Mathieu Pernot: The Gorgons

Maison des Peintres, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

A documentary series following a Roma family living on the outskirts of Arles for just over 20 years. The exhibition is broadly organised by family member, a format that helps to disguise the fact that the project actually took place in three distinct phases: for about five years starting in 1995 Pernot shadowed the family, seemingly quite hesitantly at first, in a traditional b/w aesthetic. He reconnected with them in 2013 to take more accomplished, less formal colour images that demonstrate both his development as a photographer and his acceptance by the family. In between these phases of Pernot’s own work, gaps are filled by Gorgon family snaps: “They offered me images that they’d taken during the years we hadn’t seen one another”.

Whether the sequencing by family member was always the intention, or simply an attempt to disguise the fragmentary nature of the archive, it is this that makes the exhibition a success. My initial walk around, before examining the images more closely, was that this looked like the latest in a long line of projects on communities living on the edges of society, with all the unintentional Othering that this risks – but actually by focusing on family members, one gets a much greater sense of these people as individuals.

The passage of time between the 1990s images and the recent work gives the viewer the space to extrapolate a lived life between the two points in time, sometimes punctuated by a fuzzy family snapshot. The hard lives of families living in communities like this are etched on their prematurely aged faces and bodies. Throughout, a sense of continuity pervades, as the new generation largely lives as the older one did, albeit with the odd concession to the 21st century; whether this is as a good thing (holding onto tradition) or a bad thing (a perpetual cycle of poverty and exclusion) is very much down to the interpretation of the viewer.

There is one distracting note: whilst a little childhood nudity would be considered normal within the context of a fly-on-the-wall view of such a simple, uninhibited lifestyle, there is a section in the exhibition with about 10 tightly composed images of the same naked young girl in slightly different poses. It is not overtly sexualised, but it still came across as an odd presentation choice. Generally speaking a photographer decides not only what to shoot, but also what to process, print and offer for exhibition (and I understand that Pernot also chose exactly what to exhibit), and I find myself wondering why so much wall space was given to such a potentially controversial choice of subject. I found it more problematic with the knowledge that he is not a family member but ultimately an outsider. Whatever his message intention, I fear it may have got blurred by this section and the potential responses to it.

Main takeaway

Finding the right sequencing logic for a project can make the difference between good and great – a version of this ordered chronologically or thematically wouldn’t have had the same impact, but by focusing on one family member at a time, Pernot generates more empathy and a greater human connection with the viewer.