This conversation took place in July of 2023 in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, France, in David’s studio. It has been edited for clarity.
FIRST PRINCIPLES - ON DEMOCRACY - EARLY DEVELOPMENT - ON MASOCAPITALISM - ON IDENTITY - ON RELIGION - ON VICE - VANISHING VALETTA - ON INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM - ON PROCESS
Kevin Andrew Heslop: David, do you have any preconceptions or expectations or hopes for how our conversation might go? Anything other than a completely broad and empty canvas?
David Pisani: So, I have this anecdote of an experience I had when I was a little bit younger. 1996. That was the first time I went kind of professionally—although I was still pretty amateur—to Paris to confront the world of photography on a very high level. And I met up with a very important person in Paris who very graciously offered me five minutes of his time. Which obviously I was very nervous about at the time. You can imagine. It’s like you going to some super editor and it’s make-or-break. And obviously I had prepared my little speech. I had, in my head, tried to predict many questions that he might possibly ask so that I would have the right answer.
I went out and very nervously bought myself a white shirt so that I could be a little bit more presentable than what I was at the time. And I turned up for this meeting bang on time, obviously. We sat down in his office on the Champs-Élysées in his office with a view of the Arc de Triomphe. Very symbolic. And he sat me down and he asked one question, which was the question I would have never expected. He said, What do you want?
Because, you see, these people don’t have time for small talk. He would have already researched me. I know that he had a recommendation. And so, for him, it was already fait accompli. He told me: What do you want? And that was the question I wasn’t expecting.
And how did you respond?
Well, I thought about it for a couple of seconds, trying to look as cool and as composed as possible; but obviously I must have failed miserably in his eyes.
Why do you assume that you failed miserably in his eyes?
He was someone who had enormous experience in the field. He had no time to waste. He knew he had a good opportunity to provide. He just needed to get down to the nitty gritty: I don’t want to hear the story of your life; I don’t want to know your mother was a prostitute (which she wasn’t); or things like this. That my father died in a car accident. Let’s get down to grass roots. What. Do. You. Want. I told him, I want an exhibition in the Biennale in Paris next November. And I want your property.
I want your space. And he said, Okay. That was it. You see? And so, from that, I learned. In fact, I get students here. And like to challenge them with this question. Because they come with their portfolio pictures and they want to explain what camera they’re using and that their father had another camera. And I sit them down and we look at each other for just a few seconds and I always say, What do you want? Because that’s where it is. That’s where it is. So, even in this situation where we are here, I will ask you that same question. I mean, I could bore you for the next couple of hours, but I’m asking you, What do you want? Not because I’m attacking you, but because let’s get right to the core of the thing. I have loads of stories to tell. And if you want those stories, I tell them to you. If I say, What do you want? And you say, I want your stories, then we’ll do stories. We won’t do photographs.
Recently, in the last six months, I was in Paris. I went into this kind of brothel. Well, it wasn’t really a brothel because now brothels don’t really exist in France. They’ve been outlawed, unfortunately, but there’s always ways of getting around these laws. Anyway, I went to this hooker-place. And the host said, We have all these formulas. You can have this. You can have your dick sucked. You can have—And I took the cheapest option. I said, I just want to have an encounter. And so I was taken into a room. It’s all red lights and it’s all dim and everything and this woman came in, a middle-aged woman. I forgot her origin. And she started undressing and she said, Do you like my breasts? And whatever. Doing the whole sort of rhythm thing. It’s like it’s a machine.
I said, Put your clothes back on. You’re lovely, wonderful; I think you’re fantastic. But that’s not what I want. I want a story. I want you to tell me a story. She sat down on the bed. We never took our clothes off or anything like that. And I told her, Listen, I’m a writer. Which is not true, although I am partly a writer. Part of what I do has to be connected to stories, you know? So I started asking her questions about her, you know—How long has she been here? Where was she working before? Does she find it tough? Has she had any bad experiences like weirdos coming in? And, you know, very, very quickly, you establish a relationship of trust. And with that trust, which is fundamental to everything, she eventually opened up. She gave me her real name (because they normally use a work name). Like, My name is Leah, but in fact she was born Monica. So I told her, What’s your real name? And she told me. And where are you from? Blah, blah, blah, blah. Your childhood. And these people really want to speak. They don’t have that kind of attention. And from that develops a story. And from that, eventually, could develop a picture. Because if you don’t have the trust, you’ll never get the picture.
That is fundamental to everything in photography. If your photograph is not good enough, you were not close enough. Not close in the sense of distance, but you’re not close enough to your subject. Your subject will not reveal itself to you unless you understand your subject. And that is a fundament of photography. Which has been lost with all this digital snap-happy crap, you know.
*chuckling* Snap-happy crap. That’s very good *laughs*.
Mind you, the snap-happy crap actually serves a function; because we are actually documenting, like never before, the collective body of photographs which are being taken in the world are this kind of 24/7 documentation of who we are, what we look like, how we dress, and what type of vehicles we drive. And sure, it’s never been done before, so it is, in the sense of a body of work, which is interesting. It’s not art.
What’s the distinction?
The distinction is that, when you take a picture of what something looks like, it’s to show somebody what it looks like.
But not what it is.
Is that it?
No. So, when I take a picture with my phone or with my little digital camera, when I take a picture of that shirt hanging on the hanger, it’s because I want to show you what a black shirt hanging on a hanger looks like. Now you probably already know what a black shirt hanging on a hanger looks like, but I’m showing you my shirt. I’m being specific. That is what we call a record-document. And those two words are very important. One, you are recording the fact that the shirt was there at that particular time, which now digital cameras do; and it’s also a document that this shirt by this printer here in Charente puts his shirt on the second hanger of his darkroom door. So it’s a document. It has information. Okay?
An artistic picture is not implemented by information. It doesn’t care. An artistic picture uses metaphor. It’s the same in literature. So, it’s one thing when you write a biography; and it’s one thing when you write a novel which is pure fiction but based on reality. So, the same black shirt hanging on the hanger, if I photograph it with artistic intention, I am going to use it. I am going to make a photograph which uses that object as a metaphor. You see? And I’m going to do it in a completely different way.
So, allow me to propose a metaphor that came to mind. There were a few, but one was that that shirt hanging on that hanger represents the artist’s ability to take off an exterior he has to wear when he’s moving through public space, and how he can reveal himself within his art practice.
Yeah, but actually there are many ways of—So, what happens in any artistic picture is that the artist himself is going to have a vision of things. So, he’s inspired like a painter or a sculptor. He says, I’m going to make a picture or make a painting or make a sculpture which is my vision of things, which is how I see things, and which uses my references.
Once the piece is done and you submit it to the public, so it becomes public, when it’s exhibited in a gallery or whatever, the artist no longer has any control. It’s now the viewer that appropriates the picture with his own references, with his own set of ideas, his cultural background, his family background, his ethnic background, whatever it is, and he will make something out of it. So what you’re giving them is a flat platform, you see? And that is how art works.
Is it flat, though? would be my question.
Flat in the sense it’s neutral, it’s universal.
So, universality is another big thing, because universality uses references which are universal but the word universal is actually a constraint because it depends on the culture which is applying that universality. For example, kids born in the year 2000 in California have a certain culture and upbringing which is very, very different from the same kids born in Lithuania, in the east of Europe, with a certain background. So they will not have the same kind of universality. Now, photography, when you look at the history of photography—I’m talking more classic photography, not so much conceptual, experimental photography—photography had something which is why it became widespread so quickly. It was rapid. Within twenty years, everybody had a camera. And we’re talking the 1920s; we’re not talking now. Now, the universality of photography comes from the fact that it uses light. Generally, especially when it was invented, it used natural light. So, natural light is the ink that photography uses. Language is different because obviously there are different languages. I don’t speak Chinese. I can’t read a Chinese text. I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t speak Russian. So I’m limited in my access; but light is universal. And that’s what photography did. And that’s why it became such a powerful media tool, eventually, because it was commercialized, no?
Because whether you were born in the north of Europe in Iceland or in Norway, you know, or whether you were born like myself in the deep south of the Mediterranean, as a baby, already from the day you were born, you were in your cot; your mother was there; you looked out of the window; there was light. And the light changed. And then, eventually, you grew up; you went to your grandmother’s house. Your grandmother had a garden and the shadows came down on her little plants and you remember these things. Light is universal. It’s a different kind of light, mind you, whether you were in the deep south of Australia or in Tasmania or whether you were up in Canada, really up in the northern sides, or maybe touching even Alaska, light is different. But as human beings, we experience light before anything else. And to run it a bit more, apparently we even see light when we’re in our mother’s womb.
But let’s say we don’t need to go that far. But it is universal. And that universality of photography, which means that when a shadow drops on a table where there’s two eggs and a jar of water, suddenly, somehow, whether you were born in California on Sunset Boulevard or whether you were born in a forest in the middle of Estonia, you’re going to understand it. Because it’s the light, not the object. We’re not talking about the eggs; it’s the light falling on the eggs. And we’ve all seen that, you see? And that universality of photography made it the most powerful medium, tool. That’s why advertising, pornography, for example, and all these things; it’s the light—it’s not what is being photographed, it is the light falling on the object. That we understand.
Everyone knows what an egg looks like. You don’t need to show me an egg. But an egg on a table with the window light, we’ve all seen that. And we all know we’re going to eat that egg for dinner.
*chuckles* So that was beautifully expressed. And the question of universality and light, I think, predisposes the medium, in some ways, to a kind of radical democracy; and I feel like that bears on your thought.
Yes. Well, I mean, that’s quite a vast and very, very complex—Because photography obviously took different paths. There was obviously the artistic path, which was the last one to actually—The first one was military. So, photography was developed as a military tool. There was this whole push in research to get something up on a balloon or something for reconnaissance, to take a picture of what the enemy is doing so you could counteract it. And the United States and France were actually on the forefront—but more the United States—It was a military objective, okay?
It then became a pictorial objective; and then it became popular. You know, the box browning with Kodak coming out with its first rather cheap useable cameras where you could just take a picture of your grandchildren, send it off to the pharmacy—at the time they would develop it in borax and fix it in sodium sulphide, which is what I still do today, technically speaking, only it’s more refined—and you got your pictures back in an envelope the next week; and you had a souvenir. And that—But then the artist—The first photographers came along, it was actually split in two: there were the documentary, the ones who said, Let’s show people what the world looks like.
Okay? And they were the bigger section because it was also—I think there was a need for it. There was a real big demand for it. But there was a small minority who said, You know, I could play with this shit. I could do crazy shit. I could do stuff, you know?
Now they were a minority and they didn’t come in until the 1930s, so that’s almost 60 years after the invention of photography. They were the later ones to come in but they would eventually be the strong ones, no? To produce works which became self-contained works of art and not documents, although some documents also today are prized because—But—It’s simply because they’re old and of great historical importance, you know? I’ve got a huge Atget—I don’t know if you’ve heard of Eugène Atget, end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century—documented the Parisien streets. He’s considered one of the greatest pioneers of photography because he drew the line between art and document, you see?
He drew it by walking it?
No, he drew it unconsciously, because you have to think, there was no concept of art photography. It didn’t exist until the 1970s. This guy was like 70 years before. But his obsession was to document the streets of Paris because that’s where he lived. He thought it was important. He would sell his pictures. They were albumin pictures; they were about this size. He would sell them to painters. That’s how he made his living.
And he just kept on going. His whole collection, which was going to be thrown away, was salvaged by an American photographer, Lee Miller, in the 1940s, and is now all in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s all conserved over there. And he is the most quoted photographer in any photography book. In a sense he was doing it unknowingly, but I’m sure he kind of sensed what he was doing. He knew it was important.
But art photography before the 1960s, there was nothing; there was very, very little. And nobody recognized it. Nobody was going to exhibit anything or even pay money for it. And now we’re in the millions for an old picture of Gustave Le Gray.
Mm. You’d used the word obsession to describe the photographer that you mentioned and I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.
Well, obsession in the sense that he did only one thing; he did it obsessively not in the perverse sense of the term, but more in the sense that it was his great passion. He saw a possibility and he just did it. He did it against all financial considerations. He died very modestly and there was no glamour involved. I saw many, many, many of his original pictures. I actually have one but that’s another coincidence.
Mm. Returning to this question of democracy and the politics of the body—
—I wonder if you have any words to say about that subject and that concept, which seems to have been very important to you, if I can put it like that.
Well, it is the central topic of my work. Now, how do you explain that?
Okay, I’ll do a quick, a very quick run through of my passage through life. So, I was born on a southern mediterranean island, which is very much the southernmost point of Italy. Catholic. Big churches full of gold and stuff and this baroque, baroque, baroque, which, when you’re a kid, you think, The whole world looks like that (because you don’t know anything else: you’ve never seen pictures of New York or LA or Miami or, I don’t know what, Indonesia). And also I was brought up very close to a red light district, which I thought was normal. So, again it wasn’t very glamorous, mind you. let me stress: this was not a pretty place to live in, technically, but it was human. There was some violence but it wasn’t very violent. There was lots of humanity; lots of interactions; things we don’t have today.
So I grew up in this area and I was always fascinated by the pictures in the churches. Huge canvases, you know. Magnificence of ecstasy and of, you know, even Christ on the cross—who was actually pretty sexy. Although for someone bleeding to death, he’s actually got a lot of muscles, you know, because the baroque aesthetic makes the body very supreme, supreme. And the angels and all these things—everything is like, Wow. Wow. Wow. So it’s like art on steroids, you know? Literally on steroids. Medically. And this is the 15th, 16th century. It’s not yesterday, you know. They didn’t have boob implants at the time, but I can tell you they knew how to draw them.
No, it’s true! They kind of had it in them already. Or that the boob implants of today are actually referenced from that art. So anyways, I grew up in that environment; and eventually I wanted to photograph something, not which looked like that, but which felt like that. And that is the critical thing. So in these pictures, in these paintings which you see in these churches, there were a lot of scenes of martyrdom and ecstasy. Even Christ on the cross, the virgin Mary with her son, the Pietà, the famous Pietà of Michelangelo. They all very kind of grounding me into this aesthetic reference which, even today, even if I wanted to, I can’t get out of. I’m stuck with it. It’s me. You know, you’re born with it.
But the turning point came when I was kind of a teenager. I must have been sixteen or seventeen years old because you have to understand, also, in the 1970s, on a strictly Catholic island, there was no way you could get your hands on a pornographic magazine or something. It was completely banned. It was Mass every day. Let me just tell you that: Mass every day at school. I went to a Catholic school, so you get the drift?
It wasn’t oppressive, but we didn’t know otherwise. You thought it was normal. You thought everybody had mass everyday, but in fact the Buddhists maybe didn’t; and certainly not the kids in LA on Sunset Boulevard or whatever. Anyway—And one day somebody slipped me a girlie magazine. It wasn’t even pornographic. And I was like, Wow. And you’re like so excited by the whole thing. And then I started observing the aesthetic of the picture, you see? I said, Oh, she’d like this, she’s sitting down on this silk drape or whatever and she’s leaning backwards and her mouth is open and her eyes are—She’s kind of all horny or whatever but it looked so much like the paintings in the church. It looked like exactly the same thing. I thought, What the fuck is going on? This is supposed to be the devil. This is supposed to be god and paradise. And they look exactly the same and if you eliminate the decor and everything, the posture, the body language was exactly the same. And that obviously fucked me up. Completely.
Because I didn’t have yet the references to be able to analyze it properly as I do today, you see? So it fucked me up but it set me out on this sort of voyage to understand, What is the human body? Who are we? We are only the body, in fact. Eventually, later on—I mean, at least twenty years later—it took me forever to figure it out, so then I went into body politics. Because even religions become oppressors of the body. They tell you you can’t do this, you can’t do that; you can’t jerk off.
