Antoine dAgata interviewed by Arja Hyytiainen
Gomma Magazine Issue 2

Antoine d’Agata was born in Marseille in 1961. In 1990 he undertook a photography course at the ICP in New York alongside Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, he then interned within the Editorial Department of Magnum in New York. In 1998 his first book, of many, was published entitled De Mala Muerte. In 2001 he received the highly acclaimed Niépce prize, later in 2004 he joined Magnum Photos and shot his first short film Ventre du Monde. He now lives and works in Paris.
Arja Hyytiainen met Antoine in Paris for this exclusive interview:

“Paris, first of August 2005, Avenue de la Republique. 
A month earlier I met Antoine d’Agata in Arles, setting up an appointment later on in Paris for an interview… a microphone on the floor…
Antoine is speaking about travelling and the many places he lived in during the 80s”

Between 1983 and 1993, I first lived in London, stayed two years in Brixton and then travelled to Central America, then back to London, off to Spain and then to America again. I also travelled to South America and India, and lived for five years in New York.  It was twelve years of travelling including photography. I started photographing in 1990 when I joined the ICP and I stopped photographing between ’93 and ’97. Then, between the age of seventeen and twenty-two, I lived on the streets of Marseille, in squats, doing drugs, and all this… in a mess. So I guess I was very tired, shocked, too much… and I went to London just for a break at friends’ places who lived in squats. I went for two weeks and ended up staying for two years.
And then you left for America? 
Well, London was even more drugs, it was getting very, very heavy, I think I left London just for...
I could see that my friends got really involved and I was myself dealing drugs, heroin...so it was like I had to leave in order not to get really deep down.

What made you go to the ICP, (International Center of Photography) in NYC?

By the time I started the ICP, I had been travelling for many years and I think I was just really down the road, my friends had started to die of AIDS and I think I was just very depressed and didn’t have the strength to keep going anymore, but I didn’t want to betray all my old ideas so photography was a good way to take control of myself, to collect my thoughts,
to introduce control into my life without changing it. So, I could tell you in detail the story why, but it is not so important… basically a friend of mine was a photographer and he died, so I took over, kind of ... he taught me. We made a trip to Mexico, it was his last trip and I started to think of photography as the way in which to record and keep in touch with life. It was a strange experience. These stupid rolls I took with him were the pictures I showed to get into the ICP.

The ICP is a respected school and is also quite expensive...

They took me as some kind of basic guinea pig. Joan Liftin was in charge of the forum and was tired of having these young students who were good photographers but didn’t know anything about life.
I think she liked the idea of having somebody who didn’t know how to expose film, how to develop film but who knew other things, who had ten years of experimentation.
But you knew about photography?
I knew nothing, before the ICP I took five or ten rolls maybe, but I had these pictures where you could see one prostitute walking in the morning and three guys shooting heroin... so, she liked the idea.
Could I see these pictures somewhere?
No, some negatives probably exist but there are no prints of this, I don’t even have a single working print; I keep nothing. Look what I have… (Antoine points around in the room, which is all empty, except for the furniture, a sofa and a desk with a computer. In the corner a cupboard with a glass-door, a few cameras and some CD’s on the shelves.) That’s it, and my clothes and some books. I have no working place. This is it. All my work is in galleries or has not been printed…I never paid the ICP, so for years they were running after me and seven years later, in 1997, they called me in France, I thought it was to ask for money, but instead they called me in order to arrange a workshop in New York and so we exchanged.

Larry Clark and Nan Goldin.  Did you know about Larry Clark before?

I learned everything about photography at the ICP, I had no idea about them. I just got to know about them a few months before I studied under them and obviously I really looked up to their work. I like their work very much but Larry Clark is not such a good teacher, it was a strange thing…but I did meet a girlfriend in his class. It was a good way to get some social life; we all ended up having intimate affairs. Nan Goldin was a very good experience. I studied for three months with her.

Did they leave any traces of their own style in your photography?
Did Nan Goldin encourage you?

