13 March 2015 . By Tristan Hooper
And so it was that I found myself tackling the London Underground at rush hour, attempting to reach The Photographer’s Gallery by 5:30 for a meeting with the Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas. Having only seen her work on the computer screen, I was intrigued and excited at the prospect of seeing the photographs in a gallery space. After battling against a river of bodies, I found the doors locked and the gallery closed for refurbishment. Thankfully, Dumas emerged to greet me and I was allowed in to wander around the exhibition as it was being hung. The exhibition comprises two separate pieces. Prints of various sizes from her most recent series The Widest Prairies hang on the walls whilst the hypnotic Anima video plays on a loop inside a darkened chamber in the middle of the room.
Having had a very long day, Dumas was more interested in drinking beer than coffee, so we made our way to a nearby pub and sat at the bar. Considering my utter lack of experience in conducting interviews, I was delighted to find that what could easily have resembled a bungled interrogation was actually more like a pleasant and interesting conversation. Dumas articulates her ideas brilliantly and she listened patiently as I stuttered through my various reflections on her projects. She is a photographer who is so utterly involved in her practice – seemingly swept along by it. With insight and enthusiasm, she spoke to me about her work: past, present and future.
How did you come to photograph the horses at Arlington National Cemetery? How did the idea come about?
Well, I’ve been focusing on animals that work. I actually started the Arlington horse project at the same time as the 9/11 dogs project. It was my intention to do the projects simultaneously because dogs and horses are obviously the closest animals to us as people. Both animals still have important jobs.
I ended up doing the dogs first because visiting them took so much of my time. A year after the 9/11 dogs project I got the invitation to do the show at the Corcoran Gallery and things just clicked and I went back to Arlington. The idea behind these projects was that the dogs were literally going through the rubble of 9/11 right after the attacks and marking the start of a decade that changed the world. Ten years on and they are coming to the end of their lives – sort of like the closure of this decade. The Arlington horses represent the end of that decade because they are pulling all the caskets of the soldiers who have died overseas as a result of the 9/11 attack. The dogs and the horses are animal witnesses of the events. At first it was my intention to do the projects together, but then instead I did them chronologically – which actually makes sense.
The quality of the light in the Arlington pictures is ethereal. It plays a significant part in the impact of the work. How did you achieve this effect?
I like to challenge myself when it comes to light. I chose to photograph the horses at night because I wanted to capture them away from their day job and when they needed rest. The light is available light because I didn’t want to disturb them too much. I pushed my film to the max and later printed the work digitally.
When looking at the photographs from Anima, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of privilege, almost as though I’m being allowed to view an elusive, precious moment, an occurrence normally hidden from the public eye. This is especially apparent in the video. Can you speak a little about your experiences when physically making the work? How did it feel to be in such close proximity to the horses? Did it feel special?
Yes, absolutely. At first, I was just very excited. It was my aim to photograph them lying down. I would visit at all times of night. I often went at midnight, but they’re very restless animals. They lie down, they get up… So, after a while, I would go between midnight and 4 a.m. I would see them lying down and, most of the time, I would just sit there and watch, taking pictures occasionally. Then I noticed, after a number of visits, that they began to get used to my presence and they would really, literally fall asleep. Their muscles would start twitching and… to me it felt like the most intimate moment – it’s like watching your child sleep or something. It’s almost like the superlative of vulnerability, seeing an animal lose consciousness. And on top of that is the fact that they are funereal horses – it’s like they were connecting to the spirit world! Of course, these are all reflections and connotations, but I definitely felt this.
That’s also why I decided to start filming, so I could just continue watching them. The photograph part – I felt that I had done that. I thought that I would just tape it and see – I wasn’t sure if I would do anything with it. Months after that I decided to try something out and I had a small show in Holland – I mean a really small show – with an old teacher of mine and it was really nice to do something with him. Anyway, we did a small experiment and we showed the film. It motivated me to take it seriously and I went to work on it with an editor. I showed it in Paris and it got a positive response.
The video shows all of the little twitches and gestures that occur during sleep. There’s a real sense of trust – the horses don’t feel the need to stay awake and be watchful in your presence.
Yes, and that’s how it felt when I was there. It’s very meditative in a way, you lose track of time. It’s the elementary things of life that we seem not to notice and it’s those things that really matter. We all connect to that I think. The most intimate moments are like the most profound.
