In conversation with Fabien Charuau, as he discusses the ideological evolution of the “photographic”. He delves into the potential that photography and digital art offer, to make commentaries on our social landscapes.
The following text is the edited transcript of the conversation with Fabien Charuau, conducted on the 15th of July, 2022.
CHAPTER 01: ORIGINS
It was a bit of a convoluted start for me; my entry into photography. I studied engineering, and I come from a scientific background. Photography was an accident which happened in my journey through life. I did not work for too long as an engineer, as I did not have much interest in it. I wanted to be in a more creative zone, and photography gave me the opportunity to do that.
My entry into photography was much like that of most photographers; my father gave me a camera, and I started with that, and immediately found that I had a very strong connection with visual matter – with prints and image creation. From the beginning, it felt very natural to get into photography. I have the tendency in my career to do things I want whenever I want to do it, and when this opportunity arose, I went straight into it.
CHAPTER 02: THE MUNDANE
I have thought a lot about the ‘mundane’, and why I am so intrigued by it. I shoot the ‘mundane’ around me – and that is going to be the Indian landscapes. I realised that when I first came to India, the environment was extremely striking and different from what I was used to. I had a different angle into the normal everyday lives of people which – in terms of vision – was perhaps different from that of anybody from the country, because this was something you grew with, and so you would not really notice it.
At that time, there was a lack of documentation of a large section of the population: the average life of the middle-class Indian. Today, you have a few photographers who capture that, and speak about it quite well; however, back then we were speaking about that section of the population only through the ‘extremes’.
For me, there is a certain poetry in the way I was looking at the scenes around me, where nothing much was happening, but at the same time, something very visually striking was happening. The ‘extremes’ never interested me, because it just represented a small sliver of the lives of those people.
I went into it deeply, starting different projects which spoke about the ‘mundane’; whether it was through the body, clothing, or spaces which I found interesting – even through sexuality, with some of the projects that came later. That has always been a constant throughout my work. With architectural photography, I get to photograph some amazing designs, and very different and outlandish spaces. However, what I genuinely like to photograph, from the core of my being, is a mood or a corner of a home – even if it is not a beautiful or expensive home, but one in which I can see the layers of acquisition of that space.
It is a psychological portrait I can capture through those corners or spaces in a normal home, because I can really get into the psyche of the people who live there.
In India, we change the way we understand spaces and the utilisation of those spaces. That has been a constant for me – I have my commercial shoots, but I actively seek out this kind of photography as well, even if it is not going to be published or presented anywhere, but just for the art of doing it for myself.
CHAPTER 03: THE LINK
Part I: Context
I have been looking at the field of architecture photography and trying to understand who are the people doing it. I have noticed there are a lot of architects who are picking up the camera and documenting spaces. My approach would be a little different. I am a photographer who shoots spaces, but I have also photographed other things before. [Referring to the fashion photography Fabien practiced in the early part of his career] My objectives and goals are a bit different, since in many ways it is part of a larger reflection that I have been having since I started photographing. These reflections include my perceptions on photography, its limitations, and its insights into our lives. When I approach architecture photography, I bring that baggage with me – and its good baggage, it is not a burden that I carry over my shoulder. It is just a different approach to photography, and to photographing spaces.
I am very conscious of the limitations of architectural photography, and I do not mean that in a bad way. When you work with a team, whether it is with architects, interior designers, or developers, you cannot do whatever you want. You do get creative, but there are certain limitations which you must apply, in order to meet the needs of everybody involved. In personal art projects, you can be completely free, and apply unhindered creativity.
However, I like the fact that there are limitations. There is a frame that you work within, and I find that frame very liberating.
This helps me harness my creation into something which has borders, and within those borders is where the creative aspect comes in. You need to be inventive to change your photography each time. When I work with different clients, I have to re-invent my photography each time, and make it fit to the vision of the client. That is a nice feeling, and I really enjoy doing that.
Part II: Process
When I get commissioned to document a project, my first obvious step is to understand the practice of the architect or interior designer. I try to study their previous projects, and I find it interesting to see how other photographers have approached that aesthetic. I start having long conversations with the architects, trying to understand who they are as people and where they come from. Architects are fascinating people, and I find it very refreshing to converse with them. They must run a physical practice which is real and tangible, but there is also the artistic side of it.
Architecture is a convergence point of many different artistic expressions.
If you want to build a meaningful building, you need to be well informed of the things around you, in terms of society, art and culture. An architect’s brain is very interesting to try to understand. This psychological aspect is very important to me, before I begin photographing a space. There is a certain aesthetic sense that comes out of this approach. I do not have a specific set of tools which I use. People come to me with very different aesthetics. Some of them I connect with immediately, while others take me longer, and that is okay. It is just a different approach to life and aesthetics. I find it more stimulating to document a project which is very far away from what I normally do, because therein lies a challenge for me. It is very important that it works for the clients as well. It should be a conversation, or at least there should be a large amount of listening, before getting into a project.