If you jerk off you go to hell. I’m using my own Catholic references. And then you eventually realize that no, In fact it’s quite the opposite. That you have to break down and you have to penetrate into these things to really see the humanity of things and there the humanism there. Eventually I would, when I was older and a bit braver, which took another ten years for me to actually develop, go into a bar where the hookers were. And I sat down, the first time I did it, and, because I wanted to understand what was going on, I wanted to understand their point of view, their feelings for it. But I’ve always had my cameras on my neck, which was sometimes an opportunity, sometimes a limiter, because not everybody appreciates that you turn up with two Nikons on your shoulders. But I used to do—This is something I relate in that book I showed you, that black book. Well, the first time I went into a bar I took my cameras and I put them on the counter so that nobody would think I was trying to steal a picture. I put them on the counter. The guy, whose name was Leli, he was behind the counter and he didn’t look happy to see me. One, I was too young. Two I was a newbie; three I had two cameras over my shoulders. And so he came up to me and said, What do you want? And I said, I’ll have a double whiskey with lots of ice. And I told him, And you can have one too.
On me. If you’d like one, you can have one too. And I thought he’d say no, but he said yes very quickly because he was an alcoholic. So the fact that I already broke that first barrier, that helped. So I had my drink. He commented about the cameras. I can’t really remember, but I said, Look, don’t worry. I’m coming out of my job. I’m a photographer. They’re there. Don’t worry. And I ordered a second glass. Mind you it was cheaper at the time. You couldn’t do that today. I ordered a second and I offered him a second and he took it. And anyway, to cut a long story short, before you knew it, he was telling me half the story of his life, including things which would have given him, easily, fifty years in jail.
Then there were the girls obviously on the counters, so you offered them a drink as well. That came a little bit later. I had to pump up a bit of courage. And that led me into that whole world of body politics. I started actually taking pictures of what I called the working girls, you know? But I stopped very quickly because I didn’t want to do a reportage about the bad working conditions. I saw some pretty horrid stuff, you know? But I’m not a photojournalist. That’s not what I was trying to do. I did a bit—they’re actually up in Paris at the moment; they’re being exhibited; I’m not too happy about it but the gallerist insisted on showing them, because there are some pretty crude pictures—and so I stopped. I thought, Morally, I’m not even prepared to do this. And then I went more into this kind of artistic, surrealist way of dealing with sexuality, death—because death and sexuality are always intermingled—and my own Catholic upbringing. You know, it’s very personal, so you’re actually spitting up your guts and just throwing them on the table for everybody to see and criticize and poke their fingers into—
—This is really horrid.
And then after they’ve poked their fingers in your guts, you have to gather them back up and put them back in your body and sew yourself up and walk out *laughs*.
Or you just cut it all out and throw it out in the dump. This is what you’re doing. A picture of the girl in the room with her hands tied in the—It’s not an easy picture to make. It takes a lot of work, discussion. It takes a lot of me spending sleepless nights thinking, I kind of have to do this but why am I doing it? You torment yourself a lot. It doesn’t just happen very easily. And then—And I’ve also been very, very heavily criticized, particularly by feminists who do not understand that, actually, those are feminist pictures. They are criticizing the abuse of women but the feminists don’t get it. They just see it as a postcard, I guess—face-value. Say, What is this? This woman tied in brooms, you know. How dare you show her naked, her pussy up in the air. No, you’re not getting it. You’re not seeing the metaphor, you know? You don’t understand that she’s actually on a pedestal. She’s statuesque. She’s stronger that any woman you dream of being. Mind you all my models hate feminists, by the way. They simply hate them. They say, They just don’t get it.
Well, I join you in the avoidance of categorization.
And I’m sure that each of those who’d identify themselves as feminists are constellations unto themselves.
But I couldn’t help but feel that one who would level the critique that you’re exploiting this woman presumes that she doesn’t have agency in participating in the way in which her body is presented.
Not only do I not exploit them, they come running to me. Please do it. Because I explain to them what I want to do. I can actually show you an email. Normally what I do is I do a little sketch; I kind of develop the concept. I’m actually working on one at the moment. I’m struggling with it. I’m struggling badly, you know? Because it’s a rather complex and a bit daring picture and I’ve spoken to the model about it. She’s all for it. She’s like, David, anything you want. I’m game. But that doesn’t mean that I have a carte blanche. I still have to be very careful because what I do has to have a meaning which is beyond anything which is glamour or sexy or any of these things. And I’m struggling with it at the moment. Literally at the moment. But the one, just to take the example of the one with the broom, I did a little sketch. I sent it to her. I said, Listen, this is what I’m trying to say; this is what I’m trying to do. And would you accept to do it? And she said, Not only do I accept; you’re giving me—She’s a single mother; she lives these things, you know? Her husband went off, you know? At the same time she has this amazing body because she has these huge broad shoulders because she does weightlifting which gave that strength at that power.
Such a strong image.
Talk to me about the torment.
Ah, the torment? No. I mean, okay. So, this is me, this is just a personal thing, but whenever I start developing a picture, even these pictures here which are part of another series, you know, I kind of visualize it before it’s actually happening and I look at all the elements I’m going to put in it and how I’m going to do it and whatever. And for me, there always has to be some kind of higher, moral reason to do it. Now that’s again coming from my upbringing; it’s something I haven’t been able to shed. I don’t think I ever will. Because that’s me. And you have to accept it as being you. So for me, if I send out a message, even if that message is going to be interpreted in a million ways, depending on who’s looking at the picture. But at least from my point of view, I want it to be safe, in a sense, that I haven’t done something purely for the glamour or purely for the—
Yes, sensationalism. So just to give you an idea, this picture over here of a woman who’s actually a mannequin with a collar around her neck, so it speaks about submission and ownership. But it’s voluntary submission. Without going into the whole BDSM world, it’s actually part of a project where this picture, was done with this. So, this is the camera. It’s a J&B vintage wiskey box with a vintage lens on it which made this picture, so they get exhibited together. So what I’m doing is a dialogue between luxury and objects which we fetishize because we are all fetishists.
Except that this, you see, this is socially accepted and this isn’t. So the two are together, okay? So, another one.
This is a box of Chanel perfume. It’s a lovely—You know on Instagram people post things that they receive something in the post and they’re opening it up and they’re unwrapping it.
Unboxing, yeah, yeah. I mean, if that isn’t fetishism, what is? So this camera took this picture. Which is a mask used in the BDSM scene. It’s called respiration constraint, so it heightens your experience while sending back your carbon dioxide into your body. So, in latex and all this. This is considered underground. This is not considered underground. But they are exactly the same game. It is fetishism.
Look at you. Okay, so you’re carrying forth that same essential realization, which is that the human body was portrayed in a devilish context and a godly context simultaneously and these are branches of the same tree and you made a connection to their trunk and now you’re able to make that movement from the trunk to divergent branches and say, These are actually part of the same thing.
They are. Not only the same thing but whereas—because now I—I don’t want to use this sort of cheap capitalist argument, you know, but capitalism, to a certain extent, was very clever in that it made fetishism of its products very socially acceptable and desirable whereas the true fetishism which we are all born with, which is the desire for sensuality—not sexuality, because there’s a big difference there: sensuality; touch, for example; smell and all these things—was considered perverse, was deemed or became something perverse. And what I’m trying to do in this project is to actually show that, No, that they are exactly the same thing. So I’m using very stereotypical fantasies and objects—you know, the maid’s apron; the woman that’s obviously a mannequin standing there in her sexy langerie; and again it’s a very male vision—but that picture was taken with that box. That’s a box of Hermès. There was a scarf in there. It cost four hundred or five hundred Euros. So it’s a dialogue. It’s a very direct dialogue.
Something that I noticed too in that particular photograph is the way that the back of the chair looks like an extension of her buttocks and you get this sense of woman-as-furniture.
And it’s my projection.
But I think the references are there. I mean this is a very particular project whereby when and if I ever exhibited, the camera goes with the picture, you see?
