The art of collaboration and the myth of singular genius

Recently, The Adventure Handbook chatted with photographer Thierry Bal.

To introduce the breadth and depth of Thierry’s work is no mean feat. Perhaps a knack for capturing the inaccessible, with a career that spans over a decade, his images capture the remote and unknown to high profile.

So – we asked him to do so. And then kept the questions rolling.

AHB: First off, can you please introduce yourself, and tell me where and when you are right now.

Thierry: Hello! I am a Belgian photographer based in London, which, right now, is rather peaceful. The traditionally long British festive season has come to an end, and is slowly being replaced by the reality of January. For me it’s a period of reflection, to look back on the past year, and to plan new projects.

I can’t actually remember a period when I was not taking photographs.

When did you first pick up a camera, and how long have you been involved in photography?

I can’t actually remember a period when I was not taking photographs. I probably wasn’t snapping away when I was a toddler, but my mental archive does contain a picture of little-me aiming a lens at some sort of lemur in a German safari park. I must have been about nine. Professionally, I have been at it for 14 years now. Do you think there’s something in your personality, some kind of personal philosophy, that made you follow this line of work? Absolutely, I consider what I do as an essential part of the way I go about life. It certainly helps that I have always been interested in observing, both the details and the bigger context of just about anything around me. My work, by nature, is very collaborative, and it’s up to me how I approach interactions with others. My preferred way of working also affects the type of projects I choose to get involved with.

As it often occurs, what then is your experience of collaboration? In my practice, collaboration is pretty much essential. I have never been convinced by the idea of the artist-genius working in isolation. Engaging in collaborative processes does not mean negating one’s personal artistic vision. On the contrary. Collaborations are about creating an atmosphere where individual creative decisions can come from any direction, and are free to interact to yield stronger results. This process in itself is crucial. Is there a consistent way you approach each project? Over the last 14 years, I’ve specialised in projects with and for artists, arts publications and arts organisations. I am very much into ideas and have a total fascination for the world of images. Every project I am involved with is different, either thematically or in terms of its requirements, but what they have in common is how I approach the research, the communication with others and the shoot itself. I am not interested in photography for photography’s sake. What matters is trying to give an image the ability to invoke a wide-ranging reaction within the viewer. Also, I think it is unwise not to approach photography in relation to other art forms, such as architecture, literature, and music, and ultimately also to life itself. All of these factors heavily influence my work.

I have never been convinced by the idea of the artist-genius working in isolation. Engaging in collaborative processes does not mean negating one’s personal artistic vision.

Are you always looking at everything through a lens? No. Or, only in the sense that I constantly think about and observe that which surrounds me, wherever I am. I don’t think much about photography or photographers at all. I use cameras and other technology to express ideas visually. The apparatus itself is rarely on my mind. You go far and wide to capture spectacular imagery. Abandoned ships in Mauritiana. An artistic intervention in Antarctica. I wonder how much the photograph is entwined with the real experience for you. To what extend does documentation become art-making? I firmly believe that the experience of a particular expedition, the distance and time covered, the challenges involved, and any encounters along the way, are unique, and carry a huge amount of weight. The conditions of such a project have a substantial impact on the final appearance and content of the photographs that come into existence. Again, the process itself is never circumstantial, but closely entwined with the end result. I’d argue that in this context, photographic documentation is a misnomer. Photographs produced during expeditions result from subjective decisions and reflections on what is happening; sometimes the act of photographing is spontaneous, sometimes it is carefully planned. Also, afterwards these images will be looked at through a complex set of personal and circumstantial filters.
Out of all of your adventures, which one sticks with you the most? In 2003, I worked with French artist Marine Hugonnier on a project in Niger. It involved trying to reach a remote location in time for a rare occurrence of a total solar eclipse, visible for only four minutes above a narrow strip of desert, and photographing its effect on the landscape. Essentially, we were turning the large format plate camera we brought away from the event itself, towards the landscape. Even though we had travelled a huge distance and had to overcome many challenges to make it there, in the end there was no time to observe the drama’s protagonist, the obscured sun. I nevertheless knew that I had observed something no-one else had, and in that realisation there was something incredibly beautiful. It was as if the event resisted being ‘documented’. On the way back, we survived a bus crash, and when we got back to the lab in London, all five plates we shot showed extensive X-ray damage. In the end we had to deal with that too.
Are there certain challenges about travelling that you’ve come to accept? The practical preparation, although essential, is not something that I think of as fascinating: to me that’s all about being smart with bookings, transport, equipment and safety. You only have to experience this process a few times to know how to go about it for the next project. Far more challenging is the conceptual preparation, by which I mean setting up the framework in which, hopefully, it will be possible for interesting imagery to be produced. You always need a healthy dose of chance too, but this will only come into play if you invite it in, by being prepared to seize moments, to adapt and to think fast within the structure that is already in place.
When you’re away, do you too go ‘off-grid’ from technology? Technology is a means to an end. I don’t think much about technology, except when choosing the best equipment for the job. And certainly, going off-grid is not an issue. It happens. Solid preparation notwithstanding, a lot of my work involves reacting to the moment. To do so, I can’t only rely on technology, as sometimes I actually feel constrained by it.
During these trips, do you produce anything other than photography? And carbon dioxide. Photographs are just one result of the creative process, as are any changes that occur within myself. It is impossible to not be affected by powerful experiences. And though ephemeral, the mere existence and the memory of a creative act are as important as the production of photographs. Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Since 2011 I have been the editor of an online series of essays, Various Small Fires. Artists and writers are commissioned to examine one photographic image from any source. The chosen image then serves as a platform to identify and discuss the roles or functions of ‘the photograph’. One of the series’ main aims is to encourage readers to engage with photography in a wider context, to show that photographs are not just constrained to the photo book, social media, or the gallery. In 2015, the best essays will be compiled and published as a book, The Glass of Milk.   Interview by The Adventure Handbook, images by Thierry Bal