Gabriel Bauret

The conversation
Giorgia Fiorio


Gabriel Bauret

In the course of the interview woven around the different photographs in this book, an interview which shifts between the real and the fictive, and whose protagonists we cannot clearly identify – an approach which takes on an even more symbolic twist when associated with the figure of Giorgia Fiorio, imbued with a certain mystery – one of the interlocutors mentions an attraction to "closed communities”. Many documentary photographers, a category into which Giorgia Fiorio may a priori be said to fall, have indeed experienced this “attraction” to closed spaces. A closure which, if we try to see it from the photographer’s point of view, gives an impression of being better able to master and exhaust a subject, or at least more clearly discern its outline. Yet this discernment of the physical limits of a space, is it not the best means of approaching the thought, the psychology of those who inhabit it, and in the end, the surest means of bringing a documentary project to term? Whether we take, for example, Raymond Depardon in the San Clemente mental asylum, Jane Evelyn Atwood in women’s prisons or Leonard Freed, one of whose reports consisted in following the work of the personnel of a New York hospital, we remark that all who have worked in a regular, and not occasional manner, in this kind of place were in general stimulated and borne up by the principle and the atmosphere of closure. They equivocated, played with the rules, exploited the fact that their subjects were, at the moment of taking the shot, more at their mercy than for example in the street or the studio. Their subjects could, it seems, no longer escape them. And they understood, that in time, they would perhaps manage to unmask them. Straight off, as a young photographer, Giorgia Fiorio tackled male societies via the reality of communities on whom is bestowed an exemplary role. Yet as opposed to certain works cited above, the beings she chose to meet, though closed off, remained free to choose their destiny. They themselves decided what they wanted to do, especially in their belonging to a group –which is not the case for the ill person or the prisoner who has not decided and who is more often than not alone. But what all the communities portrayed by Giorgia Fiorio share, something that also features in the “conversation” which follows, is that all their members prepare for a combat, a confrontation with the other, with the unknown. The “other” which takes on different forms according to the function of each community, which is in turn, mine, fire, animal, sea and enemy… Giorgio Fiorio thus undertook to methodically observe all these people, their behaviour, their way of preparing for adversity. She also photographed them in the very face of adversity, with the exception of the legionnaires, as she is not a war reporter. She followed each moment in this communal existence and this raison d'être founded, largely, upon physical force. Furthermore, via firemen, miners, legionnaires, boxers, sailors or bullfighters, she has opted for the very archetype of this force, a male archetype. One would be tempted to speak of caricature, but her work here has nothing caricatural about it, in the sense that it is never limited to a single vision of human reality. Instead, it opens onto a certain complexity. It goes beyond bodies, touches upon other shores, other forces. It also has to do with mental force, with sensitivity, even doubt and fragility. And the underlying principle of this book is the expression of this very orientation, this quest. It outlines a movement which takes us from the physical towards the spiritual; in other words, from the surface to the depths, from the outside to the inside, and, in the end, from the group towards the individual, towards solitude. Thus, the collection of photographs on these pages has not been conceived as an addition, as the sum of all previous publishing experiences, of all the territories and communities formerly explored. Instead, it epitomises another approach. It is the culmination of a re-reading of images which gradually relegate considerations of place and time into the background: in other words they invite the reader-spectator to go beyond the documentary field per se. The “reportage” elements which Giorgia Fiorio published in the past in the form of successive books and which deal with the different types of male professions throughout the world, are here chosen, brought together and set off in the light of another project, another motif. This book deconstructs the order formerly developed – founded upon a typology – to reconstruct another. Or more precisely, it develops a visual account which draws more heavily upon an inner will, an approach more autobiographical than documentary, even if the author does retain a large part of her mystery. As always, Giorgia Fiorio is never exactly where we might expect her to be. In this regard, it follows an entirely classical method, which consists first of thematising, classifying, ordering, and breaking down into sequences, before then extricating itself from this self-imposed straitjacket. The December 2001 exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute in Paris already constituted a rupture with, and an initial dispersion and disorganisation of, that former ordering. This book takes that further. It weaves an unbroken thread between the images; it does not display a marked segmentation, but on the contrary a slow and ineluctable progression. It reminds us once more, underlining a sharp awareness of photographic form, of Giorgia Fiorio’s consummate attention to framing, to perspective and to the values of black and white. Clear and determined demands which make for a precise, sure, and never monotone visual rhythm.