You can’t have one without the other. They go together. Those go together. These four. I’ve got a fifth one up there. And a shoebox of Louis Vuitton.
But I’ll read you a text. So these are two psychiatrists who wrote, among some other things, about sexuality and stuff like that.
An excerpt from a book called The Way Men Think.
Which is a horrible title. So, Krafft-Ebing, he was a psychiatrist. So, “the perversion”—we’re talking about perversion because we think that wearing sexy lingerie or being dominated, you know, being flogged (and it goes both ways, by the way) or wearing crazy shit, whatever, “perversion named after sexual arousal caused by our own experience of pain.” So here they’re talking about sadomasochism. “Also the excitements of being humiliated or of being in someone else’s powers” so colouring or all these things, being urinated upon, for instance, or being tied up. “It can include, too, the elaborated fantasies and daydreams of humiliation with which for many people, male and female, sexual excitement is routinely accompanied.” Okay? “To treat all masochism exclusively as a perversion, though, is to miss a vital lesson psychoanalysis has to teach, namely that masochism exists as a propensity in each of us, and as such is normal and non-perverse.” And that’s something society hasn’t been able to accept.
You know, I’m thinking about—I don’t want to look at capitalism as the key to understanding your work—
No. It’s no great evil. I don’t get into this trip, you know?
But in the context of this conversation, considering the way that capitalism functions: there’s something masochistic about it about how one has to inflict an injury on oneself in order to acquire something—and how, the more expensive the thing one acquires, the greater the fiscal injury one inflicts on oneself.
But that comes parallel with the fact that capitalism was born, predominantly, at the beginning of industrialization, in the late 18th century—with a Puritan society. And that’s where all of this was thrown out of the window. And yet it was one and the same thing. But you’re right about the punishment of the—Yes.
And that the satisfaction that can be derived from the masochistically capitalistic fetish, the more expensive the object. And I’m thinking about the 500-Euro scarf or the Louis Vuitton.
And so the distillation that I’m hearing of the text that you just quoted is that that that’s normal.
That is should be considered normal. And it’s healthy. And it’s a bit complicated. But actually we are being denied-There are many references. These are just one of a million people who have written about this thing, you know. And we are being denied access to our own body by simple rules, you know? Simple rules that you do not cross. Women do not abort. Who gave you the authority to tell me whether I abort or even whether I take contraception? Where does that authority come from? You’re not God. And even God. What the hell, you know? But we are more and more and as things evolve—at least as I’m seeing them today—the ways laws are being designed, they are always restricting our bodily movements. We are being channelled—not me and you, because we can be free thinkers, but—the masses who do a nine-to-five job every day and never question what the hell they’re in. All they think about is their retirement plan and that they’re going on a cruise to Disneyland, you know?
I think many who are stuck in that so-to-speak rat race are aware of the rat race but don’t see a way out. And they see their kids and they see a responsibility to their kids, you know?
But they’re also trapped in something to which there should be at least an alternative. One of the first girls I photographed who was a sex worker, she was a bit of a rough-and-tumble sort of kid, obviously, coming from—at the time—You know, I mean, also economically, we weren’t doing very well. We just lived from day to day with our mother cooking a little bit of soup or whatever and off to bed and off to school and there was no plan; there was no luxury; we didn’t go on holidays skiing or anything like that. These things were just completely beyond our imagination, you know? So she was a bit of a rough-and-tumble girl. Did the minimum of school but by 16 she wanted to get out, she wanted to get a job, and she wanted to earn money so she could be independent.
Now, already, that step, to say, I’m not going into further education; I want to be independent. I mean, if that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is, because that’s exactly what you want to do. So she got a factory job sewing jeans, I think it was. Demin jeans. Big factory, lots of noise. And you’re there from 8—you had to be there at 8—8-3. They clocked off at 3 o’clock. Horrible noise. You get 15 minutes to go to the loo. You get a 30-minute break to have your lunch and that’s it. Otherwise you’re bent double over this machine. And one day she just said, I can’t do this anymore. She left. She met a guy who was kind of in the pimping sort of—but not the rough—it was more, I think, a bit mellow. He said, Listen, if you want, I’ll take care of you and you do your thing and that’s it. And she actually wrote that she started earning ten times more money than she was earning at the factory. She was meeting a lot of interesting people. She didn’t see a problem at all. And, most interestingly, she took control of her body, because being on a machine from 8-3, you have no control over your body. In fact you’re actually destroying your body. And she said, I will never look back. I will never look back. And I’m proud of what I did. She’s a prostitute, a whore, or a hooker—whatever. But we’re far, far away from society actually accepting these realities. And unfortunately it’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. We’re regressing at the moment. We’re not in a phase of human history where we can actually—You know, everyone’s talking about LGBT and we’re all cool and we accept everybody but that’s actually worsening the thing.
And that was something that we’ve talked a little bit about before; and I really think that there’s a really crucial insight here, which is that the more people fixate on identity-distinctions, the more easily they can be advertised to. That identity is essentially a means by which algorithms can function.
Plain and simple. I don’t know who the hell got the idea, but it was a brilliant idea, to actually say—I mean, it’s been known in history, but the more you can categorize and you can put people in certain boxes, you know—lawyers and doctors, you know. Why do all lawyers wear the same suit?
*laughing* It’s a great question.
Why can’t they turn up with a Chicago Bulls t-shirt to the office when they’re fans of the Chicago Bulls? Why do they have to wear the same tie, the same shirt, and the same suit, and the same patent leather shoes?
So, I think this bears more on the attire of judges, say, where they are to remain impersonal and detached and represent the majesty of the law.
I could probably make a concession for that, because this thing of being impartial and neutral and everything. It’s like a priest. A priest wears a robe or some kind of thing because he distances himself from the everyday man. Once the Mass is over—this was the experience where I was born—he’d take off his thing and he’d be in jeans and a t-shirt because it was hot in summer, as well, you know? Or just in a light shirt and smoking a cigarette. But when he gets into a public role, you know? That’s different. But a lawyer or a doctor or a secretary—why do all secretaries have—I did a picture about secretaries, about that we think that secretaries are actually fuck-dolls, that they’re there to be exploited in more ways than one. I can show it to you; it’s upstairs. It shows just how limited we are in our imagination or in our freedom. You’re a lawyer. Fucking hell. You’re working for one of the biggest firms in the United States. You’re earning six million a year. And you can’t even—You’re not even free to wear the clothes you want to wear to go to the office. I mean, that’s, you know. Because you’ve been channeled into a box. Now that box is so specific and so easy to control in terms of the algorithms that will tell you what house you’re going to buy and what car you’re going to drive—today they’re all with Teslas—it’s insane. It’s insane.
The phrase “The song of a bird that has come to love its cage” comes to mind.
So anyway, I’m not against, obviously, the liberation of anything. LGBTIQ and whatever, but the way it’s been hijacked by the political and the commercial systems is … it’s obvious to me but it’s not obvious to people.
And it’s sort of the genius of social media: it’s that you don’t put people into cages; they’ll willingly put themselves in cages in order to establish themselves as part of a community or an identity.
And then when you tick certain boxes, certain objects will be presented to you that you might be more favourably disposed to fetishized than other objects and you might undergo that masochistic process.
Well there are many different ways of looking at it. Probably my biggest concern is for the younger generation because they are now influenced—You know, we didn’t experience this concern; we had a bit of peer pressure, you know, when you went to school. We went to school—I went to school in a school uniform. Every day, your school uniform had to be impeccable. If your tie was the wrong way round or if you had stains on your shirt, you were sent back home. It was pretty military.