I guess there’s a stigma attached to photographing animals – like it’s a cliché. People seem to associate them with greeting cards and things like that…
Yes, it is like that. It’s all around us. Now I have two daughters and everything for kids is totally ‘animal this’ and ‘animal that’ and I sort of like that too, but it’s hard to fight against it. But maybe what I’m doing isn’t so different – maybe I’m doing exactly the same thing. Most people melt when they see a kitten with a ball of wool and then maybe they melt when they see horses fall asleep. Maybe it’s interchangeable…
I’m not pretending to make high art, but there is a difference in how you approach the work and the thoughts it can evoke.
It’s like our own ambivalent relationship with animals – if an artist uses an animal skin to make art, there’s a riot. As soon as it’s visible it becomes problematic, but for most of the meat industry for example, it’s hidden from sight and that’s all fine. It’s our hypocrisy about how we deal with animals. I have also tried to photograph tigers in a small circus and I remember the guy who trained the tigers didn’t really want to let me near him at first – because he was so scarred by all the animal activists, I’m sure. I personally think that animals shouldn’t be in the circus but, at the same time, I saw the relationship this man had with his animals. It’s a very complex issue. They should be in the wild, but where exactly is that? There’s a great difference between the ideal and what the situation actually is. Like when a police officer uses a horse, then it’s OK again, because it’s for the law, but horses wouldn’t naturally move towards violence, they’d run away from it. It’s all of these differences – and I think art in general is about finding these nuances and showing them, about injecting society with this sense of nuance, not simply going black and white. And that’s such an important task. I think art is an important tool that we have. An animal portrait can make you think about your relationship with that animal. And if you go one-on-one with these portraits – like the sleeping horses – the portraits reflect something of yourself, it’s almost like they are you – the portraits are more open to interpretation. If you looked at the same kind of image of a person it would be different – it would be voyeurism – looking this way at one of your own species. With animals, there’s an emotion that comes back. My work often gets this very emotional response – like with the dogs of 9/11. They offer us a way to help process what’s going on in this world. And that’s why it’s so important to have them around.
Sometimes I’m approached by an animal activist group or charity – they ask me to donate work, but I’m really careful of how I deal with that.
I feel like a journalist in a sense – I want to put some kind of story out there, to make people aware of things, but I’m not an advocate for one thing or another. That can be a little difficult sometimes. In the end, they are the other living beings on this planet and we need them to confirm our own existence. I think we get very lonely as a species – people are very cruel – we’re certainly the cruelest creatures on the planet. I really believe that having animals around – and children – keeps us empathetic. I really think the long-term consequences of not having animals around could be devastating. I’m going off the deep end a little, but they’re much more important than people realise.
Especially in the West, I have to defend myself a lot. I always find whenever I’m doing lectures or interviews, I have to have the sound bites ready – like ‘I know it’s animals, but…’ Then I have to try to place my work in a kind of contemporary art context. But, at the same time, it’s not necessary. When I was in Japan, for instance, nobody asked me why I was photographing animals. The response in Japan was immediately about what emotions the pictures evoked – nobody talked about it being weird…
Moving on to The Widest Prairies – there is something incredibly romantic about the idea of tracking wild horses across the vast landscapes of America. Can you tell me a little about your experiences making the work?
I tackle certain subjects because they’re so ingrained in our minds. I think that wild horses are one of those subjects – like sunsets or volcanoes – you don’t really want to go near. It’s like something you would see on a postcard. So how do you turn that around? We see these wild horses as symbols of freedom or unbridled expansion – things that don’t really exist anymore. Especially with the changing climate – the land is really dry and the economy in Nevada is really poor. The horses are infringed upon, but they are very rugged and resilient animals and there are many of them roaming the land which is a problem for the state of Nevada. At the same time they are the symbol of this state and very important for what they stand for. There’s a whole political war surrounding the horses. The idea of these horses coming closer and closer to civilisation is opposite to the image we have in our head from the past – stallions roaming across the plains. Now it’s stallions roaming through the back gardens of mobile homes searching for food. I think this is an interesting development, the habitat of these remaining wild animals all of a sudden overlap with that of people – I wanted to capture that. Especially after photographing the horses at Arlington, where everything was quite confined. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could work with a subject that is much harder to come near and it brought a lot of practical obstacles – like finding the horses! The Widest Prairies is more like a collective portrait than one-on-one portraiture. The images ware taken from further away and show the horses in their environment. The landscape is much more important, it’s what makes these horses wild horses. But they are wild in a way which is more like the wildness of stray dogs.
