Gregory Halpern: Let the Sun Beheaded Be [Photographs of Guadeloupe]

On the Magnum website, Gregory Halpern discusses his new work on Martinique with photography writer and curator Diane Smyth. Here are some excerpts. You can access the complete interview with photos here.

In 2018, Gregory Halpern won Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission organized by the Fondation d’enterprise Hermès which invites an American photographer to make new work in France, or vice versa. Halpern chose to work in Guadeloupe, a Caribbean archipelago which was colonized by the French in 1635 and is now a French overseas region. Inspired, in part, by Aimé Césaire, a French poet, author and politician from nearby Martinique, he made a new photographic series titled Soleil cou coupé or Let the Sun Beheaded Be, which will go on show at Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris from September 8 – October 18, and at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2022. Halpern is also publishing a book of the work on September 8, 2020, with Aperture and the Fondation d’enterprise Hermès, which includes an essay by Clément Chéroux and a conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.

Halpern was born in 1977 in Buffalo, New York, and studied history and literature at Harvard University before going on to gain an MFA from California College of the Arts in 2004. Halpern has previously published six monographs: Harvard Works Because We Do (2003); A (2011); East of the SunWest of the Moon (in collaboration with Ahndraya Parlato, 2014); ZZYZX (2016); Confederate Moons (2018); and Omaha Sketchbook (2019). ZZYZX won Photobook of the Year at the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, and Halpern was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. He teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology and joined Magnum Photos in 2018.

Here, Halpern discusses the new work with photography writer and curator Diane Smyth.

. . .

Why did you want to take photographs in Guadeloupe?

The commission was to select anywhere in France and make work, and I was interested in looking at France through the lens of Guadeloupe, as a former colony. I wanted to re-consider what images, what locations, and what people come to mind when one thinks of “France.”

But holocaust memorials and museums are easier for Americans to build and visit, perhaps because the narrative around them is easier for us to swallow. We can acknowledge that evil because we didn’t invent it and fought to stop it. Slavery is harder. Americans didn’t invent it per se, but we made it flourish like nowhere else. Our nation, and its success, was built on the blood of enslaved people.

. . .

What attracted you to Aimé Césaire’s work?

The poetry drew me in at first, but his biography is equally compelling. Not only was he an internationally known poet and the founder and editor of the influential literary journal Tropiques, he also served as mayor of Martinique’s Fort-de-France for fifty years. He also helped found the 1930s Négritude movement in French literature, which aimed to cultivate “Black consciousness” across Africa and its diaspora, and as a teacher, he inspired Martinique’s two other most famous writers – Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant. So in a way, it felt impossible to work in Guadeloupe without engaging with him.

Soleil cou coupé really moved me. I love the way he describes heat, smells, colours, desire and death. And I share his interest in confrontation, in talking about what’s uncomfortable. His poems describe a mystical, hallucinatory beauty just as often they reference pain, an insuppressible anger, and the unseemly aspects of life and death—sweat, blood, shit, semen, birth and physical violence. I was intrigued to consider how that provocation, that embrace of what’s revolting and blasphemous, that refusal to clean up, was an act of resistance, especially in the context of the “civilizing” force of the colonizer.

Did Césaire’s work with Surrealism influence you?

For Césaire, Surrealist poetry was a tool with which to liberate one’s thinking from traditional colonial hierarchies. A literal revolution begins with a revolution of the mind, and Surrealism could be used to reimagine structures of power and oppression. In a 1967 interview with Haitian poet René Depestres, Césaire stated, “Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.” The argument has been made that by embracing Surrealism, Césaire and others within the Négritude literary movement actually redeemed Surrealism from what could be seen as its Colonialist impulses.

Over the years I’ve become less interested in documentary and more interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, which sometimes feels like Surrealism to me. It became most obvious when I was working on ZZYZX, which starts with contemporary Los Angeles but sort of builds a semi-fictional world out of the city. That interest has continued, and the more I’ve thought about photography’s slippery relationship to “truth,” the more fascinated I’ve become in how photographic precision and Surrealism are not contradictory. Andre Breton argued that Surrealism’s goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.”

Can Surrealism be critiqued for its use of non-Western art?

Yes. The problem begins with European Surrealists sometimes using “tribal art” pieces, particularly African sculptures, as “exotic” inspiration, which were taken out of context and invested with values considered lacking in Western civilization. As Klaus-Peter Köpping writes, “exotic art production was perceived as being close to the origins of human creativity and a direct expression of emotive and psychic states.”

But the Surrealist movement’s roots are also in anti-colonialism, which explains some of the affinity with Césaire. In 1925, the Paris Surrealist Group and the extreme left of the French Communist Party drew together in support of Abd-el-Krim, leader of the Rif uprising against French colonialism in Morocco. They actively called for the overthrow of French colonial rule, and the same year the Paris Surrealist Group announced: “We profoundly hope that revolutions, wars, colonial insurrections, will annihilate this Western civilization whose vermin you defend even in the Orient.”

What happens when Césaire inspires a white Westerner, I’m not sure. At worst, he is appropriated and even neutralized, the bite and resistance taken from him. At best, he educates us, shames us, and helps us rethink dominant, Western, white-supremacist narratives. I went into the project envisioning this book as an homage to him but whether I, a white outsider with relative privilege, have any business paying homage to Césaire is another question. It’s something I’ve been struggling with.

. . .

How did you negotiate photographing people in Guadeloupe?

I always try to talk to people first. I’m most comfortable with that approach, and for me, it just works better in terms of making everyone involved more comfortable. I’m very direct. I’d begin with a simple explanation, and then expand on the description of the project depending on how interested they were. At first, I would explain as best I could that I was an American photographer working on a book of photographs about Guadeloupe, but that I was interested in the island’s history more so than the tourism industry. At that point, many would politely decline but more often than not, peoples’ interests were piqued, and sometimes, language permitting, a long conversation would follow. I would elaborate, explaining perhaps that Aimé Césaire’s poetry was an inspiration, or that I was interested in Guadeloupe’s history as it related specifically to slavery and colonialism. I often spoke honestly about how it was a struggle for me to fully understand and engage with some of these issues as an American white man. But every conversation was completely different and depended on the interests of the person I was photographing. Sometimes I would talk about my children, or how weird it is to approach strangers with a camera—I try to be open and vulnerable and say what’s on my mind, because I know consent requires great vulnerability on the part of the sitter, and that it is a great act of generosity. Lastly, I always give everyone a business card, and explain that if they get in touch, I’ll send them images for free. It’s a small gesture, and people don’t always take me up on it, but it often feels appreciated.

Photographing people is almost always strange and awkward, but also wonderful and unpredictable. I get nervous because I’m actually quite introverted, I have to work up the guts. When I’m rejected, it’s devastating – but when it goes well, and when there is an unexpected connection, there is the rush of a sense of something beautiful and hopeful.

. . .

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