As with all minorities, invisibility is the first great hurdle.
There is a tradition in Western folktales that the good are young and beautiful, with strong graceful bodies and sharp minds, destined for wealth and status. Characters who are old and ugly, whose bodies are bent and whose minds eccentric are to be shunned. As narrative metaphors, they stand for weakness and evil and deserve only poverty and exclusion.
Contemporary society, far from maturing to understand the error of these associations, has harnessed the trope for advertising, establishing impossible ideals that are both empty and unattainable. As the West becomes ever more materialistic, communities are fragmenting into disconnected self-obsessed individualism. We struggle to be something we are not, rather than celebrate what we each are. While this materialism is promoted as freedom of choice, it is in truth a prison of conformity and alienation.
It is against this background that the French artist, Denis Darzacq, creates his work. For him the body is an instrument of social critique with which to explore the constraints and barriers suffered by people marginalised by materialist society: the disaffected youth of suburbia, people with physical or mental disabilities, those on the fringes of society. In his images, each body interacts with the context and meaning inherent in the locations it occupies. But these bodies break free of the conventions of each space, to express their own personal sense of being. In so doing, they open up the possibility of reconnection; of escaping the roles defined for us by our perceived limitations. It is within that newfound freedom that we can come to recognise that it is our differences that make us human, make us valuable. It is in our uniqueness that we each add to the richness of the community as a whole.
What does compassion mean for you?
Being French, I come from a Latin culture where the definition of compassion is sometimes dangerously close to that of pity. However, it is important to distinguish between these two concepts. For me, compassion involves understanding I am not fundamentally different from the people I photograph. I have no interest in pity.
Do you seek to encourage a compassionate response in the viewer?
I am interested in the lives of people from minorities whether that be social, ethnic, sexual, physical or psychic. I want to encourage a reflection upon their place in our society. This is a theme of much of my work.
Before we move on to ‘Act’, which is the main series I would like to discuss, could you tell me about the series called ‘Hyper’.
The title ‘Hyper’ derives from the French word for a supermarket: ‘hypermarché’. The series questions the place of ordinary young people from working-class backgrounds in our increasingly materialistic society. At the time, the French advertising mogul Jacques Séguéla had stated publicly that “if by the age of fifty you do not own a Rolex, you are a total failure!” No! Our value is not measured by the accumulation of material things but by acting according to our responsibilities and our rights, ethically and morally. That is what makes us social and accountable. The driving force behind this series was my concern about the downward shift in our society from being to having.
Each image juxtaposes two different realities. This is achieved without digital manipulation. On the one hand, there is the familiar backdrop of commercialism and, on the other, the proud strength of youthful bodies in movement, refusing to be subjugated. These resilient and jubilant dancers perform ecstatic feats of radically eccentric expression in spaces designed to promote conformity and consumption.
Who are the performers?
They are amateur athletes from a gymnasium in my neighbourhood. They play different sports and some practice Capoeira. Capoeira is a highly physical Afro-Brazilian form of dance mixed with martial arts and acrobatics, which has become quite popular among young people in France. I asked them to use their bodies to respond to the hysterically materialistic environment of the supermarket with all its excesses. They agreed to collaborate. Without these young people – their intelligence and their talent – there would be no photographs. It is their self-discipline and hard work that enables them to challenge the very laws of gravity.
A year after you began ‘Hyper’ you commenced working on a much larger series called ‘Act’. How did this project come about?
‘Act’ was developed using the same approach as for ‘Hyper’, but around a different sociological model. ‘Hyper’ featured young people from working-class backgrounds; in ‘Act’, the focus shifts to people with disabilities.
Who are the performers?
Some were victims of an accident that now confines them to a wheelchair. Others are able-bodied but suffer from a mental disability. And finally, some are both physically and mentally handicapped due to neuromuscular or genetic disease. But all of them, in one way or another, have the courage to fully experience life, no matter what personal challenges they face.
What are they doing?
