It was as the winner of Immersion, a Franco-American photographic commission from the Hermès Corporate Foundation, that American photographer Gregory Halpern took an interest in Guadeloupe. “I explored the idea until I realized that it could be interesting to look at France through the prism of the experience of a former French colony. And so I traveled to Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas regions,” he explains in a conversation with photographer and author Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, at the end of the book devoted to this series, published by Aperture and the Hermès Foundation.
A portrait of the land
Himself a product of immigration — his Jewish grandfather fled Hungary just before World War II to settle in the United States – Gregory Halpern approaches the Caribbean island like a cross-cultural laboratory. What struck him more than anything else was the palpable presence of a painful history throughout the land. “The trauma of slavery and colonialism is felt here in a way that is much more raw than in the United States. […] There are an impressive number of monuments linked to slavery, for example,” he expounds.
To place this historical perspective at the heart of his visual work, Halpern photographed reminders from history: a bust darkened by time, the face of Christopher Columbus mutilated by the hand of man, a sculpture riddled with rust. These dark historical figures were triumphant nonetheless. On the back of his muscular shoulder, one man is tattooed with the decree of the national convention abolishing slavery.
Halpern borrowed the title of his series from Aimé Césaire, the famous poet, politician, and staunch anti-colonialist and surrealist from Martinique. “Let the Sun Beheaded Be,” a metaphor for the sunset, also represents in his writings the dissociation of the head and the body of the majority of the Caribbean population, who are descendants of the slaves that came from Africa and yet are far from those roots. His portraits, which regularly conceal the identity of his subjects with a play of light or posture, reflect the Guadeloupian quest for identity. The details captured during his wanderings serve as symbols: an exotic tree whose powerful roots invade a house, animals whose entrails are being removed, or children gathered around a black hole in the pavement.
Making contradictions coexist
“I tend to go for walks and talk to people a lot. I’m a kind of sponge when I have my camera with me, and I accept pretty much any invitation, I pick up hitchhikers, I follow stray cats down alleyways, etc.,” explains Halpern. It is after the fact, when he’s editing his photos, that he discovers recurring themes. The diversity of the people is a key point. Whether they’re concealed or not, they display a mixture of pride and fragility— it is through the intertwining of bodies that this vulnerability is reflected in one image, in nudity in another one, in the tear in a piece of clothing in a third one. Then comes the coexistence of violence and gentleness: the cruelty towards animals and the tenderness of flowers, the liveliness of fire and the calm of water, the grimacing smile of a mask and the shy one of a young girl.
Through this set of contradictions, Halpern offers up a complex history of Guadeloupe. As Clément Chéroux, curator of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition (and at the San Francisco MoMA in 2022) states at the conclusion of his text, the book follows a unique structure: “In a low angle shot, on a horizontal plane, then in a high angle shot, the book is therefore knowingly organized according to a movement of the eye that goes from top to bottom. This is the sense of the fall that animates all things when they are not subject to the gravity governing our world. More symbolically, it is also that of the trajectory of the guillotine blade.” The same guillotine that, at the time of the abolition of slavery, chopped off the heads of many aristocrats and other anti-revolutionaries, yet failing, however, to deliver such a clean cut to the neck of slavery.
By Laurence Cornet
Laurence Cornet is the editorial director of the Dysturb non-profit, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent curator in Paris.
Gregory Halpern: Let the Sun Beheaded Be
Published by Aperture