I think Nan Goldin was a real influence.  She showed us the work of people she liked, including Petersen, Strömholm, David Wojnarowitcz, all kind of her friends ...we just looked at pictures and basically she only looked for truth and sincerity in the images, which is not so easy to achieve. So it was a very, very good school.

In 1995 you joined Bruno Le Dantec in Chiapas.

In ’93 I stopped photographing because I went back to Marseille. It’s a complicated story, but basically, the guy I told you about in Mexico, when he died, I went to Marseille and stayed there for three years with his girlfriend and we had two kids. So for four years I stayed completely out of photography.
In ’95 I joined Bruno in Chiapas and in ’97 I made two trips; one to Mexico and one to Haiti. This is when the story was breaking up in Marseille and I was starting over again with photography. So it was like a parenthesis but a long parenthesis, because before this I had just left the school. When I left the ICP I became an intern for some months at Magnum in N.Y and afterwards I didn’t very much like the idea I got from photography, so I left for a few months. Basically I was working on the Mala Noche book.

Bruno wrote that you came to Chiapas to find yourself again,
to look for another impulse.

In ’93 I stopped photographing because I went back to Marseille. It’s a complicated story, but basically, the guy I told you about in Mexico, when he died, I went to Marseille and stayed there for three years with his girlfriend and we had two kids. So for four years I stayed completely out of photography.
In ’95 I joined Bruno in Chiapas and in ’97 I made two trips; one to Mexico and one to Haiti. This is when the story was breaking up in Marseille and I was starting over again with photography. So it was like a parenthesis but a long parenthesis, because before this I had just left the school. When I left the ICP I became an intern for some months at Magnum in N.Y and afterwards I didn’t very much like the idea I got from photography, so I left for a few months. Basically I was working on the Mala Noche book.

Bruno wrote that you came to Chiapas to find yourself again,
to look for another impulse.

Yes, because my story in Marseille was starting to break up…
So did you find the camera as the... No the trip in Chiapas was awful. I loved the Zapatista movement. Photographically it was very very bad but I guess I was just starting to think again about photography, so I didn’t get any pictures out of this trip. I was just starting to think about it again.

Did New York change your perception of photography, if you compare it to the time
when you followed your friend and the time after the ICP?

In NY I was starting to get paid to assist some photographers but I was getting so bored... it’s not my world at all. I never changed. I was photographing then, exactly the same way I do now, except now I’m a bit more self-conscious, so I photograph less because I… I don’t know how to explain, maybe I was more naive but it was exactly the same way and doing exactly the same things in the same place and with the same people, there’s no change at all. Yes, I have changed in what I am looking for. In the very beginning I guess I was just looking to move on and afterwards maybe even more for sex.

What is it that keeps drawing you back to the night?
What are the questions there?

Well, I don’t believe in photography as an art or a job or anything. I think of photography as a language and I think a language should be used to speak, to say what you have to say. So, the only things I have to say about my life and what I know about the world, is the way I see it. So it’s not about photography. I spent fifteen years of my life, more actually, twenty years of my life in the streets well before photography, so the only thing I can and I should speak about is that...I think people should just use photography to say things and not just photography for the sake of photography, you know. I see so many photographers, now I do quite a few workshops in these days, the world is full of talented photographers. The problem is just so many of them just don’t know what to say, they think life is one thing and photography is another but they don’t realise that photography is just a way to reflect what you are. I don’t think I will ever change. Maybe I will evolve in my own way but when I talk about these things I have no other interest.

What would you like to say?

I have no statement to make. The world I know is different from the one I can see on TV or in photo books or… I just want to defend my vision of the world. I guess it is the reason I started with photography in the first place. The outside world or the real world is so different from the world I knew.
I just want this world to exist.

Is this connected to drinking? Is the world you see with
alcohol the same as without?

