AN INTERVIEW WITH SOPHIE CALLE
BY JENNA SAUERS
Jenna Sauers: I wanted to start by asking about the relationship between the photographs and the text of The Address Book. How do the photographs relate to the words, and how did you make your decisions about what to include and exclude in the images?
Sophie Calle: I became an artist because I wanted to please my father, an amateur art collector. I looked at the works hanging on his walls and I guess I thought unconsciously that I could try to copy Duane Michals. Or maybe it seemed to me that my images would never be enough on their own and neither would my words. But whatever the reason, that’s how it all started. And once you’ve been put in a box–mine being “images and texts”–it’s hard to escape it. That being said though, my box suits me. That’s how years later the newspaper Libération opened its pages to me for a project consisting of “images and texts” for The Address Book. It’s the search for an idea that can take the form of a serial that really prompted the project. And once the idea was found, the text was more obvious: a series of interviews. For the images, things proved complicated because if certain images were necessary because they had their place in this investigation (for example when the man that I’m questioning shows me the armchair in which my “victim” likes to sit) in other cases there weren’t any obvious associations and I tried to symbolically illustrate the text. This, moreover, seemed to me an infringement upon the rigor of the project, but I didn’t know how to do it otherwise.
JS: Has the meaning of this work changed since you originally conceived it? These days it’s so easy to get a glimpse into a stranger’s life in ways that it really wasn’t in the early 1980s. People volunteer a lot about themselves and some would argue our cultural perception of privacy has changed. Some reviewers have made references to Facebook and social media in talking about your book, and I wonder how you feel about that?
SC: I don’t know how I feel about that. I have no face book, never used twitter. But the poesy, the mystery, the excitement of getting to know someone without meeting this person hasn’t changed for me…
JS: I think one difference that perhaps those reviewers who would compare you looking through a stranger’s address book in 1983 to following a stranger on, say, Twitter, are missing is that the portrait that emerges in The Address Book is of a man who revealed himself unintentionally, someone who did not know he was being observed, while reading about a stranger on social media only allows you to see that person as he or she wants to be portrayed. Is that a meaningful distinction?
SC: Yes it is.
I also think that, in some cases, at the end it is more about myself following a shadow than about the person I was following…
The other difference—I hope!—is that I am trying to occupy the walls, the pages of a book, to “write”, to make a work of art, to suggest the absence more than revealing someone’s life.
JS: Often you require yourself to work within a set of constraints — obeying the advice of a clairvoyant, following people through cities, calling strangers’ numbers and interviewing them. Why do you choose to work in this way, with constraints? What do they permit you to do that working in another way would not?
SC: It’s relaxing. Once the rules are established, having to follow them without questioning them, obeying the rules of the game, “playing the game”, gives me a certain peace of mind and freedom within the rules.
JS: Sometimes people question the veracity of your works. You said once in an interview, “If I am asked, I say it is all true—I am not able to invent. Afterwards it is other people’s problem, not mine, if truth or fiction is a necessary criteria for them.” The essay in particular and nonfiction in general continues to be tagged with this association with factuality, which imposes a kind of moral reading on the genre. How important is veracity to you? Do you think an artist has an obligation to tell the truth? Can an artist be factual but not truthful, or truthful but not factual?
SC: One day I visited an exhibit featuring “the shadow”. When I passed in front of my work, I heard a visitor say to his companion “it’s a shame that this is invented” and this bothered me a lot. I felt like crying out “No! It’s true!” So I guess, sentimentally speaking, I wish that people would think it’s true. Only sentimentally.
When The Address Book was published in Libération this posed an ethical problem for certain journalists who didn’t understand why, as an artist, I had the right to insert myself into someone’s private life without his or her consent, while the journalists who worked for this daily publication, which has a serious reputation, couldn’t allow themselves to do so.
So certain journalists were bothered by my publications. On the other hand, other journalists liked the project because they were certain that I had made everything up. And when it was proven that the man who owned the address book existed–because he signed a right to reply–it was a mishmash: those who liked it according to whether they thought it was true denounced the project, those who didn’t like it because they thought it was fictional suddenly liked it. In this journalistic context then they all positioned themselves in relation to “the truth”.
As for me I wouldn’t say “it’s true” but rather: “it happened”. When I made the film “no sex last night”, out of the 60 hours of rushes filmed, I chose 90 minutes. Yet I could have made another movie which would have said just the opposite and it would have been just as sincere, just as “true”.
JS: Obviously, awarding you the Essay Prize for The Address Book presupposes that we feel this work is, in fact, an essay. But how do you feel about this work being classified as an essay? Is the genre distinction important or meaningful to you?
SC: The literary domain was my mother’s and the visual domain my father’s. I quickly found my place on the artistic side. Therefore, that which comes from literature is newer, more mysterious. The distinction is not important, but to be accepted outside of one’s typical domain is great.
JS: Do you agree that The Address Book is an essay?
SC: It seems that by your choice you’ve answered the question and by accepting the prize I have given you my answer.
JS: How do you define the word essay?
SC: It’s up to you to tell me.
JS: You have said that you both do and don’t regret making The Address Book. The man who was your subject objected strongly to the project; do you feel that the work was ultimately worth it? How do you balance the moral concerns of a work like this with the concerns of an artist? Is it a question of the ends justifying the means?
SC: Indeed the question is: was it worth the effort from an artistic or literary point of view? You seem to think so, by giving me this prize.
As for me, even if I had regrets when the owner of the book declared that my project had made him suffer (which truly surprised me, because most of his friends had agreed to speak to me because it was HIM and that he was, according to them, the type of man who would love the idea of my project…and since that worked for me I believed it). But in spite of these regrets, I cannot deny that the excitement was stronger than my guilt and that I love this project, so if I had to do it all over I again, I would.
But I have abandoned ideas because I thought they did not measure up to their potential danger or potential cruelty. So it is each idea and the way I think I can exploit it, each idea with its visual or creative potential, which determines my response to this problem of “ends” and “means”. There isn’t a general answer. The question is asked every time.
Translated by Elizabeth Carroll and Stephanie Kupfer.
ABOUT JENNA SAUERS
Jenna Sauers is a writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, and many other publications. She is currently a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.