What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography | Aveek Sen | Thursday, 22.03.2012

Photography and Witnessing

I was looking at a collection of photo-essays on jail experience, militarization and the death penalty called Art as Witness, edited by the “photo-artist”, Parthiv Shah, and a teacher of journalism, Sana Das (Tulika Books: New Delhi, 2010). It had begun as an “ambitious and elusive project” called “Art as Activism“ at Amnesty International, India, involving “artists, writers, advocates, film-makers, activists, journalists, police officers and professionals”.

It made me think about the relationship between photography and writing, between photojournalism and art, between photography and death, and between photography and “witnessing” (a word that hovers between the literal and the metaphorical when it invokes the idea of a judicial procedure).

Das explains in her opening piece, “Interrupting the Spectacle”, that in being made up of writing as well as photography, the book attempts to “interrupt” the verbal with the visual. The photographs are placed “in the way” of the writing, so that the reader “trips” up against the pictures and is confronted with an “abrasive, painful and less forgettable” experience.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the most powerful moments were images and not opinions. Yet, oddly enough, none of these images came from the photographs; they were all in the writing.

I was riveted, for instance, by the account given by a Kashmiri journalist of how, as a prisoner at an Indian jail, he had to guard his English dictionary round the clock: “its fine paper would have been perfect for making cigarettes [prohibited in the jail].” When some people donated copies of the English translation of the Holy Qur’an, “the jail superintendent refused to distribute them, afraid that someone seen tearing the holy book could spark a bloody row.”

This is the stuff of art as well as a rare sort of history—the history of interior, truly invisible, experience. And, as unselfconsciously good writing, it is already literature, giving us access to what would otherwise have remained unrepresented, startling us into looking at the content of this book in a new and more difficult light. It compels us to reflect not only upon the nature of prisons, books and cigarettes (I was reminded of Jean Genet’s 1950 film, Un Chant d’Amour), but also makes us think about what it means to be free and unfree, afraid and unafraid. Our thoughts hang together, though, around that image of a dictionary being smoked away secretly in a prison.

The jail as a scene of reading (and writing) becomes a recurring motif in the book. An Iranian-American social scientist, who has been in and out of prison in Tehran and is now prohibited from leaving Iran, describes how his“attentive reading” of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, le Carré and Vikram Seth enriched the solitude afforded by imprisonment and led to a remarkable change in his “perception of time”: “Huddled in the blanket, angled to catch the fluorescent light coming through the small barred window of the thick metal door, I read.”

There is the shock of a different sort of truth, in an account (translated from Hindi) given by a police officer (who is also a novelist) of coming upon the bodies of forty-odd massacred Muslim men on the night of 22 May, 1987, on the Delhi-Ghaziabad border. This is an account not of reading, but of seeing or looking in extremis — a moment frozen in time, preceding action or activism, and shot through with a sense of the surreal, which clutches at the language of cinema and of dreams when trying to express itself in words: “The weak beams of their torches fell on the thick shrubs beside the stream but it was difficult to see anything in that dim light. I told the drivers to turn the vehicles towards the stream and turn their headlights on. An area of around 100 yards width was illuminated. What I saw in that light was the nightmare I referred to earlier.”

This sounds and feels, at first, like some sort of a primal scene of witnessing, but it is actually full of a terrible sense of belatedness. True witnessing eludes even the first to arrive at the scene, for that person is always already too late. The truth of brutality and suffering — the forensic, the legal, the empirical truth — is only “recorded” irretrievably on the retinas and nerve-ends of the silent dead. Hence, the irony of the phrase, “Art as witness”. Art can only record the impossibility of witnessing; it represents, at best, the abyss that separates its medium, its craft, its fictions and its intentions from the otherness of what really happened, from the quick—and the slow—of tragedy. Even the cleverest league between photography and journalism, masters of the moment, must accept this belatedness, before claiming for itself the privilege of witnessing and of having produced art out of that privilege.

One of the editors reflects: “The problem with the photographic image is not that it is beautiful but that it is too beautiful, perfected as it is by technology; and its impurity for experience lies precisely in that technological perfection. Thus, a very Platonic question emerges: Isn’t the written word enough? Why do we need the image?” But the photo-artist adds: “To reach a media-savvy audience one has to strike the right balance; even as all the vital issues are addressed, the way they are ‘packaged’ is crucial.” The two editors seem to be writing about two different books — one disrupting media-savvy “packaging” to create other ways of seeing and thinking; and the other appropriating the rhetoric of the news-magazine photo-essay that suddenly wishes to re-invent itself as art.

Photojournalism, however serious the issues to which it is committed, does not magically become art when it is taken out of its context, enlarged and framed, and hung in a gallery; nor does it turn into art when it accompanies political, emotive or fine writing. This is why it is not fair to the other photographers in the book to put the photographs they have made under the rubric of art, subject them to an aesthetic gaze that may not have been part of their original intention, ask “Is this art, or is this not art?” and then find them either adequate or lacking.

It is the most ordinary snapshots – most of them without photo credits – that become the most moving documents in this book: a black-and-white photo of a football team of Burmese refugees (“illegal immigrants”) outside a Calcutta jail, or a colour photo of the hospital for tribals run by a doctor who had been imprisoned for his alleged Maoist-extremist links.

The more self-consciously made sequences seem to recall too much the work of photographers like Fazal Sheikh. But they lack the technical finesse, intellectual rigour and unconventional modes of dissemination that one values in Sheikh’s work. His Ramadan Moon and A Camel for the Son (made for distribution among Dutch politicians, judges, mayors and the media), or the poster-set, Beloved Daughters (made for ActionAid), refuse to compromise on technical and conceptual precision in spite of their commitment to activism, advocacy and accessibility. It is for this reason that one feels less hesitant (when pushed) to call them “art”, and not because one takes them as “witnesses” to the atrocities they try to fathom. This is, indeed, a difficult balance to strike. But in trying to do so, Sheikh’s photography resists the presumption of witnessing.

Paradoxically, photography needs to think more carefully than any other medium does, and perhaps with greater humility, before celebrating its access to the “real thing".


The poem:


A fine wind blows into the heart,
And you fly headlong on,
While love within the roll of film
Holds the soul fast by its sleeve.

Bird-like she steals grain by grain
From oblivion – and now?
She does not let you fall to dust,
Even dead you’re still alive –

Not wholly but a hundredth part,
In muted tone or sunk in sleep,
As if you wandered through some field
In a land beyond our ken.

All that’s dear and seen and living
Makes the same flight as before,
Once the angel of the lens
Has your word beneath his wing.

Arseniy Tarkovsky, 1957 (translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair)

The clip:

The hero and the vamp, in Don (1978)

(I love the framed colour photos on the walls)

(Rough translation of the song lyrics:

My heart is crazy for my lover // It's the moth to the flame of love // I know how to burn in love // So don't even try to escape, lover // The heart gets whoever it wants // But true love sacrifices all in the name of one's lover // I take a life as a gift in exchange for mine // The heart is in turmoil every moment // The moment I've been waiting for will soon arrive //I'll never forget this collision of our hearts.)