Sophie Calle’s work exists on the borders of photography and conceptual art. Her work is rarely aesthetic in the pictorial sense but stems from her curiosity at realizing an idea or action. Calle had been following strangers in the streets of Paris and one day met one of these strangers in a gallery and overheard that he was going to Venice the next day. She disguised herself and followed him to Venice. The premise and narrative of Suite Vénitienne is her seeking, finding and pursuing this man. In literary terms, you could say it’s an ‘Odyssey’ where the main protagonist is the narrator (the photographer) and she doesn’t know how things will turn out. Calle documented her adventure with photographs as if she was a ‘private eye’ hired to tail someone. She used a mirror attachment on her camera so she could shoot at 90-degree angles (around corners!). The work is related to a series of conceptual photographs by Vito Acconci, which show him following people in the streets of New York. One main consideration here is that the follower is being guided along by the subject. There is a sense of relinquishing the usual ‘control’ of the artist. At the core of Calle’s work is a child-like curiosity with life and people. It’s not so much about making art as allowing herself to be taken on an adventure by an idea.
Controversial and how, ethical or unethical, however one might want to look at Sophie Calle’s work, it sure is enigmatic and fascinating. If I have to describe her work, it does appear to have that aura of mystery – you can tell by looking at the pictures that they have been taken from a hidden vantage point. Her images are like stills from a movie. Like a Sherlock Holmes movie. The sense of mystery and enigma, the sense of the unknown, the stranger, are some responses that come to my mind. The images become more thrilling and exciting because of the story behind them and it’s quite apparent as the images themselves are nothing exceptional in terms of beauty or other technical details – they are more like a documentary style of recording images. The human psyche gets attracted to things that hold an element of drama, mystery or anything that is away from the ordinary. Had these images just been of a person without this added dramatic story behind it, perhaps they wouldn’t have become such a hit? Because of the controversies surrounding them, these images have become so popular.
Having said that, I do not mean that the images are not good. I quite like them and the style that they are taken in. I think the Sophie Calle has done great justice to these images as the viewer can feel the mystery, the stalking, the story, plus they have a feel of the cinema in them. One can definitely not ignore them for sure.
Q. • Her work sometimes raises ethical issues related to privacy, and in return, she is very open about her own life.
A. Honestly speaking, I think she got away with what she did because of the era she was in at the moment. I honestly think in today’s age, it is impossible to be discovered stalking someone and getting away without any serious danger or repercussions. Personally yes, of course, her work raises serious questions about ethical photography and violation of someone’s basic right to privacy. Just because one is open about their own life doesn’t necessarily mean that others would be comfortable doing so. So that can not be taken as a benchmark for an equal and opposite reaction from others.
Q. • What are your moral feelings about following a stranger to make photographs of him?
A. I probably would not follow a stranger to make photographs of him. I have issues approaching people and asking their permission to take their pictures even, taking them without their permission is totally out of question for me. Its a serious violation of someone’s privacy and in today’s age where stalking someone is a crime, I definitely don’t want to get myself into criminal and legal charges. More than that, I think it’s unethical to invade someone’s privacy to that extent. I would not take that chance with any human. I just would not feel comfortable doing so.
Q. Can you think of an adventure you could go on – however banal it may seem – that would put you in a different position than you are accustomed to when making photographs?
Oh yes, I would love to go on an adventure like the one in the example below. This is a recent video I saw of filmmaker/cameraman Kim Wolhuter who did a somewhat similar thing with wild Cheetahs in Zimbabwe. Now that is something that I would love to do. I would even stalk an animal any day and be very excited and happy about it to get some great footage. Simply put, I am more comfortable with and excited about shooting animals than humans any day. I would love to be like Mowgli and live with the animals and experience their lives from a different perspective than that of a safari jeep. The video can be seen below and will explain the adrenaline rush that I experience by just looking at it. In many ways, this video reminds me of Sophie Calle’s approach to Henri B. only this had a more exciting and fulfilling ending.
Q. • Is there a job you could take that would give you access to a certain kind of subject that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to?
Yes, I would love to take on a job in like a conservation center for big cats, where I can experience these animals up close and establish a relationship with them. I often see the volunteers who work at these centers and their interactions with animals. That is something, given a chance and opportunity, I would accept at the drop of a hat. I do get to see these animals during my work trips to the various jungles but I want a more satisfying experience by working closely with them. I hope to get that job someday. That would be my ultimate adventure.
Book: Suite Venitienne – Sophie Calle