Benoit Aquin: Fire and Ice

By William A. Ewing

For twenty years, Benoit Aquin has travelled widely, determined to construct a global project. From initial forays into the Caribbean in the late 1980s (notably Haiti, where he focused on the practice of voodoo, a project that he would extend over the next five years), through photographing the banana plantations of Nicaragua, to recording the drastic effects of climate change in northern Quebec, Aquin’s work has always been characterized by a deep concern with the environment and humankind’s increasingly devastating impact on it.

Not content with a focus on the North–South axis, Aquin has over the past decade travelled east, first to Mongolia in 2002, and then to China, the site of his award-winning work on “the Chinese Dust Bowl” (Prix Pictet, 2008). Recently, he has begun work in Egypt, seeking out densely populated environments along the Nile that are being stressed to the breaking point. Aquin hesitates when asked if any of these diverse projects are “complete”; their complexity is sufficiently daunting that he prefers to characterize them as “works in progress.” One senses that he likes to bring the various projects forward simultaneously. He relishes the contrasts and profits from the synergies.

Aquin studies his topics in depth before ever picking up his camera. An avid reader, he is as likely to cite writers as visual artists among his influences. He is grateful to such authors as the agronomist Lester Brown; the Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf, who has written so effectively of the threats to the biosphere; and “ecocity builder” Richard Register. Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart’s History of World Agriculture is of particular significance to him, giving sense and urgency to his project; if there is a central focus to his work, it is agricultural – specifically, the looming food crisis.

Aquin can be said to belong to the distinguished tradition of “concerned photography”: environmental and social issues do concern him, and he does believe that photography is particularly well suited to depicting the urgency of problems and then galvanizing people into action. However, he is as likely to acknowledge Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos as exemplary as Gilles Peress’s Telex Iran. The poetics of photography are high on his list of desirable attributes, and Robert Frank and Frederick Sommer are constant sources of nourishment. Closer to home, Aquin cites the reclusive Montreal photographer John Max as a major influence; in Aquin’s view, there was a rare honesty in everything before Max’s lens.

What these “influences” have taught Aquin individually is difficult to explain with any precision, but what they all have in common, he feels, is an interest in fundamental human concerns, but seen tangentially – or, in his words, “made visually interesting and palpable without making it all literal.”

But Aquin’s eclecticism stops short of the distanced and sardonic references of much contemporary practice, in which, as Adam Weinberg has put it, “Style often overpowers meaning; or, historians and critics such as Szarkowski have chosen to interpret photographs in such a way that ‘the look’ has come to outweigh that which is looked at.”

There is a mystical aspect to Aquin’s work as well. The rational, intellectual work comes before and after the shooting (reading, conceiving, planning, then afterwards selecting, editing) But with the shooting itself, the photographer moves onto an intuitive plane, “flirting with the essence of things…”.

Travelling in Mongolia in 2002, Aquin crossed the Gobi Desert and began to understand the implications of desertification. This led to his decision to focus on the food crisis, and more immediately, to his specific interest in the Chinese dust storms – a misnomer, in fact, as it is a matter of the topsoil having been stripped off by the wind due to badly conceived agricultural policies and programs. There is a great beauty to these images – a kind of Turneresque swirl of form in which people have little more substance than insects – but this beauty is held in check by the reality of what we’re looking at: catastrophe, in fact, as a ballooning Chinese population squeezes (or is squeezed) onto land surfaces that can’t support it. Anne Tucker once wrote something about Misrach’s distressed landscapes that seems to apply to Aquin’s dust storms. Tucker observed that landscape in Western art had become lazy, “a kind of mental picnic,” and she applauded Misrach for finding “politics in its most virulent and secret forms out here.” Thus, the landscape is no longer a neutral, inert given, “but a threatened territory.”

Mazoyer and Roudart conclude their magisterial book with a reminder: “In truth, this world, which is crumbling today from the bottom much more quickly than it is being built from above, has become (…) a cracked colossus whose foundation must be reconstructed in all its urgency.” Aquin’s dust bowl pictures – a world, so to speak, “on fire” – second the point. But they are best appreciated in comparison with a body of work at another extreme – Aquin’s work with hunters in northern Canada who are finding that their hunting grounds are stressed to the breaking point. The “hot” and “cold” of Aquin’s photography recall the famous end-of-the-world imaginings of Robert Frost, whose poem now seems more apt than ever:

Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favour fire / But if it had to perish twice / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction / Ice is also great, and would suffice.

This text is reproduced with the author's permission. © William A. Ewing.

William A. Ewing is a noted authority in photography. He is the author of numerous books and has curated exhibitions for many of the world’s museums in Europe and North America. The founder of Optica Center for Contemporary Art in Montreal, he has been director of exhibitions for the International Center of Photography, New York, and for fourteen years (1996-2010) he has been the director of the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland. He lectures internationally and teaches at the University of Geneva.