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After years of obscurity in his hometown of Montreal, photographer Guillaume Simoneau began pitching his work abroad, finding various residences in the prestigious galleries of Chicago, San Francisco, and London. Last year, Simoneau was finally awarded at home with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival 2012 Portfolio Reviews Exhibition Award.  

Simoneau is back in Toronto with his solo exhibition Love and War, a collection of photos depicting the love life of Sargeant Caroline Annandale, before, during, and after her deployment to Iraq. The exhibition runs until March 2 and can be viewed at the CONTACT Gallery.

TORO recently spoke with Simoneau about his haunting exhibition, getting attached with his subjects, and saving Montreal’s photography community.

Welcome back to Toronto and congratulations on the award.

Thank you, I love it here. I visit CONTACT every year, but this is my first solo exhibition in Toronto.

Can you talk about your relationship with Caroline?

Today, we’re friends with mutual respect. My original relationship with Caroline was a teacher-student one. I was a teacher’s assistant at the Maine Photography Workshops. We started to hang out and I got fired because of that. We travelled afterwards. For eight years we’ve been in and out of relationships — at a certain distance. Our story eventually became Love and War.

Love and War is very personal. Was it hard to convince Caroline to be, for lack of a better word, the “star”?

Well, this body of work was never meant to be one, in the sense that my creative process and my intellectualization are really two separate things — I shoot all the time in a very intuitive fashion. I photograph my everyday life. It was only when I was given the opportunity to reflect on what had happened during the last eight years that I knew what Love and War was going to be. The exhibition’s broken narrative came to me by accident.

Has Caroline seen Love and War?

Yes, and she’s given me her blessing. She’s a very special person. One of the reasons I was attracted to Caroline was because you rarely meet people like that in your life. And when you do, it’s a different kind of being.

Some of the most striking photographs were those of cellphones displaying text messages sent from Caroline. Do you have a fascination with text?

It’s sort of become a signature of my work, creating something in a very personal fashion. I’m equally fascinated with words as I am with photography. For me, including correspondence was natural.

Do you get attached to the people you photograph?

There have been occasions where I meet someone on an editorial or shoot and I do get attached, absolutely. There’s a saying: “Photographers photograph who they are.” When I’m attracted to someone — in any context — it’s instinctive, and quite often he or she resonates on aesthetic, spiritual, or intellectual levels.

When you work on commercial projects, do you clash with your clients?

Yes, necessarily, because I work in advertising, which is my bread and butter. Too often in that world, you become more of a technician, an executor, so the map is already laid out. They extract images from the web and provide you with a collage that’s meant to be reproduced.

What do you think of “directed” photography, like that of Jeff Wall?

I can appreciate it sometimes. I’m not going to stop myself from liking something that doesn’t correspond to my standard of creation. Some work by Jeff Wall is phenomenal and some of it I can’t stand.

You studied applied science. How has that informed your relationship with film?

Photography is chemistry; it’s physics; it’s studying the world. There’s a whole bunch of artists out there with a science background. There’s something undeniable that joins art and science.

Montreal has a reputation for being a supportive artistic community. Is that what keeps you there?

No. [Laughs.] There’s a very small market for photography in Montreal. And for the post-doctorate photography that I do, it’s almost non-existent. I live there because I like the pace of the city. I like the low cost of living. It allows me to travel and choose my projects. And Montreal’s not too far from my family in Quebec City.

You must want the photography culture in Montreal to improve.

My way of doing that is to trail blaze — to shine so bright outside Montreal so I can help the small photography community with their ideas and practice. When you only think locally, you can get stuck.

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