Nathalie Joffre




He told me that his garden... (2012)
3-channel, projection. 9’30''. Color, sound. 300 cm x 169 cm

Sproxton Award for Photography 2012, London
ICART Award 2013, Paris
Short-list Celeste Prize 2013, Rome
Selection, Award of Les Nuits Photographiques 2013, Paris

Bethlem Museum of the Mind, 2015, London


An empirical exploration of a photographic archive from Bethlem Royal Hospital, Europe's oldest institution for mental illnesses.
Archives tend to bring us back to the past through documenting it but they also inhabit our present. What kind of imprint do they leave on the memory, the body and the intimate space of the one who touches, smells, listens to them and studies them?
He told me that his garden… is the result of my own subjective exploration of the archives of Bethlem Royal Hospital and more specifically of a collection of patients’ pictures, taken by portrait photographer Henry Hering between 1857 and 1859. This collection consists of 106 photographs, amongst which, 49 are titled with the initials, diagnosis, and in the case of criminals, the crime of each patient. Whilst studying these archives, I became more and more interested not only in the documents themselves, but also in the relationship I was building with them; with the place where they are located and the people on the pictures. My intention has been to consider the archives not as a fixed accumulation of dead material but as a living and travelling body, that one can access and appropriate physically and mentally.

The choice of Henry Hering’s photographs
My interest for this collection of photographs started after a first immersion into the Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière (1888-1916). This psychiatric review founded by French Doctor Charcot became famous for its very theatrical photographs of mental patients. This kind of medical photography is the result of 50 years of evolution in the collaboration between photography and psychiatry. In fact, at the 19th Century, the photographer was already integrated in the institution. It led me to research how this encounter between photography and psychiatry had started. In the 1850s, doctors from psychiatric institutions took pictures either themselves or commissioned traditional portraits photographers. Henry Hering’s collection is one the earliest example of this genre. In fact, Hering was a renowned photographer in London. In 1857, he was asked by Bethlem Royal Hospital to take portraits of some patients. The ambiguity of his pictures that were at the same time, traditional portraits and medical documents is the starting point for my project. In fact, they question more than any others our gaze on archival photographs: do we look at individuals or at historical documents? They are located at the very point where general history (here history of psychiatry) meets individual history (the history of each patient).

“Let them speak to me”
For me, this ambiguity has allowed me to subjectively appropriate these pictures, even if I had no personal relationship with them at the beginning.  Indeed, when exploring the faces on the photographs and the medical notes they relate to, I have tried to avoid the pure contextual and rational interpretation proposed by the archive itself in order to “let them speak to me”.He told me that his garden… is my intimate answer to this collection of pictures, an invitation to explore the archive and its documents not as a purely historical source but as a starting point of an individual encounter.

Travelling body
The use of video and sound has been essential to reflect my perception of this archive not as a fixed accumulation of dead material but as a living and travelling body, that one can access and appropriate physically and mentally across time.My experience of going to the place where they are conserved, seeing the original pictures, coming back home and trying to remember the images are essential parts of my process.  Each visit gave birth to a different version of the archive.  My perception of these faces was evolving during the research period until they became part of my life, of my present.The final video installation is based on this multiplicity of moments of searching for, imagining, thinking of, going to, seeing, touching, and listening to these pictures. The triptych form (with me in the center) mirrors the process of my subjectivity across time. The accompanying voice over mixes my narration, the voice of the archivist, the patients and me reading first the medical notes about each of them, and finally my own interpretation of what I imagine from the portraits. The background sounds consists in on-site recordings but they are never matching the images. Along with the voice over, they play a key role in the piece, as they act as a permanent questioning about the images. The soundtrack is a second layer of images that avoids univocal visual reading and also transports the viewer to my own complex experience of discovery, travelling in time and places.

Performative gesture
In my approach, I have tried to use myself as an “interpreter”. In English the world “interpreter” designates translators but also people who can interpret dreams and predict the future. They are intermediaries between people, times, languages and images. In the same way, I have read the documents, listened to the voices related to them and interpreted the documents and the images from the archive but with my own subjectivity. The form of the title He told me that his garden derives from this interpreter position, where I am listening to what the patient says. In French, the word “interprète” also means “performer”.  This word implies subjectivity but also an involvement of the body when interpreting a song, a play…. My exploration of the archive as a personal and physical journey is also a performative gesture that opposes a fixed, document-based version of history.  He told me that his garden… is not a documentary nor a fiction but the record of the traces of this gesture.

Artists and archives
The artist Uriel Orlow classifies artists working with archives in three categories: the archive makers, who like Boltanski, simulate memory processes and create fictional archives, the archive users who, like Fiona Tan, use documentary sources or found footages to address history or challenge its interpretation, and finally the archive thinkers, concentrating on the archives themselves as a concept and object more than a content. Even if, I would find myself closer to this last category, I would prefer the term “archive explorers” than “archive thinkers” to name them. In fact, as them, I have been interested in the physical side of the archival exploration, which is all the more meaningful today as archives are more and more digitized.  As an empirical “archive explorer”, I have been focused on my own subjective experience of the archives, its evolution, the confusion it has provoked inside me as well as the physicality of it. Yet, on the contrary to most “archive thinkers”, I have used myself as the main referent to experience the archive, not searching for objectivity. This way of approaching the notion of archive, and history in general could be described as what Goethe has called the “Zarte Empirie” (“delicate empiricism”):  “There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory.” *

* J.W.Van Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, no. 557, HA, XII:435.