Most photographers are passive, often neutral observers. Stanislas Guigui fully inhabits the ferocious world he shoots, completely caught in its turbulence. He has resided and worked in Colombia for over 20 years, and the images he is now assembling into a book have been hard-won by sacrificing objective distance. Having grown up in a merchant Jewish family in Marseille and Paris whose bourgeois existence he rejected early on, he migrated to Bogotá with his Colombian girlfriend. Living by choice among the poor and criminal elements there, on turf controlled by the feared Cartucho gangs, Guigui has enjoyed unique access to the local underworld. “On one side of the city, it’s like Europe, well organized, everyone is working in modern buildings. On the other side is total chaos.”
By Guigui’s reckoning, the people in that distressed, anarchic zone are “more human” — and the values he pursues are not material but experiential and even fiercely moral, albeit in his own rebel terms. He hangs with his subjects, engages daily with the teeming street, befriends and sleeps with some of the prostitutes he shoots, at times privy to the less savory business of the district. He has spent time in jail, visited crack houses, and once used a gun to deflect an attempt at extorting money from him. Friends of his helped an infamous gang escape (using priests’ garb). In one instance he got caught in a battle between rival gangs, angered the wrong side, was kidnapped and then narrowly rescued from execution. Making art on a razor’s edge, he recalls the illicit exploits of writer Jean Genet. In fact, he has written a book and made a film about his own “adventures” in Bogotá. He’s no adrenaline junkie, he insists; he just accepts the rules of that game. “I’m living with the outlaws, and they accept me, and I like that life. You cannot be outside there, it’s too complicated.”
Guigui is, if anything, a restless soul. He has lived in Israel but left because he hated the constant warfare there, and he has traveled widely, including Mongolia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and much of South America. “I feel good with people who are different, because they don’t judge me.” Though it is predominantly outcasts and outlaws that feature in his work and his life, he’s open to anyone with whom he can communicate beyond the filters of class and ethnic identity. While in Gaza he had long conversations with Palestinians who knew he was Jewish but sensed he was more interested in their common humanity. Guigui captures many of the characters who pass before him, but he applies a personal code that dictates when not to take a photograph — when the subject is wholly wretched, unconscious in the street or zonked on drugs. “I don’t want to glamorize or sentimentalize misery … or people waiting for death.” Beyond this embargo on the damned, we can still witness unflinching, unforgettable portraits of those who live in the shadows — from the decrepit transvestite glowering at us while clutching a telephone to the shy eight-foot giant crouched nude in a bathtub. Guigui takes us where few others can.
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