Photobook Review: A Tense and Dystopian View of our Modern World
Alain Willaume’s latest photobook, Coordonnées 72/18 – published by Editions Xavier Barral – offers a dark meditation on today’s world inspired by 46 years of long journeys off the beaten track.
© Alain Willaume / Tendance Floue, from the book, Coordonnées 72/18 (Coordinates 72/18). Series: De Finibus Terrae. Kata Tjuta Mounts, Northern Territory, Australia, 1999.
The book opens on visions that could be set post-Apocalypse. Remnants of human presence appear, then people, invariably masked, hooded, helmeted, pixelated. They may be survivors. Their surroundings are breathtaking, yet hostile. Moon-like deserts, hellish holes filled with smoke. The vast, empty sceneries seem like areas of punishment. And we rewind. With the picture of a young soldier, we seem to dive into a previous time, before the cataclysm – or was it a man-made disaster?
The sequencing of the book gives no answer. Rather, it navigates places and people, becoming more and more silent with each passing page. Only the regular roaming of planes and helicopters interrupt the muted world that Willaume depicts. In a photograph of a radio speaker, the volume is turned to the minimum. More portraits follow, doleful. Trees have lost their leaves, fire erupts, cars seem to have packed up before being deserted. What has become of humans is unclear. When they appear again, radiating in an uncanny light, they look like anxious witnesses.
© Alain Willaume / Tendance Floue, from the book, Coordonnées 72/18 (Coordinates 72/18). Series: Les Invisibles. Seville, Spain, 2008
All throughout the book texts by Gerard Haller read like poetic prose, with blackness and the edge of the world as a leitmotiv. They complement the dystopian aura of the photographs, of which geographical and chronological clues are purposely held back. Only in the end do detailed captions from Alain Willaume’s diaries give contextualised information. Because this is not the point, and the title announces it. Coordonnées 72/18 (Coordinates 72/18) (meaning photographs shot between 1972 and 2018) foreshadow a narrative of wandering with no precise destination or temporality.
The result is a distressing portrait of the world today – a world that, just as the Buddhists that Willaume documented, might as well be doomed to extinction. As David Chandler writes in the introduction, going through this impressive collection of images is also expanding the understanding of what documentary means. “Now, in this book’s residual mode, in its faded quotation to the photojournalistic paradigm, the formerly emphatic world of truths-being-told has become more opaque.” And reading Willaume’s diary excerpts, included in the caption, we get access to his feelings and incredibly creative process.
For many subjects, whose reality is invisible, he twisted the photographic apparatus in order to convey what he meant to document. It’s a lesson in honesty that leaves us alert - the megaphones of the last pages seem to play full volume again, broadcasting Willaume’s warning.
© Alain Willaume / Tendance Floue, from the book, Coordonnées 72/18 (Coordinates 72/18). Series: Fracture et Confusion. Bradford County, State of Pennsylvania, USA, 2013.
Coordonnées 72/18 (Coordinates 72/18) by Alain Willaume
Published by Editions Xavier Barral in 2018
Photographs by Alain Willaume // Texts by David Chandler and Gérard Haller
Hardcover // 23.8 x 32 cm // 288 pages // 280 black and white and colour photographs // €49
Alain Willaume, born in 1956, is a French photographer who develops work in tune with the world he crosses and observes. Under the influence of long journeys and away from the main streams, he draws up a personal cartography made of enigmatic images, which all tell of the violence and the vulnerability of the world and the human beings who live in it. Follow him on Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.