Precipices, both perilous and beautiful, punctuate Henry Roy’s new photobook Ibiza Memories. They give way to breathtaking views, vertiginous landscapes, and a family retreat atop a cliff.
What really happened in Ibiza? Though the photos, here and throughout the book, are drawn from real life, nothing is—perhaps—truly as it appears in Ibiza Memories, nor does it ever seem the same twice.
Franco-Haitian Roy’s multilayered and mysterious Ibiza Memories (Nieves) is his sixth photo book, and follows on his critically recognized (and sold-out) Superstition. Teju Cole, in The New York Times, declared the latter “mesmerizing” and one of the best photobooks of 2017, noting, “[Roy] is deeply sensitive to dreamscapes and to the borders between this world and the next.”
Roy sequenced Ibiza Memories himself, and its nonlinear narrative thrust, incantatory atmosphere, and what the photographer refers to as “visual poetry” are palpable and lingering. Its images and 224 pages somehow never feel random. The book was born from the photographer’s stays on the island with friends and family from 1982 to 2012—though it is not intended to be documentary nor necessarily to reflect reality.
Its 30 years of images consist of varying formats, made by the photographer and others, and position black-and-white against color, hot hues opposite cold, verticals with horizontals. Ibiza Memories lacks a legend and/or photo captions. Its text—Roy is also a writer—is included separately, a small book unto itself; it contains a sort of a playlist, but it never explains what we are seeing.
Ibiza Memories calls to mind the work of French New Wave film auteurs, like Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, as well as the beauty, spirituality, and otherworldliness of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Blitz Bazawule’s Burial of Kojo. It also bears resemblance to Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a film, with its staged and documentary footage, its mix of “hocus-pocus” and “fact,” about a fake within a fake within a fake, in which Welles’ narrator warns, “There’s going to be some trickery in this film about trickery.”
Roy, like Welles and his fabricated film crew, makes appearances in the book, as a photographer and “himself,” calling attention to its being simultaneously both autobiography and artifice. As much as Roy credits intuition in his creation of Ibiza Memories, his work is also a highly informed and extremely clever sleight of hand.
Photographs from Henry Roy’s first book, Regards Noirs, which similarly explores Afrodescendent identity in an ethnocentric French society, will be featured in a solo exhibition from June 3 to August 5, 2023 in Paris, as part of the Musée du Quai Branly symposium “Black Portraitures: Imaging the Black Body in the West”.*
You were born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but left at age 3 with your family as political exiles, to resettle in France. How did being a political exile shape your experience and work?
The status of political refugee, which made me stateless, deprived me of the right to travel to Haiti. Consequently, I had to wait until I obtained French nationality (at the age of 25) to discover my native island, of which I had no memory. I then landed in a foreign country, whose Creole language I did not know well. This determined a lot of my relationship with the world.
For the teenager that I was, Ibiza, land of utopia, magnetic, hospitable, and libertarian, recognized as “an island in the sun, where the restless souls may find each other”* turned out to be a substitute island—the dream country that destiny had deprived me of.
*[The quote, by Orson Welles’ character in his film F for Fake, was said to be from “Life magazine.” Added Welles, “One island, two Ibizas.”]
What was the impulse behind Ibiza Memories?
This project had been waiting in a closet for many years. I had all these archives collected in boxes, and I told myself that I should, one day or another, do something with them. But I couldn’t find the angle or the motivation.
Then my only son turned 18—the age of my first trip to Ibiza—and France, where I live, went through the long introspective downtime of confinement. The pandemic led me to question my artistic practice. Should I add more images to the exponential flow of images? It seemed obvious to me that I should concentrate on radical projects, works capable of shaking up our modes of perception.
So I felt the need to start working on a manipulation of my archives. I was interested in the idea of composing an elaborated narrative from “recycled” images.
My archives on Ibiza offered me an incomparable coherence of point of view and geographical unity, and longevity—Ibiza symbolizing, for the whole world, an extreme clubbing and the excesses of a debauched jet-set.
It was a way for me to assert my singularity, by exploring the themes of identity, time, territory, utopia, and fragility, while questioning the nature of reality. I immediately established that the island would not be the subject of the book but that it would serve as the setting for a complex narrative, capable of embracing my vision. It is therefore my most personal and my most intimate book.
