Questioning the Narrative

Award-winning French-Venezuelan artist and activist Mathieu Asselin on why taking photos is not enough, creating a platform for new documentary work, and his fascination with power structures

Your workshop is titled “An Unromantic Take on Documentary Photography.” What do you mean by unromantic?

An “unromantic” take on documentary photography refers to an approach that avoids idealizing or sentimentalizing even victimizing the subject matter. It is critical thinking instead of just recording. Photographing what you think rather that what you see.

How has your background in filmmaking shaped your approach as a photographer?

Collaboration: Working with experts in their fields, curators, designers, writers, or even photographers helps shape the narrative, reinforcing the idea that images alone, or even your images alone, are not enough, especially for the types of narratives I am interested in. This brings me back to how a film is made. It’s the work of a team where each has something to bring to the table to shape an idea.

Your 2011 portrait series “Joplin” featured residents of Joplin, Missouri, who survived a devastating tornado. The images are both poignant and quite beautiful. More recently, “True Colors,” which challenges, as you’ve phrased it, “the prevailing narrative of environmental responsibility and sustainability within the automotive industry,” employs the visual language of marketing, which is designed to seduce. Can you comment on the role of aesthetics in your work?

The work on Joplin was one of my first attempts to distance myself from photojournalism by using lighting on location to shape a certain atmosphere. That was 13 years ago. Since then, my practice has evolved.

I have kept working on subjects related to ecology, but now I am more interested in power structures and what lies behind our ecological and social crisis. I am more focused on por- traying the sources rather than the consequences of the issues I am interested in.


You’re the cofounder of Double Dummy, which produces and showcases documentary photography. What was the impulse behind starting the platform, and what are some of its recent projects?

The idea Sergio (Valenzuela Escobedo) and I had when we created DD was to establish a non-profit platform to showcase works aligned with issues important and close to us, and to share with our peers our perspective on documentary photography. It was also crucial for us to collaborate with artists, photographers, and curators on their projects by sharing mutual knowledge and networks.

For the last five years, we have opened our space (the rest of the year it serves as my studio) once a year during the opening week of the Rencontres d’Arles. During this time, we invite photographers, collectives, and curators to present their work and ideas to the public and professionals in the field. We also host talks, meetings, and other events related to the work presented at DD. The subjects showcased at DD focus on crucial contemporary issues such as social matters, ecology, decolonization, representation, and ethics, to name just a few.

What are you working on now? And what project would you pursue if money and time were no object?

As my mother says: “Do not worry about the money; that money we don’t have.” So, that’s that.

I have a few ideas, all centered on ecological issues and growth. After “True Colors,” and based on the experience of creating it, I am increasingly attracted to the idea of traveling as little as possible, working with existing images as much as I can, and most importantly, tak- ing the time to understand my ideas and finding ways to materialize them. That is what takes time for me.

What’s an example of an exercise that you will take participants through in your work- shop?

Besides the act of taking photos itself (very important), I think it is important to critically re- flect on what we are doing. We should question our work, motivations, and the aesthetics we implement, as well as how we construct our narratives, how we represent subjects, and why… for what purpose.

What’s one thing you’re looking forward to doing/seeing/eating/feeling in Santorini?

I go in as an open canvas, with no expectations other than to have fun and engage in a fruitful exchange with the participants. That exchange is perhaps my only expectation. Now, if food, drinks, sun, and sea want to join the party, they are welcome, and I will make sure to receive them with open arms. I am really looking forward to it.

Mathieu Asselin x Palm Tree Workshops: “An Unromantic Take on Documentary Photography,” 30 September – 4 October, 2024.