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Antoine d'Agata's Latest Series Opens a Dialogue Between Solidarity and Violence

Antoine d'Agata's Latest Series Opens a Dialogue Between Solidarity and Violence

Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020

Article by Mathilde Roger  

We would think of a religious scene, a devotee kneeled at the bedside of someone, lying down. We are not in a church, nor in a museum, but in a French hospital, when the Covid-19 was hitting the hardest. These bodies are not made out of stone but in flesh, and that is why a halo stands out in the night of thermal images.

This image is part of the double series “Bare Life”, realized by the photographer Antoine d’Agata during the eight weeks of lockdown enforced in France. Shot with a thermal camera in the streets and various hospitals of the capital, “Bare Life” is not only an aesthetic statement but the artist’s view of the crisis and its political implications.

Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020
His ongoing projects being suspended by the pandemic, d’Agata stayed in Paris where he settled down in the emptied offices of Magnum Agency. From March 11 to May 11, he collected up to 13,000 images, roaming first in the emptied streets of the capital and soon after that in the Covid-19 continuing care and resuscitation units. This led him to “sometimes sleeping for days on end within the hospital buildings, photographing the interactions between ambulance drivers, doctors, nurses, and patients – gestures spanning the medical, hygienic, and comforting.”
Assigned to document the crisis, d’Agata experimented with different techniques. This drew him to start shooting with the help of a thermal camera – tool he got to work with for the first time in 2015, after the Paris terrorist attacks. Conceived as a technique of surveillance and recognition for scientific and military ends, d’Agata uses this technology to track the heat stored by bodies, capturing gestures and states of intensity, beyond the obvious symbolic of fever as symptom and anxiety. 

Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020

Witness of the social reconfiguration of the city, the gaze of d’Agata focuses on worried passers-by and people at the margin of society. Homeless people, drug-addicts, prostitutes, their bodies are reduced to spots of light standing out from the dark blue background. Deprived from social links, bodies are abandoned to their loneliness. In hospitals, we can perceive the pleats of the clothes, maybe a uniform and a hand reaching out another luminous shape. We guess an instant where the nurses are applying a daily ritual of life and death gesture to the patients carrying the virus. The thermal image sheds a light on postures, details in bodies, curves and zones invisible with the naked eye. Here, the bodies being reduced to the heat they produce and the features of the faces erased, the camera is not intending to localize and identify them but, on the contrary to abstract them from the context and protect their identity. 

Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020

With this technology, d’Agata creates an imagery far from the theatrical one used to cover the streets and hospital space during the pandemic. Avoiding any form of spectacularization of the hospital as a battlefield against the virus, the images are taking an abstract dimension that embarks us to another level of reality. The low definition of thermal images offers to the photographer the possibility to translate into a visual language an existential and political perspective that shows the “ambivalence between solidarity and contamination, this inevitability of social and physiological death”. 

                                                                                                          Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020                                                                                      

These two series enter in a paradoxical dialogue where the violence, expected to be observed in hospitals, is to be found in the streets. Homeless people, omitted by the social distancing measures decided by the government had to cope with the situation to survive. In hospitals, where one could expect a morbid show, the thermal camera erases all traces of hospital equipment, unveiling the softness, if not sensuality that emanates from the gestures of the caregivers to their patients. Far from the metaphors of war used by political leaders, the care provided in hospitals appears as a ritual of consideration in a world where all contacts are prohibited. 

Stripped of any informative value, the thermal images unveil a reality where the emphasis is not put on the urgency and horror of the pandemic as depicted by the media but on the existence of a space-time where life and death are merging.


Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos. Bare Life. 2020

Published on Sep 29. 2020

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