12 September 2008

Representing Genocide: Intimate Enemy

"Great numbers . . . cause particular difficulties for our imagination. As if we observe humanity in a way that is not permitted for humans, and allowed only to gods. ... In other words, they can think in categories of masses. A million people more, a million less - what difference does it make?" ~ Czeslaw Milosz

Among my abiding interests in thinking about photography and its uses are how it effects audiences, and especially how photographers might use their work to prompt political reflection on any of a range of large-scale catastrophes that, to a considerable if shifting extent, are humanly created ~ war, famine, poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic, genocide, displaced populations, and so forth. The difficulty is a species of the one Milosz articulates ~ how to use photography as an instrument to help us grasp - to imagine, to conceptualize - any such immense event and the innumerable human suffering it creates.

A recent book, an extremely innovative collaboration between political scientist Scott Straus and photographer Robert Lyons, offers a provocative approach to this problem. The book is Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide (Zone Books/MIT Press, 2006). It consists of introductory comments, first by Straus, then more briefly by Lyons, followed by fifty-plus pages of transcribed interviews Straus conducted with men convicted of having participated in the genocide, and finally, a series of photographs by Lyons.

Straus states the aim of Intimate Enemy quite nicely: "[T]he book is an experiment in trying to see and present details of the genocide in ways that are not already interpreted and categorized and do not sensationalize and shock. In so doing, the book aims to help readers confront unimaginable violence in a manner that stimulates, rather than stifles, reflection." The stress here on experiment seems to me just right. And two features of the experiment strike me as especially innovative. The first is how Lyons focuses the photographs themselves; the second concerns the oblique interaction between text and images.

Often, when photographers depict the sorts of catastrophe I just mentioned they depict individuals or groups enduring suffering and hardship. This practice has at least two sorts of unfortunate effects. First, it regularly generates resentment in viewers, or at least in critics who write about their reactions. Second, it raises the expectation that viewers should have compassion for those who are suffering. While I will not argue the case here, it seems to me that (i) these responses are themselves intimately related insofar as viewers often resent demands on their compassion when the latter has no purchase (due to distance, time or the scale of events) and (ii) both resentment and compassion are deeply and unavoidably depoliticizing.

Lyons approaches the task of representing the Rwandan genocide from a different trajectory. Intimate Enemy contains seventy-seven of his images made between 1998 and 2001. Nearly all of these are portraits. While some of these are of survivors, the bulk are of suspected or convicted génocidaires, that is, of individuals (nearly all men) who at the time were alleged to have participated in the killing of Tutsis or who had actually been found guilty in court of so doing. Lyons presents his portraits without captions or accompanying information (these follow in a 'List of Plates'). In short, he places a burden on the viewer to set her preconceptions aside when first confronting the portraits.
"Through stark black-and-white portraiture, with limited depth of field and a background obscure in detail but present nonetheless, I wanted to make the audience enter a more intimate space, ask questions, experience directly the ambiguous physical resemblances between génocidaire and survivor."
This is not simply an ex post adjustment; it was a conscious aesthetic strategy. And the invitation Lyons extends hardly is a naive one. As he wrote in his field-notes: "This is the most documentary project I have ever attempted. I am allowing the images little poetic and emotional space; viewers will have little room for escape." He sought to prompt, perhaps even compel viewers to confront ambiguity and the ethical questions it raises. In the process, I think, he deflates the moralism that fuels the dynamic, too familiar among those who view the "pain of others," in which compassion, thwarted or misplaced, fuels resentment or despair.

Exactly two years ago I wrote this post on the predicament of trying to use photography to depict power as well as powerlessness. In that post I tried to connect observations made by several photographers - Larry Towell, Gordon Parks, Sebastião Salgado - as well as demands articulated by some critics. Lyons, it seems to me, is not just depicting power. His portraits of Rwandan génocidaires in fact call into question the sharp distinction between power and powerlessness. He thereby allows us to bracket enough of the horror and repulsion to ask, 'how did these otherwise unexceptional men and women undertake such exceptionally violent and hateful acts?". The point is not to excuse, but to understand.

Moralism is an invitation to demonize, all the better to condemn. It seems to me that the space of ambiguity that Lyons seeks to construct subverts moralism by rendering the judgment on which it trades much less certain. The narratives that Scott Straus juxtaposes to Robert Lyons' photographs abet that ambiguity. These narratives are transcribed first person accounts of the genocide by some of those those who perpetrated it. Not only are they anonymous (for reasons Straus explains), but they are not the words of the individuals portrayed in Lyons's photographs. Straus and Lyons worked in parallel rather than tandem in Rwanda. Like Lyons, Strauss too worked in prisons. The narratives he supplies here are excerpts of interviews he conducted in 2002 with convicted génocidaires.

The effect Straus and Lyons create in Intimate Enemy is to reverse the conventional relationship between text and photographs. Here the texts illustrate the photographs. In combination, the texts and the images they illustrate, ultimately call into question the grounds of our judgment. They challenge our propensity to dehumanize the perpetrators of violence - as "monsters" or "psychopaths" or as "evil" - and focus on their actions and what prompted them. Perhaps more importantly, the disjunction between text and images generates a creative tension which, in turn, allows us to keep in view both the individual perpetrator and the grisly collective action to which he contributed. By seeing that context we are less able to reduce the agent to his or her actions. This is important because only once we understand the latter can we hope to formulate a just, potentially constructive response political response to political crimes. Ironically, perhaps, Lyons and Straus represent the Rwandan genocide by humanizing it. In so doing they help us to ponder if not entirely grasp what initially seems unimaginable. That is an incredibly important step.


Background: Some time ago I received an email from Jörg Colberg who, despite the fact that we've never actually met, I consider a friend and whose good sense I trust and good humor I respect. Jörg explained that he was trying to put me in touch with another friend of his, photographer Robert Lyons. At this point, Robert and I have had intermittent email contact, but still have not met. In the process of tracking down some of Robert's work, of course, I also inevitably encountered his collaborator Scott Straus. Although both Scott and I are political scientists we have not met either. Such are the virtues of the internet! In any case, that is the background to this post.

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Stan B. said...

Perhaps the most logical approach when the perpetrators are locals- friends and neighbors. Look forward to seeing it...

Also check out Truth & Lies (stories from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa) by Jillian Edelstein.


13 September, 2008 22:18  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home