30 April 2007

More Thoughts on Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes

Several days ago I posted some critical remarks on the convention among "documentary" photographers of focusing on the predicament of particular individuals. (I use scare quotes on the word "documentary" because I actually think that that category is nearly meaningless outside of an untenable dichotomy in which "art" photography provides an equally meaningless pole. That, though, is an argument for another time.) Here I want to offer some examples of ways beyond that conventional preoccupation. Consider these two images that quite clearly locate individual hardship within a broader context.

Sebastião Salgado, "Kisangani, Zaire," 1997.

Dorothea Lange, "White Angel Bread Line," 1933.

The first image, part of Salgado's Migrations project, shows Rwandan refugees walking back to their point of departure because Zairian officials had denied them access to their putative destination. It is examplary of the approach Salgado uses of situating individuals in groups and of populating landscapes without ever actually losing contact with at least some of those individuals. Sometimes this occurs in a series of images, somsetimes within individual images. Notice here that some, but not all, of the individuals in the foreground make eye contact with the photographer.

The second, better known, image by Lange likewise situates an instance of individual economic hardship amongst the crowd of others in the bread line. The man with his back to the crowd seems to be shabbier than the rest. But, still, he shares his predicament with the others and is singled out only relatively. (I recommend Geoff Dyer's discussion of this photograph in his The Ongoing Moment.)

Of course one can depict suffering in more allusive ways, without actually depicting the indviduals on whom it has been perpetrated. Compare the image by James Nachtwey I lifted in my earlier post depicting the young Rwandan man who'd survived a machete with this image by Gilles Peress taken in Goma, Zaire near the Rwandan border in 1994. Given our knowledge (even then) that machetes were the wepon of choice in the Rwandan genocide, this image is chilling. Yet it depicts not a single individual.

Similarly, this next photograph, also by Peress is of a photo-album found at the site where Tutsis had been massacred by Hutu during the genocide. While the album contains photos of individuals, it does not depict their suffering directly but instead prompts viewers to imagine what became of them.

Those familiar with Peress's work will know that he also provides photographs of death and mayhem and suffering of individuals; his images from Rwanda are especially grisly. But in the examples I've lifted here, he works by indirection and, in some ways, these images are more haunting than those of corpses.

My point is not that we in the North and West ought to be spared gruesome scenes or even spared confrontation with less final sorts of suffering. Instead, it is that there are ways to sidestep the conventional practices of "documentary" photography. The examples here are merely food for thought.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Have you seen Alfredo Jaar's work on Rwanda? [www.alfredojaar.net] I saw an exhibit of his years ago and still remember it well. In one piece called "field, road, cloud," the visitor walks past big light boxes of banal landscape scenes -- a field, a road and then a small white cloud in a blue sky. There are hand drawn maps between showing where each image is shot. The last map points out that this cloud is above a church outside of which many many people were lying dead, killed in a massacre.

Somehow the everyday feel of the field, the road and the little cloud combined with the reality of what was not pictured was incredibly shocking. It impressed upon me the sense that violence too is banal, especially in the sense that it happens all too often and in perfectly normal settings. That was terrifying.

I agree that often pictures that don't depict suffering directly can be very powerful.


30 April, 2007 13:31  
Blogger Stan B. said...

One of the most powerful photo essays I ever will see were taken with an extreme wide angle pinhole camera of crime/murder scenes in public spaces taken well after the fact. Dark, brooding, powerful. Although nothing remained of the actual crime, those scenes resonated with some crazed, haunting hoodoo...

You might also want to check out Tim Hetherington's traces after the fact--

And, of course, there's always Simon Norfolk.

30 April, 2007 20:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you viewed " Intimate Enemy:Voices and Images of the Rwandan Genocide" Zone Books 2006

03 May, 2007 15:42  

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