“I discovered an enormous story full of ramifications, a contemporary tale of corporate impunity, a mafia-like way of doing business, lies that affected and are affecting thousands of people and communities around the world.”
If you have any knowledge of the Monsanto Company and what they do, you will know what a frightening prospect they appear to represent. A single, highly suspect organisation, controlling a very large market share of the world’s agricultural seed and chemical production, in use by most household names in processed food manufacture, accused of ecological neglect and a serious lack of ethics and humanitarian welfare. Unless you are directly affected, their impact is easy to ignore – Monsanto’s main victims have been those economically and physically damaged as a knock-on effect of their products and actions – think PCB pollution in Illinois and Alabama, patent infringement on US farmers, Agent Orange in Vietnam, largescale deforestation in Brazil, farmer suicides in India.
Disturbed by this corporate evil, Mathieu Asselin, a somewhat modest photographer (and filmmaker), was compelled to make it the subject of a photographic investigation. The results have been hugely well received and this is largely due to how effectively Asselin’s own horror is realised through this publication. The incontestable sentiment of his book is that you familiarise yourself with this story and act accordingly.
Sunil Shah: Can you tell me how you discovered the story of Monsanto as a prospective photographic project and one that subsequently became the focus of what looks like a significant amount of research, travel and synthesis into a body of work?
Mathieu Asselin: I discovered the story about Monsanto around 7 or 8 years ago. At that time my father told me about their attacks on farmers about patent infringement in the Midwest of the USA and the economic consequences on their communities. Legal craziness.
For some time, I let it rest, but it was always in the back of my mind. Doing further research on the subject I discovered the work of activists, scientists, farmers and especially the work of Marie-Monique Robin about Monsanto. I discovered an enormous story full of ramifications, a contemporary tale of corporate impunity, a mafia-like way of doing business, lies that affected and are affecting thousands of people and communities around the world.
The questions I had were: How to tell the story, even if the story wasn’t at that time put together photographically? What will be the approach? How would I photograph the invisibility of some of the affected places or even some of the people? What should I include or not? Most importantly, I wanted to stay away from a pedagogic brick full of graphics and text, meaning, I wanted to stay in the photographic essay as much is possible. After all, I am a photographer.
Less is more. I wanted to concentrate on cases that represented what is happening in the world with some type of universality but at the same time be direct in my point of view and not ambiguous. One of the important things I decided, was to give space to archival material, appropriation, video and text to make an interesting narration, interesting and coherent with different layers.
At the same time, I think it is important to mention that even though am a photographer and the gesture of photography gives me a lot of pleasure, it is in the story and its construction where I think everything happens. The Monsanto project it is a child of the story before anything else.
SS: In some ways, I am reminded of the research based documentary practice and aesthetic of Taryn Simon’s American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar and A Living Man Declared Dead and other Chapters, and the ‘documentary file’ strategy of Edmund Clark’s Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition. It seems to me documentary photography moves into new, expanded territory when it takes the weight of representation off the images alone, and supplements them with the actual materials of research and yet, photography still plays a central role in this project. Where did the influences to work in this multi-layered way come from?
MA: Interesting question and difficult to point to one or even few influences. I have looked at many photographers work: commercial, journalistic, fine art (or whatever that means), conceptual, documentary, even wedding photographers. I have admired many and still do, I fall out of love with a few and fall back in love with couple of them. But in most cases, it is always the same in terms of what I am interested in: how they build stories, the link between research and photography and how problems are solved in the process. This is why as a photographer, I think it is important to leave traces of how you do things.
You may or may not like a photographers work but in the end this is not important. There is always something new to think about and learn from, even from the works you don’t like. Yes, Taryn is a good example of research and aesthetics but what I mostly appreciate about her work is the way she links the research and the photographic work. I can say, in my case (hope I won’t have my head cut off) photography is the consequence of the story. For me, at this point in my life, photography itself does not have much meaning, maybe that is because I am not an excellent photographer.
