Laurence Bonvin

The gated communities’ phenomenon has started in a different conceptual background in Turkey especially after the 60’s. It would be a significant mistake to overpass the military apartment blocks which are made for the families who work for the military service and the summer housing styles that are mainly constructed through the west and south coast of Turkey or the workers blocks. When we approach to the gated community phenomenon today, it is absolutely clear that we are coming across with a totally different understanding and planning.

Thus, it would be more appropriate to approach the gated communities which are a leading house planning fact in Istanbul from the establishment of Kemer Country, a site that has been planned and constructed in the heart of the Istanbul fields in nineteen eighty five. Kemer Country a planning that is evolved around the first golf area in Istanbul, has been an impact on the society with the luxurious house planning (villas with gardens and a large scale of facility areas). Thus another aspect of economy has been created which influenced many architects and planners to start to work on establishing Kemer Country like sites. In the last ten years gated community phenomenon has been valuated and upgraded by many inhabitants who have high social income level. For instance a place used to be a village that is mostly formed of one-night-built apartments (gecekondu) by the local inhabitants is now transformed into a municipality zone, which is mostly occupied by various kinds (differing in architectural style and planning) of sites. These sites by their nature do not function for the villagers but for the new comers. In order to define the structure of sites in basic terms, it would be proper to describe their infra structure so that the security cameras, the guards, the defined territories play an important role. However, the constructed status quo of those planning evolve around a representational basis, that is to say the nature, the facilities or the entertainment areas appear to be the representations of  some actualities.
Laurence Bonvin, an influential photographer has started to work both on the gated communities’ concept and on urban sprawl landscapes and has produced a series of images that are displaying the distractingly ‘beautiful’ state of those sites with a critical point of view. The triptych images, that are displaying the relations of new suburban sites with the surrounding landscapes, do not only enable to visualize the interrelated scenes, but also the misfit of the architecture with its surroundings. The actual interplay with reality is being reflected by a sense of abstraction. Additionally the triptych images, which are commonly used in decorative paintings, display an ironical matching. The connection of the other images is not explicit but implicit. The images do not express their interrelated state in big terms but form relational aesthetics beneath each other. Bonvin is displaying a narrative, a narrative that is not with a concrete beginning nor end but a form of a statement. Additionally Bonvin is bringing the landscape design to the surface that it actually is creating an illusion of nature, leisure and harmony. The pre-considered and limited nature of these forms is brought to the surface through the void that exists in Bonvin’s series of photographs.
We have interviewed with Bonvin on her latest project and on photography.

I would like to start our interview with making our readers informed about your education and how you started to produce photography.
My first experience with photography was watching the pictures that my father had produced while he was traveling the world as a sportsman. For me, as a kid, the elsewhere they were picturing was really influential. I started to use the camera my father gave when I was eleven. I began photographing landscapes. I was not always sure of what I would photograph but I was performing it. In secondary school I learned how to develop and print images with big interest. When I graduated I was into philosophy, literature, traveling and photography as well as my interest in arts. The only real practice I had was photography and slowly it became clear that I would go to photography school.

Which school did you choose to study photography, and which areas were taking your interest?
I was accepted at the national school in France (E.N.P.) where I took three years of a quite wide-angled education. One third of the program was devoted to projects and the rest was based on theoretical approaches of images, as well as history, studio photography, film. Today I still think that it is really important to have the knowledge and the understanding of the medium grammar and history. The school in France as any school was not perfect but was a good chance for me to widen my visual and artistic culture and sharpen my approach in a fast way. There I developed a documentary and an artistic photographic aim but did not know how to combine these two aspects. School for me was just a laboratory where I tried out things and developed ideas through meeting photographers and seeing works of others. I mainly did portraits and street photographs. I really started working on my own subjects — landscape, suburbia and portraits— after school. Later I was also writing on photography in a magazine and started teaching photography at an adults’ school. Writing was really important for me for a while but now I’m more interested by teaching. I still believe in the essence of being able to write, evaluate and discuss photography, artistic positioning and subject matter.

