Breaking the Implied Rules of the Modern World: Benoît Paillé’s “Stranger Project”

The neologism “non-place”—coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé (born 1935) in his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity—is quite a popular concept in the world of contemporary art. It refers to “specific kinds of spaces, chiefly architectural and technological, designed to be passed through or consumed rather than appropriated, and retaining little or no trace of our engagement with.” That means—supermarkets, airports, hotels, motorways, subways, crowded streets at rush hours, even TVs, computers and cash machines, as opposed to bedrooms or living rooms or offices. Non-places are characterised by anonymity and transience. It’s where we spend a limited amount of time. Also, we generally tend to not go deep in relationship with the individuals we encounter there.

In his “Stranger Project”, Montréal-based photographer Benoît Paillé turns “non-places” into proper “places”. He questions the way of the modern world and frustrates it for a few instants—this by interacting with and capturing the faces and forms of people whom he does not know at all. The final effect is simple yet powerful.

The photographer explains: “These ambivalent spaces, mainly established for transition and communication purposes, represent for Augé that particular condition which characterise the contemporary period he calls ‘supermodernity’. In fact, our time thoroughly appears to be ‘the product and agent of a contemporary crisis in social relations and consequently in the construction of individual identities through such relations’.

“Therefore, when I go into a subway and I dare to request for permission to take pictures of the people there, I’m disrupting their settled states they’ve always experienced in these kinds of ‘non-lieux’. I’m creating an unusual event for the subjects, and thus they will remember this social interaction which will make ‘real’ the unreal.

“By doing all this, I actually break with the implied rules induced in these kinds of public contexts—avoid staring at people or engaging in conversations with strangers, avoid disturbing people for no reason. The interruptions I cause make me feel more alive than ever. I see my sequence of pictures as half a photography project, half an artistic performance.”

Benoît has been on the road, living in his camper since 2013. He is an atypical artist, a conscience agitator, “monstrously curious, absent and edgy”. Self-taught, he has exhibited his work in Russia, Ukraine, Spain, the Netherlands, France, United States and his own Québec.

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Images used with permission.