Finding the right distance: Mathieu Pernot’s Les Gorgan, 1995-2015
Towards the end of August 2017, I visited the Maison des Peintres, part of Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. The exhibition was ‘Les Gorgan, 1995-2015’ by Mathieu Pernot. My initial response on arrival at the gallery was guarded. When I saw that the subject matter was a ‘local’ Roma family, my filtering began to dismiss it as perhaps being weaker than some of the globally-recognised work we had seen at the festival. And it wasn’t neatly packaged for me. Was I looking at documentary or portraiture? There was a jarring mixture of B&W and colour, with vernacular snapshots interspersed amongst more formal captures, like an oversized family album. Within minutes though I was captivated. The tenderness and mutual respect between photographer and subject was evident throughout and the vitality of the individuals irrepressible. And this was clearly not a one-way narrative with passive ‘prey’. Pernot’s storytelling has many voices, layers and points of view.
As I wandered around, I was approached by a small child asking for ‘une petite pièce’. It immediately seemed odd as the security for Les Rencontres is very strict. Momentarily pretending I didn’t understand what I was being asked, I turned my handheld fan toward her, which elicited a broad and beautiful grin. In that instant, I realised the little girl was a Gorgan. For me, this family had already assumed celebrity status, indicated – not least – by the large photographs of them on the walls in front of me. Thanks to the advanced portraiture skills of the photographer, I already felt I was beginning to know them intimately. And so it was a surreal experience to be interacting with one of the stars of the show, and it created an aura which may have surprised Walter Benjamin. (1) I must confess I panicked. Would it be patronising to give money? Should we be encouraging begging? Haven’t I already paid enough for this? It was an awkward encounter which soon passed as the frustrated young Gorgan moved on to a new mark. But it was a moment that has stayed with me. I contacted Pernot to ask about this project and told him of the incident, intrigued to know how it would make him feel. His response was wonderfully positive: “The fact that the Gorgans were physically present in this exhibition is a process of reappropriation that touched me a lot.” (2)
Reappropriation is a strong theme for Pernot and one that epitomises his ethical approach to his work. Images taken from several projects have been collated and repurposed and photos taken by the family themselves have been integrated. There are no hierarchies and the ‘art image’ is demystified, enhancing the narrative. Pernot makes the most of photography’s peculiar properties – its democratic nature and its malleability, in particular.
Mathieu Pernot first encountered this Roma family while studying photography in Arles in 1995 and found it to be a transformative experience when a strong connection between photographer and subject was formed. He’s made portraits of Les Gorgan individually and as a unit for over 20 years, becoming part of the extended family and godparent to one of the daughters. He has also founded and funded Yaka, an association to support literacy and the integration of Roma children in the local community, and provide mediation for families struggling with state institutions.
His images are superbly executed, capturing the personalities, familial dynamics, their home environment and the fierce heat of Arles, as well as some of the more familiar tropes of ‘la vie gitane’. The attraction, however, is not nostalgic or romanticized, and certainly not driven by the aesthetics of folklore. Pernot does not hide the poverty but nor does he dwell on it. He reveals to us unique personalities. The overarching impression is of the energy and strong family bonds, and of the Gorgans prevailing, even in such difficult circumstances.
Jonathan and his father Johny © Mathieu Pernot
With a strongly humanist mindset, Pernot talks of a desire to create ‘monuments’. Many photographers have sought to ‘monumentalize’ their subjects – Hine, Sander, Smith, Arbus, perhaps even Gilden. This often involves the heroic elevation of a social status or profession or decontextualizing the sitters, as with Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990) and Native Americans (1995-96). Serrano admires Edward S Curtis, someone often accused of misrepresenting the indigenous people of the Americas by romanticising their folkways and fabricating a false reality. Serrano dismisses this idea: “That’s the nature of photography—it’s all manipulation…Curtis made his sitters look good, and what’s wrong with that?”. (3)
Curtis wanted to document traditional Native American life before it disappeared and was committed to portraying his models as dignified and noble. Paul Ardenne, however, claims that Curtis contributed to “an insidious segregation that turned people who were different into outcasts, transforming the ‘other’ immersed in his separate culture into a savage who could never be acculturated.” (4) Single posed portraits, made to monumentalize the subjects, tend to focus on external appearance – often just heads and shoulders – “as if those parts of our bodies were our truth” as Tagg observes. (5) This can convey a polysemous idea of the subject’s identity rather than indicating their connection to the wider society.
