If we take a slightly caricatural view of things, the contemporary traveller is offered two ways of exploring the unknown, elsewhere, and others. Looking for a form of comfort, the traveller can rely on specialists who, in this field as in so many others, have become legitimate references – in the name of what? The traveller sets out on a fully marked route which will ensure that he/she does not miss the crocodile farms or the floating markets (which are kept active for visitors) in Thailand, or the Eiffel Tower, the tour boats and the Champs Elysees in Paris. Curious or just suspicious of the constitution and the consumption of clichés and misconceptions, travellers may also go off in search of adventure by themselves, to make up their own mind and, beyond, may hope to experience surprises and encounters that might edify them just as they might imbalance them.
In caricaturing so little, we can say that choices of the same sort are available today to the photographers who set off for professional reasons or in order to continue exploring the possibilities of their mode of expression in an unknown country, town or space. A first option is that they come with a specific purpose. Since a long time ago, this has been and is still the case for professional photographers who carry out commissioned work or who develop “subjects” for a press that repeats views over and over again. They are readily placed in one of the established categories (photojournalist, travel photographer, documentary photographer, travelling poet, ethnologist-photographer, architectural photographer, portrait photographer, landscape photographer, etc. – the list is long) that make it easy to pigeonhole them, which is sometimes reassuring for them and is nearly always reassuring for others. The alternative option is that they let themselves randomly follow the possible paths, hoping to simultaneously find images, correspondences, a little of themselves, and a lot of the unknown and of others. Of course, for the contemporary traveller and also for today’s photographer, there are a thousand variations between these two attitudes. However, they are part of the potential challenges of practices conceived as ways of life and which everything fundamentally opposes.
Ever since she started out as a photographer, Bieke Depoorter has chosen paths that only she knows, rather than follow signposted major routes. But what happens when, for example, we arrive at Sète and we know nothing of the town? The images proposed in the end do not help us to understand the procedure or the method, if indeed there is one. Faced with images that are free, enigmatic or descriptive, but which can never be limited to one single interpretation, we stop, just as the woman visitor had to stop. For each rectangle strikes us with its intricacies fed only on ambient light, free – without regard for standards of unity, of acceptable grain, or of sharpness – and we feel a deep rich palette, the sensuality of the material which says that this is colour photography (and not in colour), a visual perception of a universe vibrating to the rhythm of discoveries and surprises that are accepted as evident. No stereotype, not even an informative one. No acceptance of technical constraints: it is the night that best reveals the light, and not the sun-drenched town. Unclassifiable as documentary although loaded with evidence, irreducible to the notebook or travelogue even if they are presented as snatches, and unreceptive to narrative even when they are in sequence, the photographs impose themselves and resist at the same time. The mystery deepens when we see that these elements grabbed from reality are naturally structured to found a story of which we do not know the scenario, of which we can only follow the inexplicably harmonious thread as it seems to feed on digressions or chance. We certainly feel that, in the first moments during her first passages through the town, she who is deeply interested in people behaves like a voyeur, attracted by lights that will suddenly reveal a silhouette, a body or an attitude behind a curtain or in a doorway in the almost night. But soon, we are inside, in people’s homes, as close as possible to them, even in their bathroom, in their bed, in their sexuality. While the first shots may have a voyeuristic dimension – in the sense of Hitchcock’s film “Rear Window” – those that lead us to the simple pleasure of a shower or to the more complex pleasure of embraces are not at all voyeuristic, but are self-evident. It is probably a matter of distance. Or perhaps of magic, or of absence of judgement, anyway.
Since we are in Sète – which does not indicate any of the characters we meet in the course of this documentary immersed in the intimate – the sea will come to mean not a specific place or a geography, but a mood. Apparently calm, yet agitated by the perpetual, deep and indefinable variation of a material with sensuality even greater than that of the bodies. Sea inhabited by lights that are in turn on and off, calmly stretched between opposites that allow the coexistence of the hues from the depths and the lights collected by the surface before being captured in the emulsion. The sea is like a huge reservoir of colours, changing according to an internal logic within their spectrum that is invisible to the eye, an agitation that is impossible to transcribe, an absolute grain of colour, to those greys that we can no longer identify as colour or not, but which are colours.
Free photographers, like free travellers, get to know themselves in what they experience of elsewhere and of others. Happy is he who, like Ulysses or Bieke Depoorter, has been on a beautiful voyage…*
* This expression is an allusion to the famous sonnet by the French poet Joachim Du Bellay, from his collection of works, Les Regrets, published in 1558 : «Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage…», meaning “Happy is he who, like Ulysses, has been on a beautiful voyage…”