This is the second of two interviews carried out on the occasion of the new “J’étais là” (“I Was There”) exhibition by Stéphane Duroy and Paulo Nozolino, presented by Leica at Paris Photo 2015, an edition which was cut short following the 13 November attacks in Paris.
In this interview, Paulo Nozolino, born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1955, notably explains how his photographs taken in Brittany since 2010 embody his desire to be close and attentive to the day-to-day, to things that are perceived as banal, as poor, in a photographic quest that strives for the essential, starting out from almost nothing.
Before starting our conversation, I’d just like to say that I’m very wary of words. Most have lost their true meaning. Having read widely, I discovered that photographs are truer, that they hadn’t yet lost their purity. It also seems important to specify that this interview was carried out after the 13 November attacks in Paris – where I was too – which might explain my state of mind today, and perhaps make it possible to read my Brittany photographs differently.
You returned to Brittany several times with Stéphane Duroy, at the invitation of Paul Cottin, to work on two broad themes that you were free to develop as you liked: religion and agriculture, and notably their “disappearance”, which has profoundly impacted on lifestyles in this region. I’m tempted to approach this interview in reverse: when you’ve worked on a same place for so many years, how do you in the end choose the images that seem to have a meaning?
Working in Brittany was an excuse to continue the work I’ve been doing since I started out in photography. I have always photographed the sense of loss, and I have always had in mind the idea that we are not on earth for very long: for that reason, it is important to record things, moments, the people who are part of our lives, to preserve their memory. So in Brittany, I didn’t take photos that were fundamentally different from those I normally take.
I take very simple photos and, for nearly twenty years, I’ve only taken vertical photos. Is that a reaction to cinema, which I no longer watch? My field of vision has become increasingly narrow, for, what interests me, is a refusal of the grandiose. My work is an apology of the daily, of the banal, of the poor. That’s what I found in Brittany.
Where does this refusal of cinema come from? It seems to me, confusedly, that that may have some kind of relation to the question of words you mentioned earlier…
I read a great deal when I was young. A lot of poetry, all the Russian authors, who deeply marked me. Rimbaud, Pessoa, Ezra Pound. And later, there was a time when I was passionate about cinema: Antonioni, Bergman. And later, Tarkovski and very recently Béla Tarr. That was the last film I saw, for that matter: The Turin Horse. It seems to me to be the last film.
As for words, they are dangerous. They have been corrupted by economists, bankers, politicians. They have been dragged through the mud, all of them, but one. There is just one word that Power can’t stand: “NO”. So, nearly all my photos are “No”s. “No”, you can’t see that, and “Yes”, you’ll have to live with it.
And so you find this “Yes” in all the “little” anonymous, modest, humble gestures that go unnoticed?
Exactly. My photography is about a sentiment of loss. It’s a quest for the pure. I take great pleasure in simplicity, from working in an acute economy of means.
There are a lot of connections between what you are saying and the conversation I recently had with Stéphane Duroy…
We are not friends for nothing! (Laughs). And moreover, we worked on this project together. Stéphane became involved a bit earlier; I got involved around 2010. Initially, I didn’t want to go to Brittany. I didn’t feel like it. I had just buried my parents and I wasn’t in a good way. Then, I gave into Paul’s invitation and I went. Stéphane and I travelled around a lot and I was able to take photos for four years. You asked me – it was your first question! – how one eliminates images to arrive at something coherent: it happens by itself. When you manage to reduce everything you’ve seen to very powerful symbols, there’s nothing more to say and all that’s left to do is to show the work.
You spoke earlier of a kind of purity of the image. Can photography say, through its own language, everything you’ve told me in words?
Images are silent, they don’t speak, but I feel them. The aim is that they reach the guts of the people looking at them. It’s like a kind of cry, a vomit at the world we are living in today, as we have seen with the Paris attacks. I am highly pessimistic regarding that, but I always have been. Perhaps because I read too much Pessoa when I was young…
In our interview, Stéphane explained that he was moving further and further away from photography. You’ve mentioned an increasingly narrow field of vision. You are also engaged in a kind of “reduction”, in a quest for the essential… At present, what direction are your photographic projects taking?
When I was young, I was a painter. I couldn’t manage to express myself in painting, so when I discovered photography, I loved its realism – I am a realist, I like what’s real. I think that photography is a perfect tool for that. I still believe in the power of photography, and I try, through it, to go further, to the bone, and perhaps beyond, into the tiniest of atoms. I’m trying to push my photography to its limits.
So it’s a continual quest…
Yes, it’s a continual quest. I hate the word “project”, and, for that matter, I have no projects! I take photos – very few –, I work in a highly intuitive way. I am not at all conceptual, I take photos and then I think, at length, after… That’s how images start to talk one another, engaging in a silent dialogue between themselves. That’s where something begins to emerge, something that I didn’t understand at the outset starts to take form. And it’s precisely there that it becomes interesting. It’s like doing a puzzle… Putting together a book or an exhibition are very similar practices: they are about constructing a statement with images.
What statement were you making in this exhibition? What could be seen?
I started with these two images: the light off, the chimney walled up; we are without light, without fire. Encircled. The other images show a urinal (that resembles a shrine), a shovel on the ground, a spoon on a table, a burnt-out nightclub, a cross, made out of beams, in an abandoned house. I think it’s necessary, especially today, to maintain a quasi-mystical and quasi-religious character in photography: taking photos is a highly solitary practice. It’s almost of the order of a mission, at least for some of us. It’s above all not decorative, it’s not wallpaper. I want my photos to be like icons. That’s what I aspire to, that they be perceived as something you can find in a church. Something which is so simple, so pure, so noble… That’s what photography is: choosing what you want in this vast world and giving it importance, according to our code of values.
You said at the start of this interview that the tragic events in Paris may shed new light on your images taken in Brittany.
The exhibition was cut short because of the terrorist attacks. After having lived through the attacks, people came and told me that they looked at my work in a completely different manner. If before they found my universe very austere, harsh and dark, now they understood it, because they had just lived a very dark and hard night and day…
Do you know “J’étais là” (“I Was There”), the extraordinary poem by Guillevic? He writes: “I was there. I was there. Precisely there where nothing happened. Pulling that off was a long story.” This poem in a way sums up Stéphane, Paul and my story; our story. We were there in a place where nothing was happening, precisely there. But it is in this nothing that I manage to work. I need nothingness to bring everything out. Many people are lost in their gadgets, success and money, but they are distractions in regard to what really matters… We are only passing through, we should never forget that. Memento Mori.
To read the interview in French, please click here.