Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Gregory Halpern: Island Life

Guided by the writings of Aimé Césaire, Gregory Halpern attempts to create a visual ode to the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, compelled by the dissonance between its natural beauty and terrible history, while considering his position as a white outsider

Q&A, British Journal of Photography, Family, Issue 7899 — October 2020

Photo: Gregory Halpern

Off the coast of South America, amid a string of islands nestled in the eastern Caribbean Sea, Guadeloupe extends its wings; the archipelago’s main islands resemble a misshapen butterfly, around which a collection of smaller islets sit. At ground level, paradise emerges into full view; azure skies and deep, indigo sea, endless beaches dusted in lemon- yellow sand; lush flora and fauna creeping into urban dwellings; and  a rich, golden light coating it all.

Yet beneath this beauty lingers the residue of a terrible past. The arrival of Christopher Columbus on Guadeloupe’s shores in 1493 marked the advent of ceaseless and successful attempts at colonisation by European countries, beginning with Spain. However, France expelled the Spaniards at the start of the 17th century, and, for the most part, the French maintained sovereignty over the land. In 1650, Guadeloupe entered the Atlantic triangular slave trade, and a plantation system grew. Although slavery was briefly prohibited in Guadeloupe following the French Revolution, it wasn’t until 1848, almost another two centuries later, that it was finally and officially abolished in the archipelago.

The complete history of the former colony, which remains an overseas department of France today, is tumultuous and violent. Reminders of its past abound, and its memorials are ubiquitous One statue remembers the first abolition of slavery in 1794 (it was reinstated eight years later under Napoleon Bonaparte); while another memorialises La Mulâtresse Solitude, an enslaved domestic worker who became a heroine of the resistance, fighting against slavery’s re-establishment, only to be imprisoned and executed.

One might describe the island as a gorgeous butterfly with broken wings; verdant and magnificent, but scarred by its history. It is this dissonance that compelled Gregory Halpern when he decided to embark on a project that encapsulates its story, driven to make sense of the nuances of the place it has evolved into today. An image of a Ficus citrifolia, or short-leaf fig tree, illustrates this metaphor. The plant’s mighty roots unfurl within the ruins of a former slave prison  in the town of Petit-Canal, ripping through the decay and crumbling structure: nature at once avenging the horrors and memorialising the loss of the past.

As the 2018 laureate of Immersion (a French-American photography commission launched in 2014 by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès), Halpern arrived in Guadeloupe with no final plan despite researching extensively ahead of his trip. Instead, he allowed himself to wander, in the surrealist sense of the term, as a “modest recording instrument” in the words of André Breton (1896- 1966), the father of surrealism and companion of the poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), whose writings profoundly influence Halpern’s work.

Césaire was born in 1913 in nearby Martinique, where he gre up before moving to Paris to study. He would go on to found the francophone, anti-colonialist literary review L’Étudiant noir (The Black Student) alongside several other writers, in which he conceived of the concept of Négritude: a form of Black pride. Returning to Martinique in 1939, he pursued a political career while continuing to write. Césaire’s 1948 collection of 72 poems Soleil cou coupé (published in English as Solar Throat Slashed) lends its name to Halpern’s project, the photographer having read the anthology ahead of his initial trip. “[The poems] are full of such extremes – magical beauty, as well as deep pain and rage; all mixed, tense and contradictory,” says Halpern. The explosive anthology tackles subjects of political and historical urgency through prose laden with surrealist techniques; writing which draws upon free association, chance, dreams and the unconscious.

Halpern, while influenced by Césaire, was deeply aware of his privileged point of view – a white man and an outsider. “As a white American man with institutional support, I’ll never fully understand his experience, or what it is to be Black or Caribbean,” reflects Halpern. “But I am still deeply moved by [Césaire’s] work, and my hope is that I have done it justice; that by responding to it I have engaged in a positive form of creative exchange, an homage.”

This is a point Halpern delves deeper into during a conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, a transcript of which accompanies the work. He discusses his position as on the outside, and the importance of marginalised groups taking ownership of their narratives after centuries of “(mis)representation”. However, he also expresses a commitment to wanting to connect: “To create something transcendent, or to look for the shared weight of experience across those lines that separate us.” In this sense, Halpern presents his Soleil cou coupé as an attempt to absorb the history, politics and present of a place, and make images informed by that knowledge and his intuition as an artist. The resulting series emerges as a visual poem, attempting to respond to both Guadeloupe’s beauty and its abhorrent past.

What drew you to Guadeloupe and what about the work of Aimé Césaire initially inspired you?

I was fascinated by how Guadeloupe sits in between the Americas and Europe, both culturally and geographically. I was also interested in looking at France through the lens of Guadeloupe, a a former colony. I wanted to reconsider what images, what locations, and what people come to mind when one thinks of ‘France’. I was curious about the places that existed beyond the tourism industry, and I was also interested in exploring the relationship between colonialism and tourism.

