An Interview by Nicholas Gottlund
Boundaries of the Visible
A conversation between HENRY ROY and NICHOLAS GOTTLUND (artist and publisher) about the concept, inspiration and thoughts behind Roy's latest book project, Spirit which was released October first 2009 by GOTTLUND VERLAG.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – Would you explain some of the origins of the photographs in the book, specifically as they might relate to the overall concept of the book.
HENERY ROY – These pictures have been taken in several spots of the world, while traveling, and also in my every day life, mainly during this 10 past years. Some of them are snap shots, some others are set-up, but, according to me, they are all related by a same spirit. They are reflection of my life, a sort of dream awake. I consider them more like “visions” than photographs.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – In your introduction to the book you write about this notion of spirit, "It manifests itself at the boundaries of the visible, in a dimension where only imagination can penetrate." I find this sentence captivating because it brings to mind that which can be subtly perceived yet ultimately remains unknown. Has there been a moment in your own experience where you have felt this especially?
HENRY ROY – I work in a very intuitive, almost mediumnic way, always trying to search and capture things beyond the represented. I like my images to be mysterious, with a frame that reveal only fragments of a larger subject. The context often remains vague in my photos. Therefore my relationship with the subject is decisive. In this project, the subject remains vague, close to abstraction.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – Did your early years in Haiti affect your ideas about spirituality and the energy held by living things? Have you returned since leaving? HENRY ROY – I was born in Haiti, where I spent the 3 first years of my life (according to the scientists, those years are supposed to be the most important ones for a human being’s mind construction) before migrating to France.My mother tongue is the Haitian creole (which I forgot later, as well as all my memories of that time). All this remains enigmatic to me.All my family members being atheist or protestant, I don’t think I’ve ever been in contact with voodoo when I was a child. On another hand, as I recently read it, the voodoo imaginary structures the subconscious of every Haitian, no matter what his faith is. His family roots, morality, reality of life, etc., is obviously influenced by the voodoo culture, as Catholicism largely determines French people’s mind. It is difficult for me to define deep inside, which part of myself is Haitian or French. I would say I’m a bridge between those two cultures, someone with a hybrid, confused personality. My relationship to spirituality results from this ambivalence.Due to the fact that my family and I had political refugee status in France, I was only able to go back to Haiti when I was 25. I then felt like an outsider observer.Haitians people would consider me as a “White” (meaning “foreigner” in Creole). When I went back a few years later, I had the same feeling.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – There are many parts of the world that appear in both your photographs and writings. How do you view identity as it relates to the physical environment?
HENRY ROY – The artist and filmmaker, Jonas Mekas, who is a Lithuanian immigrant in New York, said one day : “My country is cinema”. As for me, I feel the same regarding photography or writing. I really feel at home in places or situations that bring out emotions in which I recognize myself. It is more a mental than a territorial process. I am constantly in search for a poetic “frequency”, one close to mellow, melancholic and bitter music of uproots (blues, flamenco, etc.). That is why I enjoy traveling so much.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – A particular place that appears frequently in your work is the island of Ibiza. Can you explain how you came to the island originally and what about it has drawn you back?
HENRY ROY – I discovered Ibiza 30 years ago, thanks to a friend who invited me to spend some time in his beautiful house, located in a most magnificent part of the island. I immediately fell in love with this place, which became for a long time my “lost paradise”. I enjoyed its nature, its climate, but above all, the fact that it was an oasis for freaks and artists from all over the world. One could meet all kind of people, all a bit crazy, partying and talking to you about spirituality with a spliff in each hand. The sun was shining, the see was turquoise and everything was incredibly cheap. Almost everybody could speak at least 3 languages, and there was always something extraordinary happening. It was the first place where I really felt at home. The only place I have known where it absolutely didn’t matter where you came from. I have come back there very often, in order to resource myself. This year again actually. But everything has become very different.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – One photograph that I find especially alluring is, "Congo River Hunting." It shows a man standing with a net surrounded by what seem to be flying insects or moths. The way in which your photograph describes the scene gives it such a magical and almost otherworldly look. Would you tell a little bit about what was happening there and how you found yourself in that situation?
HENRY ROY – I was on a trip in Brazzaville (Congo), employed by a French agency, producing films and prints, to promote the local bier. It was the evening, and we were coming close to a bar-restaurant overhanging the immensity of the Congo river. When suddenly, non-identified insects invaded us. There were so many that we couldn’t see further down one feet ahead. It was unbelievable. Then I saw many young boys bustle about, chasing them, maybe to eat them. I took my camera and shot, without really seeing what I was shooting. It was such an intense moment, where I could feel the whole power of Central Africa’s damp nature, but also the surrealism inherent to this part of the world. The photo brings up a dream scene, that the flash light makes even more unreal, and difficult to locate. It also seems to be part of an African tale.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – I see many of the subjects that you photograph (such as animals, plants and objects) treated as portraits. Do you agree and if so, what does seeing these images as 'portraits' suggest to the viewer?
HENRY ROY – That is right. It is first a matter of personal point of view. I indeed prefer to use the 85mm, which is considered as a portrait lens. I use it for most of my shootings (landscape and still-life included). It creates a particular distance between the subject and myself, that often brings back to movie. Also, as I have mentioned, this lens allows me to step aside the context by reducing the frame to his minimum. This technique results from my tendency to focus on only one person, object or action, in order to capture the best of its energy, or specific beauty. I like what is simple, plain, and strangely expressive. To make it short, I would say that in general, my approach is typical of a portraitist. It has a strong incidence on the general atmosphere of my work.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – How do you feel this project / book fits with your larger body of work? What are your thoughts about the future direction of your work? What do you hope to work on next?
HENRY ROY – This book is the second of a series that put together very different pictures from my archives. This selection choice allowed me to express the atmospheric nature of my work. In the Spirit project, I chose to insist on the surreal aspect of my photos. I would like the reader to be destabilized by this book, to feel dragged into a slightly fantastic world, out of reality. The texts echo back to the photos. In a way, they are their extension and reinforce the psychological dimension of my images. My future projects also include photos and texts (a vast work on Haïti and a book on my recent trip to Hong Kong), but they should be treated with a much more classic approach to the subject. But still, they will be filled in the continuity of my quest for my own identity, and offer new forms of the “fantasy diary” that I have been developing all along my life.
NICHOLAS GOTTLUND – Finally I have to say it's been a pleasure watching the way 'Spirit' has evolved and how you have shaped it through image and text. Any final words?
HENRY ROY – Yes, I want to thank you, Nicholas, for your patience and sensibility. It was a great pleasure to collaborate with you, and even though from far distance, I felt that we shared the same kind of spirit! All the more so I have great respect for your artistic work.
Published 2009, on nicholasgottlund.tumblr.com