesthetically and methodically you’re different. Photojournalists are generally spectators, whereas you are very much involved in your work. I think it's very clear where it comes from: That you are a part of the same scene you’re shooting. Do you think the audience is unable to understand your viewpoint?
I think so. Magnum and its photographers see pictures as a way of looking, a way of seeing, and photography is much more than that. Photography requires, and allows you to look at the world while you participate in it. You have to be present and you have to be where things are happening. Once you stand there you are responsible for what you do, how you move – everything. I think photography implies this kind of responsibility that photographers are very reluctant to take, always hiding behind the fact of being a witness. So what I am trying to do is to push the part of photography that is about being present.
Do you think it’s irresponsible to not be part of what’s happening around you?
Yes. It’s irresponsible and comfortable. I also think it’s safe and lazy. Photography should be more than that. If you are a painter and work inside your studio or a writer and write in your bed – it’s no problem. But as a photographer you have to be out there in the world and once you go out there you are responsible for what you do and for where you stand.
Looking at a large body of work like Anticorps, one realise the world you operate in is not a spectacle. It's quite the contrary. The vast amount of images make you see beyond the shocking first impression.
As a photographer, I feel privileged to be in the position I am. It’s an opportunity to go anywhere, which is what I want to do. Sometimes it’s not easy, sometimes it takes courage. I want to use this privilege towards the people I photograph because I’m free and I do this by choice and the people I photograph don’t, they have no fucking choice but to do what they are doing. I’m sharing time and space with them because I want to be there, and I can get out, which is why I’m alive and most of the people I have photographed have died. I have a choice and I want to use it the right way.
Now you are going back to the life you are known for, the nomadic existence. How does it play into your family life?
I have four daughters. They are used to it. I give them as much as I can and I think we have a good understanding. They know I have to be part of the world on my own. The most important is to do the best you can do. I might not be the best father, but I try to be the best human being I can be. The next couple of months, before I move on I will take a small apartment in Arles, take some rest. It’s been nine years now that I’ve constantly been on the move.
With the dark Cambodian work in ICE, the career spanning Anticorps, and the experimental journey alongside immigrants in Odysseia, it seems to me you are searching for a new expression. What, artistically, is next for you?
I think the next book will probably be more video images. Video material for me is very rich, it kills the unique image. You play with an infinity of images. I like the banality of that. I will start working on it in Japan and Mexico next spring.
What’s the correlation between Japan and Mexico?
I’m faithful to my friendships. I’ve known some girls for a long time in Mexico and the same goes for Japan. When you are lost, when you don’t know where to go next, you go back to your friends. Maybe it’s about getting old.
Is it getting harder for you as you grow older?
Of course. War is as scary as AIDS and AIDS is as scary as madness. It’s a part of the life I lead, but I still want to be in it. The hardest part is to get out of the narcotic cloud and go on and expose that to the world, but it’s part of the job.
Do you think the photographs you make on drugs have a different sort of realism than other photographs?
I care less and less about the single image and its truth. I think more abstract about a book or a space where all this can mix and make sense. I've always thought about it long-term. Even if I work two days with immigrants, I know that a single picture from that will have meaning in a larger context, and it’s that big picture I am after. I don’t want to spend my life in Libya, you know, but I have to go there. When you are walking on the Bulgarian border in the winter, looking in vain for migrants, you wonder what you are doing there. That is the most difficult part for me. The boredom is worse than a war.
What’s the longterm plan from here?
I’m 52 years old now and I’m still excited. I still want to ask questions, coming from myself and from the world. I look less and less for answers to questions because I know I will never find the right ones. To keep asking them nonetheless is a privilege, and it feels good to find the strength to keep doing it again and again. Questioning the world, and my own life and my relationship with the world.
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