Photographer Interviews

Antoine D’Agata: Photographing Life at Society’s Margins

April 24, 2014

By Conor Risch

© Antoine D'Agata/Magnum Photos

"Nuevo Laredo," 1990. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

From Antoine D’Agata’s perspective, life is most intense when lived in close proximity to death. For this reason he’s chosen to make most of his photographic and film work at the margins of society: in the street, among sex workers, drug addicts, and the impoverished in cities from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Sao Paulo and Salvador Da Bahia, Brazil.

“These spaces where sex, pleasure, pain, fear come close and contaminate each other, this is exactly the type of territory I’m looking for,” D’Agata says.

His black-and-white and color images primarily depict intense sexual encounters, heavy drug use, and physical and emotional pain. Through his long exposures and use of motion blur, his subjects often appear ecstatic, demonic, possessed. Many of his images are raw and explicit, full of naked bodies that tangle and merge.

D’Agata does not simply pass through this “night world” he depicts; he lives in it for long periods, he told PDN in February during a wide-ranging interview about his work. He states openly that he is a drug addict and that he has relationships that are “physical, emotional, sexual, whatever, with most of the people I photograph.” In this night world, people take risks with drugs, promiscuous sex, self-mutilation or other violent acts, to wrest some control and vitality from a marginal existence, D’Agata says. “Because they have nothing, their only choice is to be alive and to feel and to exist in very basic and instinctive ways.” This self-inflicted “violence of the night,” as D’Agata calls it, arises from the systemic, “more economic, institutional” violence that marginalizes people, often from birth. Even before he became a photographer, D’Agata made the choice to live among the disenfranchised, a choice that is both personal and political.

“From the very beginning, from well before I started photography, I always went to a very specific place where I felt I had to go, because I felt this was my duty as a citizen to be there and to understand and to share and be a part of it,” D’Agata says, noting that he spent more than a decade living a “street life.”

He turned to photography not because he wanted to raise awareness about the lives of sex workers or others at the fringes of society, but because he felt life was lived most intensely among them. Photography gave him a reason to be there and enough money that he could continue traveling. “My point in the end is not to show the viewer or to remind them that that [marginal] life exists. My point is to be alive,” D’Agata says. “This is my first aim, this is what I’ve been doing for many years, just to be as alive as possible.” D’Agata says he’s had no permanent home for nearly a decade.

Convincing his subjects to allow him to make these photographs comes down to trust, which he builds over time. He repeatedly returns to specific places where he’s built “long friendships,” and participates fully in the world he depicts. “Sometimes I spend weeks [there] before taking pictures,” he says. “Life always comes first.”

Drugs also help form connections with his subjects. “When you are part of this scene, photography just doesn’t matter anymore, it’s just a detail. If you trust somebody enough to [risk going] to jail for many years,” he says, alluding to the penalty for illegal drug use, “photography doesn’t mean anything.”

People will often test you in some way, he says, by asking you to take a risk, to see if you “are willing to be as desperate and daring” as they are. “If you are ready to lose everything, people will give you everything, and people will take you much further than you want to go, and you will take people further.”

D’Agata has been labeled a voyeur and pornographer by some, and much worse by others. And yet the intensity with which he pursues life, and the lengths he goes to in order to be a part of the world he depicts, draws the respect of many photographers.

“The questions that he poses are: How deeply do you engage and can you engage, and for whom are you engaging?” says fellow Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas. “I think those are really important, ongoing questions that every [photographer] answers in their own way.”

He has been widely recognized and celebrated for his work. (He is equally dismissive of criticism and praise, saying both “make you weak in some ways.”) In 2001 he won the Niépce Prize for young photographers in France. He’s published several books and has exhibited his work widely in Europe. (While he’s spoken and worked in the United States, his photos have yet to be exhibited here.) In 2004 he became a Magnum nominee, and was voted a full member in 2008. The Cambodian Room: Situations with Antoine D’Agata, a documentary about him, was released in 2009. D’Agata has also released several films, and another documentary is in the works.

His retrospective book, Anticorps, won the Rencontres d’Arles 2013 Author Book Award; this month, Prestel will release the English translation, Antibodies, which includes work from his year as a photojournalism student up through 2012.

Born in Marseille, France, in 1961, D’Agata had no aspirations to be a photographer or an artist as a youth. Approaching 30, he was “torn down, tired, broken by years and years of street life,” he says. Living in New York City and working in a sweatshop, he was urged by people close to him to study at the International Center of Photography. “I was just trying to survive, mentally, emotionally, physically,” he recalls. Joan Liftin, then the director of the ICP photojournalism program, accepted him as “some kind of experiment,” he says, “because I had so much [life] experience, and most young photographers don’t.” Liftin, however, recalls that D’Agata’s “intelligence [had] shown through” in his application essay.

That photography even occurred to him as a possibility was thanks to his friend Raphael, a photographer who was dying of AIDS when the two traveled to Mexico. Throughout the trip D’Agata noticed his friend photographing constantly. “It was shocking in a way,” he says. “You know you are going to die and you keep spending hours and days pushing on the button. I think I realized, maybe in an unconscious way, that photography was a good way to hang onto life, to be more alive.”

