Ruben Brulat: On a Human Scale

The work of young French photographer Ruben Brulat draws the viewer into immense textural landscapes that often seem desolate and alien. One might suppose that these landscapes are uninhabited, until the eye catches the instinctually familiar shape of a human body in repose on the terrain. The figures, always nude, become an anchor point for the photographs and help to reinforce the monumentality of the landscapes that engulf them.

Racines recherchées, Gobi, Mongolia

Brulat became interested in photography in 2008, and quickly began to investigate larger formats. “I was exploring different ways to work in the medium; I was amazed by the way it worked, its relation to history, but mainly the sense of bringing the details up to light.” The human form and its transactional relationship with the world around it featured heavily in Brulat’s prior self-portrait series Immaculate and Primates. In his latest series Paths, the human figures become part of the detail within the landscapes, and the questions of history and scale become an integral part of experiencing the work.

The scales by which we measure ourselves as individuals, as a species, and the time frame of our existence are all questioned within Brulat’s work. Made during a 14-month journey to the Middle East and Asia, Brulat wanted to explore the idea of time on what he describes as a “human scale.” He chose to eschew air travel, and instead traveled almost exclusively by land. “At first I traveled some months to Patagonia, Nepal, and India,” he says. “But the wish of a longer journey came to me: a journey where I would be able to experience and go deep within and through the land laying East, in the Middle East, and in Asia.” Paths chronicles the idea of giving oneself away to nature and the symbiosis that can occur within that act. That, according to Brulat, is the crux of the project. The poses of his figures often seem prayerful, and yet chillingly inactive, as though the figures have extinguished something of themselves to land. Brulat describes this sacrifice as being rooted in the meditative experiences he had while making self-portraits. He would walk until he found a place where the light and texture of the environment compelled him stop and experience the land directly. He would feel compelled to “go with [his] bare body, run down and lay in this place, seeking that moment where all stops and is suspended in time.” Such a place, he says, is where everything is at peace.

Au temps disparu, Bromo, Indonesia

There is, of course, a price for the peace that Brulat describes. In laying one’s body down to the land, there is danger and pain. The act that inspired Paths manifested from a subconscious urge rather than any predetermined course. And it was through feeling—his body beginning to give into the cold with near-overwhelming pain in his limbs— that Brulat says he was able to find a sense of tranquility and surrounded by an inner calm.

If Paths was merely a continuation of his previous self-portrait work, it would be riveting enough. Several images in this series feature more than one figure, however, making it clear that that Brulat has invited others to experience his uniquely intense exchange with the land. In fact, each of his models was a stranger that he encountered in his travels. “I simply wanted to invite them to give themselves away to nature. I would meet some people, we would a have wonderful time together … [and] after a while if the moment was right I would talk to them about the project.”

Initially, Brulat found that his new friends were hesitant to pose nude for fear that the photographs would be too intimate. But sharing a small book of his previous work often broke through that hesitancy, and people became excited about being a part of the project. Then they would travel together until circumstances lined up for a photograph to take place. If they came across a place where the power of the landscape urged interaction with it, he would stop and make a picture. “But if there was a place but no person, or a person but no place, there would be no picture and I would just keep on traveling until everything would come together.”

Cimes aux pas subtiles, Tilicho, Nepal

Only a few frames are exposed on Brulat’s 4x5 camera during a session, with each photograph serving as a memento of a person’s bonding with nature. Though the connection with the land that Brulat photographs is an intimate one, he sets up his camera at a distance from his subjects. The result is a beautiful and humbling reminder that our moment on the land, both as individuals and as a species, is finite and fugacious. The landscape, compared to human lifespan and even human history, is standing still. As Brulat states, “[I]t is accepting us passing through even if truthfully, as a species, we do affect it.”

When he left Paris with all of the unknown ahead of him, Brulat says he was spurred on by questions of how we live as a human race, as well as the simple but universal question of “why am I here?” Though nothing remained constant in his journey—neither landscape nor language, custom nor culture—the one answer that he found was that he could continue on if he so wished. “I was walking, and sleeping anywhere towards the end, only my pack on my back,” he says. “It was simplicity; I looked ahead and I understood that I could go on living like this, one step after the other—simply living.”

Once his journey was at an end, Brulat traveled back home to Paris by train from Siberia. “The circle was finished,” he says. “At least some questions were answered.” Going forward, he plans to explore even more questions. Though the territory and elements are not yet known, there is no doubt that in these explorations Brulat will ask us to investigate even further what it means to be human.

Douces brises, Kiketi, Georgia

Douces brises, Kiketi, Georgia

This article first appeared in Issue 4.

Jen Kiaba is a photographer and writer based in the Hudson Valley, NY.