« Vulnerability is what makes us human »
At the Rencontres d’Arles, the photographer exhibits his portraits. Often known through particular photographic series, this time he presents only the faces of those he has had the opportunity to photograph for over twenty years. In the Archbishop’s Palace, with an atmosphere conducive to meditation and contemplation, he offers a powerful confrontation to the gaze of the other.
Interview with Pieter Hugo.
Is it the first time that a major exhibition is dedicated to your way of making portraits ?
I have had previous exhibition which focussed on portraits but this is the first show that exclusively looks at my practice of portraiture in the head-and- shoulders genre.
These are very different portraits, from very different series, but with a common thread, the art of portraiture, so how would you describe the specificity of this art ?
I am very much looking for portraits which are arresting. The distance to my subjects are mostly uniform in this exhibition. I think this allows my way of seeing and looking to be communicated with clarity. I am very clearly the author of all the images, even if they are made in very different modes of expression.
You explain that it is important when making a portrait in photography to establish a certain relationship with the model, a certain trust between you and the model… Why is it important ?
Well, it is not just trust. There is a power dynamic. There is a vulnerability in allowing someone to make your portrait. The subject (and less so the photographer) has complete control over the final image. There is a convergence of accident, intention, trust, distrust, agency, vulnerability, performance, analysis and tension that comes together in the sitting of a portrait. There is a physical and a mental wrestling that happens.
How do you instaure this kind of climat that could make a trust between you ?
I try and be honest about my intentions even if they are not always clear to me.
You also say: “There is beauty in being held in the gaze of another”. Is that what guides you in portraiture? The end of a certain cynicism? The magic of a moment of openness to the other, to alterity ?
I suspect yes…. I often wonder why I keep coming back to portraiture. Certainly in the current climate in photography it would be safer, easier and less problematic to make work that doesn’t involve other people’s likeness. I’m like a moth flying around a candle!
The people you photograph often look deep, sometimes sad or pensive, often seem fragile or bruised… Many appear to have physical and moral wounds… Are these the wounds of human being that you are particularly willing to show ?
Vulnerability is what makes us human.
What also struck me is the presence of your self-portrait in the middle of a dozen portraits, as if you were with these people, with the same frame and the same shot… Is it important when you are a photographer to present yourself as the equal of the people photographed ?
Yes but of course the balance is not equal. In most of my self portraits I feel fake. In portraits of other people I fee more honest.
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin