For Jean-François Bouchard, photography is a powerful medium that photographers can use to evoke great emotion from their audience. Realizing this impact, Bouchard has since used his camera to document and to explore fringe subcultures around the world that precariously sit on the edge of mainstream society. On display at the Arsenal Contemporary in New York City until June 23, his first solo exhibition, In Guns We Trust, documents one such subculture deep in the heart of Arizona, where gun culture is more than just a recreational activity but a way of life.
The exhibition’s cinematic photographs and physical installations immerse the viewers into the surreal reality that Bouchard personally experienced documenting this hidden community. Instead of influencing the perspective of his audience, however, Bouchard hopes to merely facilitate a conversation between viewers and a culture they may not entirely understand. Before going off-the-grid for his next project, we managed to catch Bouchard and ask him a few questions about his most recent exhibition as well as his next project and working as a creative in today’s society.
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Carcass #4, 2019
For those that don’t know, you have been working in the contemporary visual art scene since 2003, often focusing on marginalized groups in Western society. How has your approach to photography evolved since you first started?
A lot. I was initially interested in classical street photography and documentary work. My work is still rooted in these influences but my approach has evolved to become more conceptual. I feel that contemporary art allows me to tell richer and more touching human stories where my own emotions as an artist are part of the narrative.
Has your perspective on photography as a tool for social activism evolved as well?
I always saw photography as a very powerful medium. Many photographers are often unsung heroes of modern times in my view. Some people believe that the mounting ubiquity of photography is diluting the power of the tool and drowning photographic works of art in an incessant torrent of imagery produced by the masses. I believe it is quite the opposite. Great photographic storytellers now have a far more sophisticated and engaged visual audience. Photography has another moment as a witness of the human condition.
In your first solo exhibition, In Guns We Trust, at the Arsenal Contemporary in New York City, your subject matter is focused on American gun culture deep in the heart of Arizona. What made you want to tackle this complicated and controversial subject for many people?
I am interested in fringe subcultures – and more specifically, the extreme of such subcultures – as a telltale of mainstream culture. I am interested in libertarian values and the meaning of freedom in American society. My current projects are an exploration of these themes.
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Shooter #1, 2019
How did you want to engage the subject through your photography?
My approach is usually anchored in empathy. I am interested in subcultures but I always find the same truth: although fringe groups may seem to be defined by their differences with mainstream culture, they are in fact composed of people who are 99,9% like all other humans. This project presented an interesting challenge to me: for the first time, I was documenting people with views radically different from mine. Empathy proved more difficult to summon! But I was determined to step out of my bubble (or echo chamber, as many call it) to try genuinely to better understand this reality and these fellow humans. It worked. I grasped their context and beliefs much better. It has not changed my own views, but I have a much more informed perspective on the matter.
How does the cinematic feel of the photographs contribute to the storytelling aspect of this project?
My goal was to immerse viewers into the reality I stepped into. The surreal feel of the photographs is a reflection of my own perception of the immersion into this strange world. Many viewers assume the photographs have been shot with sophisticated equipment and a large crew; in reality, I shot most of the night series with a flashlight I bought at a dollar store!
What appears in each image is what was in front of my eyes, without photo-retouching or fancy production. Celebrated photographers such as Edward Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky also make reality almost cinematic and unreal by finding beauty and emotion in deadpan representations of pollution, natural destruction or heavy industry, for example.
Apart from being a photographer, you also operate as a conceptual artist and employed three physical installations that enrich the storytelling experience of this project. How did you want those physical installations to interact with your photographic storytelling for this exhibition?
My goal is to engage the senses of viewers to complement what photography can achieve. I believe that the installations made of found objects add a layer that almost amounts to anthropology. The physicality of these bullet-ridden works conveys the violence of the subject.
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Flora #1, 2019
Through this experience, what did you learn about gun culture in America that the media doesn’t often depict?
My more interesting discovery was that most of my subjects consider gun ownership not just as a right but also as a civic duty. Their belief is that a healthy democracy is made possible by keeping the government in check with a balance of power between central power and an armed population. Therefore, they see themselves not only as protectors of personal freedom but also as defenders of the greater good.
Do you hope that viewers of your exhibition also consider the different sides to the matter instead of approaching it with their own predetermined assumptions?
My goal is to immerse viewers into my own discovery journey. I always hope that my work will help people better understand other humans. That does not mean it needs to change someone’s views. Simply providing a perspective into the thinking of others – and the context that drives their culture – is what I thrive to do.
Another one of your projects that I’ve noticed you’re doing as part of your American Psyche series is titled Escape From Babylon, which focuses on a group of Americans that have decided to reject modern society and form their own communities. Even though it seems the project hasn’t been completed yet, what has the process been like trying to find and interact with these communities of squatters and drifters on the fringes of contemporary society?
This project is really a study of freedom. What does freedom mean in modern society? We talk a lot about civil rights when considering freedom, but I think that many aspects of freedom remain driven by mysterious motivations. What drives people to abandon modern comforts for absolute, lawless living in harsh conditions? What is the cost of that freedom? By seeking such extreme libertarian freedom, does one actually lose it?
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Container #1, 2019
Switching gears very quickly, I wanted to talk about the creative conference that you founded, C2 Montreal, and how it aims to facilitate collaboration with the business and creative communities in the province of Quebec. What prompted this idea and why do you think it’s important that these two communities forge a stronger relationship with each other?
I believe that humans create false boundaries between themselves. We tend to see boundaries between cultures, people, disciplines and places. I think that life becomes richer when we cross these artificial borders and think creatively over the divides. C2 is an exploration of what happens when the business world embraces social, environmental, artistic, ethical and scientific realities to adopt a more progressive stance and better play its role in society.
In today’s society, it’s never been easier to monetize your creativity and sell your art. But the problem for most people is how to succeed without losing their purpose for making art in the first place. Based on your own career, how have you managed to straddle the line between being a creative entrepreneur and just being a creative?
I think that pursuing diverse interests and cultivating passion projects is key to living a full, creative life. I always saw my artistic projects as a second calling, not just a hobby. I feel like I have two, three jobs. And I love every minute of it. Somehow, my different pursuits feed off each other.
Before you go, can you give us a sneak peek about what’s next on your agenda? What subjects do you hope to explore in future photographic projects?
This year, I will be spending many weeks embedded in off-the-grid communities in the United States. It is hard living. But based on my previous stays, I know that I will meet people with fascinating stories, and it will make up for the heat, dust and crappy food! My current show will also be shown in a few different cities around the world and I look forward to meeting new people from the art scene in these places.
The exhibition In Guns We Trust, by Jean-François Bouchard, is on view until June 23 at Arsenal Contemporary, 214 Bowery, storefront, New York City.
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Carcass #1, 2019
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Carcass #3, 2019
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Carcass #2, 2019
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Shooter #4, 2019
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Flora #2, 2019
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Propane #1, 2019
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Carcass #5, 2019
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Flora #3, 2019
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Shooter #2, 2019
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Nod to Jedd Brouws, 2019
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Fire #1, 2019
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Shooter #3, 2019
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Pick-up #1, 2019
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Carcass #6, 2019
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Carcass #7, 2019
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Family #1, 2019
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Nightvision #1, 2019
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Nightvision #2, 2019
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Nightvision #3, 2019
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Nightvision #4, 2019