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Phnom Penh, 2008
Phnom Penh (2008)Image courtesy of Antoine d’Agata, Magnum Photos

Documenting the dirty

Photographer Antoine D'Agata shoots the marginalised having sex, among other things, for his first book since 2005

Magnum photographer Antoine D'Agata has passed the better part of three decades cataloguing the vastness of human decay. Born in Marseille in 1961 and raised under the matted wing of photographers like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, D'Agata's surreal images of the forgotten and macabre captivate and assault in equal measure. DʼAgata remains no detached observer to the harrowing maelstroms he so often documents (i.e. sex, drugs, and darkness), and is even the subject of a documentary about his own personal obsessions called The Cambodian Room: Situations with Antoine D'Agata. Unwavering in his examination of our immense capacity for savagery, gluttony and extreme vice, he subjects himself wholeheartedly to all the filth-smeared sheets and blackened pipes and desperate cravings that lay waste to his hapless confidantes. Antibodies, Agataʼs latest monograph published by Prestel, proves no exception.

Dazed Digital: Can you talk about your continued fascination with the marginalised and macabre?

Antoine D'Agata: Contemporary society stages an illusory freedom that reveals real life but never makes it palpable, multiplying to infinity, invitations to dissatisfaction and separation. In a world where brutal forces of capitalism have frozen life, the only available choice, imposed by the glittering screens of mass communication, is an existence reduced to consumerism, a pornographic utopia of total communication and globalised boredom.

Ignored communities are the last focus of infection, profusions of raw humanity. Aware that every instant is precious, they are forced to fleeting encounters, emotional and physical availability. They remain on guard and rely, to enhance their senses, on artificial molecules that cause permanent damage to social and mental structures.

“I use photography as a weapon. It allows me to face reality”

DD: Describe your relationship with parameters, how do you deal with constraint?

Antoine D'Agata: I use photography as a weapon. It allows me to face reality. Barbarous celebrations of the flesh dissolve in the reality of crime or deviance. Denial of all religious logics; experimentation against order; risk of contamination against obsessions with safety; promiscuity against organised frustration; violence against brutality of power. The narcotic insurrection is a form of cancer that devours order: morals might be a matter of patience. Carnal and narcotic disorders are both the symptom and the antidote, the last possible means of a desperate struggle to deny the strength of economic order, not to survive but to exist.

DD: Lust is also a recurring element within your work.

Antoine D'Agata: In the frantic search for ecstasy, intensity of sensations nourishes a space of loneliness and despair, a desert of social forms. Methamphetamine promotes a cold lucidity, a heightened sensitivity to tiny fragments of sealed or hidden realities. As my characters, I'm locked into a spiral of physical and mental dysfunctions. However, I'm addicted, as they are, to the physiological chaos which excess generates. I am drawn to the flesh as a place of resistance. I am drawn to the other, as long as he represents a threat.

DD: Are the works an attempt to exercise your own motives? Or realise that of your subjects?

Antoine D'Agata: My position and the one of the characters in my images can't be compared. I am there because I consciously decided to be there. I lived twelve years in that world before taking a picture. Social war was inscribed in my flesh; I lost an eye to the police at seventeen and was born again in the infamous community of individuals who are reduced by the neoliberal market or disciplinary states to impotence, who are disposable. Every day, their children die while they breathe madness in plastic straws and aluminium foil to endure hunger, fatigue and wake. They can only attempt to create spaces that escape the moralistic principles dominating our societies. Our meetings take place outside any logic, any reason, provoked by the desire of feeling, of unknown intensities.

“I lost an eye to the police at seventeen and was born again in the infamous community of individuals who are reduced by the neoliberal market or disciplinary states to impotence, who are disposable”

DD: In subjecting yourself to those extreme experiences you portray, are you attempting a restoration of morality?

Antoine D'Agata: Obscenity rests in the hypocrisy of laws, in the psychological brutalisation of the mass subject, in the culture of fear and insecurity, in the discipline of crowds fascinated by the spectacle of their own enslavement, or the promise of a new happiness. Art should be an antidote to that dramatic infection which neutralises minds and distillates death. The creation of novel passions and life situations is more imperative than ever to survive the current general anaesthesia. Globalised capitalism has neither end nor limit, but its corrupt logics provoke the possibility of deviant attitudes that undermine its moral assumptions.

DD: What sort of things does Antibodies take on?

Antoine D'Agata: Liberal democracy rests on the invisible organisation of production and consumption. Deadly and insidious economic violence, brutal management and continuous elimination of large sections of marginalised populations havetransformed these non-productive communities, into social waste. I document the two opposite and inseparable sides of the rampant violence that devours the world: the institutional economic violence and a barbarous celebration of flesh that consumes itself in the narcotic fumes.

Economic violence, the murdering choreography of which we are all perpetrators of, is genocidal, occurring without noise beyond the sweet whisper of merchant democracy.

I choose to be there, in the geometric madness of the world, to witness with my own flesh the determination with which men undertake to annihilate men, how men destroy men, before making them die slowly.

Antoine DʼAgataʼs latest monograph, Antibodies, is published by Prestel