“On s’engage, on va le faire” – that is, “We’re in, we’ll do it”. The New York-based, French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin goes back and forth from Spanish to English to French as he recalls how Sam Stourdzé, the director of the Rencontres d’Arles, enthusiastically agreed to exhibit his five-year long, research-intensive project about the US chemical corporation Monsanto.
It happened a week before last year’s festival, and Asselin was then showing the dummy of his photobook, Monsanto®. A Photographic Investigation. This year the project is being shown at the Magasin Électrique at Arles, and the book has been published in French by Actes Sud, and in English by the Dortmund-based Verlag Kettler.
Asselin’s project is conceived as a cautionary tale putting the spotlight on the consequences of corporate impunity, both for people and the environment. Designed by fellow countryman Ricardo Báez, a designer, curator and photobook collector who has notably worked with the Venezuelan master Paolo Gasparini, Monsanto® submerges the reader into an exposé of the corporation’s practices, whether by showing contaminated sites and the health and ecological damage they cause, the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the pressure on farmers to use patented GMO seeds.
From an editorial point of view, Monsanto®. A photographic investigation is a carefully-orchestrated ensemble of portraits, landscapes, archival material, objects, screenshots, personal letters, court files, advertisements, microfilms and texts. Asselin has synthesised the storytelling power of different documentary formats to produce a seminal work, which echoes W. Eugene Smith’s 1971 project on the Japanese village of Minamata, and the Chisso Corporation.
“My father [whose words are included in the book] talked to me about Monsanto eight years ago,” says Asselin, who immediately saw a story in what he was told. He also acknowledges Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto, a documentary film which was released in 2008, and published as a book by Éditions La Découverte and Arte in 2012. “Way beyond the pesticides, and the genetically-modified seeds, it was essential to understand the past of Monsanto,” says Asselin.
The author has seen the horror and, as the two central displays in his Arles exhibition show, the horror has a face – that of Agent Orange-affected infants preserved in glass containers for science at Tû Dû Obstetrics Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Asselin photographed them as well as living victims of Operation Hades, the original name for the US military operation that sprayed rural areas with Agent Orange during the war – Monsanto was one of the companies that produced the chemical, which was officially used as a defoliant. The most common caption reads: “Multiple genetics disorders and malformations.”