Then everything happens quite quickly for me. The moment I get into a project, there is a visceral emotion I get from that space. I do not like to slow down – I run around, sweat and move from one corner to the other. There is a sense of urgency with the images I need to capture. Slowing down the process does not really work for me. I need to apply pressure for something to be able to come out of it, something which is very revealing. I am really involved with whatever I am doing. It is a very draining process, and I am exhausted by the end of the shoot, because I am extremely focused throughout.
It needs to be intense for me, otherwise I am not happy at the end of the process.
CHAPTER 04: THE DIGITAL REALM
Part I: Editing and Processing
In my field, I find the use of post-processing and editing quite fascinating and joyful to use. Before I got into architecture photography, I used retouching and post-processing to create an imagined version of reality. The images become very vivid and disconnected from reality. With architecture and interior photography, it is the opposite. We spend a lot of time while shooting, and on the computer, to bring the ‘photographic’ as close to reality as possible.
What I call ‘photographic’ is the version of reality that comes through the camera. Whether it is through films or digital files, there is a distortion which is imposed on reality.
With the technology that we have now, with the camera and its lenses, we have something which is getting closer and closer to the human vision. I find that fascinating, as we never had that before. If you look at the history of photography over the last 150 years, we are currently very close to capturing the image as seen through the human eye. Soon we will be shooting in more immersive formats, and that is an exciting prospect. I know a lot of people speak about the downsides of the digital medium, but for me, it is a thing of beauty.
The digital realm gives you a space which allows you to question your perception of reality. Today with the camera, I can bring back different exposures, or a mood that is very close to what I had perceived on site. I can really bring my photo very close to what I have seen or even am seeing – sometimes I shoot something with my camera and try to match it on my computer in real time.
When we process images in the studio after a shoot, we bring back the memory of that space. Whatever we do, the camera will always only be able to capture a sliver of our reality.
We cannot fully capture our reality with all its complexities. The attempt to try, however, and the act of pushing the medium in one direction is interesting, because it reveals all the biases that you have, in terms of perceptions.
The eye has technical biases, in terms of its biological mechanics. Even the way an image is processed in our brains, is not necessarily what we see in front of our eyes. This confrontation between the technical limitations and pushing the image as close to reality as possible, is intriguing, because we have not achieved it yet. Something may break in this process, and that could reveal something interesting within our psyche – in regards to our emotions, the distortions and biases we have towards our reality. For me, it is necessary to understand my biases and how my vision distorts my understanding of life.
Part II: Perceptions
I find that we live in amazing times, and I am very happy to be born when I was born. Our life in the digital world is nothing but progress. I am not afraid of it. All my lines of questioning of the digital mediums are positive ones.
When it comes to images – and this is a fundamental part of my career, understanding images and why we create them – the digital realm has offered two lines of questioning. One of them relates to reality and how we capture it. The process of questioning of our perception of reality – which is something that is deeply linked to me, and a work of introspection. The other relates to how the digital realm changes our life, using computers, algorithms and generative art. This is a way for me to try to understand how we collectively manage and negotiate the creation of images, and how we ingest them.
The digital work that I am doing right now, through computer coding, engages that line of questioning – how we perceive all those images together, and what they represent.
Trying to understand our connection to, and the meaning of, all the images floating around in the internet, and how we have decided to access them, or how it has been decided for us. This aspect of my work is as artistic as architectural, or pure photography.
I got into this creative zone for an earlier project – Send Some Candids. I started obtaining images from the internet for a project which dealt with the sexual oppression that women face in their daily lives. I was going to attempt to tackle that project through the camera, by capturing images. However, I realised that was too limiting, and I could not do it on my own, so I decided to get images from the internet. I started collecting images, and I had over ten thousand images of women, captured by men on the streets with their mobile phones. That was also just the initial part of it, I realised we could do something more with those images.
At the time, when I was spending so much time on the internet, I found images had a specific life. It was almost as if the internet was an organism, a complex system in which some images had their own lives, and were surfacing on their own. This life was completely disconnected from the photographer, and the people who created it.
I decided to push it further and further, to go into the pixels and try to reveal something different about those images. This was the beginning of something else, and I enjoyed doing this. I was doing it completely for myself; me versus the internet. But it was also a commentary on us as a collective, trying to make sense of all these changes happening so quickly.
When I shoot spaces, it is very controlled. As I said, I enjoy working within those limitations, I find it quite relaxing. At the same time though, when I deal with the digital realm, I deal with complexity. Control does not make sense anymore. Here I have the tendency of letting the process speak for me. This is what I embrace as generative art.
The work of an artist is to set up the process; the condition of the operation.