The attempts to monumentalize are entirely different here. There is no hubris, no patronising objectification. Pernot says the Gorgans exist in “a hyper incarnate world… they are like magnets with infinite power of attraction”. (6) He has tried to capture this energy, especially the children, ‘en guenilles, débordante de vie’ (in rags overflowing with life), for over 20 years. His focus is on the human, not ignoring the differences but not fetishizing them either. It is this nuanced strategy that allows him to cross the divide. Common metonyms of the Roma existence are deconstructed and blended with new perspectives and intimate, tender portrayals. History is recomposed. Les Gorgan are ‘Other’ but when we look at these images we hear them speak. These are three-dimensional individuals, not caricatures. Here we feel we can start to know and understand these ethnographic strangers, bursting with life from within the images. We can meet them in the middle and it is exhilarating.
Johny and Vanessa © Mathieu Pernot
Whilst researching for an exhibition in the late 90s, Pernot accessed hundreds of police identification files relating to the Saliers gypsy internment camps during the Vichy regime. (7) He also discovered that Bietschika Gorgan was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, a stark reminder of the genocide and relentlessly hostile racist environment endured by the Romani for centuries. In these current times of heightened global tensions and mass migration, demonisation of the Other as a scapegoat for all political ills continues to gain traction. Pernot takes a stand against that, subverting the panopticon gaze by humanising his subjects and giving a clear voice to this marginalised group.
Political deportee card of Bietschika Gorgan, 1945. Reproduction Mathieu Pernot
The fragile, nomadic and transitory existence we glimpse with this family is echoed in how the work depicts the passage of time. We see the changes, growth, ageing, death and decay, the birthdays, weddings and funerals. It is always fluid and Pernot responds with equal fluidity, his process evolving constantly, as genre boundaries are blurred. He talks of being “more theoretical, even cold” (8) at the start. Inspired by Josef Koudelka who lived with gypsy clans in the 70s and 80s, Pernot decided to keep more of a distance and take a conceptual approach closer to that of Walker Evans. (9) The early images were in black and white and very much in a documentary tradition but this changed with time. “The distance I have adopted with the Gorgan family has varied over the years. I was standing far enough away at first and I was taking pictures of people, often asking them to look at me. There was the idea of a face-to-face meeting between two people who were strangers to each other. In my last colour photographs, I am closer to them and I make images that show greater proximity. In the end, the ‘good distance’ has probably consisted in the variation of these distances, as it exists in every human relation.” (10)
Vanessa © Mathieu Pernot
As well as Pernot’s agile response to finding the right distance with Les Gorgan – “face to face, then side by side” – he also demonstrates flexibility in the multi-media strategies he uses to further the narrative. “A diversity of forms and points of view were necessary to take account of the density of life that came into my view”. (11) The combination of text, audio, archival materials, drawings, video, Polaroids, ‘found’ photographs, smartphone images, photobooth mugshots, as well as his own large-format images, makes for a rich and engaging journey for the viewer, reflecting Pernot’s deep and multi-faceted connection with the family.
Johny and Rocky © Mathieu Pernot
Another key factor in maintaining the right distance, Pernot deploys appropriation as a critique of representation. When he was unable to spend time with the family, they filled some of the gaps by providing their own snapshots. These were included in the exhibition in Arles, sacred gallery space that is normally reserved for established artists only. When one of the Gorgan sons, Rocky, died in 2012, a portrait by Pernot was framed as a medallion on his tomb. As Clément Chéroux points out “Mathieu Pernot also now exhibits in the cemetery in Arles.” (12) This loop of appropriation emanates from the trusted connection that has been established, and feeds back into it, but may also lead us to ask questions about authorship and art. Pernot does not seem to care about this: “The question is not whether my work is art, document, participatory ethnography or other things. I like that things are moving, that they are not fixed and locked in a single use. Photography is like life, it is both very complex and something very simple. Some of the pictures I made recently may look like the ones the Gorgans have made. The idea that we do not know very well who is the author of certain images I like a lot.” (13)
Pernot builds on his photography practice with sociology, anthropology, history, ethnography and political science. Through close collaborations, his sincere humanist standpoint, consistently respectful and selfless interactions, plus the long-lasting relationship with his subjects, Pernot’s dynamic approach is an exemplar of ethical representation in portrait photography. He shows the individuality of those he photographs, whilst capturing the commonalities that connect us as humans. Pernot’s images are close-up and brave. They are intimate and revealing and, above all, they succeed because of his overriding concern throughout to find the ‘la bonne distance’. He says, “There are two kinds of photographs: those related to a photographer’s request, when he asks the subjects to play a role; and those related to immersing the photographer in a place, letting the image unfold itself.” (14)
Ninaï, Ana and Rocky © Mathieu Pernot
Pernot’s formula resonates strongly with me. He does not shy away from trying to portray ‘the Other’ but tackles this with such sensitivity, and through respectful alliances (“faire avec”), that his authenticity shines through in every shot. As Jim Mortram says about his project Small Town Inertia: “…the real key is to check one’s ego in at the door, to not think of the camera as a free pass or a shield.” (15) Pernot’s skill in combining stunning aesthetics with an ethical position and a strong political message is impressive and inspiring.