So this, again, is to give you a bit of the background. So that’s—The idea is that in school we are all equal. So, we were all equal, yes and no, because we’re all equal in the sense that as long as you’re in school, it’s not like you’ve got more expensive sneakers than I do, or you come from a more privileged family so you can have a Lacoste t-shirt whereas I have this thing from the supermarket that I bought for half a Euro or a hand-me-down from my brothers. So it eliminated those class distinctions but then, collectively, as a college, which is where I went to, which is a Catholic college, we distinguished ourselves with that uniform, that we belonged all to that group. And that was considered a privileged—even though I didn’t come from a well-to-do family—but we were given scholarships so we were allowed into a school which was technically elite. And so when you wore that uniform in the streets, you see—I take the public transport to go home and go to school, that was a symbol that I belonged to that college, you know? I had my little badge and a tie and a shirt and that, you know? It wasn’t the same thing as the guys going to the public schools who didn’t have a uniform, but they were of a much sort of lower category. So it creates a category anyway, you know?
Mm, mm. Mm. Clothing does that.
Of course. It is a social. It’s how we identify ourselves. The way you dress, or—But, you know, if I doll myself up or sometimes you just want to do it almost for the fun of it or if you’re going to a wedding you wear a dapper shirt or whatever, you know. So people might want to identify something about themselves or about the way they’re feeling and yes, clothes do that. Which is one of the reasons why when you speak about universality and the human condition and all these things, very often the tradition of nudity in art is not nakedness, it’s simply to remove all those clothes and remove all those social indicators, and that we are ultimately, when we stand naked, we’re all the same. No? That is the universality. So, the nude comes from—The tradition of the nude comes from that. Which is not the same as anything pornographic. Or, you know, the sculptures of—Bernini and all this—and it goes much further back than the 15th century, you go back to the beginnings. Nudity is considered the common denominator because we can all identify with that. The minute you put a necklace, Ah, yeah, well she’s from a bourgeois family and then you’ve lost it; you’ve lost the universality.
Mm. I’m thinking about Grecian statues and how, significantly, the Olympics was at the core of Ancient Grecian culture. Likewise the gymnasium which, I think, in Greek means “naked.” The place where people would come together and be in their humanity together.
And democracy’s born out of that.
Democracy’s born out of that and there is—
It was a selective democracy.
It was a selective democracy.
Which is not a democracy at all, truly.
But then also the Greeks and the Etruscans and more towards the Roman side, they understood that the body was fundamentally the expression of beauty; and if the body was beautiful, you were closer to God. Now this is the big step forward because, obviously, when you look at the Etruscan and the Greek statues, they’re pretty, pretty well-made. I’d love to have one of those bodies. Certainly I don’t, you know? Both the men and the women. But the young boys were particularly athletic, you know? So that idealization was important because it gave us this sort of will to be close to God or to be God-like, you see? Without having to go to the gym but to be sportive and to be active and all these things.
And I’m thinking that that godliness comes from routinized deprivations and pushing your own physical limits through exercise.
I don’t know how it was. I know that Epicurus wrote a lot about the relationship between nutrition and the body and the experience of the body through nutrition and therefore through a healthy diet and all these things, but he was also a hedonist. He was the guy who coined the word, hedon-, hedonism, no? So that pleasure is a fundamental function of the body and to deny yourself pleasure is to betray yourself, which is the opposite of what the Catholics did, because they oppressed a lot of pleasure of the body; and that pleasure was also the limiter. That, by seeking pleasure, you were always in the pursuit of pleasure; and if you exaggerated the pleasure turned into pain.
So you always had this safety-catch where you would never go beyond the limits because that procured pain and pain was the opposite of what you were trying to achieve. Like if you drink too much alcohol, you can have pleasure for the first hour or so, the next morning you’re going to pay for it because you get up with a hangover, which is painful and uncomfortable in a sense, and so that goes against your pleasure principle—whereas if you remained on the pleasure principle, you would stop drinking exactly at the point where you have reached your sense of joy and of lightheadedness but without actually going into the next phase. So it was a self-controlling system. Same with relations with other people and all these things. Epicurus was to me the greatest philosopher. Unfortunately we lost almost all of his writings. We have fragments only of what he wrote. It was highly criticized obviously but he was very avante-garde. The whole permaculture thing we are going through today, that’s coming from him. He invented the kitchen garden in 400 BC, mind you. It wasn’t like last week, you know. He wasn’t posting on Instagram but he wrote everything about how to become self-sufficient and all this, how you shouldn’t depend on other people, how you should share. So, if everybody has his own kitchen garden, then collectively it all comes together because you exchange—for free, you know? He was a great, great writer. A great moralist as well, I think, because that was before Christianity came along, so wasn’t somewhere polluted or oppositional because it wasn’t even there yet. He was really free-thinking. And he wrote a lot about the body. He wrote that we are only our body and nothing else. He refused any idea of after life and all these things, which can be debated. But, for him, it was like, We are atoms on the void.
And you agree with that.
I don’t have to agree with that, no. I think, today, maybe we have evolved. Clearly he was—Revelations could have happened post-Epicurus which would have had disproved some of his ideas. I’m willing to accept that. Do I believe in that? Sometimes people ask me, Do you believe in God? Obviously coming from a Catholic upbringing, you didn’t have the choice. You don’t believe in God? *makes the sound of a pistol being fired* I have two answers to the question do you believe in god. My first answer is I don’t believe in god but I certainly hope he believes in me.
My second answer is, The question is not, Do you believe in God? The question is, Do you believe that you believe in God? Now that—Because if you were born believing in God, you kind of go along with it. But at some point, you have to question, Do I really believe? So it comes to the point where you say, Do I believe that I believe or is it simply because I was told to believe? If you were brought up in it, it’s very difficult to unlock yourself from it, you know. Some artists I follow who were of Catholic backgrounds or Christian backgrounds and who, at some point, became totally atheist and whatever and refused all ideas—You know, they all, some of them, went back. They said, In reality, we can’t unchain ourselves. But you accept that it’s coming from that, you know?
Well that gets back to Epicurus in the sense that, if he’s not articulating a philosophy in opposition to Christianity, it’s not as if he just says, Well, I would prefer not the light; I would prefer the shadow. You’re still defining yourself with reference to something you say you don’t believe in; it’s just the opposite side of the same coin.
Well, again, at his time, Christianity didn’t exist. It hadn’t been invented yet. There must have been other religions, obviously, and I think he does refer to—He refuses mythology, as well, Greek mythology. He said, Mythology is fine to explain certain parables, like stories where we learn how to be good human beings, but to make them into truths or dogmas that Apollo and Daphne did not actually exist in reality, you know?
And Leda was not fucked by her swam or whatever, you know. So he refused mythology as a dogma, although he accepted it as a tool to explain. No, he was very much into astronomy as much as possible. He tried to figure out—And they were pretty advanced already. They had calculated a lot of things in the cosmos. And he had developed one of the earliest Einsteinian theories, so Epicurus was on the right path to explain that we are atoms. Matter is atoms. You look at a flower, but when you dig deep and you cut through it and you go down and they didn’t have microscopes at the time but he already understood that everything was matter as in from an atomic point of view, right? And that so are we. We cannot escape that reality; neither can a tree; neither can a mountain, a mineral, the sea, the fish—we are all fundamentally made of the same matter. With different realities but when we die we decompose and we can’t say, Oh, no I don’t want to decompose. You’re subject to it, you see? And I haven’t read that text. I did read it but many years ago and I can’t remember it. But he was really involved in what was eventually called the particle theory.
I wonder whether we could look at a few photographs—
Whatever you want.
Whatever I want *chuckles*. Well this is the point: I noticed that the question that was asked of you from the barman before whom you put down the two cameras.
He had said, What do you want?
No, you’re mixing two stories. It doesn’t matter.
I think I recall you saying that both of them said, What do you want?
He didn’t ask what I want. He said, What are you drinking? He said what do you want but not in the same sense as the other guy. So the other guy—
In ’96 in Paris.
—That I went to see in ’96 in Paris, who, you know, I was applying to have an exhibition in a very important festival in Paris because the first time I was relatively young but I think I felt I had a good portfolio and he wasn’t interested in my pictures; he wasn’t interested in my background; he wasn’t interested in my story; he just said, What do you want? As in physically, What do you want? Let’s get on with this. It was a yes or it was a no.
