While in Arles this summer I was introduced to two young men who, with the intention of upsetting the powers that be in French photojournalism, seem to have delivered a smack to that particular wasp's nest. Except it is French photojournalism that appears to be feeling the stings. I wanted to write a short post because it seems that many of my most in-the-know photo friends on this side of the Atlantic have not heard about the story.
Guillaume Chauvin & Rémi Hubert decided to enter the prestigious Grand Prix Paris-Match du Photoreportage Etudiant after being entirely dissatisfied with last year's winners. They felt that photojournalism was limited and full of cliché. They set out to stage a photojournalism "story" using a well-worn style that they felt would be appealing to the judges. It worked. They won.
But when they stepped to the podium to accept the award, they revealed that it had all been a set-up. I think this absolves them of any kind of accusation that this is a fraud. They had a goal to shine a light on a problem that they felt the world was not seeing properly, and revealed their plan as soon as the moment was right. Their point was to be exposed, they weren't waiting to be found out or to steal the prize under false pretenses. This is not the French Jayson Blair of the NYTimes or Janet Cooke winning the Pulitzer with a faked story. In both of those cases, the point was to get away with it. The authors really wanted the prestige of winning the prize. Chauvin and Hubert wanted to mock the prize and the work it was promoting.
I think this project neatly straddles the two worlds of photojournalism and art photography. As photojournalism, it uses visual tools to address a problem that the artists felt needed to be brought to light, which is the very definition of photojournalism. As art, it falls in a grand tradition of contemporary art which creates faux mise-en-scéne in order to illustrate an artistic narrative. I think of An-My Lê, Sherry Levine, and Gregory Crewdsen as examples in this lineage.
Controversy and condemnation have followed the pair since their public admission of the project. I fall on the side that hails the success of the project, that applauds their initiative to alter the status quo, and that sees the project as successful work of art. Others are not so laudatory. They feel that it is "merely" the work of copyists (how many Picture Generation artists have heard that?), that the project was professionally and emotionally dishonest, and that Chauvin and Hubert have no real creativity.
Who knows what will follow for these two? Some of their detractor's questions will be answered in time. Perhaps this was their one-time hit. Perhaps they don't have a grand creative spark. But perhaps they do. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. They hit the bullseye so perfectly with their first arrow, I can't help but be curious to see where a few more arrows will fall. Smart, focused work like this doesn't happen by accident. I, for one, will be curious to follow their trajectory at least for a little while. If you're curious to read more, including some opposing views, and to see some photos, here are some links:
horses think blog
Kate Day's blog at the Telegraph.uk
Guillaume Chauvin's website (In french)
Rémi Hubert's website (In french)