Nonetheless, I think cinema has a great influence on me, especially documentary films. Werner Herzog documentaries for example, are for me, the perfect example of storytelling, not only well constructed but told in a very personal way. They have the ability to create such personal narratives and points of view and at the same time, be universal, where we can all find ourselves, one way or another in his film, even for an instant. The fantastic ability to create a world on his own that makes perfect sense for the rest of us. That is magic.
Coming back to the layers and the story. Stories are not flat, they have layers, they are told by many, they are reinterpreted, broken into pieces and reconstructed again. But most importantly, stories have a point of view and its impossible to ignore this, it would be like ignoring the story itself. I am saying that because in my work I do not try to be neutral. I try to be responsible to the people involved in it and the research engaged with. But I am not trying to give to the spectator, as much as I can, ways to reinterpret what I want to say. Maybe this is utopian but I think it is important to say. In this case, I do not like Monsanto and what it represents and I make sure you understand that. I wish I can be more subjective on my work, I really think subjectivity is the key.
I think the work becomes much more interesting when you aren’t trying to camouflage your point of view, these are not the right times for ambiguity, even in photography.
This is where working with layers its important, it gives me the opportunity to be precise on what I want to say and how I want to say it and most importantly, so the person looking at your work doesn’t fall asleep in the process. But as you can see, I am not the only one or even the first to work like that.
“You may or may not like a photographer’s work but in the end this is not important. There is always something new to think about and learn from, even from the works you don’t like.”
SS: I think your subjectivity is very apparent in the way you position Monsanto, as central to your enquiry without any ambiguity in the facts about these crimes. This is a direct onslaught onto an example of corporate greed, neglect and major wrongdoing par excellence. Despite the cloak of objectivity that photography can imply, I feel beneath the surface there is an anger, and its quite justified. You’ve chosen some key case studies which divide the book into chapters, and having read the book cover to cover, it is very accessible. You must have had to make some difficult decisions about what to put in and how much to include. How did you come to make these choices?
MA: Monsanto is a very large story, it has and continues to affect thousands of peoples in many different ways around the world: health, economically and of course ecosystems (air, water and soil). Each of these stories has their own drama, no one is more important than anyone else, they are all equal at a personal level. Knowing that choices need to be made story-wise, the trick is how to tell all these stories, how to represent as much of these individual dramas as possible without getting lost.
My choice was to stay in pre-defined and manageable geographic territories, where I can find universal examples of what Monsanto has been doing around the world. The USA and Vietnam allow me that. In each of the examples, I expose what is in relation, also happening in Argentina, India, Europe and so on.
Storytelling is subjective so it is better not to avoid it. Actually, subjectivity goes hand in hand with your beliefs because it depends on them, nonetheless there are facts that don’t depend on beliefs and finding the right balance between these two is as close as you can get to truth, if such a thing exists in storytelling.
SS: Can you say something more about the photographic challenges you faced in light of the complexity and detail behind every story. The Agent Orange stories are an example of how the images of genetic mutations can be incredibly moving and at the same time very effective in helping the audience “get the message”, however, there are other more “straight”’ documentary images which provide context to the story that are less sensational, you’ve also included images which you have painted over and also there are images of objects you’ve collected, yet a range of approaches here works with the layering we discussed earlier. How did your approach with photographing these stories develop in practice?
MA: You know, I am not too much into photo idolatry but don’t make me wrong, I do like photography a lot. I am a photographer first of all, but for me, photos are the consequence of the story, it’s about it, not the contrary, the point is to make my vision understandable and I use as much as I can grab to tell it, that is why there is the presence of video QR codes, image appropriation, the importance of the book as an object, documents, text, etc.. and maybe that fits me well because I am not an extraordinary photographer.
I spend much of the time constructing and layering the story, translating how it feels and building a general image of it, photography comes to my head as an image of the whole thing, like a movie clip with sound etc. This helps me not to worry much about the photos per se, if you have a good story, know how to tell it, layer it etc.. photos will come by their self, that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy job, not at all, you need to work for it. This is why, there is a mix of photography styles in my work, I think I don’t have a style photographically speaking, I shot in the style that fits the moment and the mood, maybe my style, it’s in the way I tell the story, the way I put it together…. Maybe.
You may ask, why are you not a writer or a film director? I believe I am even worse at that than photography, so I will stick with this for now.