The barman, no—it was a bit different. I remember I came in to the Tulip Bar. I came in—It was a big counter and he was watching a television up on a screen, an old TV, some soap opera going on or something like that. I put my cameras down. The first thing I did was to put the cameras down on the counter so that there wouldn’t be any discussion of me trying to sneak a picture. There were some girls down the counter who weren’t taking any notice. It was a slow night anyway. And obviously if I’m sitting at the bar it’s because I would like a drink. And so he reluctantly came up, and initially he didn’t like me. He kind of didn’t like me. We eventually became pretty good friends because, when you become a regular, then it’s like—And that led to the drink and the second drink.
And in a parenthesis, in my doing all of that, in my research, I practically became an alcoholic because you had to drink so much. I liked it, as well. And I think I had a good tolerance for it. But the way to penetrate into these worlds was through—I never did drugs. I wasn’t interested. I tried a couple but it just didn’t speak to me. I never smoked, funnily enough. Sometimes I’d smoke a cigar just because I liked the smell and the taste, but I don’t regularly smoke cigars.
But I’ve drunk enough to kill a cow, you know. And that’s—I’ve had a couple of bad experiences but maybe nothing—I came close to dying, once. Twice *chuckles*. But maybe that’s the price you pay. So drinking was a big part of that communication channel, you know? And people, at the time, people used to test you. They would test your limits.
So you would buy a drink. I always ordered a double and lots of ice so I could hydrate myself because ice is nothing but water. And then out of then, sometimes you’d look for someone and think, Never mix grape and grain. And sometimes you did because you forgot so if you switched from whisky to wine or vice versa, if you’d been drinking wine and then you switched to malt or something like that, you can get into some bad situations. But mostly I would stick to whiskey because I liked the taste, as well. Nothing too expensive or elaborate. I wasn’t into these fancy expensive bottles or anything. But it was a way of breaking down. The girls obviously never drank. They were—even when you went into a bar, a strip bar or whatever, you’d order a drink for yourself and you’d have to order a drink for your girl who is going to accompany you on the evening. And that would be apple juice with fizzy water and that came as champagne and it was €75 a glass. It looks exactly the same but in fact they’re not allowed to drink because they have to stay very lucid. And so it was this whole world. Anyway, all this just to explain who we are, you know? Who we fundamentally are, you know?
It’s pretty complicated, the whole thing. I’m nowhere near getting—If I can give my five cents worth in my lifetime, that’s an achievement. The rest … I’m not solving any big problems. So, yeah, alcohol was a bit of a struggle at some point. In fact, when I met Élise … when I met Élise, I was pretty much in the deep end of it and not wanting to come out of it somehow. I thought, Oh, this is it. I’ll just keep going. And it was very self-destructive. A kind of suicide, sort of thing. And then she came along. That’s twenty years ago. I don’t know, I just had a turnaround at that time. I still drink, but not to the level of … But if you sit me down with a bottle of whiskey here, I’ll empty it. I have no problem. And I won’t get up with a headache the next morning. I don’t know. My body just kind of absorbs it. i don’t know why or how.
Not long ago we had a Russian guy staying where you’re staying.
I hear about this guy.
Yeah. He was a dime and a half.
Anyway, when the war broke out in the Ukraine, he was called in because he was on the military reserves. And he was completely, obviously disgusted to have to leave his studies and go back. He was very scared. Anyway, on one of the last nights, he said, I want to invite you. Come over and we’ll have a few drinks before I leave. He was distraught and everything, so I went on the evening and he had these really nice bottles of vodka. So we opened the bottle and we start talking and he starts … He was seriously into alcohol in a bad way, you know?
And so we started drinking and I was matching him glass for glass. You know, how you do. And anyway, it just went on and on and on and then he started crying because he was leaving to go. He didn’t want to go back to Russia, obviously, and all these things. So it was a bit of drama, which is obviously fuelled by the alcohol. Anyway, at some point during the night, he collapsed on the table. I checked if he was breathing and all these things because he had already been hospitalized here in France. I checked that he was breathing; I checked that he didn’t have anything tying his collar and whatever and I left. It was probably three in the morning or four in the morning, so I left where you’re staying, went in the house, and went to bed.
Got up the next morning. Okay, I was a bit fragile but nothing too serious. Popped an aspirin and by ten o’clock I was ready to go again. I really didn’t feel—And I don’t like vodka, mind you. I did this for him, you know? I don’t particularly like the taste of vodka. And then I bumped into him later the next day and I told him, Are you okay? Did you sleep well? Did you get back to bed? Yeah, yeah, yeah. No problem. I said, Well, that was a good bottle of vodka. He said, No, that wasn’t a good bottle of vodka. That was three bottles of vodka. I said, What? He said, Yeah, we drank three bottles between the two of us. Which, you know, you mix with orange juice. That was the last time I had any contact with heavy alcohol. I try to avoid it now.
I drink wine at table and that’s fine but I kind of try to stay away. But if you tempt me—Very easily. I don’t know. It just goes down. Like water.
Do you ever work with alcohol?
No. That’s a funny thing. So, for example, when I’m here, in the studio, and I’m thinking about stuff or I’m printing or I’m up in the studio, it doesn’t even cross my mind to have a drink. So, in that sense I didn’t go into the alcoholic thing of compulsively you have to drink. I do notice sometimes when I sit down quietly and have a drink or two, ideas do flow a little bit easier or you let yourself just imagine things that are completely weird. But you process them. You just look at them as possibilities and then you filter them out but I don’t, no. I have no cravings, you know? Except if I’m presented with a bottle. And then, for me, it’s quite funny. Also my last blood test, which was quite a long time ago, my doctor said, Oh, your liver is fine. *chuckles* So, okay. He doesn’t know my history. But anyway, I’m not proud of it, mind you, but it was part of it.
You couldn’t escape it if you wanted to do what I was doing. There was no way out. Order fizzy water. You’d be looked on as so suspicious. Plus I needed a bit of alcohol to pump up the Dutch courage because for me it was very difficult. I was actually a very shy boy. For me, it took enormous amounts of energy and self-conviction to even walk into these bars. Some of them were quite violent, you know. You had the pimps on one side of them and you had these really rough characters. And I’m not too big. I don’t come in as a six foot two presence. I come in as a weed. I was very skinny when I was younger. So I didn’t have those advantages at all, at all, at all.
I think my only advantage was that I speak the native language and English and Italian, so I could very quickly communicate with different people who, you know, sometimes were sitting around the bar. There were a lot of sailors, because it was the marines. So I could easily—I was even asked to translate sometimes, you know, like, What’s this guy saying? I knew a bit of French already, so that helped me along a lot. So languages helped a lot. But in terms of my physique, I was nothing. Some guy could come up to me and just do that and I’d be on the floor, you know? It was a very rough, rough area. There were lots of drugs. The drugs, which came in later, but when they came in, they ruined the place completely.
Heroine. Heroine was the big thing. I’ll show you a picture in my book. This book kind of explains where I come from. It was the documentation that I did.
This was the installation in Paris, wasn’t it? Vanishing Valetta.
There were two of them. You may have seen a smaller version of this book, but—
This is the result of your having responded to the question, What do you want?
What do you want? Exactly. There’s one particular picture … These are slums, you see? These are tenements. You’d have ten people living in that room. And five people living down there. It wasn’t a pretty sight. This is the port of Valetta in Malta. So if Italy is like that, you have Sicily, and then you have Malta, which is a tiny island, and you have Tunisia right here. And it’s literally the crossroads in the bang centre of the mediterranean. Here is the power station spewing out. It’s still run on coal. Look at this. Look at this. This was a shopfront which had closed down. So this is very much in a socially deprived area, you know, where children wouldn’t even go to school or anything. And I took a picture of this shopfront which says, General Bazar. Poor guy. He would be the owner. And if you look closely, you will see numbers and mathematics. This was being used as a blackboard and the children would sit out here and this teacher who was not a teacher would gather the children to teach them maths, even though they didn’t go to school, you know? And now this picture, although you’re seeing an elevation of it, this street was like not even—It was a very, very narrow street. And, again, the further down there were all the hookers and whatever. And I remember when I was taking the picture, normally I would go on the weekends when there’d be no one because it was quieter and I could work quietly; and I hear this woman calling me from one of the balconies on top, saying, Hey, hey, come up, come up, come up. I said, No, no, it’s okay. I’m just—I’ll be on my way, you know. Obviously in the local language.
