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Cyril Costilhes
Photography by Cyril Costilhes

Shooting a cursed town

Capturing the dark side of a Madagascan port, photographer Cyril Costilhes confronts his demons in this new book

Buried beneath its wild undergrowth and savage natural beauty, the Madagascan town of Diego Suarez hides many secrets. In 2003, whilst riding his motorbike home from Le Grand Circle Diego casino one evening, Cyril Costilhes’ father was involved in an accident that left him crippled with front lobe dementia. As a result, just over 10 years later, Costilhes has returned to shoot the mysteries of the land that snared his father’s sanity. The French photographer recorded his findings in his new book the Grand Circle Diego – and the results are dark, twisted and startling. Opening with an ominous quote from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, it reveals a nightmarish new side to an otherwise idyllic town. Obscured and captionless images of discarded bones and facial deformities flicker to torn flesh and blood pools as Costilhes battles with his demons and revisits his father's old home. We spoke to him about his inspirations, his discoveries and the difficulties he faced in the process.

Could you explain the book and project for our readers?

Cyril Costilhes: 
Grand Circle Diego is a damaged dream, a locked in catastrophy, looped and dislocated. Infected. The book has no way out.  It's the product from my quest to make sense of my father's accident that took place in the top North of Diego Suarez in Madagscar in 2003. It's a lost port of cheap sex and power, the anarchic pirate outpost of Captain Missionan, an ex-colonial comptoir. The end of the world. 

My father was living there and doing business – he had planned to finish his life there, but the dream got savaged. After a bad motorcycle accident that should have left him dead, he was forced back to France with heavy front lobe dementia. He's been locked up since, drugged up – a breathing dead and an impossible mourning. The goal was to transcend that monstrous situation and use it as a force to turn my life around in a positive way instead of enduring it, to take control of the beast and turn my father's accident into a sort of sacrifice. I decided to go back to the crime scene and use Diego as a laboratory.

The book was the ultimate goal – something sacred, dangerous and primitive. The proof of a personal quest. A book you could not ignore. An attractive and repulsive world you would be glued to right from the cover. You're faced with a strange internal organ kind of flower, beautiful and terrifying, nervous. You're attracted to a beautiful danger, you know it will drag you down but you can't help it, you have to go all the way. It's the feeling you get in Diego Suarez and I wanted to recreate this feeling in the book.

What was your process in creating these images?

Cyril Costilhes: The process was complicated. I had a vision of something much more documentary-like when I started and as it went on I realised how far I was going away from it. My gut was taking me somewhere else, somewhere I couldn't really understand. Some days I felt like being alone in the dark shooting spider-webs, some days I would need flesh, some days I would have my breakfast at the slaughter house. Nothing was planned out. I could also spend a week not shooting, just absorbing the atmosphere.

I knew I wanted to show this work to others in a book form, but above all, I shot this project for myself, as a last desperate way to reconnect with my father and to save myself. I felt free to do whatever I wanted and had nothing to loose. I didn't feel the need to apologise with my photography – the land already took so much, it liberated me from feeling any guilt. My way of working was cold and uncompassionate, and the days I was too compassionate I couldn't lift the camera to my eye – it felt too wrong and perverse.

There's a subtle eroticism to your images – is that intentional?

Cyril Costilhes: Sex is the beginning of every problem in Diego. It all starts from the girls, and it's the main reason why whites go there. Libido is present in the book and it feeds the work, but it's also there as a menace. In Diego Suarez the roles are reversed, you're a male and you're being hunted by vicious creatures. There is no feeling whatsoever, it's all about surviving. The white is the only exit possible, and the girl the only hope in a family. Broken-hearted old guys arrive in Diego and get intoxicated right away. They fall in love and move there, dreaming of fresh new start, full of promises, there to live the grandiose final. But it's a trap – a white trap.

Could you explain the title Grand Circle Diego for the readers? I believe it was your father's casino – how is it interpreted here?

Cyril Costilhes: In this story the casino was the utopia, the dream and the illusion. So in the title you have this reference to money reflecting a grandiose loop. The book is circled, structured around repetitions to reflect my father's dementia, but also my way of shooting – patterns I repeated over and over, unfinished or lost houses, distorted flesh, internal organs, girls, raw drawings on walls, broken webs...

How do you feel you have interpreted your father’s accident into these images?

Cyril Costilhes: My father's accident is present all along the book as a menacing black cloud. It's there on the look-out, watching silently. A danger runs through the book, you can tell something happened but you don't know what, or where. It's the father figure, you can't see it but you can feel his presence, you can feel his heavy breath in your back.

You reference Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as William S. Burroughs and the film Enter The Void (2009) – could you explain that inspiration, or where your inspiration comes from?

Cyril Costilhes: It's hard to pin down direct influences. I've absorbed from artists like Gaspar Noé, David Lynch, Antoine D'Agata, Anders Petersen, and Japanese photographers like Kikuji Kawada and Masahisa Fukase – but on this particular piece it has been literature. Particularly Reves sous le linceul by Jean Luc Raharimanana – the project got infected by it and helped me photograph in a more violent but graceful way. But I think what influenced me the most is the atmosphere at night in Diego, the shadows over shadows, intense and menacing, the empty bodies drifting, dissolving. I reinjected that into the work. It's all the subconscious input that helped me shape the beast.

Grand Circle Diego is published by Akina Books and already available in pre-order here. Don't forget to catch them during Paris Photo at Polycopies, from the 12th to the 15th of November, where the book will be officially released. Cyril will be present to sign the copies.