I noticed from the book – and I’m sure this was a conscious choice – that there seems to be a progression. The first images depict the horses in a wide, uninhabited landscape and as you move further into the book you see hints of human presence like buildings and vehicles and finally, in the last part of the book, the horses are in pens. I don’t want to use the word incarcerated, but they are contained, restricted. Can you talk a little about the decision to order the pictures this way?
Every once in a while a handful of these horses end up in Carson State Prison where they work with inmates. That’s actually a very positive programme in the United States in terms of incarceration. You have inmates who train the horses, they break them and then the horses are auctioned. This is a low security facility and you have guys who have never really ridden a horse before and they’re thrown in with these animals. And you can’t cheat with animals – it’s all very basic rules and intuition, and they really thrive – the guys thrive, the horses thrive. And the horses are really special, they were wild – they’re not subject to breeding programs – they’re really strong. I felt it was a really intriguing contrast, it literally shows their changing context.
Another aspect of The Wildest Prairies that I found interesting was the juxtapositions created between the horses and the vehicles and caravans, for example. In the past, horses were a mode of transport, and they pulled our wagons. I feel the pictures are indicative of our relationship with horses and indeed the evolution of that relationship.
Yeah, and the fact that the horses became obsolete, as did the cars that they’re standing in front of. All of these abandoned trailers and foreclosed homes – standing there with no purpose. I like the image of the horse in front of the trailer. It’s better in the video, I like that you can see the horse almost falling asleep in front of the trailer. There are these building blocks and it feels hopeful – like we’re going to build something – but you know that’s never going to happen. But then there’s the resilience of the animals – they just do what they do at the opportune moment. The horses don’t really care that they’re lying around in front of an old trailer.
What about your interactions with the horses? Were they wary of you? Were they aggressive?
It really depended on where you saw them. If they were more out in the open on the plains or the mountains you really had to keep your distance because it’s their territory, but as soon as they got closer to civilisation, it was easier to approach them. I found it scary at times. When it was mating season, the stallions would fight. It was a bit intimidating. They can be very unpredictable.
Do you ride horses?
I did when I was young, but I’m not very brave. When we were in Nevada, the guy we were staying with had horses and he took me on horseback over to where ‘The Misfits’ was filmed – and that I couldn’t refuse. I’d rather watch horses than be on top of them though!
I sense conflicting feelings in your work – an appreciation of the way that the horses have endured but, at the same time, an anxiety for the horses – like man is encroaching on their habitat.
For me, my work is about bringing out that nuance. Like are we infringing on them – or is it the other way round? In the end we need to coexist.
What about your interactions with people? Did you meet many people in the course of making this work?
Yes, absolutely. That’s a really big part of my work that people don’t see. I have to be very social in order to make it all happen, so it’s very much about people. And not rarely, people who feel really close to animals are not very fond of people, so it’s a real challenge. Nine times out of ten gaining the trust of the animals is not that difficult, but gaining the trust of the people around them is different. Especially with people who have chosen to turn to animals – they have done that for a reason. There’s always that thing where ‘other people can let you down, but animals can’t’, even when this might just be a notion that solely in your own head, it’s still legitimate. It may be much easier to confide in an animal than in another person. I’ve met some interesting people over the last fifteen years.
And do you think that animals are going to be an enduring interest for you, rather than people?
Yes, I think so. But, in the end, I think my work is very much about people – I just show these things through animals. In a way, it’s inexhaustible. I could maybe just spend my entire life photographing horses, because there’s so many different situations in which they appear and so many aspects worthy of investigation.
I’m going to Japan for two weeks in April and again for two weeks in the autumn. I’m doing this project together with the art director of Harpers Magazine, Stacy D. Clarkson, so we’re going to go together. There are eight native species of horse in Japan, and there are very few left – with some species, there are fifty animals or less. Some of the lowest numbers are on the Southern islands in Okinawa. My idea initially is to document them all – the project’s really about extinction. But I’m also looking at ‘logging horses’ – forestry with horses – and this happens in Japan too. That’s the reason I first went to Japan, I’d started a project on logging horses in England and was working with this really famous man who was involved in teaching forestry with horses. He had taught in Japan and I thought it would be really great to see these logging horses working in different habitats. He got me in contact with a horse logger in Nagano and that’s how I found out about the native horses there. The logging horses project is a really big project, so we’re not going to do it all at once. I think we’re going to start in the south of the country and move on from there.
My aim is to make a trilogy. Anima was about resting, The Widest Prairies was about wandering and the third one, logging horses, will be about working. I want to present them together.
Anima & The Widest Prairies are on show at The Photographer’s Gallery until April 06
The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW