Arles_ JH Engstrom in Nan Goldin's Ca me touche. Photo: Shannon Ghannam
JH Engstrom in Nan Goldin’s Ca me touche at Arles. Photo: Shannon Ghannam

On my first day at photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles I make my way to the Parc des Ateliers, a collection of disused railway sheds that house the bulk of this years exhibitions. Each year’s installation in this space is a credit to Festival Director, François Hébel and his team, providing a veritable labyrinth of international photography to discover. I head for the Atelier De Mécanique to see ‘Ça Me Touche, Nan Goldin’s Guests’. As this year’s guest curator, Goldin has gathered the work of 13 of her friends, all photographers, who have caused her “to have a strong emotional response… it must move me, affect me in some profound way.”

Stepping into the first room, Goldin’s prediction of a strong emotional response smacks you squarely in the face. It is immediately obvious that the work deals with birth in all its bloody glory. This show is not for the squeamish. Swedish photographer JH Engström has created an autobiographical account of his relationship with partner Amanda, whom he has photographed since they met in 2005, including in this particular exhibition, her pregnancy and the birth of their twins.

Smaller images present faded snippets of their life together, seemingly in no particular order – Amanda naked and heavily pregnant lying on a couch, a bottle of champagne in a hotel room bidet, a positive pregnancy test. Jarringly, we are then confronted with large colour images of a cesarean birth, followed by clinical flash-lit portraits of an outstretched arm holding a baby boy and a baby girl. The final image shows us in almost forensic detail the twin’s birth sacs and umbilical cords.

Engström says there is no hierarchy in his chosen medium, sometimes he uses a throw away camera or a 4×5 on a tripod, “as long as the result speaks to him”. It makes for a divergent, sometimes uncomfortable, viewing experience much like the experiences Engström feels compelled to photograph.

American photographer Leigh Ledare has documented his relationship with his mother, a woman seemingly disillusioned with her life at 50 who begins to cultivate an overtly sexualised persona. The series of images is preceded by a warning, the English translation of which is only too right when it says “Some viewers ethic may be chocked (sic) by images in this exhibition”. I consider myself to be fairly open minded and as I view the work, I am thrilled at seeing something truly original but perhaps there is a reason I have not seen work like this before in this context. I can not help but ask why a man would want to photograph his mother posing naked and having sex with a lover and why a mother would want her son present, let alone to put it on gallery walls around the world. Call me old-fashioned. In a panel discussion later that afternoon, Ledare is eloquent as he explains that photography is a way for him to deal with the complicated relationship he has with his mother. Complicated indeed, but it does make for interesting photography and much discussion throughout the weekend.

© Jean-Christian Bourcart
© Jean-Christian Bourcart


Jean-Christian Bourcart’s show at Arles last year was one of my favourites. He had shown a collection of hilarious out-takes from weddings. It was laugh out loud stuff, so I was surprised when I saw his equally impressive new work from Camden, New Jersey. The result of a web search for the most dangerous city in the USA, the work is gritty documentary, in a similar vein to the work of fellow exhibiting artists Eugene Richards and Jim Goldberg. I was moved by Bourcart’s video piece, a montage of disjointed stories:

Two women, lovers and addicts, looking at Bourcart’s images from the neighbourhood, picking out the people they knew; a middle aged woman glimpsed down a hallway dancing to “funkytown”; a street preacher giving a sermon to anyone who will listen, telling passerbys that God loves them, he loves them like no one else ever can, a close up of a woman who has stopped and closed her eyes, perhaps hoping to feel that love; a desperately sad, rambling monologue to camera by a mentally ill woman who can not remember if she has family out there, but she loves them and misses them.

Then I read the artist statement and it became clear that Bourcart paid his subjects to photograph them, an ethical no-no for any documentary photographer worth his/her salt, yet it raised lots of questions. Would his subjects act differently having been paid? Would we have seen the images if he hadn’t? Is it that much different than buying a subject a hamburger as Goldberg does in a video clip in his exhibition Raised by Wolves? How many photographers pay their subjects and fail to disclose it. Does it make his intimate images any less valid? I am still not sure how I feel about this.

