For me, the world today is a strange place;
it reminds me of the ending of the great civilisations of the past.
The old ideologies are in decline and yet, paradoxically,
we see that these old systems survive
to generate crisis, illusion and corruption.
There is a saying that ‘seeing is believing’. It suggests that our eyes show only the plain reality of things, while words, perhaps, can bend the truth. But sight is more complex than that. Our visual perception is a mix of the data supplied by our eyes blended with memory and logic that is already stored in our brain. Visual stimuli trigger those memories and our logic circuits rationalise the result to build what seems to be the most plausible narrative through which to interpret what we see. This is one reason why different people interpret images in different ways. In this sense, perhaps, words are a surer way of communicating exactly what we mean.
But still the conundrum remains: do I trust what I am told (do I trust the one who is telling me these things), or do I trust what I see, even though I may interpret this differently from others?
Visual art engages this very paradox of the flexibly of perception. It asks us to bring our imagination to interpret what we see and, inevitably, since we only know what we know, each imagining is different. This makes viewing images a very intimate affair. At the same time, the camera (the machine for capturing light reflected from objects) seems to offer us a scientifically certain view of the world. But, of course, it does not. Even the most documentary of images is a slice from the flow of time, artificially frozen and cut into a neat rectangle.
The French artist and photographer Virginie Maillard uses these paradoxical qualities to suggest stories that, while they involve levels of digital manipulation and so take us beyond the real in a literal sense, retain their photographic sensibility. They encourage us to view these worlds as descriptions of the real viewed through the imaginative lens of memory and logic. They construct new stories that are both personal and worldly: metaphors of the real built on the foundations of experience.
Alasdair: How did you become a photographer?
Virginie: I studied fine art in Nice in the early 1990s and, while my focus was quite theoretical at the time, I also explored photography. However, a few years later I took up photography in a much more intensive way. I had become very interested in the new business and retail parks that were being built; full of supermarkets, chain stores and warehouses. My photographs were precise, minimalist and devoid of human presence.
I am self-taught and I believe that this fact has helped me develop an authentic vision. I was not trained into the culture of photography and consequently I have never tried to imitate another photographer or a particular photographic style.
Tell me about the series ‘The Day After Tomorrow’.
This series is my personal impression of the region where I live, in the north of France. It is close to the border with Belgium and just across the sea from England and these images are of tourist resorts. When I first arrived in the region I felt a strange sensation of emptiness and immobility. It was as if the spaces had been created as sets for some post-apocalyptic film. Here, the visual reality seemed to demand that it be fictionalised.
What do you want to communicate about that place through your images?
The north of France is one of the most economically depressed regions in the country. In the past it had been a popular holiday destination for English people seeking good weather and there had also been a vibrant fishing industry. I tried to suggest that idyllic notion, that this was a place where the sun always shone: a place that is perfect, but not of the real world.
What emotional sense do these images have for you?
These are paradoxical images. The minimalist aesthetic evokes a modernistic sense of perfection but, at the same time, it is uncomfortably empty. Human beings are gregarious creatures, we like living with others, it is comforting. This place seems like a childhood dream, but underneath it is artificial and ‘chemical’. I think you could say that this is a metaphor for the control of our desires in the twenty-first century
‘Nouveau Monde’ is the only one of these four series that features people, but they are presented as giants. Who are these giants and what is the story behind this series?
In 1994, a tunnel opened that linked the continent of Europe to the island of Great Britain. Since then there have been many conflicts in the world that have seen a lot of refugees arrive in the north of France hoping to take the tunnel to settle in Britain. These giants represent the migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kosovo… who wait to seek asylum across the narrow channel of water that divides France from England.
The trope of the giant can suggest the heroic or the threatening. What ideas do you want to communicate though this visual metaphor?
A few years ago, I met two Afghan refugees who spoke to me about their story. It is important to understand the enormous risks refuges take when they flee their homeland. What would we do if we were in their situation? Who would wish to stay in a country which offers nothing but poverty and terror? They are exploited by boatmen who charge them a lot of money to bring them to France. And when they arrive they find few opportunities to settle down and little acceptance from the local population. Thankfully, there are associations to help them find basic food and clothing.
Are they heroic? Certainly, yes! It takes guts to leave your history behind and travel to the unknown. If they are perceived as threatening, it is because there are so many of them; the government has no solution and so tensions rise.
How did you begin to work with the support organisation that assists these immigrant workers?
