Tu me dis
language: French, English
‘You tell me that you would like to capture the intimacy of people.’ This is the closing phrase of a piece of text by a certain woman named Marie Attard in Tu me dis – a seemingly simple booklet by Titus Simoens. The book is about the complex relationship between men and women, between photographer and subject.
In November 2015, the Ghent-based photographer is staying in Arles as a photographer in residence. Inspired by the Venus of Arles, a female beauty icon, he starts looking for the most beautiful woman in this city in the south of France. He meets Marie, tells her about himself at a bar and tries to gain her trust. She takes him home with her, he takes photographs of her, as a photographer does with his model.
In a sequence of 216 photos that starts with the cover of the book, she first sits at the table and drinks tea, smokes a cigarette or plays with her hair. She tilts her head, holds it with one hand. Then with two hands. She awaits, she sometimes looks bored. Her eyes do all sorts of things: smile, stare, dream, her hands and cigarette follow. But they also ask questions, especially when she’s waiting. What do you want from me, Titus? In the next fragment the lights are out and only a candle burns. She smokes. It’s dark, so he approaches with his camera. Her gaze is, again, filled with questions. What now? One photograph seems to show her half open mouth posing this exact question. What are you aiming for, photographer?
According to American Doug DuBois, intimacy in photography has to do with access, confidence and cooperation. It comes from the subject’s permission to have his or her picture taken and the subject’s courage to completely surrender to the directions and, at times, merciless gaze of the photographer. Simoens wonders how far a photographer can go to get the image he wants and what it means to be a photographer. He has told her that, she writes. It’s about power, that’s what he told her. He also has a hard time with relationships – ‘You tell me that (…) everything breaks and that you know you’re the one to blame.’ Eventually, Marie exposes herself in sensual colors, in the intensifying shimmer of the water. She ends up being half naked, just like the Venus of Arles statue. Is this how he directed it? Does she ask if it’s okay, when she turns around to look at him? In any way, the spectacle doesn’t go any further: the last images show her getting dressed again. Some time later Simoens receives an email from Marie: she portrays their very first conversation in the bar – the conversation in which he revealed himself to some degree. The email leads directly to Tu me dis. Simoens puts the full version on the back cover. It’s crucial. Without this text, this would be just another sequence of photographs of a woman made by a man. Her words, however, create an unsuspected turn, a surprising dialogue between her and the photographer. This is in any case confronting, most of all for Simoens himself. The sentences are more compelling than his images and hold up an unforeseen mirror to him – in which he distinctively recognizes his own image. (Stefan Vanthuyne).