In my own practice, I aim to be reflexive, maintaining what Gerry Badger describes as “the artist’s crucial detachment, that of consciousness and intent”. (16) Portraiture is, of course, exploitative by default but I must remain aware of my privilege and power as a photographer, and always be truthful. But I also wish to live by Pernot’s philosophy: “There are things that are more important than the photos you take and you have to let go and be carried away.” (17)
The ‘right distance’ changes all the time but it can be found by maintaining a close, long-term and collaborative connection with our subjects. Above all, we must be humanistic and authentic. Creating a false impression of proximity will undermine relationships and ultimately detract from the success of the images. Pernot sets a high benchmark in the ethical representation of his subjects and it is reflected in the quality of his work.
He plays it down, of course, “I simply met incredible characters who actually changed my way of seeing things.” (18) Les Gorgan is not just an extended portrait; it builds a monument to their family bonds and the strength of the Roma community. More than that, it is a love letter to the human race.
Helen Rosemier, OCA 416376, June 2018
- https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm (Accessed on 24.6.18)
- “Le fait que les Gorgan aient été physiquement présents dans cette exposition relève d’un processus de réappropriation qui m’a beaucoup touché.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
- http://www.hcponline.org/publications/spot-issues/spring-1996/andres-serrano (Accessed on 29.6.18)
- Ardenne, P. & Nora, E. (2004). Face to face : the art of portrait photography. Paris Great Britain: Flammarion.
- Tagg, J. (1988). The burden of representation : essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.
- “Le monde des Gorgan est un monde hyper incarné. (…) Ils sont comme des aimants avec une puissance d’attraction infinie, je suis bien obligé d’en faire le constat.” https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/par-les-temps-qui-courent/mathieu-pernot (Accessed on 28.4.18)
- http://maneo31.fr/IMG/pdf/panneaux_expo_saliers.pdf (Accessed on 13.5.18)
- http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/mathieu-pernots-les-gorgan/ (Accessed on 28.4.18)
- Chéroux, Clément (2017) ‘Trouer l’éternité’ In: Pernot, Mathieu Les Gorgan 1995-2015. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral
- “La distance que j’ai adoptée avec la famille Gorgan a varié au fil des années. Je me tenais assez loin au début et je faisais des photographies face aux gens en leur demandant souvent de me regarder. Il y avait l’idée d’un face à face entre 2 personnes étrangères l’une à l’autre. Dans mes dernières photographies en couleur, je suis plus près d’eux et je fais des images qui témoignent d’une plus grande proximité. Au final la bonne distance a sans doute consisté en la variation de ces distances, comme cela existe dans chaque relation humaine.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
- https://www.en.jimeiarles.com/mathieu-pernot-the-gorgans/ (Accessed on 13.5.18)
- “Mathieu Pernot expose donc désormais aussi au cimetière d’Arles.” Chéroux, Clément (2017) ‘Trouer l’éternité’ In: Pernot, Mathieu Les Gorgan 1995-2015. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral
- “La question n’est pas de savoir si mon travail relève de l’art, du document, de l’ethnographie participative ou d’autre choses. J’aime que les choses soient en mouvement, qu’elles ne soient pas figées et enfermées dans un usage unique. La photographie ressemble à la vie, elle relève à la fois d’une grande complexité et de quelque chose de très simple. Certaines des images que j’ai faites récemment peuvent ressembler à celles que les Gorgan ont réalisées. L’idée que l’on ne sache plus très bien qui est l’auteur de certaines images me plait beaucoup.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
- “ll y a deux sortes de photographies: celles qui sont liées à une demande du photographe, quand il demande aux sujets de jouer un rôle; et celles qui sont liées à l’immersion du photographe dans un lieu, laissant l’image se déployer d’elle-même.” https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-grande-table-1ere-partie/avec-mathieu-pernot-et-ilsen-about (Accessed on 13.5.18)
- http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/05/qa-j-a-mortram-on-his-ten-year-project-small-town-inertia/ (Accesed on 13.1.18)
- http://www.gerrybadger.com/notes-from-the-margin-of-spoiled-identity-the-art-of-diane-arbus/ (Accessed on 25.2.18)
- http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/mathieu-pernots-les-gorgan/ (Accessed on 28.4.18)
- “J’ai tout simplement rencontré des personnages incroyables qui ont effectivement changé ma façon de voir les choses.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)