I am already familiar with Antoine D’Agata work but that does not stop me being shocked by his autobiographical images of sexual encounters and intravenous drug use. The images are hung in a tight, continuous line from 2008 – 1988. One image reminds me vividly of a traumatic scene in the brilliant but devastating film “Requiem for a Dream”. The scene is best left seared into my memory alone, but can be summed up in one word – exploitation. I find D’Agata’s images aesthetically beautiful and touching in their brutal honesty but I can not help but feel that perhaps he is exploiting himself, not even to touch on the argument that he is exploiting his sexual partners. It reminds me of something that Nan Goldin said in the strangely tense panel discussion Photography: The Photographer’s Personal Diary on Friday. In an increasingly despondent tone she said that she regrets having shown the world so much of herself, that being intimate has now become perverted thanks to reality television and has lost its meaning as the world photographs everything on their camera phone. Maybe this global phenomenon in turn has impacted how we view such personal work from professional photographers.

I reread the artist statement on the way out and the first quotes sticks in my head. “Never any sleep and no more waking; a dreadful uninterrupted flow”. Antonin Artaud, Complete Works, XXII, p. 157


from Raised by Wolves  ©Jim Goldberg
from Raised by Wolves ©Jim Goldberg


It was an incredible pleasure for me to see Jim Goldberg’s seminal work, Raised by Wolves, as an exhibition. I found the book when I was first starting out in photography over 10 years ago and I still think it is one of the most successfully realised photo books. The story of teenage street kids Tweeky Dave and Echo is completely absorbing, and through collaboration Goldberg offers the reader an intimate glimpse into the complex lives and relationships of these abused and abandoned children. The exhibition includes the original material that was used in the book, family snapshots, diary entries, drawings and discarded belongings. The exhibition includes the previously mentioned video footage of Goldberg interviewing an emaciated Tweeky Dave in a burger joint and discussing what it is that would make him happy. Another highlight is a framed picture of teenage mother Echo and her baby and what must be a recent update to the work – Echo, or Beth as she is again known, pictured looking older and healthier with a teenager, perhaps her grown daughter. A reminder that these stories do not just stop, and that life goes on.

I had the pleasure of seeing Eugene Richards speak about his new colour work at HOST Gallery in London before seeing it exhibited in Arles. The images in this exhibition are hung without captions which in this context is a shame. As with all of Richards work it is his soft, thoughtful insights into conversations, events, places that add such richness to his images. As I walked through these colour details of abandoned houses across America, the stories he had told for each image resonates. The once precious wedding dress left behind for reasons unknown 15 years ago, the dead swallows in what was once a child’s bedroom, able to make their way up but not downstairs. Accompanying this new colour work is a retrospective of book montages. Again the strength of this section of the exhibition is in the connection Richards and his wife Janine Altongy have made with the subjects in the photographs. The book pages taken from Stepping Through the Ashes are laid out along a wall with personal recollections of the aftermath of 9/11. The testimonies are sprawled in long lines across the wall, to stand in one place allows only snippets from the many nightmarish stories creating a sense of chaos and collective loss.


from Without Sanctuary
from Without Sanctuary

The gallery space within the beautiful Cloitre Saint-Trophime offers something truly ugly. This tragic exhibition makes an astounding point of the progress made by the election of Barack Obama to the White House, when within living memory, photographers produced postcards hailing the lynching of African-American men and women. In grim comparison to just how hard it is to look at the appalling violence perpetrated on the victims, I can not stop staring at all of the white faces, men, women and children attending these horrific events like some kind of hellish family outing. Without Sanctuary is an exhibition that should be seen as widely as possible; this being its first showing outside of the United States.

Later that day I hear Nan Goldin say she has stopped taking photographs. It is evident that she is disillusioned with photography and its ability to be society’s mirror. Her clearest statement from the panel discussion is that through whatever means necessary, be that film, photography or text, she wants to be able to feel what someone else is feeling and once upon a time she believed that through photography you could achieve that. By bringing together intensely personal work by Engström, Ledare and D’Agata, the pioneering documentary photography of Richards and Goldberg and the outstandingly important Without Sanctuary, Goldin and the festival have certainly succeeded in producing an experience that reinforces the power of photography to make us feel.

– Shannon Ghannam


Arles report part two to follow next week.

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