An Encounter with Solitude, by Cipriano de Guimarães for AtBalbec
Paris-based artist photographer Gonzalo Bénard, creator of human portraits in the black and in the white, talked with Atelier Balbec about his recently completed satellite-photography experiment, B Shot by a Stranger, in which he voyeuristically shoots young volunteers around the world in their most intimate moments. Here is a look at our interview:
Atelier Balbec: Could you please explain to us what exactly B Shot by a Stranger is?
Gonzalo Bénard: B Shot by a Stranger is a sort of sociological game in which young volunteers that are truly alone and lonely in their homes let me be the witness of their solitary habits. I act as a long distance voyeur, shooting the screen via a webcam, like a security camera, recording their private moments, never leaving them while they cook, shower, read, drink, play, sleep, or dance alone in their own private places.
AB: How did you get the idea for the project?
GB: I guess it was in Barcelona, where, sitting at my balcony and watching all the windows of the buildings in front of me, I realized the vast amount of people living alone and lonely. Like a real theatre but with different stage-windows, each one with a different loner. I used to sit at the balcony and read, and sometimes, not being a voyeur, I stared at myself observing their lives and questing myself about the so-called illness of the century: Loneliness.
AB: The volunteers for B Shot by a Stranger come from all around the world. Did you notice any cultural or sociological constant that comes out when human beings are alone, apart from the mores of society?
GB: That is correct: The project had volunteers worldwide. These people are from different cultures, different faiths, and different corners of the earth, all of them experiencing lonely moments, the same feelings and emotions. Aren’t we all humans? How we react to them can vary from person to person, but it can also be similar, no matter where you’re from. It’s curious to see, for example, the ritual of a bath using the water as cleanser, or as protection. Water is used by all religions to give the protection of the Gods, to purify our spirits. But a bath can also feel like going back in time to the most protective moment for a human being: The mother’s womb. And there you’re “allowed” to cry or just let some tears out… because those tears will merge with the water that purifies the spirit.
AB: As a Benedictine monk recently expressed, loneliness is something we all experience, especially in our modern world, where the breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. Indeed, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky—after a while, people don’t think about it anymore. What can you tell us about loneliness after having undertaken this project?
GB: I didn’t know what loneliness meant before I started this project and I was quite curious to understand the feeling of it. Since I was a kid I have always created things to do, I always filled my spare time drawing, writing, painting, doing photography, or just walking and observing nature, human nature. I’ve been always an observer and a creator. I spent almost my entire life alone, but never lonely.
Loners are loners because they allow themselves to be loners. Sometimes they seek the attention of others, not realizing that they’re just seeking their own attention. Having someone else—especially a stranger who will not judge you, who will respect you, with whom you don’t have any special emotional ties—can be distracting, but it can also be a sweet and comfortable way for you to face yourself instead of the cruelty of facing the mirror.
As B Shot by a Stranger was undertaken without an imposed physical presence or even an energetic interference, it left much more space for them to keep feeling their own loneliness. The volunteers were not acting; they were going through it for real. They were alone and lonely. I could be there with them… not being. They could trust in this stranger, as they knew they could just turn off if they didn’t feel safe.
AB: And what about photography? What did you learn about it while doing this project?
GB: It brought a new meaning to what, for me, it is to be a photographer. A camera has always been a tool of voyeurism; I’d not realized that before—until I started the B Shot by a Stranger project… and stretched the boundaries. Street photography can be as voyeuristic as shooting a posing model. A war or disaster photographer catching moments of pain and distress uses the camera as voyeuristic tool, too. But none of this can go as far as watching someone in their vulnerable, intimate, nude, private, lonely moments.
AB: We can only speak for ourselves, individually, but when alone, we, The Editors, do not spend too much time in the nude (some might call us prudes, but we prefer to hang out in full dinner-party gear); however, we have noticed that many of the volunteers appear in the photos without any clothes on. What do you think accounts for that?
GB: Your prudishness or their nudity?
AB: Well… their nudity.
GB: I am a naturist myself since my first teen years; even before that, perhaps: once, when I was five, I injured my forehead running away from having to wear a pajama. So nudity for me is quite natural. Most of these loners get rid of their clothes when alone at home, maybe as a rebellious attitude, an affirmation of character. I wanted them to be with themselves in the most comfortable and honest possible way, and also this nakedness gives them—or the photography—a more fragile mood, adding to the fragility of loneliness itself. When you wear something, you feel more protected, as if the clothes made you feel less lonely.
AB: You’ve worked mainly with real-life self-portraits, using yourself to portray, most often, both a non-sense real world in which we live and the oneness of real man/woman/animal/nature. Can a line be drawn between your more realistic latest work and these virtual strangers? Is it possible to speak of a sort of rite of passage?
GB: I was in a coma a few years ago and when I came out of it I went for a sabbatical year in the middle of nowhere. It was then that I created Oneness, a kind of rebirth with the elements of nature, replacing myself in the human’s world questioning myself as man, woman, animal, and nature. I’ve been always interested and motivated by the human mind, our own nonsense worlds, conscious and subconscious. I needed to understand myself first, and then go for the others. That time I only had myself for a model/player. And when I felt ready I came back to the city surrounded by real people and virtual strangers; who are real in their own worlds. I started networking again and found an amazing amount of people who were feeling loneliness, people who had a great social life, good jobs, etc. And I somehow felt attracted by this feeling, as I had never experienced before. But these people were too far from me, so the idea of doing it through satellite came up naturally after talking with someone on Skype. There was no specific rite of passage; each photograph I do is itself a rite of passage for the next one. Including the spirits within.
AB: Thank you very much again, Gonzalo, for sharing with us. We wish you the best in your future work.
GB: Sharing is learning. Gracias a vosotros por existir y compartir.
By: Cipriano de Guimarães
Images: Gonzalo Bénard