Emily Graham invites us to join the 30-year quest for a mysterious golden owl

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Buried in 1993 by writer and puzzle designer Régis Hauser, the golden owl has been puzzling treasure hunters for almost 30 years. Enigmatic and surreal, Graham’s latest book investigates the unsolved mystery

Somewhere in France, a golden statuette of an owl is buried. It has lain waiting to be discovered since it was hidden in 1993 by writer and puzzle designer Régis Hauser. That same year, using the pseudonym Max Valentin, Hauser authored a cult book, On The Trail Of The Golden Owl, in which he detailed 11 riddle-like clues for finding the owl. In the intervening decades, thousands of treasure hunters have attempted it. None have succeeded. With Hauser now dead, the secret is held in the strictest confidence by his lawyer. 

When photographer Emily Graham came across this story, she was intrigued. “I’d been thinking for a while about the subjectivity of looking and how the photographs I took were influenced by what I’d read about a place. I was looking for a way to frame that,” she says.

After immersing herself in the online communities of treasure hunters, Graham became “more and more curious”. In 2015, she headed to France to research the story. She met and interviewed searchers, following their sometimes contradictory routes across the country, searching for photographs along the way. “Letting my eye be led by the things that they had told me –  my experience of the landscapes encountered mediated and guided by their experience, their interpretations, encounters, miscalculations, dead ends,” she says.   

Each searcher had their own story. For some, it was an obsession; others had grown disillusioned. Some believe the owl is booby trapped or that the whole thing is a hoax. One man became so swept up in the hunt that he neglected his own family. Giddy with hope like a gambling addict, he felt sure that next time would be the time he’d strike lucky.

Trompe l'oeil, 2017. From The Blindest Man.
South France, 2018. © Emily Graham.

“The work is kind of based on this true story but it’s also about what happens when you can’t find what you’re looking for”

Yvan, Paris, France.

In 2019, Graham’s project was awarded third prize in the BJP International Photography Award. Now, The Blindest Man is being published by VOID. Graham has, she says, always imagined this body of work as a book. The front and back covers feature an index – but broken-up, it frustrates any desire for guidance. Interspersed with uncaptioned pictures are texts and ephemera she collected – classified ads and excerpts from interviews – adding further layers to the puzzle. 

The images themselves are enigmatic. Rather than straight documentation of the treasure hunters and their activities, they show poetic, sometimes surreal scenes – a disembodied eye in an outstretched palm, a clearing in a forest that feels somehow enchanted – tapping into both the allure of the hunt and the profound philosophical questions underlying.

“The structure of the book goes from the seemingly simple to complex, beginning in optimism and ending in a strange place that is maddening, absurd, fantastical, or leads nowhere,” says Graham. The addition of the research material adds to this sense of getting lost. “The work is kind of based on this true story but it’s also about what happens when you can’t find what you’re looking for,” she adds. 

Disguise, 2017. From The Blindest Man. © Emily Graham.

A treasure hunt speaks to our craving for mystery but also for resolution. It’s what gives rise to conspiracy theories and, indeed, fiction. We want someone to lead us, to show us there is some plan behind the chaos, an author to offer a reassuringly neat ending.

Or do we? If the prized owl is discovered, the game completed, what is lost? A sense of collective identity, perhaps. “It’s coming up to 30 years since the hunt began and some searchers have been involved from the beginning,” says Graham. “There have been so many twists and turns … The author himself is mythologised. He wanted to retain his anonymity when he was alive but he did it in such a performative way – appearing on television shows with his face fuzzed out or just his shadow in shot.” 

In the end, though, The Blindest Man isn’t about the golden owl per se, but the possibilities and limitations of knowledge, and particularly photographic knowledge. “I was interested in playing with what’s visible and what’s not and in drawing a parallel between the treasure hunt and photography in its relationship between fact and fantasy.”

The Blindest Man by Emily Graham is published by VOID.

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in photography and visual culture, for art magazines, book publishers, national press, awards, agencies and brands. Since 2018, she’s been contributing editor for the Royal Photographic Society Journal, is a regular writer for Aesthetica and author of Unseen London, published by Hoxton Mini Press.