28 April - 22 May 2021
Emeric Lhuisset is the fifteenth recipient of the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award with his combined series Theatre of War and L’Autre Rive. Theatre of War examines the theatrical image of conflict, staging real Kurdish guerilla fighters in war settings to blur the boundaries between art and journalism. L’Autre Rive depicts the same subjects eight years later, after they had become refugees in Europe. “I want to deconstruct the viewer's gaze on refugees,” says Lhuisset. “I am confronting them with the paradox that Kurdish fighters — who were heroised by most Westerners for their fierce fight against ISIS — are considered outcasts and parasites by many of these same people once they have crossed the sea.”
Text by Flossie Skelton, for The British Journal of Photography, April 2021
In August 2012, Emeric Lhuisset was crouched behind a wall in Aleppo, Syria. Around him, rebel fighters clashed with President Bashar al-Assad’s military. When the storm of bullets ceased, the Parisian artist emerged to see a fighter with an AK-47 rifle in front of him. As he lifted his camera to capture the moment, the fighter struck a pose, pretending to shoot his gun. “What becomes of ‘reality’ in this picture?” Lhuisset asks. “Is the photograph staged, and therefore a lie? Or, if [the fighter] really had been shooting like this two minutes earlier, is it true?”
The vast grid of images filling one wall represents another perspective of conflict, demystifying the daily experience of constant action and adrenaline as conveyed by a traditional photojournalist, but seen now in the hands of the fighters themselves, in the era of the smart phone. The images give an insight into the daily life of a Syrian Freedom Fighter in 2012, where Lhuisset strapped a video to their front for 24 hours and took a screengrab of every minute. We see here a selection from the day, the fighter waking, having coffee, riding on his motorbike, watching tv, just mundane daily activities far removed from the drama of war. Yet here and there are small glimpses of the context - speaking to fellow soldiers, ammunition, or a gun propped up in the corner of the room.
As we move past these images we come to a portrait of a man, it is an unfixed salt print, that when exposed to sunlight will fade to black. The man is Sardasht Osman, an Iraqi Kurd journalist who was killed in 2010 shortly after writing about corruption. He foretold his own death, hence its title, and the title of his final article, I heard the first ring of my death. In tribute one year after his death Lhuisset had posted the prints on the streets of the Northern Iraqi town where Sardasht lived at 6am, and by lunchtime they had all faded to a black square, a commentary on Sardasht’s disappearance and death.
Lhuisset is intrigued by the notion of ‘staging’. To stage an image in the context of conflict photography can often be considered an act of dishonesty, a manipulation. “But staging is just a process,” says Lhuisset. “You can lie in a picture with no staging, and you can stage a picture that is true.” In his series Theatre of War, Lhuisset interrogates the dramatised image of conflict by staging authentic Kurdish guerilla groups against the backdrops of real war zones. Between 2011 and 2012, he integrated himself into camps of fighters in the Middle East, and worked with them to replicate combat scenes inspired by classical paintings of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The paintings “laid the foundations for war photography as we see it throughout the 20th century,” he explains. The result is an uncanny paradox of hyperrealism and feigned exaggeration: one that masterfully merges the boundaries of truth, fiction, authenticity and performance, calling into question both our perception of conflicts throughout history and the relationship between photojournalism and ‘truth’ today.
In the middle of the vast backdrop of one of these staged war images is a tiny screen with a two minute video. It shows Lhuisset and a Kurdish fighter friend crossing the border from Syria into Turkey in 2012. Lhuisset is here concerned with that geographical passage where 1cm across the border and barbed wire and his friend’s status instantly became that of ‘refugee.’
Notions of perception and representation, as shaped by the media, remained on Lhuisset’s mind until he came to shoot L’Autre Rive several years later. The same fighters he had photographed in Iraq had fled the war to seek refuge in Europe. “Suddenly these Kurdish fighters, who were heroised by most westerners for their fight against Isis, were considered parasites by many of the same people once they had crossed the sea,” he explains. Today, he presents the two series together in a bid to force viewers to confront this hypocrisy.
L’Autre Rive, an intimate series of cyanotypes, documents Lhuisset’s migrant friends in the privacy of their daily lives on European soil: taking selfies, writing poetry, gazing at the stars; not as suffering or in desperation, as migrants of the refugee crisis are often represented. “If nobody told you it was a project about refugees, you’d never know,” the photographer muses. “It could be your life, it could be mine, it could be the life of all of us.”
Usually, Lhuisset modifies the chemical process so that, when exhibited, the cyanotypes fade gradually to blue monochrome over a period of days. Thus the blue serves as a double metaphor: both for the Mediterranean Sea, where many refugees have disappeared, and for Europe. “Because all of these refugees are part of the future of Europe,” he says. “They are future Europeans."
Emeric Lhuisset graduated in Fine Art from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris and in Geopolitics from the Ecole Normale Supérieure Ulm - Geostrategy Center / University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. His work has been exhibited internationally including at Tate Modern, Museum Folkwang in Essen, Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Frac Alsace, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Rencontres d’Arles, Sursock Museum in Beirut, CRAC Languedoc -Roussillon and the Louvre Lens Museum. In 2018 he won the BMW Residency for Photography and in 2017 the Grand Prix Images Vevey - Leica Prize. He was also nominated for the Photographic Museum of Humanity Grant 2018 (Honorable Mention), for the Coal prize (2016), for the prize Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund (2015), for the Niépce Prize (2015), for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (2014) as well as for the HSBC Prize for photography (2014). He published with André Frère Editions and Paradox (Ydoc) Maydan - Hundred portraits (2014), Last water war (2016), with André Frère Editions and Al-Muthanna Autre rive (2017) and with Editions Trocadero Quand les clouds parleont. His work is present in many private collections as well as in those of the Stedelijk Museum, the Musée Nicéphore Niepce and the Musée de l’Armée - Invalides. In parallel with his artistic practice, he teaches at the IEP of Paris (Sciences Po) on the theme of contemporary art & geopolitics. He lives and works in Paris.
Emeric Lhuisset will be in conversation with Shoair Mavlian, Director of Photoworks, on Wednesday 5 May 18.30 - 19.30 via Zoom.
This year's BJP IPA jury were:
Yumi Goto - Curator, Editor, Researcher
Itō Takahiro - Tokyo Photographic Art Museum Curator
Azu Nwagbogu - Founder and Director of African Artists’ Foundation
Simon Bainbridge - Former Editorial Director, British Journal of Photography)
Hannah Watson - Director, TJ Boulting
For the first time an exhibition of the BJP IPA 'single image' award winners will be shown concurrently at Seen Fifteen gallery in south London.
Thank you to our sponsor Beyond Print.