The conversation

Giorgia Fiorio

An autumn day. I'm strolling in the park with F. Two children are running around an octagonal basin.
I sit down on a bench. F. remains on his feet, walking on the spot, with a pensive air.
-F., I suddenly say, do you remember the conversation we had about photography?
-Yes… I think it was concerning your series Men. You said that it wasn't simply a series of Men, but that little by little it had become something else... Then you argued at length the notion that, contrary to painting or writing, which unfold out of themselves, by way of signs, forms, figures, and so on, photography is always born out of contingency. Yet such contingency, once photographed, stands removed from its context and can be appropriated by us; it becomes ours, and in its timeless immobility, becomes something else...
- Yes, more or less...
...You know, at first, at the start of each new project, we try to reassure ourselves as to what it is we are seeking. I mean, I knew absolutely nothing about my subjects before taking them on, but it was as if I carried within me an unconscious nostalgia for something unknown. So, mechanically speaking, what happens? You find yourself, let's say, at the Plaza de Toros in Seville, or in Brooklyn in a boxing gym, or in Scotland in a little fishing village... or wherever.
Always, first off, we carry out a kind of reconnaissance on the subject: for instance, for what we believe their environment ought to be, or their features of dress, or even morphology. We go looking for an image in our memory to seek out its confirmation in the subject before us: the pomade in the bullfighter's hair; the square jaw beneath the legionnaire's kepi; the moustached fireman, cigarette end in mouth; the heavy-knit sweater, tweed cap and reddish beard of the Scottish fisherman, and so on... I know, it's sickeningly stereotypical.
- I didn't say that... Go on, go on!
- In fact, it's only little by little that we adjust our "perception", so to speak, to the present, to what the subject before our eyes really is. But what's strange, is that I, unawares, then entirely detach myself from this vision of the real, to the extent of carrying out a second reconnaissance: not as to what the subject is (as of now clearly identified) but as to what I'm looking for in them...
...From which point on we embark upon a kind of "voyage of discovery" -and particularly in the case of Men- upon an exploration of their "initiation",  as what we're dealing with here are closed communities.
F. throws his head back and says with a smile:
- I beg your pardon, but what exactly do you mean by initiation?
You don't have to answer straight away. Perhaps we'd better find shelter, as it's starting to rain.
We go into a café, a kind of kiosk in the middle of the park.
The glass-roofed room is empty, except for a man sitting at the corner table at the far end, smoking, reading a foreign newspaper.
F. sits down and orders tea. With a wave of the hand to indicate I want nothing, I resume:
- Yes, I said initiation because one of the things that constantly recurs among these male groups is indeed each one's exclusive sense of belonging to their respective communities. Now, this mutual belonging, these affiliations, bonds, call them what you will, are acquired and then take root through the collective experience of a physical and moral training, whose rigour is indeed mindful of an initiation rite.  It transpires, that this physical element, as a genuine bodily confrontation with life, becomes dominant in the subsequent formulation of the affinity between these men.
- "Bodily confrontation", what a dreadful expression! Indeed, in this age of technology and the "virtual" it seems so antiquated (…) And what is that other awful word you use so often as if it were your own coinage? Ah yes, physicality! So, let's say... by way of recapitulation, that these gentlemen have the monopoly on exclusive belonging to a group, and also a monopoly  on what we might call a physical quality (if I may refrain from employing that coinage of yours).
- Really, I don't know why I bother trying to explain things to you about which you couldn't care less...
- No, quite the contrary! Only thing is, you're not explaining to me, you're explaining yourself, and to yourself. No need to get so het up, my dear.
- Alright... Listen, let me give you a more down-to-earth example: this physical dimension is that which determines, amongst other things, that fact that we are sitting here, inside this café, because outside, we'd be getting wet; so in truth, the reason  we're here is for fear of catching a cold!