What drives you to come to Istanbul to do a project? Contemporarily Istanbul is on demand and there are many artists coming to Istanbul to realize projects.
No I did not come to Istanbul because of the brand. I was here for the first time 20 years ago and I was fascinated. Again 5 years ago on my way to Georgia I had a glimpse of the suburbia as I crossed the city. Then last year I came here again looking for a place that had the energy and the potential Istanbul has. The project started, went on and became what it is because I kept on discovering new aspects and developments and also through a succession of coincidences, meetings and experiences.

Istanbul did not take your attention because of the contemporary trend you have said, how would you evaluate the contemporary situation then?
Istanbul attracted me and captivated me as a city where I soon felt familiarity as much as exoticism, closeness and distance and I like this in-between stance, which allows me to find my way into the place. Istanbul is very attractive to artists who are looking for this kind of chaotic, dynamic and rich environment that is being featured here and that one cannot find in northern cities.
I usually work on long term projects and I find more interest in the work of people who go often or stay somewhere for a while rather than by those who hip hop around the world looking for the same kind of images. I know what I am doing, I know why I do that but I do not know what I’ll really find out when I start. Photography to me is closely linked with time, space, chance and one’s life path more than with trend.

I would also like to mention the huge interest in realizing urban projects or projects under the title of urbanism. That is to say there are many artists and students who come to Istanbul in order to realize urban projects either independently or as a group; how would you evaluate this focus?
Fashion comes and goes. I think it is very important to follow your research, to trace your obsessions, to develop your own artistic language. Years ago I found something there in the urban periphery and in the suburbs, something that is mine. My approach and my language have evolved since then but I’m still fascinated by aspects of the suburbia. I know the topic was very fashionable 15 years ago and is again these days but this does not stop me continuing or change my focus. And I shall state that it is not like you open a case and discuss and close it. I think it is important to continue questioning, rephrasing, approaching from a different angle. For instance the artists who have inspired me also have the constant quest going on with and around the same things with their own look. They are like digging and digging or approaching the same questions from different angles.

For your project that is on the Gated communities in Istanbul, you have been working on from last year. Before discussing the dynamics of your project first let’s begin with how you started.
This project is still ongoing. I know where I started but don’t know where and how it will end exactly. I enjoy that and this process is very important to me. I have started to work on a series dealing with landscape and urban sprawling just after I finished school in Geneva in 1992. The series was about landscapes around the periphery of the city. I was very fascinated and still I am with city limits, by the emptiness and the kind of mixture, of confusion and of contradictions you come across with in these area : nature and architecture, urban infrastructure  and rural landscape. The meeting of the landscape and the city is very influential on me. In Istanbul I was looking for landscapes which would feature the meeting of the hilly, open spaces with quite remarkable urban sprawl that is still going on here. In this research process I soon discovered places like Bahcesehir and the gated community phenomenon.

I was born and raised in a kind of periphery namely a ski resort in the Swiss Alps played a significant role -There was nature around and a cinema, flickering neon lights, night clubs and a fast building development. That struck me as a child who sees the overlapping of urbanization over landscape. Additionally I was quite influenced by Robert Adams and Lewis Balz and their effect is quite obvious I would say.

Gated communities is actually a wide phenomenon to be worked on, especially in Istanbul, the sites vary on the dynamics of the social income level that is also reflected on the construction of the environment. Which areas were under your interest and how did you reach them?
I was totally fascinated and surprised to discover the extend of the variations in social status, location, size, architectural style and commodities of these gated communities. I started to concentrate on the relation of these settlements with their environment and later, as I entered the sites, on visualizations of the kind of life style that are being performed there through architecture, decoration, social infrastructure and leisure commodities. This is the third time I am coming here for this project and finally I’m starting to photograph the actual inhabitants. The final project will feature images ranging from broad views to details (inside the gates) along with portraits in the environment and interiors.

