Friday, October 20, 2006

Leap into parchment

On Monday lunchtime this week, wandering through Brighton town centre, I popped into an ex-church used as an art installation venue. I have done this two or three times before during previous displays and invariably walked out within 30 seconds. This time, the only apparent work on display was a stack of vertical light strips. Woo. Hoo. As I walked to the far exit, expecting to break my short-stay record, I noticed an entrance to a small cinema. Inside were three rows of wooden chairs. I hadn't read any promotional material and knew only the title from a poster glanced as I walked in: The Sound of Silence (which wouldn't tell anyone anything). There was a countdown to the beginning of whatever was going to be shown in the bottom right of the screen. Very dramatic! I sat down and waited.

The film lasted about 10 minutes and told the story of the South African photographer Kevin Carter, from his army days to his discovery of photography, through his recording the resistance to apartheid and, finally, to the taking of the infamous photograph of the starving Sudanese child and watching vulture. Yet, while it was a film, the story was told only in white text on a black background; short, bland sentences in newstype appearing sentence by sentence. The artist Alfredo Jaar also uses this style to introduce his website.

As I knew Carter's story, it didn't come as a surprise that the only image in the ten minutes turned out to be the one of the Sudanese child. It appears as the viewers recover from a blinding flash directed away from the screen. (Suddenly, I wonder: were we photographed?). The story slows down at this point. It details the encounter with the child and vulture. It was shocking to read that Carter didn't just snap the image but waited, hoping that the bird would spread his wings. Once he had taken the photo and chased the bird away, we were told he sat down in the shade, smoked a cigarette and spoke to God. The urgency of our thoughts were acknowledged with narrative silence. Didn't he immediately help the child to the feeding centre?! Did he help it all?


The story then skipped to the reception of the photograph when it first appeared in the NYT. What had happened to the child, people asked? No-one knew. Carter was accused of being no different to the vulture. Soon after winning the Pulitzer Prize, he killed himself. But the story didn't end there. Profits from the photo, it seems, go to a trust fund for his daughter. The film reported that the photo is owned by a company owned, in turn, by Bill Gates. It says the company "controls" 100 millions photographs. It gives us the serial number of the famous image. Then it ends.

Walking away (I had to get to the supermarket), I wanted to dismiss the presentation as mere sentimentality and stiff moralising. The slanted technical information seemed to provide a convenient displacement of the unease provoked by the image. "Oh yes, Bill Gates and corporate ownership of a universe of visual media controls our perception of the world." Wouldn't it have been more resonant to leave it with Carter's death? Why not just the image itself? There's no leaving the photograph after all. It's why I'm still trying to think about it and the film as the week ends.

I think the image provokes the deepest unease not because of what it reveals so much as that it remains. It sits there. Its limits absolve us, which makes us culpable, yet, within those limits - where we seek involvement, engagement - is a space as parched as the land it records. The image might also be a metaphor of photography itself.

Banally true as this might be - and it's my commonest experience of art - it's something we habitually avoid. It's there to be overcome with readings of political relevance or philistine appreciations of craftsmanship (the bad faith of claiming merely to "like" a work and to be seeking nothing more). Blanchot says as much and then suggests a way out:
Reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it may be (and the more engaging it seems to be) is empty - at bottom it doesn't exist; and you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend. [trans. Ann Smock]
Yet how does one leap?


  1. Anonymous12:17 am

    "Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be."

    J.M. Coetzee, "Elizabeth Costello", p.1.

  2. Did you know that after 25 years! the Chilean people will see Jaar`s work? Check

    Regards from Chile

  3. Anonymous11:28 am

    Brighton city centre, surely? You'll be saying 'neighbouring Hove' next.

  4. Have you read Roland Barthes's meditation on photography, Camera Lucida? I appreciate what Barthes has to say about the coding of the image and about its ability to arouse emotional resonance in the spectator.

  5. Yes, many years ago. I loved it. I wish there were more critical books like it.

    And thanks Juan Pablo for news about Jaar.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.