I went to one of the centres that provides support for refugees and asked if I could make some photographs. They agreed on condition that I did not photograph their faces, because they were worried the photographs might appear on the internet and they did not want their families back home to see the sad situation they were in. When they leave their country, they do so with the promise of finding a better life for their family who stay behind. If the family discovers their true situation, the migrants fear they will lose their respect. It’s not easy to photograph people in distress; it is essential to behave ethically.
Where did you shoot the series ‘Echo Rooms’?
These landscapes were taken in the Death Valley in California.
Why did you choose this landscape?
The Valley of Death… The name is already so suggestive! These immense spaces in varied relief – a land of extremes, swept by a dry wind – have a history: the conquest of gold and minerals. Boomtowns were built quickly and people flooded in with the dream of making a lot of money. But eventually the price of the gold declined and everyone left, leaving behind ghost towns.
I like visiting these deserts with their remnants of past activity. I imagine that perhaps, in the future, people will walk in today’s cities to discover them as ruins… Maybe that’s just my romantic point of view…
What is the purpose of the holes in the ground?
The holes evoke the history of this territory: the buried past reborn as an ‘archaeological’ site. They are a metaphor through which to tell the story in photography. But these holes are also graves … opened up … suggesting that what was buried has already escaped. A photograph is just a visual story; it tells us what the author wants… it evokes the memory of things past.
What ideas initiated your series ‘Anamnésie Land’?
For a long time, I have been attracted by ruins and lost places. I began to photograph these spaces intuitively, without having a precise concept. I had not really thought of this becoming a series but, one day, I wrote some words on the pictures and I realised that something was happening. I began experimenting with the relationship between the images and the words… and in this way, the series was born.
What does ‘anamnésie’ mean?
Anamnésie derives from a Greek word which means “remembering from the past”. It is a word used in medicine to speak about the history of a disease, though for the ancient Greeks it referred to memories from a past incarnation.
What do you want to communicate in this work?
The illuminated signs ‘reactivate’ these abandoned buildings so that they become ‘ghost institutions’, existing only because the neon glows. These buildings which, through their signage, purport to have a function, in reality exist for no one because they are empty. They are no longer ‘human’ spaces.
For me, the world today is a strange place; it reminds me of the ending of the great civilisations of the past. The old ideologies are in decline and yet, paradoxically, we see that these old systems survive to generate crisis, illusion and corruption. ‘Anamnésie Land’ questions the weakness of critical vision in our century… But, in the end, don’t these pictures make you smile? Are they so very serious? I hope not! (Laughs)
Can you talk me through your artistic process?
I work with a 24 x 36 digital camera. I often use a tripod to ensure the image is really sharp, especially if the light level is low. First, I set about finding the best viewpoint: I want the buildings to appear isolated in order to create the sense of desolation. Then, I check how the image looks on the screen. I am looking to create a rather sinister atmosphere and, while I can manipulate that later in Lightroom, I prefer to get as much of the effect as I can naturally. I continue to use digital manipulation software for my projects, but with ‘Anamnésie Land’ I now try not to use it too much.
How is your work received by audiences?
‘Anamnésie Land’ has been exhibited in France, Belgium and China. While the series was certainly interesting to the photographic specialists it has also proved popular with the wider public. I remember an ordinary worker telling me that he liked these pictures because he shared the concerns they addressed.
Is it easy for women to become photographers in France?
What does it mean “to be a photographer”? The world is full of photographers; but to make a living from photography and to be recognised as a serious practitioner in the field of art… that is like climbing Mount Everest!
I am not sure there is much difference whether you are a woman or man. In France, what is important for success is one’s professional network. You need good contacts; you need to understand the contemporary art ‘language’; you need to know what is valued in photography and to understand the rules of marketing. People can wait a long time to be ‘discovered’; or they can be famous for a while and then slip back into obscurity. I remain very aware of the realities of this profession.
What is the most important thing you have learned about being a photographer?
Stay true to yourself and believe in yourself. Treat your eyes like precious jewels and don’t let dust collect on your lenses! Don’t hanker after success and money, and if you are successful, remain humble. Look at the reality of every day with fresh eyes and search for the sublime.
Virginie Mallard was born in Landerneau in 1970. She studied at Epiar international school of art and research, Nice (1989–94) and subsequently at the University Institute of French Teachers, Lyon and the University of Saint-Etienne (2003–05).
Virginie Maillard has exhibited frequently in Europe. In 2010, the eminent French curator Dominique Charlet selected her work for presentation at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China. An award-winning artist, she won the French SFR Young Talents Prize in 2010 and again in 2011.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the October 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.
First published at Talking Pictures on 12 January 2020.