As for Aimé Césaire, when I decided I was going to Guadeloupe, I knew I needed to delve into his work, and, for me, his book, Soleil cou coupé, was key. I think the poems are amazing and remarkably visual. They are full of such extremes – magical beauty, as well as deep pain and rage; all mixed, tense and contradictory, which I tend to like in art. He holds back nothing and is not afraid to write about what’s dark, or taboo, or repulsive. I don’t often have this kind of response to reading, but his poems made me want to go out and make pictures.

How did you translate the surrealist writings of Césaire into your images? Do they reflect his work? Did elements of surrealism guide your process in any way?

I liked the contradictions in his work and wanted that tension and dissonance in my pictures as well. However, I’m not sure if or how my images ‘reflect his work’; his writing has been filtered through the idiosyncrasies of my own perspective and the very different experiences of my life. As a white American man with institutional support, I’ll never fully understand his experience, or what it is to be Black or Caribbean. But, I am still deeply moved by his work, and my hope is that I have done it justice; that by responding to it I have engaged in a positive form of creative exchange; an homage.

How have you endeavoured to acknowledge Guadeloupe’s history in your images particularly given the beauty of the location?

The contrast between the beauty of the place and its troubled past is in part what drew me there. I have tried to engage with that past almost more than any other aspect of Guadeloupe’s history. There are many images in the book that engage with that history very literally – images of slavery memorials, as well as monuments of important Black leaders. But I also reference history symbolically: through images of pain and violence, as well as symbols of resistance.

Can you select an image from the series and explain the story behind it?

This photograph [above] was made inside a former slave prison in the town of Petit-Canal, Guadeloupe. Growing inside the old prison was a Ficus citrifolia, also known as a short-leaf fig tree or ‘strangler fig’, named for its huge, powerful roots. The structure had been all but abandoned, but its neglect gave life to an uncanny memorial of sorts. Standing in the building it was impossible not to sense the unfathomable depth of pain there. It was a mesmerising scene, simultaneously unsettling and satisfying to watch the ficus’ slow vengeance.

From what I understand, you weren’t bound by a strict narrative when shooting. Instead, curiosity guided you. What drove you to take a picture?

When I go out with the camera, I start with a plan, but I like to be surprised or sidetracked. For the pictures to work, in the end, there has to be something that defies expectation, something that unsettles or nags at you. Something that makes you think. Not something that simply reaffirms what you already know or feel.

And when I think back on the creative process, a mix of conscious and unconscious decisions shaped it. Planning or research may have informed conscious decisions. Things like looking at maps, reading Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, learning about the Atlantic slave trade, interviewing historians, hiring tour guides, going to local museums, reading the local paper, attending public events. All those experiences were critical and often led directly to key images. But sometimes they just sit there in the background, informing your intuition.

Less conscious decisions might have involved returning to the same defaced Columbus monument an irrational number of times to see it in a different light, or allowing the path of a stray cat to change my plans for the day, or collecting discarded things in the trunk of my car in the hope that they might be the right prop at some point. Or buying coffee at a cafe multiple times until I realised I was working up the nerve to ask the guy serving there if I could photograph him, only to be turned down.

Were people receptive to your presence as you were making a project about their home? Were the images of people collaborative, and did they have ideas about how they wanted to be shown?

Each picture came about really differently, but I was consistently moved by how welcoming and kind people were to me in Guadeloupe. Sometimes I would suggest a way of standing or holding one’s hands, but because I felt like such an outsider I was less comfortable being a director than I was, for example, when making [previous project] ZZYZX. I always asked people if there were ways they would prefer to be photographed and sometimes this led to great ideas. In the case of the young man who turned his hair into a mask [above, right], he wa a friend of the translator I worked with. He was interested in being a part of the project but wanted to remain anonymous, so he covered his face and clasped his hands together. At first, someone laughed, but then I gasped. We all felt something powerful and haunting in the gesture. Or the couple captured embracing on the beach choreographed that to evoke an image of entanglement. Portraiture is so strange and unpredictable and challenging But it’s exciting when, despite all the things that separate us, that kind of spontaneous connection or collaboration happens among strangers, no matter how fleeting, and despite all the odds.

Did you have a preconceived notion of how the project would emerge?

I don’t like to have a preconceived vision of a final project. I might have a vague outline of the key subjects I want, and how the colours might look, or how the light might feel. The biggest challenge for me was the language barrier, and my anxiety as an interloper compounded this as did my questions about how, and if, I could do this work justice as a white man and an outsider. This made the inherently awkward practice of photographing strangers all the more awkward.

There is a troubling relationship between photography and hunting, or “trophy-keeping”, as photographer Sim Chi Yin once put it, and that’s in your mind all the time. This was the first time I made a body of work outside the US, and something I didn’t anticipate was how self-conscious I would be, at times, making pictures.

On bad days, there was a voice in my head telling me I was just another colonialist, extracting images from Guadeloupe for my benefit. On good days, the voice told me it was important for me, and other white people, to be thinking about this history and to be engaging with it visually, and that I would find a way to do it with sensitivity and respect. Most days were somewhere in the middle. With all projects I tend to struggle with a deep self-criticality, but with this project, there were a lot of days I simply spiralled downward about the inevitable failure of the work, given my identity in relation to the subject.