Rawi Hage on the pho­tog­ra­pher as wit­ness

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION | SESNSES & ABILITIES - Rawi Hage’s fourth novel, Beirut Hell­fire So­ci­ety, will be pub­lished this month.

Rawi Hage on what drew him to pho­tog­ra­phy

Sight, or the idea of sight, has had its share of ob­scure in­ter­pre­ta­tions through­out history. Sight has been ex­plained through the fan­tas­ti­cal: su­per­sti­tions, vi­sions and even the no­tion of an in­ner-beam-like pro­jec­tion that made the eye il­lu­mi­nate its sub­ject. It was not un­til the ninth cen­tury that Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab math­e­ma­ti­cian, as­tronomer and physi­cist, ex­plained that vi­sion oc­curs when light bounces off an ob­ject and reaches the eye and con­se­quently the brain, ren­der­ing hu­mans a re­cep­ta­cle of what na­ture has pro­vided rather than an ini­tia­tor in the man­ner of a sci­encefic­tion-like hu­man-ish car­toon fig­ure, with eyes that beam lasers and melt mat­ter. In short, our brains op­er­ate in the man­ner of pho­to­graphic de­vices. Pho­tog­ra­phy, and its fore­bear, cam­era ob­scura, and the no­tion of pro­jec­tion and re­cep­tion has its roots else­where; pho­tog­ra­phy is a prod­uct of a west-east ex­change.

The philo­soph­i­cal im­pli­ca­tion of that dis­tance and un­in­tended col­lab­o­ra­tive ex­change could well be long and ex­ten­sive aca­demic study from the Greeks to our post­mod­ern nar­ra­tive. I shall try to be brief.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has a great deal of com­mon­al­ity with fic­ti­tious work: They both rely on se­lec­tive process, on dis­crim­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion, they could both pro­duce the mys­te­ri­ous, the am­biva­lent and the pre­cise. A slice of life, to quote Chekhov.

But what I was drawn to in the pho­to­graphic process was af­fir­ma­tion through sight and a hu­man need for prox­im­ity. What mat­ters to me is see­ing as a wit­ness, the cor­po­real in the im­age, the pres­ence of my body in prox­im­ity to a sub­ject, its close­ness to an event or a struc­ture. That close­ness has been for many pho­tog­ra­phers a mean­ing­ful act of sol­i­dar­ity or con­dem­na­tion with re­spect to so­cial is­sues.

Un­like writ­ing, which for the most part is an act of the imag­i­na­tion and of re­mem­brance or clas­si­fi­ca­tion, a pho­to­graph re­quires move­ment, mo­bil­ity and in­ti­macy. But what if that mo­bil­ity, that pres­ence, is imag­ined by a writer? What if, for in­stance, in ev­ery scene a writer imag­ined, or ex­pe­ri­enced, the “I” planted it­self as a wit­ness and an ob­server? Do we pre­fer to cou­ple the phys­i­cal act of see­ing with the imag­i­nary act of see­ing that is fic­tion writ­ing?

I have, I must ad­mit, through­out my writ­ing ca­reer re­lied on this act of be­ing in a space with­out phys­i­cally be­ing present in it – the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing with­out wit­ness­ing, not un­like a blind man who car­ries him­self ev­ery­where with­out see­ing things – as a writer who is a kind of cam­era man. The only dif­fer­ence is that for a cam­era man, the set ex­ists, he walks in it and around it, but for a writer, the set and the scene is con­structed around the pro­tag­o­nists or the nar­ra­tors.

Doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs did not of­fer the por­trayal of a truth, but a sense of par­tic­i­pa­tion, of bear­ing wit­ness. In the phys­i­cal prox­im­ity to a sub­ject, there was an un­der­ly­ing mes­sage, that one ex­poses the sub­ject’s very be­ing by shar­ing their ex­act same space, what­ever the sub­ject is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing or il­lu­mi­nat­ing and bounc­ing back in im­ages and re­flec­tions, know­ing or un­know­ingly. In other words, sol­i­dar­ity or au­then­tic­ity was above all man­i­fested in the pho­tog­ra­pher’s pres­ence in the events they cap­tured, whether they were a par­tic­i­pa­tory pres­ence or not.

This ap­proach was later dis­missed as op­por­tunis­tic, naive and even preda­tory by the post­mod­ern move­ment, whose as­sault on doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy was fierce. Truth, or maybe the no­tion of the pres­ence of truth, was now over­shad­owed by the ab­sence of any one truth. The pho­tog­ra­pher was of­ten com­pared to a hunter, a soldier, and even con­sid­ered colo­nial, and maybe there was some truth to that. But for the hu­man­i­tar­ian pho­tog­ra­phers – whose work con­trib­uted to the up­ris­ings against the Viet­nam War, who at the time made sure to doc­u­ment mas­sacres and abuses – to be dis­re­garded, ex­pelled, de­mo­nized, even called naive ide­o­logues of a false pho­to­graphic trade, and here let me em­pha­size the word trade, was a bru­tal and costly out­come of the tran­si­tion from mod­ern to post­mod­ern pho­to­graphic lenses.

