Interview with Antoine D’Agata by Alex Sturrock

Antoine D’Agata is a contentious character in the worlds of photography and art. Signed up by the Magnum photo agency in the period when they started to realise there was little money in photojournalism, his work’s brutal and self-destructive content has a habit of upsetting people.

Born in Marseilles in 1961, D’Agata left France in the early 80s. He later studied at the International Center of Photography in New York alongside Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, with whom he shares a fascination for the seamier side of things. D’Agata has lived a murky and nomadic life. He regularly immerses himself in his subjects, which typically tend to be prostitutes and other marginalised misfits, often throwing himself into dangerous, drug-addled and sex-fuelled situations. We spoke with him about photography as art, honesty, morality and what it’s like to be addicted to the drug ice while living with Cambodian prostitutes.

Which artists are you interested in, in particular those who aren’t photographers?
I respect artists who have the courage to live up to the madness of their art. Céline, Artaud or Rimbaud are geniuses not for the dexterity or subtlety of their words but for their truth. I don’t see art as competition or a spectacle but as a privileged space to give a radical form to one’s perspective on the world. Art has long been the hostage of technique and today the criteria would be intelligence, not to say cynicism. But I look at art when I sense there’s space there for excess and despair. I didn’t have a chance to consider the history of art. I look at Georges Grosz because I find there, instinctively, the monstrosity of society, and in Francis Bacon’s, of the flesh. I look at art when it is shouted or vomited, not conceptualised or marketed.

How would you describe your own work—as reportage, as art? Do you feel that photos can be an honest and effective way to convey a situation? 
The only type of connection I have to the tradition of reportage is coming up with the most efficient ways to deny, denounce or destroy its prejudice. Beyond humanistic pretence, reportage always conveys twisted or insidious values. Its economic survival has always been dependent on logical means to perpetuate the efficiency and the profitability of a system controlled by the elite for their own benefit. And one has to remember that no photography can pretend to show the truth. A picture only shows a given situation under a very specific perspective, consciously or not, openly or not, relevantly or not. Photographers have to accept they can just convey fragments of illusory realities and relate their own intimate experience of the world. In this process of fictionalising an unreachable truth, it’s up to them to impose their doubts about any photographic truth, or accept being impotent pawns in the mediatic game.

You’ve spoken in the past about photography not being art. What are your thoughts on photography as art? Can you explain how you see photography as opposed to art?
I do think of photography as a perfectly legitimate artistic language, but I believe it is underused or misused most of the time. The world is not made out of what we see but from what we do. Photographers who ignore this state of things—and today, as in the past, most of them do—reduce photography to its capacity for recording reality. They don’t take responsibility for their position while looking at the world and end up assuming voyeuristic, sociological or aesthetic stands. Contrary to writing or painting, you have to confront reality while photographing. The only decent way to do it is to make the best out of your own existence. From a moral point of view, you have to invent your own life, against fear and ignorance, and through the action. Intelligence and beauty don’t compensate for passivity. The only way to keep one’s dignity is to confront human condition and social context through direct action. It is a difficult balance one has to keep between the creation of situations to go through and the development of a narrative technique to share one’s perspective. In this process, life overcomes art at some point, and art perverts life. By deliberately living in this constant tension, I expect to go through existence without having to give up lucidity or experience.

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