Antoine D’Agata is an itinerant figure: a photographer, a film-maker, a world wanderer, a member of Magnum Photos. As an artist, he is most widely-known for his graphic and intense images (some of which can be seen above). But during a brief sit-down with LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker at Paris Photo, D’Agata revealed some lesser-known facets to his personality. One of them is his dedication to the workshop format.
For the past 10 years, D’Agata has been traveling to the village of Siem Riep, Cambodia to offer photography workshops to children and young adults at no charge. This program is part of the annual Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops, which D’Agata helped start. Some of the workshop’s alumni have gone on to become world-famous photographers. Other students were simply touched by the man’s indelible, strong character and his infectious passion for the journey of photography.
LC: Can you talk about the beginning of the Angkor Workshops?
Well, I feel very attached to this area of the world, to the country, to the people. There were three or four of us at the beginning, about 10 years ago. It began, like many great things, as a project of love. For the first workshop, I had to go from house to house, looking for kids who might be interested in taking a course with me. I had to talk these kids’ parents into letting them do it. Perhaps some of them said yes because I was offering some English along with the photography classes…
Now, each annual workshop draws about 40 students from around 15 countries. It remains a labor of love, since the workshops are free for the students. We do our best to ensure there are some local Cambodian students but the rest come from all over south Asia: Pakistan, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and so on. Our aim is to mix people, to mix energies. The workshop is such a powerful setting to experiment, to take risks. Many of the students return year after year—some have even returned to become workshop leaders themselves.
LC: Can you talk more about the students? Their backgrounds? Bringing together individuals from such diverse points of view?
We try to choose the students from a very young age. The only thing we are looking for is engaged people who are willing to suffer to make photography. Recently, some of the most exciting student work I’ve seen came from Vietnam. The projects were focused on gay issues, a topic that is largely taboo in the country.
As I said, many of the students we choose are deeply impacted by the workshops. Some have gone on to successful professional careers—one of my students, Sohrab Hura, was recently nominated to join Magnum.
But beyond the student’s seemingly different backgrounds, I think they share a lot more in common than they differ. Each student has to overcome local censorship or cultural limitations, but deep down, I find that they all have the same desires—culture matters very little. Since I require my students to get physically, mentally, politically involved in their projects, everyone is bound together by the intensity of their efforts. You have to let go to become involved with your work. During the workshop, we are in class for 8 hours a day and then the students have to shoot before and after class. It’s dense, it’s exhausting, it’s prolific; the results are amazing.
LC: So, does teaching feel central to your practice as an artist?
One thing that teaching has affirmed is that whether you’re a retired businessman in Tokyo or a boy in the Rio favelas, the issues in all photography are the same: how to be yourself, how to express yourself, how to confront your own fears. I try to adapt to the students but really what I do is help them be themselves. I put my energy at their service.
That being said, if I could, I would not teach. Some part of me enjoys the process but this kind of involvement is also exhausting. I’ve had over 1,300 students in the past few years. I know most of them by name and I remain involved in their work and in their lives. This takes up a lot energy to be so implicated in someone else’s creative, personal processes. It doesn’t matter if I’m getting paid for the workshop or not, it takes the same amount of energy out of me.
I also use these workshops to keep myself constantly moving. I haven’t had a permanent address for over 8 years now. In the past few years, I’ve done 90 workshops all over the world. It’s much more about giving myself a reason to keep moving than it is about the money.
During the workshop, I’m completely engaged. At the end, I ask the students to send me emails to keep me posted on how they’re doing. But I never answer. Once the workshop is finished, I need to give myself space again. The space to find my own silence, to return to the darkness. This is essential for my process of working. There needs to be a line somewhere. After giving myself to the space of the workshop, I need to go back to my real world, my real life—the life of my pictures.
—Antoine D’Agata, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editor’s Note: The Angkor Photography Festival and Workshops run each year in Siem Reap, Cambodia.