© Simone Haug: self-portrait

Simone Haug: "I am fascinated by the potential for surrealism in the real"

The Bernese photographer undertook a task of great precision with five retired circus artists to illustrate vulnerability and resilience, the themes of the collaborative project between the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES and the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography. Her poetic images feature in an exhibition and a book soon to be released.

Simone Haug resembles her photographs: subtle and delicate. She seems to brush over things, but also identifies and underlines them with a rare exactitude, highlighted by a playful vision. Her latest work, entitled Acrobates!, will be exhibited at the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography from 29 April to 22 May 2016. The project is part of a mandate given by the NCCR LIVES and will also feature in the book, Downs and Ups, coinciding with the exhibition.

Simone chose the town of Biel as her home: "I have always loved the relaxed atmosphere. When I was still at school in Bern, I used to secretly take the train to Biel and sit in a coffee shop near the station. It's a town with possibilities, with a sincere spirit. It's warm and open. I feel that very strongly when I walk around here – there is an everyday culture. Even the supermarket cashiers are different in Biel. In Bern there are more labels, the weight of an official culture. Here things are more informal and direct."

So of course she is already familiar with the photography festival organised in Biel every year for the last 20 years. She has even already exhibited her works at the festival, with a friend in 2006: a series entitled Asile entre lieux et temps [Asylum between times and places]. But she is still a long way from considering herself an established photographer. Yet the 35-year-old confirms that things are getting better and better, with orders coming in. She also does interview transcriptions for sociologists – a task she appreciates: "I don't have to analyse, but it stimulates me," she explains.

Her photography project about retired circus artists shows five characters, including a couple, who she approached individually during the second half of 2015. She captures a great skilfulness and fragility, but also the force of these seniors with their heads still in the stars despite their diminished physical condition. Meet the author of these original and sensitive images.

How did you get into photography?

I have always liked to watch. Images figured prominently in my family. So photography seemed to be the ideal tool for producing images. I was quite young when I learnt to use a camera. It has become a sort of compass for me, for discovering the world and my environment. From my teens, it absorbed me more and more. I joined a group of autodidacts created in Zurich in the 80s. We invited experienced photographers, but self-organisation was the basic principle. Then I studied sociology, but what I really wanted to do was take photos. So I decided to take that direction, and went to the Hamburg fine arts university. I didn't want to go to a school purely for photography. I wanted to avoid being conditioned. I love being free, and I thought it was better to nourish my development differently.

What remains from your sociology studies?

I think sometimes it influences me subconsciously. It taught me to consider several points of view, and gave me a theoretical base. But the assertions bother me in that discipline. It's the same in photography: I refuse anything that categorises. I don't consider myself a creator of documentaries who proposes a definite message. What I like about sociology is the subject matter, not the methods. So I tried to stay away from them.

What is a good photo in your opinion?

For me, it's an image with a lot of freedom. It gives just enough information about the context, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. I prefer the mix and balance between the abstract on one hand; and on the other hand, the minimum necessary number of concrete points of reference. I am fascinated by the potential for surrealism in the real. And I find that photography really makes it possible to portray that. What's more, being a photographer makes it possible for me to share things with people, and give something back, a sort of acknowledgement. That contributes to my interest in images too. For example, I'm impressed by the series by Iren Stehli, Libuna, which followed a woman throughout her whole life. That's one of the strengths of photography: it captures the dimension of passing time.

How did you work on this project about retired acrobats?

I have always been fascinated by the circus – a world of illusions where physical limits are constantly surpassed. But it was the invitation to bid by LIVES and the Biel Festival of Photography which gave me the idea to contact former acrobats. I love venturing into new worlds and meeting people. I don't usually stage my photos. But the artists are used to the stage. I wanted to work with them, do something together. When talking with them, staging the scenes came naturally. We didn't have a lot of time, but I am glad to have found a form which suited people in their situation. I like the mysteriousness of these pictures. It shows what circus artists like to do: create mystery for the audience. And I used black and white for several photos to make them more abstract. Being less realistic, it provokes the imagination. I also find that black and white underlines the notion of equilibrium which is integral to the subject.

How would you describe the resilience in your characters?

I see resilience in their everyday attitude. The professional life of a circus artist is uncompromising. Even retired, they are still acrobats in their minds. It shows, for example, when changing a light bulb. Not many retired wives climb onto their husband's shoulder for that! They are always wanting to play, to be on stage. The five people I met are all at peace with their former profession. Each of them had done what they could. They agreed on the fact that it was important to find the right time to stop. Each story is different, but they had all faced difficulties and found the strength to overcome different situations.

What are you most proud of in this project about the acrobats?

Of the projection, which will be shown in the exhibition during the Festival: I like the idea of creating a little show. It is a montage of photographs that are underlined by the sound of a Japanese drum. It's the first time I have exhibited this type of process. I had already used it for another project, but I had never shown it.

>> Simone Haug's page on the festival website