The abo­li­tion of the dark­room co­in­cided with the un­der­min­ing of a tra­di­tion of the pho­to­graph’s somber nar­ra­tive. Now all should be ex­posed as a bright, trans­par­ent ver­sion of many pos­si­ble truths. The clas­sic pho­tog­ra­pher be­came guiltily associated with one sin­gle grand nar­ra­tive: W. Eu­gene Smith and his work on a toxic vil­lage in Ja­pan, Walker Evans’ Great De­pres­sion project, or the projects of the Cana­dian/ Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Ruwedel in his project Pic­tures of Hell, a look at set­tlers nam­ing of In­dige­nous land, all were ne­glected in favour of the slug­gish aca­demic whose ap­pro­pri­a­tion of and si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­missal of the “ex­plorer” pho­tog­ra­pher method­ol­ogy took over. The cor­po­real or mod­ern pho­to­graph was no longer vi­able: the icon­o­clas­tic ten­den­cies of vast le­gions of aca­demics took over the prac­tice (now art) of the “ar­chaic” pho­to­graphic medium only to re­place it with her­metic jar­gon and save it for the small pri­est­hood of post­mod­ernism.

The cam­era was no longer seen as a dark box that cap­tures light and trans­forms it into a form, but as a tool of op­pres­sion and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “There is no truth, a photo doesn’t tell the truth and that’s the truth.” The cam­era in my hand be­came a bur­den that couldn’t be pointed at any­thing. A wave of out-of-fo­cus im­ages filled the art scene, noth­ing was iden­ti­fi­able, noth­ing was as­sumed, there was no date, place, or time, the only com­mit­ment was to a non-com­mit­tal dis­course.

Sight in Jacques Der­rida’s Mem­oirs of the Blind is blind­ness. Blind­ness was not some­thing I ever con­tem­plated un­til one day I met John, a blind poet, who even­tu­ally be­came a men­tor and a friend. John lost his vi­sion as a kid in Le­banon dur­ing the first Lebanese civil war (1958). He picked up a det­o­na­tor that ex­ploded in his face and blinded him. Our com­mon eth­nic­ity and love of lit­er­a­ture and po­etry grew into a life­long friend­ship. We also em­braced a love of dark places. I longed for those days in the dark­room where the most mag­i­cal im­ages and re­flec­tions would sur­face from the la­tency of a pho­to­graph to be­come an im­age filled with max­ims and sto­ries. For John, as he would re­peat to me, blind­ness was not even a nui­sance, not ev­ery­thing looks tragic in the dark. John felt some affin­ity with Oedi­pus in the play.

“It’s only when the king lost his vi­sion that he at­tained wis­dom,” John would say and smile.

The prox­im­ity to life in all its tan­gi­bil­ity can make a blind man present and close to his sub­ject, he said. “The ne­ces­sity of touch, smell or hear­ing makes me a close wit­ness and I like be­ing a wit­ness, a wit­ness is al­ways part of the scene, an ac­ci­den­tal col­lab­o­ra­tor.”

“An ex­pe­ri­en­tial wit­ness?” I said.

Yes, he said, the ex­pe­ri­en­tial wit­ness, the nec­es­sary pres­ence.

Af­ter John’s death, I took up walk­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy again, caught be­tween grief and his idea of a nec­es­sary pres­ence. Those in­no­cent days of the pho­tog­ra­pher as un être, a “naif” in­di­vid­ual who sought to en­ter bleak zones with an ex­cuse, a cam­era, had gone. The as­sault, the ac­cu­sa­tions that pre­cip­i­tated from the high priests of the post­mod­ern in academia had taken its toll on my in­no­cence and my per­cep­tion of a pho­tog­ra­pher’s sol­i­dar­ity.

And for a long time, I de­spised the kid­nap­ping of that “naif” art by aca­demics. Many aca­demics these days at­tack any re­mote act of ap­pro­pri­a­tion but they can be the most ha­bit­ual ap­pro­pri­a­tors, by not hav­ing the ca­pac­ity of an artist to imag­ine or truth­fully con­struct a bod­ily sen­sa­tion of ex­is­tence and be­ing. The unattain­able jar­gon of post­mod­ernism first dis­man­tled the pos­si­bil­ity of a phys­i­cal en­counter be­tween pho­tog­ra­pher and sub­ject, con­fus­ing the space be­tween lan­guage and mean­ing, the pos­si­bil­ity of a lu­cid com­pre­hen­si­ble dis­course. It killed the im­age­mak­ers with their vi­sions, and it alien­ated the masses with their tongues, and it was left to the pop­ulists to fill the cul­tural void. But I take heart from John’s mes­sage of al­ways seek­ing to bear wit­ness, all the same.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has a great deal of com­mon­al­ity with fic­ti­tious work: They both rely on se­lec­tive process, on dis­crim­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion, they could both pro­duce the mys­te­ri­ous, the am­biva­lent and the pre­cise.

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