The images in Ibiza Memories cover a span of 30 years and multiple photographic formats and styles…
The first black-and–white photos were taken in 1982, when I was a very young, aspiring photographer. Over the next 30 years (my last trip was in 2012), I studied photography, developed a career, and lived a life as a man. So it’s natural that my work has gone through changes: in cameras, techniques, and styles.
In Ibiza Memories, you will find different stages of my artistic evolution: from the amateur period, a bit naive and spontaneous, to the mastery of a style that has become the faithful expression of my sensitivity, a style that I sometimes adapted for art, lifestyle, and travel magazines. All this, gathered into a single story, gives a representation of my vision, scattered in time.
I appear in the book as a teenage amateur photographer, then as a father. Some of the pictures are self-portraits, but some of them were taken by others. I wanted to publish these photos taken on the fly, with my own cameras, by girlfriends or relatives, in order to reinforce the enigmatic side of the story.
This mise en abyme aims to confuse the issue by plunging the reader into questioning. Who is the author of these images? Are they staged?
What were the considerations when sequencing the images, and for creating what feels like a narrative for Ibiza Memories?
I am a great admirer of the work of the Haitian poet Frankétienne, leader of the spiralist movement (founded in 1965), of which this is a brief definition: “As its name indicates, spiralism is an invention that plagiarizes nothing other than life, the spiral in motion.” So I was looking for a free narrative form that turns on itself.
This book is a scenario of a universe that is both dreamlike and rooted in memory. The language of dreams is nonlinear, mysterious, and is perceived in an indirect way. Like surrealism, Voodoo and hypnosis, it solicits the unconscious.
In the same way, memory hierarchizes the memories in a random, disordered way, according to priorities inaccessible to reason. What was important to me was to find a unity to this book, composed of fragments from different periods of my life.
You had raised what you said was the awareness of the theatricality in Ibiza Memories, and I’m curious what this means for you.
By the word theatricality, I wanted to signify the importance of the editing and the layout in the content of Ibiza Memories. Building a story from such an imposing archive is obviously a matter of very specific choices. By focusing on certain situations, certain angles rather than others, by choosing this image rather than another, I interpreted what my experience was. I consider the care taken in the arrangement of these photos, of various origins and natures, as a form of theatricalization. I see Ibiza Memories as a theater where the actors are my family and friends, and the setting is Ibiza. The most credible aspect of this book is the empathetic and affective quality of the view of the natural and human environment.
How did you arrive at the layout, with its horizontal images abutting verticals, and Es Vedrà island occupying entire pages?
Es Vedrà is one of the most magnetic places in the world. It is a mystical, iconic location that I have immortalized from various angles, and obsessively, on each of my trips. I thought that of all the things I had photographed in Ibiza, it was the only element that was invariable over time.
Over several decades, humans, animals, plants change. They are born, mature, grow old, and die out. Even houses change. While the rocky mass of Es Vedrà remains stable, unchanging. Only the light that reveals it and the sea that surrounds it fluctuate.
So I decided to make it an axis around which to deploy my story. It intervenes in the narrative like a totem, a potomitan.**
**Potomitan is a Creole expression that designates the central post in the Voodoo temple, the oufo.
This book exists on many levels—memory, sense memory, and you have mentioned theater—over intertwining, multiple time periods. It is influenced by and reflects your belief in animism and experiences with Haitian Voodoo. How might these have impacted the images and the edit?
The question of Voodoo, in my work, deserves to be clarified. First of all, I must specify that I am not an initiate. I am therefore not the holder of the great secrets of this spirituality.
On the other hand, I know that I am inhabited, as is the case for anyone from Haiti, by Voodoo archetypes, which influence my psyche, and therefore my sensitivity. I have also approached Voodoo through study, and have linked it to various other animist traditions.
The hold of the invisible on the physical world seems indisputable to me, and, I firmly believe, that every being, plant, mineral, or element of nature is inhabited by its own energy, with which we interact. And I consider death as a door, leading to a passage.
I know that I’m taking a good picture when it becomes clear to me that I am dreaming what I think I am experiencing. This is a poetic way of saying that I am aware that what I see is, in a way, an illusion.
This is the case for all human beings. What we call reality can be considered as a dream. Therefore what separates the dream from reality remains, in my eyes, a mystery. My work is situated in a poetic gap where these two dimensions dialogue. The time of memory imposes its own laws.
My reading of the world is affected by this sensitivity, rather than by a materialist or political vision of the world. I feel that what our eyes perceive is, in a way, only hallucination.