I see the world the same way when I drink but maybe drinking can make you withdrawn. I was always like this, in the ten years I spent without photography, which was really some kind of black hole, you know, I never spoke to anybody. I see alcohol just like the key to go further, the things I wouldn’t dare doing if I was sober and yes, it’s true, because I only work when I’m drinking; and if I do anything very good, that is when I’m really out of my mind, when I reach unconsciousness. It’s just the way to break the limits down. It’s just the way I am before photographing. I’m really schizophrenic, in that when I don’t drink I’m completely closed within myself and will not speak to anybody and when I drink I just speak to everybody and break things down. It’s more than a key; it’s just like a switch, you know, switch on and switch off.

Do you believe that there is a subjective language
in photography? Is it possible to communicate from a person to an outer world with photography
as a subjective document? Do you communicate through your images?

I think it can only be; I believe some French writers who think that people only communicate through their intimate wounds. Only human beings communicate through their intimate wounds and to me this is what photography is about, it’s about describing the world. One always learns things from photography, a different way of looking at the world. I’m not sure it is the only way to use photography, I don’t know if it should be. I’m not sure, but the way I see photography, the only things you can tell are interesting as long as they’ve been lived, in some way, somehow... and for me photography cannot just be an intellectual game. I’m trying to write about these things now; it’s difficult to talk about it.

Do you believe that there is another photographic language to come? Provoke ’68 in Japan,
Daido Moriyama and Europe now. Is there another philosophy to come, which will break
the tendencies and schools such as Düsseldorf, Yale, etc.?

I don’t really think in terms of schools. Sometimes I hear specific voices whose words make sense to me. Moriyama’s, Anders’, Nan’s voice, I recognise. I met Daido in Japan last year and he was telling me about his way of photographing, just trying to reconstruct some strange unresolved puzzle, a task he will never come to terms with. He was also telling me how he relates to reality, using the words contamination, germs, amoebae, speaking as if photography and life were just a matter of diseases. As a photographer, he gets infected by the outside and keeps going with an endless energy, just feeding himself with fragments of energy. I can understand this way of thinking and acting. I hear what he says, but I don’t think of his photography as an example of the Japanese school of photography. There are just individuals, more or less talented and more or less honest. But in these years in Japan, it’ s true there was a real flow of beauty from Daido to Fucase, Nakahira, Araki and so many others, maybe because it was a time when photographers looked for their own styles and were something else other than copycats and clones.

What is Photography?

“Photography is something that
gives shape to all my desires. And it is a fossil of time and light.
I gave many definitions of photography in the past. I have a lot of feelings for it, but at this stage, photography is that.
And from the days when I was in my twenties until today - I’m in my sixties now -, photography has always been that same thing…”

Daido Moriyama interviewed by Antoine d’Agata

“…Photography is first of all born from an egoistic environment. Envy, possession, jealousy are the most important human emotions because they come from inevitable real life…”

Daido Moriyama

But they made something happen which influenced the next generation...
I know, Anders always loved Moriyama’s work, and Moriyama was really influenced by William Klein. I got to know Anders’ work from Nan Goldin. Obviously you always influence somebody and your way of speaking always changes the way people see the world. This is why people do it. I do hope someday I change the way people see the world. This might sound a bit big but it’s very small, it’s just by changing the perception of people. You do change and I think it would be useless without this.

The academic world, critics, certain schools where you have
names and writers, how does this world look like in the future?

I think one can always look for the historical context. I saw quite a few very young photographers in the north. Northern countries like Sweden or Finland. I think they are very good in making spectacular, strong and beautiful images. Then I see somebody like Anders where his photography today is very different to what it was ten years ago and today he is sixty years old and making big changes. It is hard work to just go always a bit beyond the conventional and not to be in the photographic, the beautiful, the spectacular and the efficient, but just to go closer to yourself. This guy, he is sixty years old and he is expending some beautiful energy in doing just this, beyond the tendencies or the schools or the generations… I like the idea that people push their lives forward, trying to develop their own lives.

Is there a global language of subjective photography?
It’s not subjective...or objective, I just get so bored. Sometimes I see some beautiful images by German photographers and I’m really impressed by the beauty. There are many qualities, I just don’t know. I just find concept boring. A fake situation, or putting make-up on a girl or asking somebody to take his clothes off and finding some spectacular way of showing this person. I get very bored with concept…

Why does concept exist?

