Antoine d’Agata (France, 1961) is a Magnum photographer exploring the darkest sides of life, with drug-fuelled sex binges bleeding over the edges of depravity. Destroying the line between living and making art, his images are autobiographical, animalistic, and as horrifying as they are beautiful.
D’Agata was in town to launch a new exhibition at the Kahmann Gallery, on display in Amsterdam until November 11, 2012 and online editor Katherine Oktober Matthews had the opportunity to talk with him about existence, agony, and what it means to have a privileged life.
The photographs that you’ve been working on recently, some of which are on display here at Kahmann, and also earlier at the Fotomuseum in Den Haag, are quite intensely intimate regarding your own life. It’s impossible to ask about your work without really asking about you. Does that ever strike you as uncomfortable or reach a point of conflict?
No, because my intimacy is linked so much to my work, and my work depends so much on my intimate experiences of the world. It’s all intermingled. When I think about this period of time, let’s say the last three years, it’s been a very intense time for me, in terms of experiences, especially narcotic experiences. Photography has followed, and I guess this is the way it goes. Photography just follows.
Do you think that there’s a boundary between your life and your work, where you will not trespass or will not blur the two together?
No, because the only times when I cannot photograph what I’m doing is for pragmatic reasons. It’s not because I don’t want to, or because I want to hide some parts. It’s because I cannot physically or mentally reach out, or because I’m too involved in my own crazy life that I lose control, I lose connection to some reality and… sometimes I’m just lost, I don’t know anymore how to keep track of what’s happening.
This happened a lot especially with the last book, Ice. For some period of time, months and months, I wouldn’t photograph. With the types of drugs I was taking, it makes you not care about anything but the drug itself. So, many times, I just didn’t care anymore.
In a strange way, it’s also the point I’ve been wanting to reach for many years -- this point where photography or art is not important anymore, only life matters. In a way, it’s very paradoxical, because you struggle to reach this point where you do photography for better reasons than photography itself, where life really becomes experience. When you reach this point, it’s very forceful because you stop caring about art, you just want to experience life day by day, minute by minute. It’s been a real struggle to find the balance point between this intensity and caring enough to keep shooting.
Where are you now in the balance -- Is it important to you at this time to continue shooting?
It’s becoming important again… I stopped shooting for a while, the last pictures were 9 months ago, when I was in Libya. I went to the war in Libya, to the fall of Tripoli. Not on assignment, but just as a way to wake up from all these months and months of drugs. I went to war like some people go to some kind of mental doctor… just to get a check-up and put me back on my feet.
But then I stopped shooting again when I went back to Cambodia. The experiences I had in Cambodia over the last few months, without any photography, went even further than the ones in the book. Things became even more extreme. At that point, I didn’t care about photography. Maybe it was just a way to prove to myself that my life is not just an excuse for my art. You’re always wondering if you’re living, experiencing the world, just as an excuse to photograph. It can be confusing sometimes.
But now it’s been a few months, and I’m working on a video project and a book. I gave myself until the end of the year, not to put too much pressure on myself. I’m kind of serene in a way. It’s not a bad pressure, it’s just a way of taking a breath before jumping back into it again.
Your work has some distance from photojournalism, also in the sense that you have become one of your own subjects. Do you think this is an exploration of self, or an exploration of photography?
Of course over the years I’ve learned about myself and I’ve been able to take more control over my own life, but it comes from a photographic need to push the boundaries of what we call documentary photography. So, the reason I became my own character was not just because I’m interested in myself or out of narcissism, but it’s because I thought that this was the only way to make photographs which will be more sincere, more just, more right.
It is a weird mixture of concepts. I see my work as a conceptual diary. For me, it’s very interesting how fiction mixes with reality and with intimate situations and, at the end, I still think of it as a very documentary piece of work. It’s really about understanding the world and being part of it, too.
For a few years, I thought photography was slowing me down and that a camera wasn’t the way. I didn’t know what to do with the camera or with the way that it catches things not strongly enough or not intensely enough, but then very quickly I realized that the opposite was happening. Photography was helping me to push things much further and to experience situations in more extreme ways than I could have done without it. The camera is a good excuse because, with its presence, people will let go, will go with you into the craziest situations.
You’ve said before that, “Pleasure is a dark territory to me.” Do you find that you are seeking pleasure and finding darkness, or ultimately seeking darkness and finding pleasure?
They’re very intermingled. I’m not a hedonist, I’m not just looking for pleasure. I’m interested in darker and deeper issues than pleasure, but I think pleasure is a good medium. Through pleasure, I get to much more complex and deeper and darker mental or physical places.
Pleasure can be still linked to pain, to death, to sickness, to madness. So, I look at pleasure as a way down to something else. It’s never pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Well, it can be, of course… especially with drugs. These new synthetic drugs are very efficient and very intense, so there are moments where pleasure leaves space for nothing else and this is where we all get lost and stuck.
But, for me, it is important to use it as an opening and then go beyond it. You can see sometimes in the pictures where this pleasure, let’s say the body, takes over much more subtle and complex and painful feelings. The pleasure takes you to the agony.
Does pleasure need to be complex, or are there still simple pleasures for you – can you just have a glass of wine on the beach and enjoy it?
I haven’t had access to simple pleasures for a long time. For many reasons, but mostly because of the addiction. Everything brings me back to drugs. When you use drugs to continuously get to new levels of intensity, you cannot drop back down, you always need to keep escalating. A glass of wine just won’t do it anymore. (laughs) I’m joking but, in the end, most addicts have the same problems -- when you reach this level of intensity, you cannot get satisfied, you can never get enough. This girl, in the last book Ice, she was always repeating the sentence, “Not too much, but never enough.” You always want more, more, more, but it’s never enough. What’s enough for me is only when it becomes too much, when you cannot handle it, and when you lose control. There’s the minimum you need to feel you’re alive, and of course you become a prisoner of this physical logic, the body.
If I think of what I really enjoy sometimes, outside from this very physical experience of the world, the first thing which comes to my mind is just proximity with people. I feel very privileged to spend my life and time and energy with people who are not so easy to access, people who are marginal to an extreme point. It’s a privilege to be able to get close to them because they have more pain and more frustrations and more tragedies, so everything is more intense, everything is more true, everything is more honest, everything is more painful, everything is more.
I get bored in the day world, where everything is more confined and has very strict limits. Yet, when I say I am privileged, it’s because no matter how much I try to get close to them, or to be the same as them, I will never be one of them. Because I have this very important and powerful privilege of having the freedom to go in and out when I want.
Sometimes I get stuck there, and I can get stuck for months, but in the end, when things are on the edge of breaking down, I can still hop out, take a breath, and come back – or change countries, change work. I would be dead by now if I wouldn’t have this option. I see many of the girls dying. There is no possibility for them to go in and out. They are in this terrible vortex where you burn down very fast. I’ve been learning from the working girls many years of my life. But I can always come and go.
It’s wonderful and tragic because you meet people, and you struggle to build confidence and trust, and it’s so rewarding when people open doors and let you come into their lives, but very quickly you leave again. These people give me a lot, and I take what they give me and I make what I can out of it, but then I run away again. So, it’s magical but at the same time it’s kind of sick.
See our online portfolio of Antoine d'Agata's photos, which is an excerpt from his exhibition at Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam (on display until until November 11, 2012). To learn more about his work, you can read our reviews of his books Ice and Agonie.