Bieke Depoorter: Agata
In the past years, the concept of authorship became a widely contested topic within the field of photography. The notion of collaboration and who then takes credit for what became blurry. The same question and many more are the concern of Bieke Depoorter’s (b. 1986, Belgium) latest publication “Agata.” In October 2017, Depoorter met a woman named Agata in a strip club in the centre of Paris. The coincidental meeting resulted in three years of deep collaboration documented through the medium of photography. Their journey spanned way beyond Paris, together they explored Athens, Beirut, and Kall. Shared experiences intertwined with deeply personal texts written both by the photographer and the model, make the book strongly diaristic and intimate in nature as if one was following and reading free streams of thoughts that are organized in a chronological manner, yet somehow still evolving around each other and creating references back and forth.
By not only reflecting on Agata’s everyday life, Depoorter also provides a mirror to herself through her by dissecting the ideas of identity, performance, and representation, becoming a vehicle for self-reflection. We, therefore, sat down together with Depoorter to talk about this complex and layered body of work.
What specifically drew you to Agata and made you decide to work with her?
I met her in a strip club in Paris… Agata was working there, dancing, and when we started talking together, I felt our strong connection immediately. We talked about love, photography, and art. It was also her birthday that night, so it was a great occasion to celebrate together. When she got to know that I am a photographer, she proposed me to shoot her the next day. She told me she has a really great room, and was convinced I will like it. The next day I went and that’s actually how the “pink picture” came about. It was shot in a squat where Agata was staying at that time.
During the shoot, she was acting and wanted to be photographed in a certain way while I wanted to photograph her in another way. It made me realize that we, photographers, think we are able to know a person and then portray him or her in a single picture. For me, that was a crazy realization and I thought it makes us photographers really arrogant. Then every time I photographed her at another place, I saw another person in her.
With the combination of these two instances, I became fascinated by her and wanted to photograph Agata again. Normally, I only photograph someone once. This desire was mutual. Agata wanted to be photographed too so we agreed to see each other multiple times during that week. She would choose the places; I would react and make the images. This is how it started and both of us thought it was only a matter of that particular week.
But then she invited me to go to Athens and we also travelled to Beirut together. There were many moments during our collaboration when we thought we are finished but we kept on going…
“There were many moments during our collaboration when we thought we are finished but we kept on going…”
“(…) we questioned whether we are truly friends or if photography is defining our friendship.”
Five years have passed since you first encountered Agata. What has this collaboration brought to you?
The book ends with the chapter when we travel to Beirut – a crucial moment when we questioned whether we are truly friends or if photography is defining our friendship. We went to Lebanon without a real camera and realized that when we spend time together, we don’t need to photograph so we are friends in the end. After, we agreed to not continue further with the project. At that point, I felt overwhelmed and needed to take some distance.
Later when we published the book, we had some great moments with it… Once, Magnum invited me and Agata to lead an online talk around the theme of representation and the responsibility of the photographer. I immediately thought that I shouldn’t participate and only leave Agata to take part in this discussion. Since every time I am present, I sense that she must censor herself and not speak freely. For such a talk, I thought it would be stronger if the subject would speak and if I am not there to control it.
When Agata was giving this talk, she expressed her disappointment about our collaboration. Afterward, I felt upset that I could not create a safe space where she could be entirely honest with me. However, at the same time, I knew it was not an equal collaboration from the start. She was disappointed that I gave her the platform to tell her story and then I kind of took it away from her at the same instance. There were certain things I didn’t want to photograph. In the end, it became a book about my struggle with photography and not necessarily about who Agata ‘really’ is (which was initially the first goal of the book).
In the reprint of Agata, we then decided to include a special booklet – a transcript of this talk, an additional element and a kind of foresight of our next collaboration. That is a new book in the making, in which Agata takes the lead, making us explore what went unexplored before.
At the moment, we are continuing our journey. We talked about the online discussion a lot and even though it was not an easy talk, we found solutions and tried to change the power dynamics between us. Before, it was mostly me in charge, but it was also shifting throughout the time. Now, we decided Agata should oversee the decisions and tell her story while she can also use me. She started giving me assignments, mostly to explore her sexuality. She wants to become a photographer too. My position has changed, I am more of a mentor now. This project will at a certain point turn into a book which we plan to publish as well.