There is a form of an irony in the presentation of those communities in broad sense where the viewer is not only left with the void and the fact of the coming across but also to imagine and question the structure beneath.
Yes, I like to approach this subject with irony, to suggest a lot by showing simple mundane things or situations and to give the viewer a feeling rather than a judgment of the place. In the end what is also ironical about this is the fact that the model that is being used originally comes from the late sixties American suburbia and is applied here in a totally different urban structure, context and culture. Why and how is this model being applied here? I am going inside the model and what I find inside is the copy of a model, a reproduction of the American way of life: a house, a job and a car. It could be anywhere and nowhere. This underlines a globalization of life styles and maybe also in ways of thinking. I find it quite striking and very ironical as a phenomenon. Still there is certainly a lot of positive aspects about the gated community, I don’t deny it but my focus is on the discrepancy of the ideal.

The serious and scary question is what these life styles will create in the future within the communities, within the city and within the Turkish society. Aren’t these secured walls going to create segregation, misunderstandings, boredom and fear of the other?Living gated and secured is not the way I understand society. I was also grown up in a mountain small city; I used to mix with different kind of kids, from simple to rich. I really value this as a natural way of meeting the other.

This is a good point. Like Baumann states as far as the need of being secure upraises people start to give off their individual freedom for the sake of their precious secure presence. And this also has an ideological aspect. It is not only positioning a selected variety of people who are living in isolated places but also the society in general.
Yes, exactly and this is actually only a part of a wide contemporary phenomenon: the obsession with security. If you close yourself you do not only close yourself from the potential danger that would come from the other but also potential joy and encounter with the other. From political point of view, this phenomenon is a sign of the state not being able to provide security to individuals and of individuals who cannot provide a sense of security for themselves. The critical approach also the political formal approach is also about the places that are being constantly defined out of a model instead of out of their own real needs.

And the photography you produce has many dimensions. Although it is documentary at first sight, it also goes around the aspects of photography in fiction. I feel to make myself clear at this moment; so that the color is an existential aspect of your images and the way you reflect the present is leading us to a conceptual way of understanding.
Yes, the way I use color is not dramatic but it is existential. What I would say before I try to talk on my photography. There is this classical distinction being made usually; it is either fiction or it is documentary. I’m not so sure about this distinction, for me photography can be both documentary and fictional. It’s actually what I’m interested in, Maybe my photography is conceptual, but my way of working is not; I mean not the way you would define conceptual. For me conceptual work implies that the work is conceptually done before being produced and I am more on a research process, I know where I start but not where I will end up. In the same way I want to leave the conclusions or the story open to the viewer. I want to ask questions, to create links, not to give answers.

And when we consider the fact that photography is being constantly produced. It has become a mass production and there are also some artists who are exhibiting, selling their video stills as photography. And it is not only this but the tools to produce photography have flourished and those are all creating the artifacts of this medium.
It is of tradition and I still believe in the strength of the image and in quality. That is why I still photograph like İ do. Additionally when you start realizing the potential of photographic language you realize that not many artists use it in this way but mostly as a mere reproduction tool (and that is a way, I do not have any problem with that). I’m interested in the search for the adequate language for each subject and personal photographic languages developed by artists. And that’s rare today when images are very quickly made and consumed.

In the last twenty years artists have used photography in many different ways and this for sure adds things to the medium and I believe that it was also needed. It’s also making today an interesting and difficult period for photographical production. I see an interesting revival of documentary photography at the moment but I don’t see anything new really. There’s a strong demand for content and a real focus on the subject matter. Formalism, typology had their time, we need something new.

How would you state your standing point then?
I’m interested in photography as a language whose grammar evolves and vocabulary extends. İ do not trust too much the single image but I believe in the construction of a body of work, of a story (in the widest sense) and new meanings through combinations of images. I shoot my own series with the greatest freedom and openness I can reach. I collect material that İ later reconstruct for each exhibition or publication. I reach the density and the intensity through these combinations that cannot really repeat and in which musicality and rhythm play an important role. I believe in documentary photography to address important contemporary issues and I’m interested in the montage of images, in the associative power of images when they are put next to each other or one after the other to create a new whole.