Let’s see if all this makes sense for my next project.
SS: Speaking of film, part of your work in the project was to employ the use of video, which in my mind was very effective component. In fact, the medium seems to be a very natural choice for documentary. Was there ever an option of completing a longer video of the project or was your heart always set on publishing a photobook?
MA: Yes, Video is very effective, I did a 15 minute interview piece of farmers explaining how Monsanto took them to court etc. Nonetheless, the book was always the main goal, I worked in film long ago, so I guess the bug is still in me and I think it can be complementary to the photographic work mostly for an exhibition. I did use some archival video material in the book as screenshots and QR codes that help to narrate part of the story that would be difficult without it, but the use needs to be justified otherwise it’s very hard to put it out without looking gimmicky.
“Maybe this is utopian but I think it is important to say. In this case, I do not like Monsanto and what it represents and I make sure you understand that.”
SS: On exhibiting the project, can you tell me about your collaboration with Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo in curating the project? How easy or hard was it to translate the book to the wall?
MA: Sergio is a doctoral student from ENSP in Arles. I met him in Arles beginning 2017 at his house with my friend Nico, he introduced us. We were a bit drunk that night and we talked about the upcoming exhibition during Les Rencontres. I was a bit lost about it and I thought he had very good ideas. A day after, when I was sober the ideas still sounded as good as when we were drunk, so I ask him to do the curatorial work and to work together to translate the book in to an exhibition… He saved my ass. Since then, he has been the curator of the past and upcoming shows of Monsanto and hopefully, we will work together for my upcoming project. I need to say that he has become a key part of the Monsanto project as has Ricardo Baez, the designer. Sergio has a very good understanding of what I want and he really enhances what I already have done giving a lot of structure to many of my ideas. The result is the successes of the shows in Arles, Marseille and at other venues.
The upcoming exhibition at The Photographers Gallery in London this February will be a very good example of this collaboration, rethinking and adjusting for a specific event and place, the curatorial process doesn’t stop with the first exhibition and Sergio understands this very well.
SS: You have already received a great deal of positive responses to this work, awards and accolades. What does 2018 hold for you, both in terms of the Monsanto work and for anything new you may be working on?
MA: Yes, the feedback has been amazing, no doubt and I am very thankful. In 2018, Monsanto will be shown in exhibitions across the EU, from small spaces to big festivals and museums. I think we have, for now, 8 exhibitions confirmed, FOMU, BREDA, The Photographers Gallery, RAY, Frankfurt to mention a few…. It will be an exciting year for both, me and Sergio. I have also workshops and conferences, so that will keep me busy.
I am just starting my new project that so far looks like a lot of work, travel, and thinking, so I think exciting and busy will be the right tag for 2018.
SS: One final question I have is about Monsanto and the growing anger towards these kinds of corporates who typify the greed and inhumanity of 20th Century high capitalism – profit before people. What might the future hold for Monsanto? With the frightening level of hegemonic power and control they hold in the industry, in your opinion, what hope is there that there is a future of food and chemicals production that can work outside of such a monopoly?
MA: I believe things are changing, little by little, more and more, people are thinking in a responsible way challenging the establishment, harking questions, looking for different ways of eating, consuming etc. Organization, associations and movements are being created to explore new ways of farming, distributing etc… In the last 20 years or more these movements have grown exponentially, forcing in some way or another, these big monopolies to change, some of these changes are just made up to fit new market demands, nonetheless, I have belief in the creation of a new corporate mentality that believes in change, responsibility, sustainability, business and humanity.
However, knowing that these changes are mostly happening in what we call the developed world, the problem is the new frontiers of these big corporations, easy markets: Africa, Asia, Central and South America, any country where there is a lack of regulations.
I try to stay positive, otherwise I won’t do anything. I do believe things can change and are changing in the right direction, sometimes one step forward two steps backwards. Like the election of Donald Trump, but at the same time, I believe this is necessary to understand how bad things can go. Change is not easy, it needs to happen progressively, things can’t change in one day.
I am optimistic, I just hope this optimism it’s not naiveté.
Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Mathieu Asselin.)