And she said, Why? Why don’t you want to come up? And I said, Look, let’s just all have a nice afternoon and I’ll—And suddenly she starts shouting these insults. But they’re—I mean, they’re untranslatable.
It’s completely untranslatable. That I was—And at the time, one of the biggest—You couldn’t say you were a homosexual, because it was an insult. Obviously today it doesn’t work. And that I don’t have balls. Everything just came down like rain.
Amazing. Like rain *laughing*. Acid rain. That’s so good.
There was a lot of war damage. This is the picture I was looking for. Technically, this area, which I photographed, was the most, per square mile, it was the most bombed area in the second world war. Okay. So the amount of tonnage that fell from the Germans and the Italians on this area, which is called The Grand Harbour, which was occupied by the British during the Second World War, okay? So we were a British colony. It was the highest number of bombs ever dropped. Not London, not even—Nowhere got as much tonnage as this place, because Hitler knew that this harbour was his port to North Africa. And he absolutely had to have it. There was no way. If he couldn’t get that harbour, he couldn’t get supplies so that he could make a campaign against North Africa. And that was Rommel, General Rommel who was in charge of it. So just to give you an idea, this is the harbour area. The sea is here. Outside of the wall. So actually these two pictures. So if you walk along here, you see there’s a mattress here. Someone left a mattress. There’s this burnt up car. That’s probably a washing machine or something like that that had been dumped. This is a whole dump. You just go, Crack, crack, crack, crack; and it’s all syringes. Like, the whole floor is syringes.
It was an area where heroine addicts used to go. And also that’s where some girls used to work, okay? This place, in here, just in front of this hut—it’s a corrugated tin hut—and there’s the abattoir where meat was processed for the island. And this was a tea room by day and a brothel by night. So during the day there’d be all of these guys with their bloodstained overalls going to get their tea and biscuit; and the guy who ran it at night, he would run a sort of one-girl prostitution racket, except that that girl was his daughter. So this is—I’m giving you an idea of the social problems that … There was extreme poverty.
To pimp your daughter … there’d have to be.
And so it’s not a pretty story. And yet I was fascinated by the humanity of these places, of how people looked out for each other. I know there were—These are horrible stories, but people looked out for each other. People cared for each other. It wasn’t this individualistic—It’s a contradiction. I don’t know. But all these—All these pictures—And then further down when I got into the red light district—So all of these pictures of what was called Straight Street, which is further down.
Here. These are all the balconies. Look. This was the typical balcony. These are all the bars which closed down eventually when the Navy left the harbour, during independence, and then that was it. Everyone packed it in. And, you know, clubs, and you see all the signs of the—These were mostly dance halls but they were all brothels, in fact, so all these were brothels over here. That’s where the pictures of the girls come from. Anyway. So it was also a mix of all these religious statues everywhere and churches everywhere and, you know, processions and Easter and Christmas and everything was very, very religious; and at the same time, the whole—
It’s the combo.
Yeah. I used to live up these stairs. This was my walk up to my house. That’s St. Francis.
Keeping an eye on things.
Keeping an eye on things and somehow levitating as if he was rising up.
ON INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM
So, I wonder, appreciating that we’re not too thoroughly embracing the idea of categories, by necessity I wonder about the experience of masculinity and femininity and whether you feel compelled, at all, to distill anything down that feels like a commonality among the women that you photographed or a commonality among men that you’d photographed, whether there are any particular distillate associations with either of those kinds of energies, masculinity and femininity.
Mm. Well, that’s a bit of a tough one. No, I don’t think I could—Yes, I mean we could generically speak about masculinity or femininity in any kind of society, whether it was this one I was brought up in or others. But I think my tendency, which, today, I feel very strongly about, naturally was always towards expressing people as being unique individuals.
That we are all different. We are not—Which is one of my pet hates, this thing of putting people in boxes. Like, you know, I could be defined as a heterosexual man, so I could be put in a box with seven million heterosexual men, except that I can guarantee that every one of us is different. We can’t—It’s too much of a generalization. The same for women and the same—So, no, I think we are—Unless we can understand the fact that we are individuals, and therefore we cannot have these overriding rules that says, All homosexuals are going to hell and all lesbians are going to burn on the stake or—History has done these things. And you can’t do that. You … In fact, there’s no foundation anywhere that you could actually justify it, you know?
So, anyway, as I progressed in my work, I became more and more interested in expressing the individual. Now that contradicts the idea of universality where you can do something and that universally, within certain parameters, people would understand or maybe get the gist of what you’re doing, and I accept that limitation, but no, I can’t think of anything where I can say, The men in the city of Valetta, all the men were macho; all the men were, you know—
Liked the colour blue or something silly like that.
No, no. It would be impossible. Same for the women, the housewives.
What about something that is fundamentally human, something that’s universally human? I’m thinking about desire for liberty or something like that.
So, that’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, and the closest I’ve come to it—Because, again, I must have been reading something along the way and it kind of dawned on me because we say that what binds us as human beings is our capacity to love. And I never liked that. I thought it was too simplistic. And it was a little bit sort of too sort of like peace and love and whatever, you know? It was a bit too hippie, kind of. I don’t say it’s not one of the characteristics, but it’s not the thing that defines us. It’s also been proven that animals have a great capacity for love and a great capacity for empathy and loyalty. Something human beings don’t have very much. Animals have it at a much higher level, especially domesticated animals.
So I thought about this and so far what I’ve come up with is that, If there is one thing that defines us, it’s not love. It’s desire, our capacity to desire. Now, desire can express itself in many ways, you know, but animals do not have the idea of desire. I mean, if they get hungry they want to eat and they’re constantly looking for food but they cannot project themselves into a desire of something they know they cannot obtain as you could desire, you know, a yacht or a Rolex or, I don’t know, a trip to maybe the end of the world, and that you know it’s unattainable. You don’t have the financial means, but you still can produce the desire for it. And that, for me, that distinction is what distinguishes us from the animal world.
Our capacity to desire. And desire comes with a lot of other nuances, including sexual desires and all these things, and the desire for pleasure, sometimes the desire for pain, because pain can give us pleasure, and all these things. And that is something which the animal world, as far as I know, doesn’t have to the extent of humans.
It nicely returns us to this question, What do you want?
And I wonder, returning to that, in closing, whether you would say a few words about why it was that you wanted what you wanted in that moment as you articulated it in Paris in 1996 with Arch de Triomphe in the window.
Well, I can tell you I was totally ill-prepared for that question and I must have mumbled and bumbled some kind of rubbish. I don’t know what it was. I got what I wanted but—Okay, I guess I knew what I wanted. I wasn’t prepared for it, prepared to be told so bluntly. I guess in some ways, yes, somewhere in the back of my head I must have known it. Or I very quickly made a calculation of what I wanted and just spurted it out. So it must have been there somewhere. I must have reflected upon it without actually verbalizing it. What shocked me on the moment was that it was the last thing I was expecting.
And why was it that you wanted what you wanted in that moment? Why was it that you wanted the show with the inclusion of the property of the agent that you were speaking to?
Because I saw an opportunity. I definitely wanted to be in that festival. I actually had applied—I forgot how it—I kind of had applied for this thing and sent off my work and at the time everything was through the post. There was no internet or anything. And I didn’t get an answer. I was very upset. And so through a channel of a friend I got through to this agent and he said, If you come, I’ll see what I can do. So I just got on a plane, went up to Paris, and went to meet him—With again, all prepared to speak about my work because it was this stuff I was working on at the time.
