© Sophie Ristelhueber – Spread from Beyrouth
GL: You were closely involved in all aspects of the new book – Operations – an extensive monograph that also sheds light on less familiar, autobiographical projects. In compiling material for the volume, what did you learn about your own work and career?
SR: Looking back through the 1980’s I saw that, although it’s not my only interest, I kept a lot of my focus on traces, scars, and so on. The first time you can see that is in my Beirut work from 1982 about modern architecture in ruins. But I didn’t then make a decision to have that theme as my statement as an artist, nor even that I would keep exploring it. It’s only by looking at one project after another that you can see the way in which I kept going in the same direction. So that was interesting: to assemble this big book and remind myself how constant my interest – no, obsession – was in how we keep on destroying. I mean ‘we’ human beings. But if we can destroy, it’s also because we keep constructing. So it’s that balance between the two very opposite situations that I am interested in.
© Sophie Ristelhueber – from Beyrouth
And, surveying your career, do you have any regrets?
I wouldn’t put it like that. It’s more that there are things I have done which I wouldn’t be able to do again now. For instance, in the early ‘90’s I photographed freshly operated bodies for what became Every One – a metaphor about the civil war in the Balkans. I did it quickly in a Paris hospital where I was looking for shapes – of stitches, cuts and wounds – that would speak clearly about the conflict. But when I look through my contact sheets and I remember what I saw at the time, I say ‘Oh my God, I would never do that again. How can I bear that?’
Or, when I was in Kuwait I spent whole days convincing people to take me in planes or helicopters, so that I could fly over the scars on the earth. It was very, very difficult to work there and so complicated that, when I consider the energy I spent, I always think, ‘Today I just wouldn’t be able to do so much persuading with people. And I just wouldn’t be able to keep going with a project like that.’
You mention Kuwait and your most famous body of work – the aerial photographs that were published as Fait. Aerial photography, especially in war zones, is usually undertaken for very specific, defined functions. Can you describe the function of Fait?
I was not doing something functional; I was making a fiction. For me that work is not about information and it’s not about that war. It’s only a work about scars. The reason I’m talking about a fiction, one that I have in my head and that I’m able to reproduce, is because I first tried to get my visa for Kuwait in February 1991, but couldn’t because I was working as an artist, not a journalist. Throughout the whole summer I kept thinking about the photography that could be possible there – the work that I eventually did. In September I asked again for my visa, and got it.
© Sophie Ristelhueber – from Fait
This means that for those six months there were thousands of people, including cameramen and photographers, who saw all this land before me…and nobody did this work. But the traces were all there – I invented nothing. So I find it fascinating to think that nobody was getting inspiration from that environment, and that it’s only me, Sophie, with my sort of craziness who did something with it.
© Sophie Ristelhueber – from Fait
You once commented that there was very little difference, for you, between a viaduct in France and ruins in Beirut. Morally though, there is a world of difference between them…do you think your approach attributes a false equivalence to your subjects?
They are the same in the sense that I am bringing my own sensibility, and my own way of seeing things to them. When I said that, I was thinking about myself as an artist giving shape to something. For example, when I was working in operating theatres (which I did twice in 1982 and 1993) I sometimes had the same feelings that I would experience when I was in the air above Kuwait. I wanted to explain how I had the same relationship with my subject, whether it’s 50 cm from me or 500m.
I am a conceptual person, which means that first I have an idea of something I want to do… something that becomes imperative. Afterwards I work so intently that I don’t think any more about the context. About whether I am in a country that is supposed to be Palestine, say, but which perhaps is not going to be Palestine. It’s difficult for others to understand; it’s not that I don’t care for the people around me. But once I’m working, I am working on my concept.
© Sophie Ristelhueber – from WB
Also, I think that my subjects can be almost universal. OK, I am photographing a road blocked by stones on the West Bank, but it could be anywhere that men are trying to prevent other men from circulating and living normally. So, I don’t think ‘I am against the Israelis,’ or ‘I am only for the Palestinians.’ You know, situations are much more complex than that. Of course – I am a normal person and I read the newspapers every day; I have political ideas I trust and believe in, and I can be a militant sometimes. But not in my work – in my work there is no judgement, no militancy.
There is a thematic unity to the pictures you have made in places like Kuwait, Bosnia, the West Bank and Iraq. How do you relate such work to your more personal, domestic projects – Vulaines and Les Barricades Mysterieuses, for example?
To me it’s very logical to match Vulaines with the other projects – there is no gap between the two artists at work. The photographs are of my holiday house which hasn’t changed in half a century or more: the wallpaper, for example, is very old and worn out by time – not by violence – and you can see a whole landscape in it. I know as a child I was fascinated by it, and probably telling myself stories based on what was going on in the stains. Sometimes people ask me why I have this fascination for scars and ruptures. And as a joke I answer that if I hadn’t spent time in that house as a child…
© Sophie Ristelhueber – from Les Barricades Mysterieuses
But it connects to my other work because it is concerned with the action of time on the environment, time passing by, or – as it says in Ecclesiastes – ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.’
In 2006, after at least 25 years working with photographs, you began to use video. Why?
It didn’t happen all at once. For example, I had earlier made a series of landscape images and had recorded the sounds at the locations where I photographed. When I exhibited the piece I put the sound behind the images, which were installed across corners, and it was as if the recording was coming from the picture: you hear a bird, you hear a river, and you hear the wind.
That was neither video nor cinema, but I was heading in that direction; and I think step by step I was going to leave photography. Now I think it’s something that I have really done. But I don’t like the quality of video too much, and I am very excited by my next project which I am hoping will be filmed on traditional 16mm.
You described an innovative installation of your photographs, and your books also use unconventional layouts and formats. How important are such devices for you?
I think it’s my very modest way to fight against the way everything is done and presented nowadays as a kind of ‘grand spectacle’ – you know, a big show. Or everything is always explained to you: what you have to see, and what you have to understand. I really like to give freedom to the viewer to interpret the work, to make his own story. I often dislike the way exhibitions can make everything obvious and regular and I prefer complex installations where things are not clear at first sight.
© Sophie Ristelhueber – installation, Quimper.
You said earlier that you became obsessed, rather than interested, in ideas…and you have written before about the ‘Ristelhueber madness.’ How seriously do you use such terms? Or, how obsessed are you?
Well, I’m obsessed enough to do whatever is necessary to achieve what I want to do. When I look at the energy I have spent on many of my works, I think I really must be obsessed to behave like that. And with regard to my madness or craziness, it is only when visitors ask me, ‘Was it dangerous to be in the Kuwait Desert,’ that I think ‘Of course, it was very dangerous’. I’m not a brave person; it’s just that I had to do it. Now, nearly twenty years after, I think I was really crazy. But when you are doing something that you have to do, you don’t think about the danger.
This interview first published in Art World magazine, 2009.