What do you think you give to them (the working girls) in return?
Usually things as simple as respect and acknowledgment that they exist. The feeling that they’re not just a piece of meat or just a statistic, not just a hole between two legs. It sounds very naïve but I give them friendship and trust. Some relationships are more privileged than others but in the end it doesn’t matter if you stay seven months with a girl or one night, you give the same thing. Solidarity.
Through sex and through the drugs, it’s easy to get to this trust, which would take months and months or years in real life. In the night, it can grow much further much faster, because you share the same needs, the same obsessions, the same failures.
In those circumstances, it still seems to you genuine, not synthetic?
It is real. Because I have nothing to win or lose. The girls I work with — they lose time, they make no money out of it. I think what they get is a feeling that they exist, in a more authentic way than they might with a straight customer.
I might be making it sound too easy — it’s not that easy. People will only open up to you only if you prove your honesty and your willingness to share, which means to go as far as they go. They will make you pay a high price for this. They give me a lot, but they don’t give it for free.
The way they make sure you’re up to your words, or up to your needs or desire to be close, can be very high. People will test you, people will play with you. When you spend your life with professionals who are the most efficient, the most cynical people, you never forget that nothing comes for free, nothing comes easy, and you really have to prove that you mean what you say.
This can go from taking risks with the police, to fucking without condoms to see how close you are willing to go to the sickness, to see how far you can go in your experimentation with drugs. You are not allowed to be just a voyeur. You cannot just come and take what you want and run away. People will give things to you as long as you prove you are willing to go as far as they go, and they go quite far, so it can be exhausting.
Still, the experiences that you describe are almost entirely corporeal. At least in the photographs, the explorations you’re doing with sex and drugs are of a physical nature. Do you also hope to push things in other ways, just for example philosophically or intellectually?
I don’t want to give up on anything. I don’t want to give up on my political view of the world, or my physical experimentation of the world, or my feelings for these girls I spend my life with — and this is why I don’t relate to the way photography is usually dealt with in the artistic or journalistic world, because people become good at only one side of things or one way of doing it.
But I have one life only, I have one body only, I have one language only, which is photography. I don’t want to give up on any of these, I’m trying to push all these things to their limits. You end up trying to invent what you believe is the right way to represent the world, and at the same time you want the most intense relationships, you want to confront your deepest and strongest fears, and to be the best possible human being you can be — all this at the same time! — and of course in the end you are dealing with philosophy and politics and pleasure and pushing the boundaries which keep you from death.
When I said before that I’m starting to be serene it’s because, at this stage of my life, and in my photographic practice, whatever happens, I have the feeling that I am real, trying to be as much a human being as possible, in my best way, in a more intense way, and I don’t care what comes out of it. Even if nobody cares about the pictures. Photography will have helped me to do this. I will have used photography to give an account of what I’m doing, because I want a different way to experience the world, and at the same time I’ve been experiencing the world as much as I could. In the end, I’m reaching a kind of fulfilled state where whatever comes out of it makes no difference.
Even if addiction, all kinds of addictions, are part of my life, I’m not prisoner of anything. I’ve been fighting a lot to make the best out of my existence with the means I had, and I’m kind of confident. I did my best, so what more can you ask for?
You’ve talked about feeling that things can go too far — Do you have a place in your mind where the line can or should be drawn?
A couple of times in the last three years, I had to back down. Towards myself, I was kind of ashamed by it, but I had to choose. I backed down, but I backed down only after I went too far.
What was pulling you back, or what were you choosing in favor of?
The first time, I felt like my photography was too much of a mess. If I was to die that month, nobody else would be able to make sense of it. It was a last chance to put together what I was doing, to put some order in it so that, at least, I don’t just leave a mess behind. So, the stuff that I’m doing now is being taken care of.
The second time, I think I just got too scared. But, again, I got scared only after I did it. So it’s not the kind of being scared which stops you from doing something, but the kind where you do something and then after, when the effect of the pleasure and drugs have come down, you realize you went too far. I’m still dealing with this.
In French, we say, “reculer pour mieux sauter,” which means something like, to step back in order to make jumping easier. When I speak about fear or withdrawing, it’s not about keeping away from something; it’s just to prepare myself to push it even further, to go even beyond. And this process has been going on for years, so I know myself now… I know I’m only able to go for what scares me the most, or for what challenges me most, so I know that every time I step back, it’s just another step to take things further.
At your exhibition at the Fotomuseum Den Haag, there were some black pieces of paper which were placed next to the series, and one of them said, “I detach from humanity because I desire it more than anything.” Do you find that this process brings you closer to humanity or further away?
This is the tragedy of wanting to make art out of your own life, or wanting to make your own life out of your art — there is no way out. Again, I do think I’m very privileged because I got close to real suffering before dying. I’ve seen people’s last shouts before they die. I was allowed to be there, to be part of the most violent, the most crazy, the most intense phenomenon of humanity. But, at the same time, because I want to keep track of this, because in some weird way I want to give an account of this… you keep some distance which cuts you off forever from pure innocence.
Becoming a photographer, you lose this innocence, because in a very modest way you want to construct something out of this careless destruction. You want to build a little bit of sense or a little bit of dignity. I see this as a compromise but it’s not too much of one, and it is just what it takes to stay alive a bit longer and to tell the story.
As I became a photographer, I already accepted that it was not my aim just to die as quickly as possible, but to do something out of this position, in life and in the world. It’s far from the cynicism which I see in so many others… it’s not cynicism, it’s not strategy, it’s not calculating, it’s just having made the choice to stay alive.
My point is not to die, my point is to get close enough to experience life in the most meaningful and intense way. I mean to keep death away, to run away from it, by continuing to confront it. In short, it’s to keep trying. It’s not about succeeding, because there’s nothing I want to succeed in, there’s nothing I want to achieve, but I do want to keep trying.
If I die tomorrow, I won’t learn anything, I won’t feel anything. If I want to stay alive, I have to protect myself so, the way I see it, the only choice we have as human beings is to put ourselves in the condition to keep trying as much as we can.
Trying to die or trying to live?
Both. No, it’s not trying to die, it’s trying to live without fear of death. It’s experiencing the world in the most tragic and intense ways without falling down to the point where you need to protect yourself, without being on the good side or the wrong side. I don’t want to be on the privileged side, but I want to be on the side where there is a choice, where it’s my choice to do things. I spend my life with people who do things because they have no choice. I’m the only one who had a choice to be there, most of them would love to — would kill to — belong to the other side. Everyone wants to live in comfort and safety, but many don’t have a choice.
I don’t see them as purer or better people, but I see them as people who are in a position, and because of that position, they are exposed to more intense lives than the ones who are just living in a cocoon.
See our online portfolio of Antoine d’Agata’s photos, which is an excerpt from his exhibition at Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam. To learn more about his work, you can read our reviews of his books Ice and Agonie.