How Thomas Rousset is giving photography superpowers

Blurring documentary and fiction with pagan watermelons and Moët bottle cap jewellery

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Thomas Rousset

If you thought photography was about capturing existing objects and people, you're behind the times. Contemporary photographers are giving the medium superpowers in order to construct fictional realities and take you to places which only exist in their head. One of the strongest right now being Thomas Rousset, and it's not just about snapshots of a running shoe on a chicken's head.

Rousset comes from a small mountain village near Grenoble in France and studied photography at ECAL in Lausanne. His major project Praberians was largely inspired by his hometown, depicting a fictional rural community in a dreamlike French countryside where the everyday bled into the surreal. Carving pagan symbols on a watermelon, using Moët bottle caps as jewellery, adorning your body with dog stickers; by depicting such seemingly bizarre, random acts, Rousset questions everyday rituals and common modern behaviour. After all, our smartphones, daily pilgrimages to work and club dance patterns are just as weird – it's just a question of point of view. Rousset's latest collaborative project with Raphael Verona, Waska Tatay, goes even further, studying the culture of Bolivian witch doctors in regions of the Altiplano, and how their sacred traditions fit in with the contemporary world.

Dazed spoke with Rousset about primitive art, Waska Tatay and the weirdest Bolivian ritual he’s ever taken part in.

Do you remember how and why you started taking pictures?

Thomas Rousset: I think I really started to take pictures when I entered ECAL after dropping out of business school. But I don't consider myself a fetishist of photographic media. I would tell my stories in paintings if I could paint. My favourite phase of the project is making the sets and objects which comes before the photography.

Did the place where you grew up influence your creative practice a lot?

Thomas Rousset: Of course, I've always been into the environment that surrounds me. I think over time my memory might have soaked up faces, absurd scenes, landscapes, which unconsciously appear when I think about my images. They reflect what I experienced during my childhood and adolescence, although the place of my childhood is obviously not my only source of inspiration. I also draw my stories from movies, newspapers, internet, news... some films like Black Cat, White Cat by Emir Kusturica greatly contributed to my universe.

Did you shoot Prabérians in the village you come from?

Thomas Rousset: Prabérians was made in various locations between France and Switzerland. The idea was to create a fictional community lost in time and space. I did not want the viewer to project into a specific place and time. I tried as much as possible to confuse the viewer by mixing elements from the past, such as carcasses of old cars, with more contemporary ones. A lot of the pictures were taken in the same village, between my mother’s house and my uncle's farm. This space was like an open-air theater, I had everything I needed: sets, accessories and characters. I think I’ve probably used every square meter of the farm for this project, as well as many objects that laid around.

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Thomas Rousset

Most people find places they're from boring and uninspiring, but your perspective on it is quite magical and surreal. Did you aim to visually reinvent it? Or did you always see it this way?

Thomas Rousset: I was lucky to grow up in a place which was anything but boring to me. I like the idea of creating images with what is available at the moment. Saving and repurposing objects has always been important in my work. I think it is possible to find interesting solutions even in the most anonymous places. One of my challenges is to try to be creative in all situations that are given to me, this is also another reason why I like to occasionally work on commands with my friend Nicolas Haeni in our collective, Moos.Tang. Objects, clothes or even items that we have to illustrate or present, are not always exciting, then the role of the photographer become interesting because the image will have a completely different importance.

You've said that the Prabérians images came from your fantasy. Photography is not the most straightforward way to capture fantasy. How do you manage to create images which are both real and surreal?

Thomas Rousset: I loved playing on the boundaries between documentary and fiction, I wanted to create a sort of fake documentary chronicling the daily life of a community that may have existed in some country and in which I would have created for several years as a field reporter. I liked the idea that the viewer wonders if such places or characters really exist or not, today I care less about that. I have always attached great importance to the style and accessories that I randomly collected here and there and that I stock in anticipation of a potential picture, because most often I do not know in advance what will be the usefulness of a particular object that I find.

Why are you so interested in pagan and primitive aesthetics?

Thomas Rousset: Primitive art doesn't focus on a realistic description of the visible world. I like the idea to materialise the occult, myths and religious beliefs.

“We prepared a Mesa dulce, with coloured sugar figurines, miniature objects each with different meanings related to prosperity, health and a dried llama stillborn foetus” - Thomas Rousset

Tell us about Waska Tatay.  

Thomas Rousset: Waska Tatay was a project I did with my longtime friend, photographer and typeface designer Raphael Verona in Bolivia between 2010 and 2011. His wife Mariana is Bolivian, she had a very important role in our project, the link between us and the various local actors. Her family lives in the Afro-Bolivian region, her mother Dona Marta shared Aymara rituals with us. We took an interest in the lives of people of Altiplanic regions, filled with magical beliefs. With Waska Tatay we wanted to question our relationship to reality: we were struck by how myths come to life when they are shared in the collective unconscious. We wanted to create a kind of documentary fiction mixing images looking spontaneous, but very built, with other much more staged, reflecting our desire to create an ambiguous language, on the border of reality and fantastic, like our perception of Bolivia. We just finished the book that will be available mid–June and we're adding a narrative text content (written by Raphael) in connection with these cultures that provide a second level of interpretation.

Does the ritual exist very close with everyday life up there? Do you think it's different in our society?

Thomas Rousset: Of course, that is exactly what we wanted to show. The relationship with what is sacred is extremely present in the everyday life for the inhabitants of altiplanic regions. The cosmovision of the people of these regions is very rich. There is no Manichaeism 'good' or 'bad' and it really affects their thinking. For several decades there has been an unprecedented boom of the ancestral worship and practices. This involves rituals, the Andean cosmovision and dances. The new generations are the main actors of culture: Bolivia, unlike our countries of old Europe, has a very high percentage of young people. In clubs, bars and discos, international 'hits' are played alongside traditional rhythms. Traditional does not rhyme with outdated since it is constantly renewed.

What was the weirdest ritual you took part in or saw?

Thomas Rousset: We took part in some rituals of 'compensation'" or offerings to the Pachamama, led by Raphael’s step-parents. To the Aymara, it is through the smoke that the voice of the mortals reaches the Spirits (Achachilas) and deities such as Pachamama, Mother Earth. It is not located in a pantheon but in nature, all around us, everywhere. We prepared a Mesa dulce with coloured sugar figurines, miniature objects each with different meanings related to prosperity, health and a dried llama stillborn foetus. While addressing the Pachamama by making wishes for us (health and prosperity throughout our trip to Bolivia), we have burned them and left them to be consumed.

What new projects are you planning?

Thomas Rousset: I'm starting a new project that will probably take place between Benin and Cuba about Santeria and voodoo. Otherwise I regularly work with my friend Nicolas Haeni within our collective Moos-tang on various order projects related to fashion, lifestyle.

Do you have any books /exhibitions coming up?

Thomas Rousset: We just published a book with Raphael Verona of our Waska Tatay project with IDPURE editions. It should be available mid–June with an opening at the library of the Museum of Elysée in Lausanne. With another friend Charles Negre we just finished the layout of a project we made in Indonesia last summer, entitled '164° on the Equator'. It will be presented for the first time in the exhibition Against the Grain on June 5 at the Center of Photography in Geneva. Some of my works will be visible from June 18 to early July at the Gallery Nivet-Carzon in Paris.

Pre-order "Waska Tatay" here.

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