I think this stems from my scientific or engineering background, because to me it is akin to biology, where I have a petri-dish and my digital files grow like bacteria. I find that very interesting, to allow the art to grow by itself, in a very organic way. I move between the artist and the photographer quite effortlessly – and this is my angle towards the internet at large. I think I have done about four or five projects with generative art; some involve coding, while some others involve processes in terms of algorithms. Algorithms are everywhere. Whether you practice hardcore coding and you get into the machine or not, algorithms are a part of your life.
Algorithms are any set of instructions or actions, and that could even be biological.
I have tried to expand these ideas through various projects, like A Thousand Kisses Deep, or Cassini Conspiracy. Initially those projects were working on society, mainly sexuality in India. Right now, I am trying to understand “us” in the “internet”. I am trying to look at the internet as a complex system which reflects our own psyche and I am trying to squeeze information from the internet, which can speak about humanity.
CHAPTER 05: ART AND RADICALITY
It is quite fascinating, how photographers and architects question the artistic nature of their practice. We have long conversations, conferences, books and films, etc. Painters do not care; they know what they do is art. If they meet, they are not going to speak about the validity of their practice as an art form.
To me, architectural photography is an art. It is a different type of artistic expression, through both architecture and photography.
The idea of radicality is something I have been greatly fascinated by. We work in the premises of contemporary art; the post-modern world where you can do everything that you want. Being radical is encouraged – so how does it function, in a space where you can do all of it?
There is an idea of freedom which I always question. How much freedom do we have in expression?
Today we have many types of mediums in which we can speak about various things, but how can you be different in that situation? How can you be radical?
Thinking about it now – and this moves away from the subject of architecture photography – but I think it is political. The political mindset has been evacuated from the artistic discourse. Everybody is very political, but everybody agrees with everybody. There is a certain political affiliation that we have among artists, and we never meet anybody who has a different political idea. If we do meet them, it is in an extremely confrontational way – we label them as ‘the others’ (Republicans, Conservatives, etc.). There is no dialogue within the artistic community on those premises. I do not see people coming from the right wing who speak or express their political affiliations in the artistic community. That might be one way to look at how to stay radical. I think we need to be radical as artists. We need to be different, and think differently. Right now, I do not see it happening.
Part II: Evolving Concepts
I have a plethora of projects lined up in my head. I do a lot of different things, so I am letting them develop on their own. My artistic projects used to be completed over shorter periods of time, but now I do not care if they take years to complete. They grow on their own, and find meaning by themselves. Before in my artistic practice, I used to work on very strong concepts. The concept had to be waterproof and very tight. Nowadays, I do not really care – I let the concept evolve on its own.
I am currently trying to create a team for my studio, and I find this very artistic. As a team, we work together to try and create a community – something that is viable and stands on its own. The energy that I bring into it is more artistic than entrepreneurial. This is why I am interested by it, and working hard to do it. It occupies a lot of my mind, trying to project how it would evolve in the future. If I were to do it for purely business, then I would not be doing it. I always feel the type of energy I put into a project, whether it is the energy of surviving, or making money. However, I really feel myself putting in an artistic energy into the creation of the studio. It is not just me of course, it is the whole team working together towards a common goal. This is what is currently occupying my “artistic brain”.
CHAPTER 06: THE SEMIOTICS OF A PHOTOGRAPH
Photography always had a certain meaning, in terms of how it represented our understanding of reality. Today, the way images are created has changed a lot. I have written about it before – how the meaning of images and the role of the photographer on the internet has evolved.
I find the role of the photographer disappearing.
It is okay if it does, changes are inevitable – but I find that photographs have less meaning once they are on the internet. I would even say that they are becoming meaningless. We used to interact with images individually – we would have a single image in front of us, and we would perceive them in galleries or exhibitions. Even in magazines and newspapers, the images would be curated in some way, and this would be a human decision. Right now, with the internet, this curation, and the connection the images have with those around them, are all decided by algorithms which we do not fully understand. The semiotics of images are disappearing.
Without the anchor of a text or a caption, the image can move from one meaning to another very easily.
Although there is still a lot of text on the internet, it is quite random, and not decided by a human being. Such images lose their intended meaning. Perhaps now the idea should not be to look at individual images, but all the images together as a whole. I think the meaning comes in the association of all those images together. This is where photography or post-photography – whatever the future holds – should be apprehended. The single image is not important anymore, but the assimilation of them is.
Whatever will happen, will happen. Change can also be very good, and we should not be conservative about these ideas of the meaning of photography and art. Studying these evolutions will continue to be interesting, and we should be open to these ideas♦
Images: © Fabien Charuau
Fabien Charuau is a French photographer currently based in India and working on Architecture and Interior Photography. He is also an artist working with digital and generative art. Over the last twenty years, Fabien has contributed to various publications, including Archdaily, Architectural Digest, Architecture+Design, Beautiful Homes, Dezeen, Domus, and ELLE, to name a few. He has also shot for numerous international architecture firms and takes on private projects.
On Photography is a series of conversations with photographers of different contexts, discussing the various ideologies behind capturing a meaningful photograph.