An Interview with Benoit Aquin
In October of this year the Montreal-based, award-winning photographer Benoit Aquin published a book in Paris called La dimension éthérique du réseau par Anton Bequii (The Network’s Etheric Dimension by Anton Bequii). The 224-page book is a hybrid of auto-fiction and documentary that combines 109 images; 14 pages of reproductions from two books by Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher and sociologist; and a series of 10 letters sent by Bequii to Elena, his muse and confidant. The epistolary form is a wise choice because it allows Anton to be the only voice in the book and his perspective the only one we have access to. As a result, Bequii writes what is on his mind, and it is a troubled mind, indeed. He is a complicated protagonist; there is assuredly method in his madness, but there is also a residual madness in his method. He is paranoid, maybe psychotic, compulsive, self-congratulatory and self-punishing, and it turns out everything he says about the state of the world is true. His resistance to nihilism and his rage against a world giving over to technological totalitarianism lead to what his letters describe as “a scream for the human spirit, for poetry and for love to survive.”
Anyone with an aptitude for these things will have noticed that Anton Bequii is an anagram for Benoit Aquin. I leave it up to readers and lookers to decide on their own what is the relationship between the maker and the made. But it is to Benoit Aquin’s credit that he has created a character who is disturbing and seductive in equal measure. In the following interview Benoit says, “I wanted to push all the languages that are visible inside the book,” and the languages available to his manipulation are words and images. The images (screen grabs taken from various war zones and sites of terrorism) are Photoshopped in radical ways so they become correlatives to Anton’s state of mind. And having the words written by his alter ego means there are no restrictions or social conventions governing the language. Anton Bequii is a human perfect storm.
What Bequii does share with Aquin is a humanist core. All of the latter’s previous projects deal with situations in which societies, groups or individuals are faced with major environmental, social, economic or political catastrophes. He has documented the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, and in “The Chinese ‘Dust Bowl’” he captured the environmental devastation caused by irresponsible farming practices. For this body of work he won the Prix Pictet in 2008, the prestigious global award for photography and sustainability.
In a body of work photographed in Haiti, he was careful to document the richness of Haitian culture both before and after the 2010 earthquake. He has lived in the country and he has friends there, so when the earthquake happened he felt it was legitimate to go back and see what its effect had been. He subsequently returned many times because he didn’t want people to remember Haiti only because of the natural disaster: “It was a mission for me to go back. It involved ethics. I didn’t want to be an event photographer.” Benoit’s desire was to offer up the wholeness of the culture, and his images embody that sense of fullness. Everything about the Haitian photographs is on the verge of tipping over into a state of too-muchness: too much carnival, too much voodoo, too much collapse, too much absurdity, too much beauty. But they never do. Benoit needs emotion to be engaged in any project, but the emotion never overtakes him. He is the eye who sees everything, but he is also the I who keeps that seeing in perspective.
The following interview was conducted on November 2, 2019, by phone to Paris where Benoit Aquin was attending Paris Photo.
BORDER CROSSINGS: How did you first get interested in photography?
BENOIT AQUIN: When I was young my father ordered the Time-Life Art/Photography books, and I still vividly remember some of the pictures and they continue to capture my imagination, especially Robert Frank’s. I don’t think I was aware of the full creative process because I was too young, but my appreciation must have been very intuitive. What always intrigued me was that all these different perspectives of the world could be seen through a camera. I had a Kodak Box Brownie and I made my first picture when I was five in Haiti, and I still have those pictures.
In 1985 you attended the New England School of Photography in Boston. Was it primarily a technical school?
It was, but I had a fantastic teacher there, who passed away only a month ago. His name was David Akiba. He was pretty famous in Boston as an art photographer, and there was no way that I would end up doing commercial photography after studying with him. He had studied with Harry Callaghan and Aaron Siskind at the Rhode Island School of Design. He introduced me to Frederik Sommer, whose work I have loved ever since, and that’s where I discovered Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. That is also where I encountered the work of Gilles Peress, who was a big influence on me, especially through his book Telex Iran.
In Quebec there is a tradition of exceptional photographers in all areas—documentary, personal and conceptual. A partial list includes Bertrand Carrière, Michel Campeau, Serge Clément, Raymonde April, Geneviève Cadieux, Angela Grauerholz and Donigan Cumming. Do you consider yourself part of that history of picture-taking?
I definitely think that I belong to that group now, but when I came back from Boston I was a little bit of an outsider.
So what is it that makes you want to photograph a particular place or an event?
It has changed a lot over the years, but it has always been a question of my needing an emotional connection. I need a point of convergence. It is also the reason for my travelling. When I travel I have a focus, but once I’m there I am open to anything.
You’ve gravitated to places where natural disasters have occurred—the Chinese Dust Bowl, Haiti and the earthquake in 2010, Lac-Mégantic. Those kinds of disastrous events obviously give you both the focus and the emotional attachment you need?
I went to Haiti the first time when I was four years old because my father worked there and later on I had met people, so I had a connection with Haitians. I had gone many times, so when the earthquake occurred I felt it was legitimate to go back and see what had happened. Then after that I went back many times because I didn’t want people to remember Haiti only because of the earthquake. I wanted people to remember the country for the culture. So it was a mission for me to go back. It involved ethics. I didn’t want to be an event photographer. Also, I realized over time that what interested me more was how we relate to our environment from an existential point of view. It is more a question of how man can connect spiritually with his environment.
Do you consider yourself a witness?
I think it is more than that. Things that we take for granted seem futile when civilizations fall and yet they are marks of our passages. It’s like the shadow of who we are. It’s the mark that we leave and that is the reflection of our spirit. It’s like in photography: light leaves a mark. You see, I believe we are luminous beings and the shadow of our passage through time is our spiritual journey.
One of the subjects that interests you in the Haitian photographs is the ecstatic possession of those women who are in a religious trance.
Yes, because those things are a mystery that I can’t really explain and I’m trying to look at it in a certain way. For a Westerner, it can be unsettling. We have to travel in many worlds to understand existence. It is very important when I photograph that I not be a moralist; I want to leave things open. I don’t want to narrow down my vision or tell the viewer what they should think.
In the Haitian photographs, I gather that the resilience in the culture comes through in the brilliant sense of colour that you find in Port-au-Prince.
Yes, it is very alive. The human spirit is vibrating very high over there.
In the “Chinese ‘Dust Bowl’” images the golden colour of the air is evidence of an ecological disaster, but it is also a photographic gift because the images you get are so haunting. I’m thinking of the image of the equestrienne monument seen in the distance. Was it strange to photograph in a place where the circumstances afford you beauty but what you’re recording is an ecological disaster?
The first time I witnessed a dust storm in China, it absolutely captured my imagination. I was in Beijing and I had been overwhelmed by the size of the city and then suddenly it was covered with dust. So I was overwhelmed by the city and then the environment took over. That is why I made those pictures with some distance; it allowed the environment to take over the landscape I was witnessing.
There is an image of a truck and trailer and the cab is very blue, so much so that it looks to be hand-tinted. Because the images are so tonally consistent, even the slightest change in the colour register stands out.
Yes. This is the first project I did with a digital camera and there were some practical considerations. First, I had to fight the dust and protect the picture in the camera. I wouldn’t change the lens; I would just change the card. I put the camera setting on daylight, and because it was not on automatic colour balance, I perceived the colours that were there right away. If I had put it on automatic, the yellowish pink would have disappeared. I always like to be aware of the colours. In China, it was almost like photographing with a backdrop.
I was intrigued to read that you felt you could get two things out of the “Dust Bowl” photographs. The first was an awareness of the environmental degradation and the second was the capture of surreal images. One of those desires is a measure of witnessing and the other one is aesthetic. Did you feel that you got both the observing and the aesthetic dimensions? Did they become surreal for you in a way?
Definitely. A few years ago I showed the work in Russia, it was maybe 10 years after I had made it, and what struck me was that they could be pictures from the past and they could also be pictures from the future.