It’s often noted that at ICP D’Agata studied with Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, two artists known for their intimate, sometimes shocking images of their friends. However Liftin, who remains friends with D’Agata, recalls that his cityscapes and landscapes were “particularly strong,” and that his work made a marked improvement during his second semester.

Morten Andersen, who studied with D’Agata at ICP during the 1990-91 year and has seen the photographer work, recalls a trip they made to Mexico during a school break. They ended up in Boy’s Town, a commercial district of bars and brothels in Nuevo Laredo, and D’Agata’s photographs shifted. “He found his subject and way of working on that trip,” Andersen recalls.

“To me all these matters of esthetics, color, blur, techniques, of course I have to take it into consideration, but I don’t really care,” D’Agata says. He says that for years he would walk around with black-and-white and color film and shoot both, not “as a function of considering the subject,” but because he wanted “linguistic breaks, which mixing both of them in the same story would create.” He’s shifted between camera formats for the same reason, he says. D’Agata wants to emphasize the individual images, “to respect the singleness of each image, of each moment.” For this reason, he’s also shifted photographic styles.

“Every time I feel like I’m getting closed or I’m [becoming] a prisoner of my own habits, I break,” he explains. “I try to break again and again all types of things which could close me down, and to stay free from this.”

In Antibodies, D’Agata’s sequence shifts between his “night world” photographs, which include the images he made in Mexico as an ICP student, and images of conflict. We see photos of soldiers, barrier walls, destroyed structures, and street fighting he took in Israel, Palestine and the West Bank; of crumbling buildings in Marseille and Alexandria, Egypt, and destroyed homes in Bosnia; of the city of Oswiecim, Poland, and nearby Auschwitz concentration camp; of migrants in Sangatte, France; of mobile homes in North Dakota; of empty, makeshift beds in Phnom Penh, or of small prison cells in Tripoli, Libya. There are close-up headshots of people in Georgia, Montenegro, New York City and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

In his book, D’Agata often presents these photographs of sociological, political and economic issues as typologies. The images, which D’Agata has made on assignment, as grant-supported personal work and while working on Magnum group projects, seem like polar opposites of the instinctive, extreme images for which he is most known.

“What might strike people looking at the work is that it’s kind of schizophrenic,” D’Agata says of these “two visions” in his photography. What connects them, he says, is his interest in depicting the violence of the world with a visual language that is true to his own experience. “Photographically I try to invent a point of view which reflects my own position,” he explains. “If I photograph war and I’m scared, I try to give a sense of this fear. If I’m bored in some situation, I try to shoot boredom.”

In the book and his retrospective exhibition at Le Bal gallery in Paris, D’Agata says, “You can see I’m always trying to confront these two very different languages.” Though the photographic esthetics differ, they depict “sides of the same violence,” he says, “which is the violence of the world.” The political underpinnings of D’Agata’s life and work are “never spoken about,” he says, but in considering these two different bodies of work together, his political stance becomes clearer.

The violence that exists on the margins is “the world I’ve been living in for 30 years now,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s right, this violence, but it exists … it’s a violence which is part of me, and I photograph it in the most extreme way, and for years I’ve been trying to find ways to be more and more inside [it].” In recent work D’Agata has put himself in the frame, making himself a subject. “This is as far as I can go in this violence of the world,” he says.

The book includes a series of stream-of-consciousness texts D’Agata wrote. They range from explicit accounts of drug use and intoxication, relationships and sex, to nuanced delineations of his personal philosophy. In one text he lays out a dystopian vision in which the person of means is “robbed of his existence, he merely complies with a vast scheme of indoctrination and lives behind walls, under the surveillance of cameras, hires guards, buys weapons, protects himself against all dangers visible and invisible, dispersed but omnipresent, familiar and unknown.” This, he says, is the antithesis of the vibrancy of life at the margins.

“I find more beauty and more courage and more strength and more intensity in these specific worlds, but people who have this life, they don’t choose it,” he explains. “I’m in a very complex situation because I am there by choice. I have this experience and I can be in and out and I survive … just moving keeps me alive. And they have no choice and they die like flies, and so in real life, outside of the pictures, I do my best to pick them up.”

“I know he cares about people,” says Andersen. “If I didn’t know him at all, I’m not sure what I would think [of his work].” He adds, “I’m not sure if I like it or not, but it has a strong impact on me … You don’t forget these pictures.”

Photography both enables and complicates D’Agata’s life. Occasional assignments, and print and book sales give him the financial freedom to keep moving. Yet putting the Antibodies book and exhibition together required him to spend nearly a year in Paris, which “pulls me down and weakens me again,” he says. “And it’s been hard since to go back” to life on the margins.

D’Agata describes his personal life as “a mess.” His four children “know what’s happening, but we don’t speak about it. They don’t want any insight, and I don’t want to share this with them.”     

Yet photography has given D’Agata “freedom and strength,” he says. “For many years I was like a sponge, I kept absorbing something which I could not digest.” He adds, “Photography is the only art you cannot create from inside your head or inside your studio, you have to be in the world, you have to be part of it and you have to act in it, and you have to be responsible for this position. Photography has forced me again and again and again to push myself out there and be responsible for every single move, every single act. It gave me everything.”

Related Article:

Antoine D’Agata Photo Gallery