Gonzalo Benard: A Perfect Stranger
Gonzalo Bénard sits at his computer. Through the screen, an image of a young man standing bedside, walking to a door, rearranging books on their shelf. Camera at hand, he himself is absent. Only a clicking finger remains to decipher shadows flitting across the Venetian blind. Now the observer becomes the observed, as I spoke to the enigmatic artist to turn the stranger into the familiar.
Hello Gonzalo. Tell me, how did the idea for this project, B Shot by a Stranger, come about?
Gonzalo Bénard: I was living in Barcelona when one night, I noticed all of the windows of the buildings in front of my balcony with different people living in them; in different stages, different rituals. You could see one light turned on and someone passing by, and another window with someone else cooking, and another one with someone else reading, etc. These people didn’t know each other but they linked together for me in the same concrete block – anonymous loners living their lives. I wanted to catch those moments but I didn’t want to be like a stalker, an intrusive. But the idea was in my mind, and I knew that one day later on I would pick it up for a project.
Later on I took a sabbatical year in my country house, far from the world, with no one in sight for miles. I soon missed shooting people as an observer of life, as a creator inspired by human nature, so one day talking with a good friend through webcam, I noticed an amazing light from his window sculpting his face, and I asked him not to move so that I could take his photo. I realized then that I had an open door for the project, being far away from his world, using the best of technology to be connected. Then, while checking Facebook one night, I saw in a friend’s post that his plans for that night had been cancelled without a plan B, quite lost facing his own loneliness. And that was the click. I told him then that I had a plan B for him, and B Shot by a Stranger started that night.
DR: How did you feel during, and after, this first experience? Did the result meet your expectations of the original idea?
GB: With the first shooting I was not properly a stranger as he was already a friend, but I did feel awkward as he was sharing his private moments with me for the first time. You usually don’t think that a handsome, popular guy like him could have lonely moments, and he seemed quite secure, but there he was, having a breakdown in front of me. As a friend, I had mixed feelings as we already had emotional ties being friends. However, I was a stranger as was he, because it was our first time sharing that intimacy. I couldn’t let any emotions to come up, and for that, I had my defense: the camera, the lens. I was not there – just my eye, just the camera was. And a camera is a voyeuristic tool, even if you aren’t. However, being in the presence of someone who shares his own intimate loneliness made me feel even more respectful of him, and I kept learning that shooting after shooting. I knew my own boundaries – not the loners ones that changed one after another in these humans’ amazing differentness.
DR: What are your biggest influences? And what kept you inspired throughout the process of this project?
GB: Anonymous people, nonsense people, human nature. Including you and each one of the models. And me, as in the people from whom I get inspiration; sometimes from my own nonsense.
DR: What has been your goal throughout this project, and have you achieved it? What is it that you hope viewers will take away from seeing these photographs?
GB: I don’t know if there has been a main goal, I guess that there are different and parallel goals that were being built and achieved throughout the project. Loneliness has been described as the illness of this century and I wanted to explore that and understand it. Other goals were the experimentation of new photographic techniques and approaches. Achieved. Creating something new and pleasant. Achieved. Also, it was quite important to me to lift the loners’ spirits, to show them that they can find something positive in their loneliness; that they’re needed, especially by themselves. If this was achieved, only each of the volunteers can say, but I would guess that all of them had a good experience. Being part of an artistic project can fulfill anyone.
I’m going to put the viewers and the models who view their own photos in the same category, as I had some curious responses from them. They said that they felt like voyeurs of themselves. This is not a voyeur/exhibitionist project with the cultural charge of these words – I prefer the observer and the observed ones. I played witness to their own private moments, they shared them. And here, there is a triangle to complete: the viewer closes the dialogue, and they will be voyeurs. I’m hoping that they will be observers most of all with this sociological project; that they can learn, especially the lonely viewers, to do something to rid their loneliness. I hope that they can turn their loneliness into enjoying being with themselves, to participate more in life, to enjoy more, to believe more. Even if they like the photographs just for the aesthetic and quality, I really hope that something deeper will stay in their subconscious.
DR: Speaking of the aesthetic of the photographs – the lack of colour, the soft focus, the casual nudity – these all seem to lend a certain atmosphere to each image. For me, the series evokes an array of emotions: sadness, nostalgia, romanticism, melancholy, etc. Why do you think the composition took such a fragile route? Was this a conscious or subconscious decision?
GB: It was completely conscious. Loneliness often comes with sadness, nostalgia, melancholy – a missing part within the loner; the opposite of being alone with yourself, which can bring joy and pleasant times. Aesthetically, the lack of colour, focus and clothing is to not distract from the main concept. It also gives a better feeling of a “spying camera”. Clothing can serve as protection for some, you can even label someone just by what they wear, and I wanted the models to be enveloped in their own vulnerability. Nudity makes one more fragile as you have nothing to protect you, both physically and metaphorically, and loneliness can make you more fragile as a human being. I wanted to portray that vulnerability, that nakedness; the unprotected being. And another reason for the soft focus is that I wanted to protect the identity of the models somewhat, and also so that they could represent feeling and emotion, therefore the viewer can focus more on the concept rather than the specific person; to go deeper.
DR: Do you find that this project has affected the way that you interact with people on a daily basis; your friends, everyday strangers? Has it affected your approach to your other artwork in any way?
GB: The more you know people, the more you accept and respect them, even if they don’t make sense at times. On a daily basis I don’t deal with the intimate moments of others, but I always love to sit down at my terrace to observe people’s expressions when they are walking alone, trying to understand their moods – but without interaction.
As for my artwork, yes, especially when drawing. I have a very intense connection with the act of drawing; using the graphite over paper as I would touch the skin of someone’s body with the tip of my finger. Drawing is very fleshy and physical for me which in a way is balanced with the strange, often cold, skinless way of communication that the internet can bring. I also haven’t painted for some time, and this project has made me itch to get back into it. Maybe the need to create is my way of embracing, of sharing and venting my own self, from the guts. These photographs were a way to vent to the world, to share what loneliness can mean and how can we all deal with it when we feel it. Maybe loners should have it more present in their minds that they can do something pleasant, not allowing themselves to break down. A loner seeks for attention, but they need their own attention most of all. Maybe the mistake is looking on the outside, when you already have what you need inside. That I will bring up on the next project.
DR: Finally, has this project taught you anything about yourself?
GB: It has taught me that we can’t give a hug through the internet when sometimes it is needed on the other side. My screen would have become overheated (laughs). If we are observers, paying attention to details, to human nature, we always end up learning new things. And in facing new things we have new reactions, some unexpected, and all of these experiences help to build our own personality. As one more experience, and at times quite intense, it taught me quite a few things, and maybe stretched some boundaries too. I’m happy that I’ve never experienced true loneliness, a feeling that I finally understood observing others. As an artist, the project also brought me new ways of expression as I explored different photographic techniques. You can see the evolution of the aesthetic from the beginning to the end of the series. It’s interesting how they became much more unfocused and less worried at the end. It also taught me to bring up emotions without a true identity, but just as one more human on earth. Even if I felt needed, but without actually being there; a stranger that was needed for that specific moment. And then you must know when to leave. *
Gonzalo Bénard is an internationally acclaimed visual artist and photographer, based in Paris, working throughout Europe.
The collective work of this project is featured in the newly-released book, B Shot by a Stranger, available through his website.