I think concept is a very useful thing. I think of myself as a concept photographer. Ten years ago I told people that my piece was my life and I was making art with my life, ten years before taking pictures. I was always pretty clear and I think it is a very conscious way. We need concept to know where we’re going but concept shouldn’t be left alone as a subject matter, a tool, a form. It should be just one of the elements. I think we live in a world which…we just need a spectacle, that can make spectacles out of anything that is not disturbing for the social function.

Timeless photography; when does the picture become timeless?

I’m afraid I have a boring answer for this. For me it doesn’t depend on the aesthetic qualities, which you reach at some point out of some magical mystery. I guess only the form has to follow. Why do we mix it up? For me it is how far somebody goes. I’m trying to think why today I like William Klein’s pictures from NY I get very bored by Minor White or… it’s just that I can feel the essence of the person you know, and Brassai, I think, I’m not so crazy about the night pictures or about the prostitute shots, but yes, I love to look at how the world was then. For me what is very beautiful in his work is the graffiti work, and I can see, they are very simple pictures you know, they are timeless to me today, I guess, by the purity of how far and how purely he worked at one point The same with Walker Evans, I get bored by his most beautiful work but I love his last polaroids. Timelessness is inversely proportional to the simplicity of the moment, of the smallness of the moment and when it just becomes a very tiny moment. When such a thing, a string of life, when the surface becomes so thin you can never touch what is beyond or behind, but you can just like, get a sense of it.

What do you think of the pictures of Lehmitz?
The Lehmitz café... in almost every one of the pictures Anders shows himself and these people and their lives getting nowhere and he always shows… the people themselves are almost on the edge of nothing. This is what makes them timeless to me.
Could you compare yourself to Anders?
To me this book, Café Lehmitz, was a big shock and a big, big influence on my photographic world…

What is a self-portrait?
There are different answers. The usual self-portraits are not so different from other pictures. Except, I myself don’t do them. People around me take the camera and I become a part of this fictional world. In the way that I’m just a character in my world, like the other characters also are. I don’t think I have the answer, it was the same when I made this book, Vortex, it was more like a reaction. Why? It’s obvious, all work is a self-portrait, I don’t have to separate it. Self-portrait should be included in the rest of the work and many times people don’t even know it’s me in the picture: why do I need to do this? I was tired of people not understanding the work and this was making the point. We are speaking here about my life.

What was the motivation for you to make a self-portrait?
Well, these days I like self-portraiture because I’m fighting with my character in the books. It’s very strange when you work with your own life because you never know where you stand. You become very schizophrenic and you don’t even know if you just document your life, or if you live your life to have some material to work with, you know? So, suddenly you very easily lose control of where you stand in the picture... and in this picture, this guy is fading in a way, and for once it’s not me who’s fading, it’s him... all these things. Basically, every image should be a self-portrait. I don’t see why anybody should photograph anything but himself. 

Do you ever go through your rawmaterial and think of who you were then?
I did this for the show at the Galerie VU and it was very depressing, depressing because I’m a bad photographer. I don’t work very much so I always have the feeling that there is so much more happening than what’s left in the pictures... but I live with it. I know that this year was very important for me and again there is not so much, I don’t have much to show for it. But if I am faithful to what I believe in, then this is not really important you know. Probably the most intense and innocent part of my life was before I started photography. Photography helped me to go further, I should probably have started fifteen years earlier.

“I try to establish a state of nomadic worlds, partial and personal, systematic and instinctual, of physical spaces and emotions where I am fully an actor. I avoid defining beforehand, what I am about to photograph. The shots are taken randomly, according to chance meetings and circumstances. The choices made, considering all the possibilities, are subconscious. But the obsessions remain constant: the streets, fear, obscurity, and the sexual act…. Not to mention perhaps, in the end, the simple desire to exist.”
Antoine D’agata

Facebook Twitter MySpace Google+ RSS