Amidst the crowd of photojournalists reporting on global current affairs, Luc Delahaye plays the part of a double agent: his panoramic views show both the significant and banal details of a historic event, while deliberately suspending the function of the journalistic image. Drifting away from conventional media narratives, his photographs do not intend to provide visual proof of a current event; they seem to search instead for an estranged perspective on the line of fire. The range of his reportage – a riot in Gaza, the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the life of the lumpenproletariat in France or the United Arab Emirates – addresses the problematic practice of photojournalism itself.
Operating as a professional war reporter between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, Delahaye earned international recognition for his work in war zones. But from 2001, the year of his first gallery show, and especially 2004 when he left the Magnum Photos agency, his work underwent a critical turn: panoramas replaced close-ups and editorial commissions were abandoned for grand museum-scale tableaux. Delahaye’s migration from journalism to ‘art photography’ (a sort of exile, maybe) as a result of a crisis of belief in journalistic truth became a framework in itself and the keystone for a reborn practice, where the constraints of information were suspended in favour of an interrogative perception of facts.
The entrance to Delahaye’s show at Galerie Nathalie Obadia was presided over by a large-format picture of a man lying on the side of a sandy road, near what seems to be an industrial area in the desert. Only the title, Man Sleeping, Dubai (2008), suggests that he is not dead. Delahaye avoids the basic photojournalistic responsibility of providing an objective view of an occurrence, emphasizing instead the opacity of this photographic document. The ten new pictures covered a good deal of Delahaye’s parsimonious production from the last seven years. Such slowness not only emphasizes his break from the frenetic pace of photo-reportage, it also seems to enhance the pictures’ interpretive potential. Each photograph is the result of a digital reworking of several individual takes. As a result, various layers of time seem to coexist, along with multiple centres of attention. At once overcrowded by details and haunted by the force of their often catastrophic motifs, Delahaye’s pictures walk the line between what he calls ‘the desire of moving closer, with the impossibility or taboo of being very close, and that of moving away, with the risk of losing the human content’.
It’s in the confluence of the contemplative and the obscene where these works reveal genuine conceptual gaps. Karni Crossing Demo (2008), for instance, depicts a demonstration at a Gaza border checkpoint, but contains too many coincidences to be trusted – perhaps as many as one might find in a 19th-century history painting: the rescue of a wounded child on one side, a group of demonstrators filming with their mobile phones on the other, a TV cameraman toward the centre and, on top of a mound, a young man wearing a shirt that reads ‘FUTURE IS STUPIDH’ (sic). The spontaneity of a direct visual account of events should remove Delahaye’s pictures from the category of ‘history painting’, but their suspicious compositional perfection appears to suspend all documentary value. Just as Jeff Wall has written about a ‘near documentary’ photography, we could speak here of a ‘near journalistic’ genre – a negative journalism, where melancholy replaces judgment.