Some of us might be able to recall the exact moment, with very specific clarity, when the power of photography became clear to us. But for most, I think, this recognition is more gradual; a steadily deepening relationship.

French photographer Stéphane Duroy, for one, is certain that his love and respect for photography crystallized at a single moment—when someone died on the spot, right next to him, and Duroy felt compelled to photograph it despite the strong emotions in the air. In 1971, he was traveling through Greece and Turkey with little more than a camera and a desire to see the world. He was on a small island, standing in a semi-crowded café. There was a man standing next to him. In the next moment, the man was dead. 10 minutes later, he was in a box, being carried away. Duroy, in a surge of feeling that defined his calling to be a photographer, snapped his first meaningful image. 45 years later, that picture hangs in the new retrospective exhibition “Stéphane Duroy: Again and Again,” now showing at Paris’ Le Bal, the city’s independent venue for challenging, cutting-edge fine art/documentary photography exhibitions.

Chios, Greece, 1971 (Installation view) © Stephane Duroy

For Duroy, this Greek photograph represents a pair of thresholds: for his subject, balancing on the edge between life and death; and for the photographer, who realized that the medium has the power to put you directly in touch with the intense, beating pulse of the human condition. As Duroy discovered, a camera gives you permission to be a witness, to capture something very specific; sometimes even something forbidden. It is at this frontier between creation, destruction and transgression that Duroy’s most important work is made.

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Several months ago, Duroy was invited by the team at Le Bal to bring in his archives so they could discuss the shape of the retrospective. He arrived with a single box of negatives and slides that contained his life’s work—over four decades of travels in pursuit of his vision. His minimal, spare collection does not derive from laziness, nor from a lack of productivity. Rather, it stems from the artist’s creative use of destruction to push his art forward.

“L’Europe du silence.” Berlin, Fall of the Fall, December 1989. © Stephane Duroy

“It’s part of my process to destroy and diminish, to cut things and re-use them. I select my photos in a very radical way, pushing them, cropping them and often destroying them altogether. For me, this is the only way to progress as a photographer. I also do this with my books. I destroy one book to produce new work [Duroy has published a half dozen excellent photobooks. Part of the exhibition of Le Bal consists of mixed media interventions that Duroy has made using his own photobooks as the base]. If the result is too aesthetic, without any meaning, I kill it and begin again. When you destroy something, it’s really finished, and that pushes you forward. It’s so easy to make photographs, and if you’re not radical, you won’t progress. Look, I’m not a teacher, this is just my way—but for me, it’s the only way.”

Destruction also plays an integral part in the ideas behind Duroy’s exhibition at Le Bal. In the show, Duroy engages with the idea of history and how America has lost its memory (or perhaps never had one). The show is divided into two rooms. In the first, we are faced with decades of European history. From the Nazi concentration camps to the fall of the Berlin Wall to Poland’s still hauntingly empty Jewish quarters, the intensity of the 20th century is felt in Duroy’s spare but affecting frames.

In the second room, we transition to America, a place where Duroy has spent a lot of time over the past 30 years. From his perspective, America has no history. Everyone is racing forward with no sense of culture, tradition, or place. While America is a country of immigrants or exiles, it has not managed to construct a foundation for its identity. Rather, those who come to America are simply chasing a dream, a new beginning, and once they arrive, they continue to chase and run and agitate for something new.

Billings, Montana, 2003, USA © Stephane Duroy

Duroy’s creative destruction, then, is the perfect medium through which to tell the American story. Duroy has taken his most evocative moments from old Europe and pushed (and sometimes distorted) these frames into a statement about the contemporary American landscape. Much as America was built upon the history of Europe (but has definitively left it behind), so Duroy re-purposes his old visions of Europe into disturbing new collages about contemporary America.

Although the frames Duroy has left behind are few, they are all the more memorable for their scarcity. Duroy has been quoted as saying that photography bores him or that he is frustrated with the medium’s limitations, but it seems like he wants, more than anything, only to extract the best and most potent moments from his surroundings.

“Distress.” Dublin, 1980. © Stephane Duroy

At the end of our exchange, our conversation turned to the current state of affairs in the United States. Duroy, calmly and without hesitation, asserted that the current situation is largely a failure of the country’s educational system—one in which history and a sense of citizenship have failed to be transmitted to the newer generations. But as headlines in Europe indicate, perhaps this is a universal problem—perhaps man is truly condemned to repeat the past over and over again.

When I asked Duroy if he felt like a pessimist, he responded in his characteristically rough but deeply encouraging manner: “Yes, I am, definitely. But I also love life. I want to carry on with my work, I don’t want to stop…I feel a connection with all the people I photograph and with the people who are interested in the same questions as I am.

“To get pictures from any human being, I have to go very deep…And making those photographs is very difficult. [In addition,] many of the people in my pictures have had very, very hard lives. But I can understand what they’re feeling. When I can do that, I love being a photographer. Though it’s challenging, when I make just one frame that captures this connection, it feels worth it to keep going.”

—Alexander Strecker

Editors’ note: ”Again and Again” will be showing at Le Bal until April 9, 2017.