Antoine d’Agata (b. 1961, France) is a Magnum photographer exploring the darkest sides of life, with drug-fueled 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 in Amsterdam at the end of 2012, and I had the chance to speak with him about existence, agony, and what it means to have a privileged life.
The photographs that you’ve become known for 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, 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 from 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, “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 my 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.
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 do you want?
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.
This article was originally published on GUP Magazine.