Olivier Silva, The Foreign Legion 2000–3 is a series of seven large-scale colour inkjet prints (Tate L03752–L03758) that depict French Foreign legionnaire Olivier Silva at various stages in the first three years of his service; from his first day in July 2000 when he was stationed in Aubagne near Marseilles for basic training, to his postings in Gabon, the Ivory Coast and Djibouti in 2003. Each of Tate’s prints is number ten in the edition of ten and they can be displayed individually or in smaller groups, or as the whole series of seven. In the first two images in the series, Olivier, Quartier Viénot, Marseille, July 21, 2000 (A) and (B), seventeen-year-old Silva is portrayed on enlistment day, first wearing his own clothing, a plain navy T-shirt, and then just after receiving a buzz cut and wearing military-issue fatigues. In each photograph in the series Dijkstra captures Silva with the uniformity that is characteristic of her practice: from the waist up, posed against similarly blank backgrounds, and adopting a neutral expression as he looks directly at the camera. The only explicit reference to change is in the different date and location indicated in the titles, and the various forms of official attire that Silva is photographed in – from his own clothing on the first day, to fatigues, drill clothes or parade dress complete with white kepi and epaulettes. By working in this controlled manner, Dijkstra allows attention to be drawn to the subtle ways in which change and experience over time register on Silva’s physicality and presence.
Dijkstra had initially conceived the series to focus on a group of new recruits, but as they began to drop out of the project she decided to focus on Silva alone, who ‘stood out because he was so young and because the changes in him were so visible’ (quoted in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2012, p.54). For each shoot she was permitted up to an hour with her subject under the supervision of the officer in charge. Using a medium-format camera, standard flash and tripod, Dijkstra’s setup required Silva to remain still for several minutes at a time. This is an approach that can make subjects self-conscious and appear uneasy, yet Dijkstra noted the young man’s self-possessed quality: ‘I wanted to photograph him right after exercise, hoping he might be less concentrated on the fact that he was posing, to catch him less composed, but he seems never to let down his guard – not that he is hiding anything, just that he reveals so little.’ (Quoted in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2012, p.54.) Despite this reserve, Silva himself has observed how, when viewed alongside one another, the subtle outward changes registered in the images reflect more than just his superficial development:
In the photographs that you can see that I grew up and evolved … In the beginning you see me full of expectation. Towards the end I’m more mature. The last photograph shows that I’ve been through some sort of trial; going through that heavy training had changed my face … [but it] shows more than just physical development. As time went by my opinion of the French Legion altered … as I realised what the Foreign Legion truly is, my dream gradually dissolved. In the end I did my five years and left.
(Olivier Silva quoted San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2012, p.54.)
Olivier Silva, The Foreign Legion is highly representative of Dijkstra’s practice. Since the early 1990s her controlled, systematic recording of subjects at transitional stages of their lives has placed her among an important generation of photographers renowned for their application of New Objectivity-style sensibilities to the field of contemporary photography. While such work is generally characterised by its absolute detachment and objective nature, Dijkstra’s practice, in contrast, is often spoken of in terms of the human sensibilities and empathy that it conveys. Whether photographing Olivier Silva, adolescents on a beach (in her Beach Portraits series of 1992–4, see Tate P78328–P78330) or new mothers (see Tate P78097–9), she either portrays what she identifies as a particular type of person at a key time of life, or follows the changes in one person over the years, with a clarity and frankness that invites the viewer to compare subtle physical cues that offer up a sense of universal human vulnerability.
Michael Kimmelman, ‘In the Studio with: Rineke Dijkstra; An Artist Exploring an Enlisted Man’s Look’, New York Times, 3 August 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/03/arts/in-the-studio-with-rineke-dijkstra-an-artist-exploring-an-enlisted-man-s-look.html, accessed 30 January 2014.
Sandra S. Phillips and Jennifer Blessing, Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 18 February–28 May 2012 and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 29 June–3 October 2012.
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