What is in a photograph? Does it mask the souls staring back out at us? Or does it offer us a chance to experience ‘soul?’ Inspired by travel, encounter, and that moment of understanding “the Other,” Benjamin Bēni’s photography is driven by a humanist proximity that comes out in his framing and the exposures he achieve in the eyes of his subjects. His series “Face à l’Âme” (facing the soul), uses the metaphor of masks and some stunning photomontage to express this moment. It has been featured on the cover of UNESCO’s magazine Courrier, exhibited in the Batha Palace in Fez, Morocco and in a pop up show at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, where I met up with Ben to find out about his technique, his new association Les Fassinants, and what makes him tick.
How did you get interested in photography?
I was attracted to what was forbidden. At the time I was 7 and I had my first experience with cameras. Back then it was all analog; and the kids weren’t allowed to use the camera, because we just kept pushing the button. It was expensive. I started taking photos and looking through the camera anyways, and I saw the frame and the lights inside. Looking through and seeing reality through this machine fascinated me. I started to understand that there was another reality possible through the camera.
Taking photos is to reproduce reality, which is automatically a translation. I would like to think of myself as a humanist translator, so for me this means being as close as possible to others to capture the human in them. This is why I get so close when I take portraits.
Could you tell me a bit about Face à l’Âme?
When I travel I take portraits, I focus on faces. Face à l’Âme, specifically, was born out of a project on identities that I was working on in Latin America, when I decided to go to Africa. I arrived in Mombasa, Kenya. At some point I came upon a market with a lot of artisans making masks, and it immediately reminded me of my portraits. It seemed to me that he portraits themselves were masks. So I asked the guy at the shop if I could take photos of his masks, and I started shooting them in the same way as the portraits I had done in Latin America. I found myself with two photos: a face and a mask, shot in the same style. When I came back to France, I was asked to do an expo in Fez at the Festival of Sufi Culture. I found it a great opportunity to fuse these faces and these African masks, the “imaginary” presented by them. So, Face à l’âme is the result of this fusion.
It was really exciting at the time, because I had no idea where it would go. I originally called the work “Face to Face.” At the first show at Musée Batha in Fez everyone told me it was weird how when they saw the pictures they felt like they saw souls. After that, everyone started calling the collection “Face à l’Âme.”Afterwards, I met Paul, Priyanka, Omar, and around a table we told ourselves “we have to do something with this, together.” That’s when “Les Fassinants” was born, out of all of us, out of our meeting. Face à l’Âme brought us together. Later I found out that “face à l’âme” pronounced in Arabic sounded like “Towards Peace.” This became our signature.
In 2011 at the Sufi festival we did ‘Monumenta,’ Face à l’Âme but with extremely blown up prints. After the expo in Fez, we brought the photos back to Paris to try to establish a sort of cultural dialogue between Fez and Paris, between Europe and North Africa. What lived in the Musée Batha in Fez was to be transposed to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
“maRealité.” It’s a project that came to me, really, when I ran into someone who was leaving the train on the way home from work. She passed right next to me, kind of ran me over. It only lasted a half second, but I felt like I entered her reality. I felt her image, and I thought to do a project where I try to reproduce this feeling, this intimacy with someone who is just going home, someone you see on the street, going to and from work. I want to print them life-size in black and white, cut them out. I’ll have a monochrome replica of the person. Then I want to stick these cut outs to the wall where I saw the person. It seems kind of violent, in fact. But, I want to stimulate a dialogue on this kind of public intimacy…
Images ©Benjamin Bēni