Finally, Voodoo is a school of tolerance that advocates an unrestricted universalism and a harmonious link to nature. Its vision of the world is infinitely more open and rich than those of monotheistic religions or capitalism, which are divisive. I would dare to say, with a touch of irony: The future will be animist, or it will not be. For all these reasons, I say of my work that it is impregnated with an animist sensibility.
Were the memories in the book derived from standing in the shoes of your younger self at that time and place? Or looking back as an older man today?
Ibiza Memories was born of introspection. It germinated in the mind of the mature man that I am, then visited the different selves involved in the images. It was an inner journey behind the scenes of my memory.
The teenager from the beginning is still there and looks at me, questioning the path I have taken. This book is dedicated to that bold young migrant, who had the presumption to believe that he could be a photographer in a France where Afrodescendants were still “invisible.”
Do you believe that nonsentient things carry their own meaning and life force, or do we imbue them with one?
When I photograph, I sometimes have this tenuous awareness of being a master of coincidence: Just as quantum physics says that an observed atom reacts differently, I believe that a photographer does more than just record what is in front of him. To a certain extent, he creates it.
Your images are undeniably beautiful and draw from fashion and lifestyle photography, among other influences. I wanted to raise the issue of beauty in photography and ask your thoughts on it and what you see as its role.
Mastering the “beautiful” is what allowed me to survive. As a young photographer living in Paris, I didn’t really have a choice.
It is curious that I am considered as a fashion photographer, as the fashion world has never appreciated nor recognized my work. On the other hand, my mastery of the basics of marketing has allowed me to earn a living as a portrait artist, reporter, or even advertiser.
My artistic work developed in parallel with a professional career—the two activities feeding each other—which took me to the four corners of the globe.
What you call “beauty” is therefore inherent to my way of photographing. I have integrated, since my beginnings, that what I had to say had to be in a rigorous organization of lines, forms, and colors. My relationship with light is based on the passion I have for the sun as a source of life and provider of universal energy.
Your photos of Haiti on your blog are also strikingly beautiful. It’s rare that we see this sort of imagery of the country. I want to ask if that is something you were conscious of when you made those images—an act of activism almost—though I sense that this beauty is also inherent to your way of seeing.
The representation of Haiti by Westerners has always been a problem for me. The country is perceived, since its creation, through the prism of a fascination-repulsion: between exoticism, miserabilism, and horror. In France, I have often been asked to make spectacular images of Haitian Voodoo. I have always declined. Especially since I knew nothing about it.
My point of view on Haiti cannot be that of a white Frenchman or [white] American. It is the country of my parents, of my ancestors. I respect it and feel, in a way, responsible for its image. Therefore, I should not be expected to play the game of prejudice.
When I last went there, in 2016, I photographed my experience exactly as I would have done for a country in Asia, Africa, or Europe. My gaze varies little according to the place. It seeks, everywhere, the same light, the same vibration. There is a will to escape the stereotypes specific to each environment. I pursue an inner vision, free of clichés. Is there a preconceived way to photograph Morocco, Japan, or the Congo? I don’t think so. I like to find what resonates with me in the most unlikely places.
Who is Ibiza Memories for?
I would like this book to be for everyone. I imagine, however, that it will be of particular interest to class defectors, binationals, people of mixed race, the undecided. All those who have no interest in cultivating identity division. Those who run away from confinement and determinism from all sides. The resistance fighters who feel, deep inside themselves, that life cannot be reduced to a business plan, but that it is a path of initiation, of liberation, toward a wider understanding of their deepest beings. Those who believe in the sacred nature of life, in the unlimited scope of consciousness. Those who are attached to the beauty we have left. And who, like me, blindly believe in [what the Cameroonian philosopher Gaston-Paul Effa referred to in his 2015 book Le dieu perdu dans l’herbe as] “the god lost in the grass.”
I am convinced that the game of appearances contains much more than the codified system (by mass culture, advertising, fashion, and, to a lesser extent, contemporary art) through which we apprehend it. As an artist, I am dedicated to transcend this system, to see beyond it. I approach photography as a disrupter, revealing the great mysteries of being. Like a prayer, a mantra, rather than a medium.
*Photographs from Henry Roy’s first book, Regards Noirs, will be featured in a solo exhibition from June 3 to August 5, 2023 in Paris, at Little Africa, as part of the Musée du Quai Branly symposium “Black Portraitures: Imaging the Black Body in the West”.