In the same way as for ‘Hyper’, I asked each performer to feel totally free to move their bodies expressively while in these public spaces. These are important urban sites: museums, theatres, civic parks, city halls, railway stations, and so on… They are the kind of places where people with disabilities are tolerated as long as they do not assert their presence. I asked these performers to liberate themselves from that constraint; to move and express themselves in these public places in whatever way they wished: with fantasy, joy, and eccentricity, if that was their choice.
Why did you choose ‘Act’ as the title?
This English word ‘act’ was the only one that summed up the ideas behind these photographs. It has several interrelated meanings. First, the idea of action, of not being passive … taking control of one’s life, not being a victim. Secondly, to perform as an actor performs. To reject the limiting role society has assigned, to open up the field of possibilities through play, dance, theatre and all forms self-expression. Finally, to be an activist, because wanting to change the way others look at you is a radical act which implies a deeply democratic commitment, just as it did in the earlier struggles in the West for the rights of women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities.
How did you develop the collaboration?
This work took me two years. It was principally made at three locations: in Bradford, England, with the theatre company Mind the Gap; at a centre for disabled young people near Brest in France; and a psychiatric home near Miami, USA. Each session lasted an hour or two. I asked the performers to choose a location and then use their bodies to express themselves.
What ideas do you seek to communicate about people who have a disability?
Simply that, beyond appearances, we all have the power to invent our lives. Fear of others comes from ignorance… and pity does little to encourage feelings of a common, shared humanity. We live in a civilisation increasingly defined by images. Presenting these photographs in books, galleries and museums, gives these disabled people a visible presence; they assert their existence just like everyone else. As with all minorities, invisibility is the first great hurdle.
I believe we all have our differences and our limitations. There are times when all of us, relatively speaking, can feel handicapped in life. I was interested in what makes us similar rather than what makes us different: less in the handicap than in our common humanity.
Can you give an example?
I was photographing two young paralysed lovers who wanted to pose together. I subsequently asked to make individual portraits. The young woman left the frame – with the aid of a hoist because these are bodies unable to move unaided. While the young man was lying there, we heard the young woman exclaim: “You are so beautiful, I love you so much, I love you terribly.” Everyone was stunned and I asked myself: “In my whole life, has anyone ever offered me words like this? Am I even capable of saying them myself?” I was overwhelmed. This is the type of humanity I search for in my work.
Four years after the completion of ‘Act’ you undertook a project called ‘Act 2’. How does this relate to ‘Act’?
In 2015, the Paris Opera asked me to create images for 3e Scène their online digital art platform. I offered to photograph the dancers of the Opera Ballet on the streets of Paris in a way that connected this new work to the images made with young disabled people.
I showed the dancers my photographs from ‘Act’ and asked them to draw inspiration from the expressive forms and gestures created by the disabled performers. This reversed the usual perspective, for now those with disabilities became choreographers for the most talented dancers. I wanted to emphasise that our differences need not be what divides us, but rather aspects of a common language which can connect us and enrich society as a whole.
How did the ballet dancers respond to this way of working?
I had been warned about the supposed difficulty of bringing the dancers of the Opera out of their elite and overprotected environment, but it proved not to be a problem! These dancers are part of a younger generation who are much more open to the real world than their predecessors. They all engaged with the project happily and enthusiastically.
Do you show ‘Act’ and ‘Act 2’ together?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to be able to exhibit these two series together, so that they present a kind of dialogue. It works well.
What have you learned about compassion in the process of making this work?
In the end, nothing is more effective than working together in a compassionate way! This does not mean that I have become a man who can easily face the unknown challenges of every day. It is a continuing struggle, but I am convinced that compassion is one of the most beautiful experiences in life.
Denis Darzacq was born in Paris in 1961. In 1986, he graduated from the National School of Decorative Arts, Paris, and began work photographing rock bands and taking film stills. In 1997, he joined the celebrated French photo agency VU. He began developing his artistic work in the mid-1990s, subsequently exhibiting across Europe, the Americas and Oceania, and showing in a number of important museums and galleries in China. His work has been published in eleven monographic books, as well as many catalogues and magazine articles. He won the Prix Altadis in 2000 and the Prix Niepce in 2012. In 2007, he won first prize (stories) at World Press Photo.
photo: © Anna Iris Lüneman
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the October 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.