Charlie Jouvet Berlin, Germany
Words after Phnom Penh is a work rooted in the events that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s. When taking over the city of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced the inhabitants into exile in the countryside, leaving the capital of the country virtually empty for almost four years.
Forty years later, a viewer wanders around the city and still feels the loss, the Phnom Penh of today still remaining empty, despite all the traces of life to be found there. The people seem to have left the city forever.
French artist living in Berlin, I studied photography and graduated in 1997. Since then, I have been working on personal projects that convey a sense of time by seeking to reconcile and to bring out the resonation between different times in modern history (Geheimnisträger, Februar, Words after Phnom Penh). My works have been exhibited in several countries such as Cambodia, France, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Switzerland.
Charlie Jouvet was chosen by photographer Mimi Youn
Laatikkomo’s interview with Charlie Jouvet April 3rd, 2018
Charlie Jouvet questions:
L: Where are you from? What cities, and/or countries have you lived in or what places have influenced you?
CJ: I’m originally from France and lived most of the time in Paris or nearby. For almost 10 years now, I live between Paris and Berlin but mostly in Berlin. This city has been a huge influence on European citizens like me for what it represents. I like to be there and see how Europe evolves through time.
L: What is your earliest memory of photography?
CJ: It is probably the photo albums that my family was making when I was a child. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the fact that photography came in my life later on but I remember it very well.
L: The project you are showing in Laatikkomo, includes subtitles as part of the images; as if they would be stills from a film. The project is also made into a book with your own texts, so you are comfortable expressing yourself with a large array of art forms. What is your relationship to these different forms of expression, and are you interested in working with the moving image?
CJ: For me, each work I make has its own energy and necessity and requires different tools and means to express my intention. When I have an idea and want to start new work, I never know in advance where this project will lead me and which form it will have at the end. It happens exactly like that with this one. The pictures came first but something was missing to complete the work. I wrote this text on the side without thinking that the both could go well together. But then when I thought about those pictures and this text at the same time, I realized that they both were saying the same thing but in a different way. So I decided to gather them together for this work. Regarding the question of subtitles, as I was working on the book dummy, I needed to find a way to arrange text and images visually/graphically. The form of a subtitle turns the text into a voice in the mind of the viewer. And as the text is a letter to someone who disappeared, I though right away that it would work well.
Working with a moving image could be interesting but it is another way of thinking and I didn’t feel the need to use this mean to say what I had to say with this work. It could have been interesting but also much more complicated to technically realize it. It is true, that I thought about turning this work into the form of a video, but I also work within my limits. Maybe I will do it one day if I find the time.
L: This project is a refection on the remaining effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia today which forced citizens out of their homes in the city for almost four years. This series of images shows images of the city of Phnom Penh today, only void of all people. Without disclosing too much about your artistic process, can you tell us how you managed to photograph this busy city without showing any people?
CJ: At the beginning of it, it was a bit of a challenge for me. I had this idea of showing the modern Phnom Penh as an empty city, as it was during almost four years while the Khmers Rouges were in power in Cambodia. So present day audiences could get a sense of what the survivors found when they returned. But before starting, I was absolutely not sure it was even technically possible to make these images. I had to know so I went there and tried different methods. It took me three trips to Cambodia to gather enough pictures for this work. Regarding the pictures themselves, most of them are straight photographs of the streets in Phnom Penh. Of course, you have to find the right time of day and year to be able to make this kind of picture. But sometimes, it was just not possible to find some important places totally emptied. Some places are just always populated. In those cases, I had to retouch the picture. I don’t consider myself as a documentary photographer and I don’t believe in the truth that photography is supposed to provide. I use all the means I think necessary to create the images I imagine.
L: Apart from this project shown in Laatikkomo, many of your other projects also depict absence ; showing places where people have been, traces of people without the people themselves. Often when people figure in your work their ces are obscured, hidden or they are photographed through an additional lens (book cover, television screen, etc). What does this absence or obstruction represent for you?
CJ: Basically, I found portraits very hard to use. A face is very easily misinterpreted. You can easily imagine or read things on a person’s face that are not real. For me, a face doesn’t say anything about the person. You don’t know from where they are coming from, their history, which language they speaks and sometimes even their age is hard to tell… This makes this kind of picture very hard to use for me because I want the meaning/content of my pictures to be as clear as possible. But I did use portraits once. In the work called The Tributaries, I used faces of people as an abstract form and tried to show them without context so you couldn’t tell how old the picture were. I used a pinhole camera so it would have been possible to make the exact same picture one hundred years before without any problem.
I don’t like to depend on other people and I don’t like to disturb anyone so it’s very complicated for me to work with people. But even though I find it difficult, I like to make portraits and occasionally I try to find my own way to do it.
L: Photography is often used to talk about memory and the past, and your images for this project are also based on a historical event. What are your thoughts on the preservation and/or distortion of history through photography in general?
CJ: In your question, you talk about memory, past and history. These are very different things.
I can see how photography is linked to memory and past. As a trace that is sometimes preserved, photography can be the materialization of this memory of the past.
But history is for me a very different question, involving a lot of actors and layers which makes it somehow more complex. History is not specifically visual, which makes it tricky when you want to use photography. It shows us how things looked, but doesn’t tell us what happened and how. To me, there is no specific link between photography and history. So I guess it makes photography, with its own strengths and weaknesses, just as good as any others form of expression to talk about history.
Personally I don’t know much about “historical” works in the field of photography but there is one book that has always impressed me. It is called Ein-heit (U-ni-ty in english) by the german photographer Michael Schmidt. I’m very influenced by this powerful work.
L: Could you list five or more words related to the work you are showing in Laatikkomo
CJ: Daily life, Others, Society, Reconstruction, Future…
Thank you so much Charlie!!