Jean-François Bouchard: Normally Invisible
Arsenal Contemporary Toronto
April 27, 2023 to July 15, 2023
Opening Reception: May 5, 2023, 5-8pm
Over the past several years, Canadian photographer Jean-François Bouchard has emerged as a definitive photographer of countercultural experiences, documenting fringe lifestyles ranging from spousal relationships with sex dolls to extreme gun enthusiasts. For each series, Bouchard fully immerses himself in these various communities and gets to know its members on a personal level, creating images that communicate the honesty and humanity of his subjects.
In his latest series, Exile from Babylon, the artist has taken on a new intriguing alternative lifestyle— squatters’ camps. For the project, Bouchard spent six months living in and documenting off-the-grid makeshift communities located in the California desert where residents—driven by homelessness, drug addiction, or libertarianism— exist outside of mainstream society without any form of local government or services such as running water and garbage removal.
A current solo exhibition of Bouchard’s work, on view at Arsenal Contemporary TO as part of Toronto’s Contact Photography Festival, presents a selection of works from the series that highlight the reality of life for residents in these settlements as well as the systemic issues that lead to homelessness and displacement.
Exile from Babylon will be on view until July 15, 2023.
WH: Your photography of squatters’ camps brings attention to a marginalized population and sheds light on a complex issue. What inspired you to focus on this subject, and what message do you hope to convey through your work?
JB: I have always been interested in people who lead alternative lifestyles and enrich our society with their different viewpoints and vibrant subcultures. This community certainly fits the description of a subculture, but it differs from my past projects in that some of its members did not actively choose this lifestyle; it was more of a last resort to survive. While some residents embrace libertarian values and absolute freedom, many others ended up in the area as an alternative to rough street living in coastal California towns. Through my work, I hope to encourage viewers to reflect on the toll that the quest for absolute freedom can take on individuals and on society as a whole, particularly when it leads to vast inequalities.
WH: Your images in this series are both haunting and beautiful. Can you talk about your process for capturing these images, and how you approach composing a photograph in such challenging environments?
JB: My objective is to convey the eerie experience of walking around the site in the dead of night to viewers. To represent the community's grueling reality, I used a series of still life photographs of trees adorned with garbage and debris that were either thrown at them or carried through the harsh desert winds. This creates a vaguely post-apocalyptic ambiance, while also showcasing the beauty I found in these settings.
However, my experience was not without its challenges. Menacing stray dogs roam the grounds, but my colleague Paul kept a supply of dog treats handy to cajole them into submission. While there is a high level of crime reported in the area, I personally did not witness any of it and felt welcomed by everyone I met. Although the residents seemed wary of tourists and journalists, they were more open to artists like myself.
WH: The photographs capture both the physical structures and the people who inhabit these makeshift communities. Can you discuss your approach to documenting their lives and stories?
JB: In my photographs, I aimed to suggest the living conditions of the community rather than document them in a formal way. As a documentary artist, my work is not intended to present objective and factual realities, but rather to share my own subjective experience. By doing so, I hope to convey the emotions and atmosphere of the community as I perceived them. This approach allows me to offer a more personal and intimate perspective on the people and places I encounter in my work.
WH: The works in Exile from Babylon incorporate bold colors and striking contrasts. How do you balance these elements to create such visually impactful images, what techniques do you use to enhance or manipulate the colors in your photos?
JB: I did not manipulate the nighttime photographs in any way. What you see is fundamentally what was captured by my camera during the shooting process, with only some pre-printing optimization done. In contrast, the daytime quadriptych piece was created by shooting for a whole afternoon from the perspective of my RV's location in the middle of the camp and then compositing the images into one large-scale panoramic piece.
Given the challenging environment, I opted for an unconventional lighting approach in the nighttime photographs: using a flashlight purchased from a nearby dollar store. This approach played an important role in creating the atmospheric effects of the photographs.
Were there any particularly fun or memorable experiences you have from your time in the desert that you'd be willing to share?
I met an absolutely unique man: Bo Keeley was an intriguing and vibrant character who generously shared his extraordinary life story with me. In the 1980s, he was a professional racquetball player (#3 in the world) before transforming into an unconventional self-described "executive hobo" who lived and traveled on freight trains across America. Later on, he became a consultant to investment funds in developing countries, using unconventional approaches such as measuring the length of cigarette butts and estimating the prices of sex workers to assess consumer buying power. Keeley's adventures didn't stop there - he spent almost 10 years as a hermit in the desert before eventually joining the community where I met him, he wrote books and he survived numerous insane adventures such chasing rhinoceros horn smugglers. His life was so captivating that it could be made into a movie.
What were your personal takeaways from this experience?
My journey was an emotional one. At first, I was overwhelmed by a sense of dystopia and post-apocalyptic doom. However, I soon discovered an informal community of fascinating people who value dignity, humanity, and freedom above all else. Despite this positive experience, I couldn't shake the greater societal context from my mind. For decades, California was viewed as the embodiment of the American dream and a land of opportunity. However, growing disparities have left many without the most basic necessities of life. The state has become one of the most unequal regions in the world, and many are questioning how their progressive liberalism could have led to such disastrous results. Homelessness is rampant in big cities like LA, San Francisco, and San Diego, which has led to the creation of what amounts to economic refugee camps. This realization was a sobering reminder of the harsh realities that many face on a daily basis. WM