SPACES OF SPACES
SPACES OF SPACES
Article published in the magazine Le Voyeur, June 1993.
Writing about a place, a place where a multitude of spaces catch our eye. Each rectangle is there, arranged in a logical sequence. A geometry imposes itself. And then you have to get closer. To get as close as possible to the document, which is marked by reality. Here are shapes, houses destroyed or not, men in their daily lives, animals, weapons… Here are hundreds of recordings of pieces of the world, the world outside, outside of us. The one I can only conceive through a mental universe. Or else, the one that was close to us but which today is no longer palpable, detectable, except in the form of a memory.
Here I am under the influence of facts, of traces. The “it happened”. Is it an arrow that pierces the opacity of the wall to reach me, to project me towards an inevitable journey? Why open the curtain? To eternalize a mirror? Is it only an emotional shock, or the start of a new perception? Are we trying to defend ourselves from these images or from the world that created them? Is it a trap that forces us to react to one in order to respond to the other?
Our mental architecture
These spaces of spaces that the museum in general, and the reportage in particular, discover for us would thus be a simulacrum of the living, a copy, a fake. Yet we adhere to them. Isn’t the primary sensation the order of emotion? Are we reacting to the archetype induced in the image or to a principle of magic? To the violence of a war or to the beauty of the black and white print? To a historical fact or to the sophistication of the costumes? The fascination, the discovery of what is other is perhaps the explanation of this vertigo that photography provokes. My psyche will have to adapt to this new dual dimension, to restore in my universe what is not mine. To find a box, a drawer for this information. The boomerangs that make the cupboard tip over, the forces that are agitated, or those that no longer like their box and go looking elsewhere until they unlock those that were too quiet. Here is a sequence and a multitude of possibilities for our brain to integrate this mass. At the end of the tour the visitor is simply someone else. A strange phenomenon. What are the photographs that shake us up?
The ones that dismantle our mental architecture? The ones that, while different from our everyday world, clearly appeal to our knowledge of the world, to what we know about it or what we think we know about it?
A grip on reality
To make a classification and show that certain photographs inevitably bring us back to reality, to the human enterprise in its errors and successes, is also to try to define the position that the viewer is led to adopt with regard to the images that affect him, if only because he is human.
Our knowledge of current events, first of all through the media such as television and radio, already leads us on a path of understanding when we see images of reportage. Photographic culture today is a culture transmitted by all the media, which means that our understanding always has media references, and much less real-life references. The photographer has a grip on reality, whereas we, the viewer, only see this reality from a subjective linearity, which means that we place a given photograph either in the biography of the photographer as we constitute it, or in our own history, or both.
But what about the reality described in the image? Does it remain outside of us, are we only able to assimilate the forms and detect the message, without understanding the source that produced them? Do we have to make a distinction and try to find out how the photograph informs?
Observation and provocation
It is said that war photographs all look alike. Yet some wars bring with them famine and disease, others death and destruction, others the exile of populations… Photographs can tell us about Biafra, Beirut, or Sarajevo, about civil wars or not.
Let’s take Vietnam as an example. Photography tells us specifically about the consequences, and never about the stakes, because it seems that the stakes are always the same, i.e. power. Photography, or at least this photography, notes the powerlessness of man to live without violence. But that’s not all, these photographs provoke an uneasiness, because the suffering expressed in the four corners of the earth reaches us. The mind also amalgamates very different facts that have in common poverty, misery, idleness. The feeling prevails. The photographs of war are all the same, because it is always horror that is the subject.
After that, it is very difficult to try to restore each fact in a historical continuity, because the image provokes a shock and can make us passive. The work on the photograph is more complex than the work on the text, because in the text, we have already passed from the visual to the written word.
A double point of view
Don McCullin’s photographs often present the gaze of people as if they were looking at us, this gaze is a noble appeal, for the face to face encounter between the photographed and the viewer is also the face to face encounter between man and his own reality. The images that mark our memory have an indelible character, some photographs invade, impregnate our sensitivity as much as our knowledge, and leave us little margin. For what can we do when faced with so many atrocities? How far can we see without reacting, and how far can we see without being able to react?
Photography asks many questions but offers few solutions. It awakens our consciousness, raises hypotheses, dictates choices, summarises situations, arouses anger, generates attitudes. Still images are part of the flow, the incessant movement of our gaze on objects. It is therefore difficult to analyse a particular photograph, except perhaps if you take the time to let yourself be led. To allow oneself to be transported by the double point of view that is offered to us: the photographed as subject, and the photographer as subject.
To become a new intermediary, outside of photography, to extract from ourselves what we could put there, in order to observe what is other, in this frame.
A subject, a place, a date
Don McCullin’s photographs of Vietnam are often in the bush, in the countryside. Famine in Africa is women and children in hospitals and elsewhere, whose lives depend on the food they can get. Beirut is a city torn by ethnic rivalries. In order to deepen our research on the facts related by the photograph, it is necessary to situate ourselves outside the photograph, the image alone cannot provide all the historical, geographical, political and social data. The caption tells in two lines what is in the image. A reportage photograph is always about a subject, a place and a date. A commitment and a desire to bear witness.
Don McCullin does not add any effects to his photographs, the recording is direct, frontal. His rigorous framing allows him to encompass a situation.
Photography informs, but being only a voice of analysis, it forces us to reread it, stimulated no doubt by what it does not show.