- So you're proposing that our every action, however minor, is part of a chain of cause and effect...
- Right!
- Glad to hear that! But that's what happens all the time, to differing degrees, in all of our lives.
- True. But that little mechanism, when you isolate it from its context and close it off into a framework of rules apart from the freedom we enjoy in our modern societies,  unravels in a kind of stripping back in which everything is exacerbated. The community lives according to the ritual codes of a belief. Which amounts to saying that in the gestural perpetration of a tradition, every act is exorcised, justified... to find, precisely therein, its raison d'être.
I'm getting carried away. My voice has risen slightly and the solitary man is now looking our way. F. brushes his hand across his brow and leaning towards me says in a low voice:
- We've managed to get ourselves noticed. (…) Are you sure you won't have anything?
- No, I'd rather go. That man... I don't know, he bothers me. He seems vaguely familiar, I feel I know him from somewhere... Who knows, he might even be a legionnaire!
- Indeed. He could also be a bullfighter on holiday in Paris. In fact, in theory, every Tom, Dick and Harry in Paris could be, believe themselves to be, or even pass for one of your men.
- You say that because Paris represents for you the myth of "The city where everything is possible" and as for what you call my "men", you see them too as idealized into stereotyped mythologies. You equate them too readily!
- Granted... But now, if we don't care to spend the night locked up in this park, we had best leave.
We head for the exit. Suddenly, F. rushes on ahead. I lose sight of him. Then he comes back into view, holding open for me the door of a taxi he's hailed. I climb in without a word. F. remains standing under the rain:
- Say, tomorrow is Wednesday, the Louvre closes at ten p.m. At a quarter past seven, our usual spot! You'll be there?
I smile. He gives me a gallant wave, walks around the car and vanishes into the crowd of overcoats.
The Louvre, seven o' clock: for once I'm early. I go up to the first floor and cross the cavernous rooms leading to the Grande Galerie. There's not a soul. The slightest sound reverberates as evening gathers in. I go up to a window. A fly is buzzing against the pane. Outside, Paris.
A hand brushes my left shoulder.
-Good evening, sorry to barge in on your reverie… I had hoped that here in this majestic setting our discussion might take a more serene turn. And, as we are here, I have a question for you...
F. gesticulates as he walks, his footsteps ricocheting like a distant drum across the parquet floors.
- Returning to the topic of the physical dimension, says he, coming to a sudden halt. Your pictures give off a certain undeniable sensuality: all those muscles, those drawing-like forms,  almost statuary... I wonder what the male body actually is for you?
- This sensuality of which you speak, I see it as dramatic, as if it stemmed from its own ephemeral nature: that extreme tension on the cusp of breaking, the instant which precedes the ictus... hence the vulnerability of these giants.
- Did you know that in Latin the term for orgasm is Ictus oestri…, proclaims F. distractedly.  
Once more silent, F. approaches Correggio's "Venus, Satyr and Cupid", he fixes a detail with his gaze and then looks at me defiantly:
- Venus… And you, what a pity, not a single woman!
- But F.! My work was on men... Yet there were in fact two reasons why. One personal: I felt like a voyeur, being a woman myself. I felt I hadn't much more to explore on that front. The other reason was that I was looking for that closed context of communities, of people who had chosen to break with their original existence to live in a "society apart". -I am of course speaking of Western societies- Because however emancipated she might be, the woman as mother, is the primary core, "potentially" the first link in the chain. There are no "communities of women" in the male sense of brotherhood. That said, there are some exceptions, women who renounce their maternity. Two categories; can't you guess?
- No, not really. Enlighten me.
- …Nuns and prostitutes.
I pause at length... F. remains impassive, then exclaims:
- That's going a bit far... Do you really maintain that?
- Well, not in an offhand way, but today, after ten years of work on "men", if I'm asked... perhaps.
- Come, come! says F. already some way off.