“In the end, I feel like we both crossed each other’s boundaries…”
What would you say were the most confronting or uncomfortable moments of your collaboration?
There were many instances when I didn’t want to continue. Those moments were mostly when a man was entering the story – her clients or other men. When they became part of the frame, I started to doubt whether Agata is performing for the picture. Sometimes these men also wanted me to get involved, one time I was asked to do a lap dance. Sometimes I ended up in situations that were challenging, and sometimes we crossed each other’s boundaries.
After completing this project and dealing with a lot of questions concerning authorship, what does this concept mean to you, and has that meaning changed over time?
In the beginning, I thought that because I am the photographer, I was making the picture but then there were days when I doubted that is true because she is acting in a certain way, and she is pushing me to take the picture in another way than I had in my mind. It made me think – who is making these pictures?
In the end, it’s a combination of her and me and we have interesting conversations about authorship together. We are both writing a lot and text became an essential part of the work. My photographs wouldn’t be the same without our writings – the image would have a different meaning if they would exist on their own.
I also think that because the project is evolving that much, those questions don’t have fixed answers. At the beginning of the project, I had different ideas about how we were making work, than what we are doing now.
“I like when people tear open the book but also if they doubt it – question whether they dare to see another reality, an alternative version of the truth.”
The book has a Japanese fold, leaving the reader to decide whether to cut through the pages or not. It’s a relatively violent act in the hands of the viewer but at the same time, it’s an act of involvement. Could you please elaborate on this particular design decision when making the book?
I think it’s important for the viewer to make a choice whether they want to destroy, rip open the first idea they have of the story. With the design, I also want to re-create my own way of thinking and how it changed.
A lot of photographers and people from the industry are not tearing open the pages. I find it interesting because then they make the choice to stick with only one part of the story – the polished and simple one. From the start, I wanted to give the reader the choice. When you cut through, there is no way back.
There are some images that go over the fold, so you really must tear through the pictures…I wanted people to first see the story that I intended this project to be and only then give space to see the other side of it.
I like when people tear open the book but also if they doubt it – question whether they dare to see another reality, an alternative version of the truth. The idea of mingling between truth and lie is important in the work or perhaps, that the ideas of different versions of truths exist within it.
“The book is not only about me or Agata but also about photography in general and how we deal with authorship.”
The book was published through your publishing house Des Palais you started together with a Belgian visual artist Tom Callemin. Now, the second edition is in the printing process together with Robstolk. Was it important for you that this book is self-published?
Des Palais started with an idea of a book as an object ultimately being part of the work, so it then becomes this multi-end product. For ‘Agata’, the book became the project, and only because it exists, we are continuing our collaboration; and I didn’t expect that outcome.
My previous books were not self-published… During the pandemic, we were often talking with Tom about books as objects, and how the content dictates the form. In reality, when you work with a publisher, compromises always have to take place – mainly because of financial reasons. Then we decided we no longer want to do these compromises and that’s how Des Palais came about.
Of course, it costs a lot of money and time plus the distribution part is a real challenge, but we are trying to find solutions.
Besides authorship and collaboration, the concepts of self-reflection and self-awareness seem to equally preoccupy your publication, especially through the text excerpts you decided to include. Short handwritten quotes are intertwined with letters you exchanged together with Agata. At the end of the book, she states that it was brave of you to include them. Why did you decide to incorporate them in the end?
Those excerpts reveal Agata’s truth but also mine… In the beginning, I wanted to hide bits of myself, but Agata taught me a lot and by photographing her, I was also able to look at myself. I realized we are more alike than we look. We approach things very differently but, in a way, we have similar experiences in life. That’s why I see the images and texts as one entity.
There are some parts of me in the book that I wouldn’t share easily about my private life and that’s probably why Agata called me brave for including them… In the end, the book is not only about me or Agata but also about photography in general and how we deal with authorship.