I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead, you know? But then he asked that question and I just had to very, very quickly formulate an answer. But I guess it must have been imbedded. It’s inside of you somewhere. That was where it had to—And so I told him, This, this, and this. And he said, Okay. But then there was the whole logistical—There were a lot of logistical problems and it took six months to actually put it into place but it was just that one Okay, you know. It’s like, if you send out a script to an editor and you don’t hear back and then you maybe email them or write to them or call them and say, Hey, you know, and the editor would say, But listen, you know, he won’t even speak about your text. He’d just say, What do you want? You know? And your answer would be, I want your publishing house to publish my book. And it’s either a yes or a no. There’s no—There’s not even an in between. It’s already been done. All that groundwork had already been done before. It had already been decided in a sense.
What I think he needed to know was whether I was prepared for that. Because some people actually back out when they’re offered what they want, you know? And he’s testing your stamina, the fact that you’re going to go through with it. That you’re not going to sort of disappear halfway through the project or something like that. That’s what they want to hear. That you’re in it, you know? And once you’re in it, whether it’s a publisher or whatever, they’ll say, Okay, we’ll do it. We’re in. You’re in; we’re in. And then the work begins. And then that’s the tough bit, you know. Anyway. I’ve been relatively lucky compared to others in that I could work as a photographer and an artist, although I did a lot of commercial work, obviously, to pay my way through all these things.
And I worked in fashion for a long time. And I think I’ve been relatively lucky. I’m not rich or anything like that, but I managed to create my own world. A young photographer starting out today, I wouldn’t know where the hell they’re going to start because there’s just so many of them and when we were around, when we were starting out, it was more difficult in certain things but it was easier because there weren’t so many of us. Today, everybody’s a photographer. So, where do you place your claim, you know? I think it’s the same with writers. Everyone wants to write a book, somehow. Everyone I meet wants to write a book or has written a book. But have you published your book?
I didn’t publish this book; this book was published by a publisher who bought the rights to the collection so that they could produce a book. I have nothing to do with this, you know.
Are you pleased with how it turned out?
Ah, pretty okay, but it’s a bit too fancy for me. It’s a bit over the top, but they have to sell—That’s how they sell. It was done in Italy and they branded my name and all these things. It’s Vanishing Valetta, so that actually mimics that photograph.
That’s pretty genius design.
The designer was pretty clever. And anyways, they branded this thing and my signature, which is that on the back. Yeah. It was quite clever.
That’s the sort of keystone photo of the exhibition, would you say?
That photograph. That photograph saved my life.
I don’t know where it is but yeah, it’s a very difficult picture to make. You cannot—You only get very—First of all it doesn’t rain in Malta, so to get the reflection in the puddle you have to wait fort he rain, which is about twice a year *chuckles*. And there are no cars; there’s nothing; it was—That whole thing doesn’t exist anymore. Anyway, but it’s a special photograph; people feel emotional about it; and I’ve sold many copies of it. It’s been published in many books and it kind of made my name, you know.
Mm. Saved your life, you said.
Saved my life in financial terms, you know, because I did make quite a lot of money from it.
Why do people feel so deeply about—
I don’t know. I have no idea.
Do you feel deeply about it?
You feel grateful to it because it—
I feel grateful to it.
—Saved your life.
It was a cash cow. But no, I’ve done well with this collection. I’ve done really well. So. But I’ve moved on. The body part of the thing, I was doing it on the side while I taking these pictures in the 80s and the 90s but I wasn’t showing any of it. And it took a long time. It took almost twenty years for me to start actually showing that work and exhibiting it.
Yeah, a bit by choice and a bit by I was too busy doing—I was still doing commercial work until … I stopped doing fashion in 2014, I think. When digital came along and everything started going—Nobody was paying anything and I thought, Fuck, I don’t need this anymore. I did my run. And yeah, so I probably about ten years ago stopped. Except rarely I do a commercial job. Normally it’s for friends of mine. They say, David, David, please can you do it for us? I say, Okay. But I’m not publicly advertising myself as a commercial photographer. I’m living from royalties. So I sell royalties of my pictures. Occasionally I do workshops so that gives me a little bit of income. And also selling original prints, so that’s the big thing.
That’s the original?
That’s an original.
So that one’s probably worth a little.
That goes for about €9000 in a gallery, so they will take 40%. But you don’t sell those every day. And if you sell one every two years, you’re happy. So it’s pretty slow-moving. Last exhibition I had I sold two pictures and the average price was about €1200. And there may be a third sale coming in so it’s not big money, you know. But then you get—I did have big sales. Over the past ten years, these collectors have bought not one but they buy like twenty prints at a go. That brings you a bit of money. But then you have to stretch that money until the next sale comes along. And you don’t know when that’s going to come along, so you can’t go out and buy a Porsche or something like that, you have to just keep going slowly until the next job or the next sale, you know? Same with selling books, you know? Whether you’re being paid royalties on the sales or whether the publisher is paying you out, which was the case with this. I was paid out. But if they sell one book or a thousand, I have nothing to do with it. I was paid a lump sum, which, at the time, was pretty good for me. So they did one run, which was 2000 copies.
It’s not cheap. This is an expensive book to produce.
It’s an expensive book. It’s a very expensive book. But they made a lot of money, I know. And they have an option to run another 2000. Which they haven’t yet.
So on an average day, when you go out and you take this photograph, for instance, I mean, do you take one photograph per day? Do you take ten? Do you wait? Do you know where you want to go?
There’s no formula. But that picture over there, I would have seen it a million times, walked up those steps, walked down those steps, thinking. Then I’d observe the light and I’d think, Ah, when the light is—When it’s February and there’s this kind of light and there’s a few clouds, it looks really mysterious. In summer it looks crap because there’s all these shadows going all over the place.
And you keep processing all these things. And that’s, with this kind of work, let’s say there’s a lot of planning and then it’s—That’s taken with a large-format camera, the one I have over there, the 4×5, so it’s on a tripod, so you set it up. Somebody actually filmed me taking a picture but I have it on digital tape so I can’t transfer it. So these would be all quite planned transfers and I’d study the composition before, wait for the right light, the right time of day, the right time of year, sometimes, you know.
And I didn’t want to see any cars; I wanted the light to come straight down this—So, they’re very, very calculated, you know? And sometimes you get—This was a particularly difficult picture to make. It’s a very, very narrow street. The sun comes in only at a very specific time of year where it’s high up there and it’s not low down there or on the other side. And I needed that light to come down the stairs over here.
And there would always be cars parked over here, and that was the toughest bit. And the only way I managed to get this pictures was that, on this particular day, it was a Saturday afternoon, so right time of year, the sun was out, which, that’s pretty easy down i the south mediterranean, although we do have cloudy days and misty days, but the Valetta Football Club was playing this hugely important match against their arch rivals and the city was emptied out. Everybody went to the football match. And I had a window of two hours to get that shot.
138 Straight Street. How many times did you take it?
I took that quite a few but I was using a very special camera which a photographer leant me because I don’t own it. It’s a large-format camera with a wide angle, but it’s portable. No, I would have shot a roll of film on that.
And do you know when you take the photo?
Yes. Sometimes you sense it. Some pictures, like—These are mostly static pictures, so you can take several and you choose one where the light and the exposure is right, but some others, like when this car came around the corner. I just sold this print in my exhibition in Paris now. This is the one—A collector bought this. I mean, you only get one chance at it.
When you look at the contact sheet, you see different cars passing by, and then I took some pictures without anything, and then this guy on a motorcycle came by and I took a picture of him. I just stood there. But I kept feeling that, you know, I kept saying—I don’t know, I kept feeling that something’s going to happen. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know what.
And suddenly this old Ford comes around the corner, and I thought, This is too—And it’s white. Because they’re normally black. And that’s it. And you get this shot. And the clouds and everything and the light and—
So this premonition feels like faith to me.
Kind of. But—
—That’s another big thing.
I’m trying to put you in a box and you resisted it. I’m glad you did.
I could say, Thank you, God, for sending me that car.
Or I can say, Thank you, David, for standing your ground and just waiting.