Musician composer, oud player and electric guitarist, Gregory Dargent improvised as a photographer in the Saharan sands, where some fifty years ago the French army carried out seventeen nuclear tests. Going to look for traces of the past explosion, it is the denial of his own story that he lets spring in the penetrating darkness of his images. Wandering at a distance to the disorderly exchange of anonymous faces, he tenderly caresses the grain of his past in these landscapes smashed with contrasts. It would be like a passage, to reach a certainty: “I do not see myself without photography in my life. ”
Cilou de Bruyn
Musician at the base, you had in your helmet one already composed especially for this trip. How did she guide you?
I always photograph in silence because I do not have the feeling of really being able to “see” if I do not “hear” my environment … When I left to make my first trip, I had indeed already recorded the album in trio. This album accompanied me, more in my mind than in my ears. From the first day, I understood that it would not be the soundtrack of my book, but a different direction in the narrative. In a way, the music represents the fantasy of these explosions and the transformations that they could have generated, whereas the book tells my own transformations when I found myself alone on the spot, facing the real and my life. These are two very different arts in nature that have neither the same tools, nor the same temporalities, nor the same authority, but I deeply believe that to sincerely practice an art gives bases, interior, which serve to practice a other.
You decide to make a photo book, improvising yourself as a photographer. How could being a “neophyte” influence your eyes or the way you approach things?
Indeed, when I left to make my first trip (there were 3 short trips in 10 months), I practiced the film only for about ten months, and were just beginning to forge a photographic culture. Suddenly, when I arrived there, I was distraught and thought that all this was a mixture of madness and misplaced ego. I really wondered what I was doing there, in Reggane … For the record, when I arrived in Reggane in the evening, I did not know anyone, I saw that there was no hotel, no camping, just an old building almost abandoned for people passing through. Later, the police came to pick me up to take me to a house surrounded by high walls, with a plainclothes policeman in charge of my security “just in case”. There, not very reassured, I really wondered what fly had stung me and I made my first pictures of the book.
I did everything on instinct, relying on my musical experience: to try to favor the word rather than the form. So I think that, despite my innumerable anxieties and questions, despite the moments when discovering the negatives I hated myself for wanting to experiment with things, I got rid of a lot of constraints and I photographed with a lot of freedom. My lack of experience has spawned a lot of photographic surprises, good or bad, that pushed me to get involved in some directions from one trip to another. I learned from my mistakes, some seduced me and I then tried to reproduce them. Something pretty raw soon appeared, which forced me to look at my images in depth. In the editing phases, between trips, I also learned a lot because being a “beginner” provokes a certain inner enthusiasm. I made slideshows with music (I often do it again after some tours abroad), which forced me to create narrations. In a way, it reassured me, then very quickly, I tired of it, and so, I advanced …
What did you want to express at the beginning? What did you find on arrival?
I think that at the beginning I thought I was showing something hard, I imagined myself naively leaving to show monstrosities, suffering, a devastated world, a certain violence. It was, I think, my fantasy that was expressed, with a total lack of experience of the image. I had not yet grasped many things about photography. But when I returned from my first trip to Reggane, looking at my first selections, other things came up. Solitude. A certain abandonment. Tenderness too. And weirdness. More violent, more frontal images have naturally been squeezed out in favor of more distanced images. And the more this distance appeared, the more I found an intimacy and a personal feeling in the images, to a certain limit where they became again impersonal. It was then that I realized that the book would also speak about me, and that I therefore began to understand this photograph that upsets me. Some blurs were no longer the jolts of the explosions, but my own hand that would have trembled, and some portraits have almost become mirrors of my own state there.
How to put in pictures the impalpable?
I have the feeling that we must offer the reader fairly balanced images to show him a direction at the same time, while leaving the subject open enough so that he can project himself freely. The impalpable is perhaps this invisible space between what I try to express and what the person opposite receives, with all his subjectivity. I am still amazed by some feedback on my images, how everyone sees what he wants … but all these different feelings are held. because in the end, is it more important that people understand what I mean, and see what I want to show? Or rather that I just open spaces large enough and marked so that everyone wonders freely on the subject? I will look more for the second proposition, and it is this balance that begins to fascinate me little by little … When an image (or a music) tries too much to seduce or to be self-sufficient, I naturally have a little inner blocking, a rejection … so, in all humility, I try to reach this more blurred space, with my means.
You stalk the light, you say, to be pierced with light, the present of this African land, that passed from the bomb. By what were you blinded?