Time flows on as if through a clepsydra. At one point, five or six people, coats rustling, voices animated, pass swiftly by in a bustle of air redolent of evening damp... F. retraces his steps as if he'd forgotten something. He stops two paces away.
- Imagine, as if thus far, we'd said nothing... you've not yet explained to me the most important thing. Why do you take photographs? He says in a low biting tone...
- Because it simply can't be otherwise...
- That's not an answer.
F. moves off anew, turning his back to me.
- Then let me put the same question to you in other terms: what do you photograph? And anyway, what does it mean to take pictures?
- …That which is hidden, the look that is veiled or shines behind the gaze, the imaginary essence, that absence which seems to contain the absolute, and which is but nothing... I seek out that instant when, for me, the real becomes abstraction.
F. lets out a long, barely audible whistle.
- Yes, that's all very well... but let's try to keep our feet on the ground here. Didn't you say that all photography amounted to contingency? (...) There is a dichotomy between this immateriality, this non-real, of which you speak and the immobilized enclosure of the photographic image. It is difficult to uphold that photography can embody that which is not, even if it is true that in photographic images reality is transposed into another semantic context.
- But exactly, F.! One's starting point has to be a highly intense visual experience of "real life"; or that the perception of the photographer manages to unearth this "truth" among things which are seemingly insignificant, or significant but not apparent. What I mean is, it's up to us to move in a perpetual coming and going, it's up to us to be, to breathe, to suffer; it's up to us to love, to hate, to want, to contradict ourselves, and it's also up to us to surpass ourselves, to go beyond ourselves... Through photography I strive to take hold of that chimera, the grandeur of the human figure.
- So, where were we before this digression? You were talking about your initiates of pure energy, whose vulnerability we have an inkling of... What happens next? I imagine they're ready to do battle...
- Right. And here, to help your understanding, I'll be more specific. For love of clarity we should restore their identity to each of my "initiates": so once more, they the boxers, they the miners, they the legionnaires, they the bullfighters, they the firemen, they the fishermen... They.
Each one gives battle, or according to your point of view, gives himself over to battle. A battle that is concrete, real, physical, up against an adverse Element.
Yet given that the disparity between the opposing forces is so disproportionate, more often than not this battle tends to be extreme, at times heroic, often epic, always tragic...
- But can't you see the anachronism of these pure and fearless knights?
- Listen F., heroes have always existed... But now, if you will, empty your mind a minute: Imagine them, if you can, laid out from a punch, their brains shuddering in their skulls, their vision blurred... Dragging themselves on their bellies, on their knees and elbows, eight hundred metres beneath the earth... Falling, alone, in silence, struck by a bullet in the chest... Beneath the charge of a wild animal, drawing a distraught dance upon the air... Choking, blinded by thick black smoke, close to becoming a human torch... Sinking, drowning, to become but a missing person in our memory!
...And all that, is normal. It's par for the course. It's what has to be done... That tour de force, accomplished beneath the beating drum of the biceps, all comes down to this...
It's nothing, just an instant.
A fragment of a photogram in the film of a life: there, everyone comes face to face with themselves. Like in a mirror wherein you see yourself for the first time. No longer, boxer, nor legionnaire, nor fireman, nor sailor, nor miner, nor bullfighter, but quite simply and tragically man.
Men like all other human beings, immense in the humility of their condition.
- Is that what you really wanted to say?
- …Yes! ... Well, no... I mean F., what can I say? As I've told you before, it's only a fixed shot, a freeze frame, after which all resumes its sudden course, ineluctably, imperceptibly.
F. lowers his gaze.
- Well, thus shall we take our leave, in the words of your beloved poetess:
"And life shall be there, its bread, its salt
And the days' forgetting.
And all will be as if under heaven's vault
I had not been°".

Giorgia Fiorio © Paris September 2001

° Marina Tsvetaeva : The sky is burning