B Shot by a Stranger by Hilaire Avril for EYEMAZING
B Shot by a Stranger
The title of Gonzalo Bénard’s series, B Shot by a Stranger, almost sounds like an advertising slogan. In a sense, it is. To find the subjects who lent their frail bodies and opened themselves to his eye, Bénard advertised the project on social networks, including Facebook. Contact was made, and Bénard “followed” his subjects in the intimacy of their home, through Skype, the Internet voice and video service, shooting his screen from his own home.
The process gave Bénard unparalleled access to his subjects’ routines and “rituals of boredom”, as he calls them. He focused on the id le moments when youths set the stage for their own loneliness.
Philosopher Veronique Nahoum-Grappe, who wrote “Ordinary Ennui”, a sociological study of boredom in contemporary society, writes that it is “an experience of the social present, an essential part of life in a society which social sciences have seldom addressed because it is trapped in literary or psychological references, and because it does not produce anything visible.” Bénard’s insight now refutes this premise, and puts a face, or whole bodies to this eminently modern mood. Bénard says: “In this project I focused exclusively on lonely youth and how they behave facing their own loneliness, with in many different cultures, from Australia to Sweden, from the U.S. to Puerto Rico, from London to a small town in the South of France.
It’s almost a sociological project, I don’t guide them into their loneliness and they are not acting. They call me when they’re lonely and I shoot them from there. Some feel more comfortable talking with a stranger, others are just there doing their thing, their rituals as a loner,” he says.
“Strictly related to melancholy, and as a sort of trait d’union with boredom, is the concept of ennui,” write philosophers Barbara Dai le Pezze and Carlo Salzani in “The Delicate Monster: Boredom”. “The term entered the French language between the 12th and 13th century, and etymologically comes from the Latin odium, and the Latin expressions inodiare, ‘to hold in hatred’, or in odio esse, ‘to be objet of hate’: it connotes thus a hatred of the world and of oneself,” they explain . But interestingly, Bénard explains he himself is impervious to the concept: “This has been even more interesting for me to ‘study’ as I never experienced being lonely myself, as I’malways busy creating. I’ve always been my own family, my own pet, my own plant, my own friend. I’ve always been a creator. So I never felt that loneliness I always heard about. I never understood it, as I never understood other fee lings like greed, depression, etc. I always had a busy life, building myself, observing others and life. So I decided to observe people in their loneliness. At the same time, I became their ‘psychologists’, the stranger with whom they vent and talked openly, as they understood immediately that I wouldn’t judge.” The process reveals interesting patterns, or “rituals” as Bénard refers to them. “When I first asked them what do they do when they are lonely, I got answers like: Ilie like a corpse, or Isit down and wait for something to happen, Istand at the computer refreshing my Facebook page over and over again. They just don’t live because no one taught them to do so… Some said, I used to draw, but I get sad because I don’t know how to.
Most of them take a bath/shower when lonely, maybe unconscious of that ritual. The contact with water has always been a cleansing moment, not only for the body but also for the mind. Some people play an instrument or read. Others just lie down, soaking up light coming from the outside sun on their bodies. Intimate moments that I could observe as a stranger. Itis often easier to talk or to share our intimacy with a stranger. The underwear and nakedness also gives a better feeling of human fragility, as clothing can be very protective.
Looking at Bénard’s earlier work in portraiture, the series constitutes in part a cross over into documentary photography of a kind. “B Shot by a Stranger started when I was living in Barcelona,” he explains. “From my balcony at night I had a living theatre in front of me, with many windows so close, and so many different people and lives. Most of them lived alone in their flats, had their own rituals, which was quite curious to observe. After some time, two years ago, I went into a coma. [Bénard suffered heavy injuries during a motorcycle accident, which required lengthy months of physical therapy.]
When I finally had my “rebirth,” I took a sabbatical year in a country house, far away from everything and everyone. Once I had the need to create daily again, I started shooting animals, plants, fields, bones and animal skeletons, which took me into some more curious work/concepts of “voodoo” aesthetics and the “oneness” of doing those series like the tamed man and his horse or uncaged nature, where I staged myself with animals, or as an animal.”
Bénard continues: “But I missed humans … Seeing people, witnessing their rituals and behaviors. So one day, while talking with a friend through Skype, watching him standing up to make some tea, I realized that I had an open door there. I could finally take on my postponed project as a voyeur, watching but not being there, not interfering with my physical presence. I could be the stranger shooting people in their rituals and moments of loneliness. This is how it began. Everything started taking shape immediately. A friend’s post on Facebook saying his plans were cancelled and that he was alone and lonely at home made me Skype him and asked if he didn’t mind my observing/spying on him that lonely night. He cooked dinner, had a bath, a drink, read. I was there shooting the screen with him on the other side, feeling safe, yet observed.”
Bénard readily confesses there is an element of voyeurism (his term) in B Shot by a Stranger. “Photography or its concept can be seen often as a voyeuristic process, and you can see with someone like Nan Goldin for example, the mood she gets is very voyeuristic – or even [Cindy] Sherman being so cinematic and self-voyeuristic.” [Cindy Sherman famously asserted: ” I’m really just using the mirror to summon something I don’t even know until I see it.”] Bénard says: ” I’m an observer of life, of human nature, through the windows left open. Being an ‘inside work’, maybe it’s not that different from street photography either, as you shoot people passing by (staged or not, like Robert Doisneau), or even war photojournalism shooting people suffering. The main innovation here is more the process and the means we can use now with Internet, I think. I mention street photography, which I often do, because when I’m sitting at a terrace waiting for someone, (I usually go before the meeting to do so) I’m observing people passing by, with their walks, their face expressions. I leave the camera on the table and keep shooting people that I observe. Just for fun. I want to frame them in my mind, so I re lease them in a memory card, as they’re just unknown people passing by. Also I wouldn’t do anything with the photos, as I didn’t ask their permission to do so. It would be ‘stealing’ their souls, their thoughts while walking in silence with themselves,” he says.
However, with this series, Bénard’s subjects agreed to participate in this invasion of their intimacy. “Most of them are really strangers that I never met before,” he says, “they knew the project and they came to me, through Tumblr or the Facebook fan page. In this project, people are volunteers, they agree to be shot, to be spied and followed around. The blurred photography protects their identities, a bit, and also highlights the spying mood, like a security camera with low definition. I don’t interfere with their loneliness, with their own rituals-except asking to move the webcam for a better composition, light, angle. I open the video in full screen and I start shooting it with my camera. Most of the time I have to wear black because of the reflections of the screen. But it’s also a reference, as I’m the one reflected on it, on them, on their lives. Not being a loner, I let myself into their world as I let them come into mine, in a play of reflections, of windows. All of them playing safe, miles away from this stranger, who somehow they trust more than they trust their friends. I’m the paparazzo in this play and they feel like they are being someone. They feel good being watched and observed. Maybe because they’re not used to having someone look at them in their honest privacy, without masks, naked.”
©Text by Hilaire Avril for EYEMAZING (summer issue 2012)
©All Photographs: Gonzalo Bénard
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