I naively wanted to take pictures that make “squint”. I regularly took the sun in pictures thinking to recreate explosions. But little by little, the color of my blindness shifted, from bright white to deep black … I found myself in these black clogs, shadows without matter, and in these faces rendered anonymous. So my suns do not squint, but they create those shadows, those blacks. In the dark, I’m blind, so there is potentially all I can fantasize about.
What intimate part do you engage in these images?
By the time I realized that I was starting to talk about myself, a lot of things started up inside. First of all, I realized that this was the third time I worked on Algeria. I had already made two musical creations with Algerian artists and had always said that it was chance and luck that made me work on these musics. But there, something about the history of these Saharan nuclear tests obsessed me for 5 years, made me dream poetically. I created the repertoire thinking to continue a kind of Algerian triptych, but when the photography appeared, some things moved. First, I had to take out the book under my name, and so, the record too. Accustomed to creating groups and to release the records under these names, I felt suddenly exposed. For me it was not trivial, because I no longer mounted a project around a theme and a set of musicians, I was suddenly a person speaking on a very specific subject. And that’s when many things came to light. This intimate exhibition related to photography slightly shifted my musical practice, and raised vast questions to which I had not prepared myself. Playing mentally with the letter H, I often liked to dwell on the word Heredity. I was thinking of radiation that, affecting a person, could create malformations to his grandchildren years later. And suddenly, I realized a certain denial in which I lived for years. Yes, my family lived in Algiers before and during the war. My grandfather and uncle were career soldiers at that time. My father, too young, will only be a soldier a few years later. And I grew up “in” the barracks in Germany, and coming out of there, I became an Arab lute player after hearing at 20 years old a record of Alla, a Saharan oud player from Bechar, Algeria. Algeria, as in many families, was very rarely mentioned, and for me, as a child, I had heard only snatches. And here I am, treading the desert for the first time with a mute instrument, having given my book a silent letter as a title, to create my very first non-sonic object. No words. No sounds. Once there, the nuclear tests were far from me. And my photography began to take the direction of my wanderings, and to move away from a documentary approach (which I did not want) to go to a work of author. Today, even if it is very recent, I see several grids of reading with this book, but I confess that it still contains some mysteries.
Did you have images in mind that you had to capture?
Absolutely. I can even say today that almost all the images I had in mind before leaving were very bad ideas and were not realized (or so bad!).
How was your selection of images?
I went through a lot of steps, and I discovered how much the other person’s gaze turned my own apprehension of my photographs. When someone looked at my selections, without saying anything, the images mutated instantaneously to my eyes … some sprang, others became bland or irritating. It was there that I became aware of the importance of the external gaze, and I was very lucky in my various meetings, which were all extremely benevolent. Ljubisa Danilovic and Sabrina Biancuzzi encouraged me and helped me at the beginning and the return of my trips, Gilles Roudière unlocked me at a time when I was a little lost and brings back images that I had thrown away, and Caroline Benichou took a look full of sensitivity on the almost complete set (but the proof was made at that time, that it was not …). My publisher Manu Jougla of Éditions Saturne was also very present and our friendship was born around this project, and of course, my companion Jeanne Barbieri who gave me the look of the one who also discovers photography but sees everything with hindsight and poetry …
What are your sources of inspiration?
My first photographic emotions were the images of Klavdij Sluban, Michael Ackerman, Daïdo Moriyama … but I am also very touched by the photographers of my generation, like Gilles Roudière, Damien Daufresne, Gabrielle Duplantier, Stéphane Charpentier who instantly gave me impressed.
Several times I thought that I had done photography to do H, and that I could stop then, why not? But now I can not imagine my life without the photographic work. So I have a project in mind, but I am someone very slow before doing things (which I often do very quickly). I think about it a lot, but I’m waiting to feel some urgency before I start, to be sure of the real subject. This project will bring me into a geographical and cultural area very different and unknown to me … Then I have my most intimate photographic practice that accompanies me day by day, around two important axes for me. But it will surely remain private, I do not know yet, we’ll see … Inch’allah.
Gregory Dargent’s website:
The book :
H, Gregory Dargent
112 pages. Size: 23 x 15.9 cm. 35 euros. Saturn editions
The Dream of a Movement, collective exhibition, organized by Amine Boucekkine with Gregory Dargent, Gilles Roudière, Stephane Charpentier, Damien Daufresne, Gael Bonnefon, Frederick D. Oberland, Elisa Leonie Migda.
At the Atelier Gustave, Paris; from January 11 to 16, 2019.