Behrouz Boochani on the pol­i­tics of be­ing pho­tographed

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - BEHROUZ BOOCHANI is the author of No Friend But the Moun­tains. He is be­ing held on Manus Is­land. Trans­lated by Omid Tofighian, Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo/ Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

In a re­cent pro­file in The Satur­day Pa­per, pho­tog­ra­pher Hoda Af­shar spoke about her col­lab­o­ra­tion with jour­nal­ist Behrouz Boochani, who is on Manus Is­land. Here, Boochani de­scribes the cre­ation of an image that stands on the thresh­old of civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism.

The por­trait you see was taken by Hoda Af­shar. When she sent it to me, she said, “This is you, Behrouz, with your pas­sion, your fire, and your writer’s hands. It sym­bol­ises your re­sis­tance.” When I heard this, I paused. “You are right,” I told her. “But I do not see my­self in this pic­ture. I only see a refugee, some­one whose iden­tity has been taken from him. Just bare life, stand­ing beyond the bor­ders of Aus­tralia, wait­ing and star­ing.”

I told her the image scares me.

In my book No Friend But the Moun­tains, I de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence of refugees be­ing ex­iled to Manus Is­land and our ex­pe­ri­ence with the pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers as­signed to pho­to­graph us at the air­port as we ar­rived. I ex­plain this sit­u­a­tion from the per­spec­tive of a de­fence­less sub­ject – a com­pletely pas­sive agent lack­ing any sem­blance of power. By con­trast, the pho­tog­ra­phers have the ca­pac­ity to to­tally dom­i­nate our bod­ies – tar­get­ing us with their cam­eras, claim­ing own­er­ship by tak­ing pho­tos of us. A kind of re­la­tion­ship ex­ists be­tween pho­tog­ra­pher and sub­ject; in fact, a one-sided power dy­namic be­tween them.

On Manus, dur­ing the years that fol­lowed, I have had the op­por­tu­nity to work closely with some of the most suc­cess­ful and most well-known pho­tog­ra­phers and jour­nal­ists in the world. How­ever, in some cases, the op­pres­sive power dy­namic still con­di­tions our in­ter­ac­tions and has given me a strong sense of griev­ance. Within these re­la­tion­ships, the cam­era is weaponised and aimed at the sub­ject in an at­tempt to cap­ture an image of a refugee that evokes the most height­ened sense of com­pas­sion pos­si­ble.

In these cases, the refugee is a kind of sub­ject that rep­re­sents pas­siv­ity: a be­ing with­out agency, a be­ing with­out per­son­hood, a be­ing with­out the nu­ances and com­plex­i­ties that con­sti­tute the hu­man con­di­tion, a be­ing with­out power, a be­ing with­out a free and in­de­pen­dent iden­tity. In this re­la­tion­ship, the gaze of the cam­era or the jour­nal­ist is a weapon that elim­i­nates the per­son­hood of sub­jects – they “de-iden­tify” the refugees.

How­ever, the por­trait of me by Hoda Af­shar stands in op­po­si­tion to a fixed and static image. It is a cri­tique of the hack­neyed im­pres­sion of a refugee that has be­come ide­alised around the world. In this work, the sub­ject is not pas­sive; rather, he is fully aware of the image-mak­ing process and ac­tive in the pro­duc­tion. In fact, he is a co-cre­ator. One might say that the sub­ject is also the creative source be­hind this work. In this por­trait, one can see fire, one can see smoke – clearly, the con­text of the image is not un­like a com­pre­hen­sive mise en scène pro­duced by an artist.

An­other point worth con­sid­er­ing is that it rep­re­sents a unique and pro­found form of trust be­tween the pho­tog­ra­pher and sub­ject. But this trust must not be in­ter­preted in merely eth­i­cal terms – it is a trust that the sub­ject has to­wards the artis­tic vi­sion and per­spec­tive of the pho­tog­ra­pher. In this image, the cam­era is not a weapon, it is an in­stru­ment that evokes a space where the sub­ject can man­i­fest his iden­tity, per­son­hood and in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity. This is ex­actly what has been miss­ing dur­ing all these years from rep­re­sen­ta­tions by su­per­fi­cial forms of jour­nal­ism. It is also what has been ab­sent from the creations of many artists work­ing on the topic of refugee­hood. There are, of course, a small num­ber of peo­ple in this field who have pro­duced creative work from a view­point that chal­lenges sim­plis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions. But I think that what has been cre­ated in this work is the emer­gence of a new lan­guage and a fresh point of view re­gard­ing refugees, one that fore­grounds their hu­man­ity.

Why, then, does it scare me?

This image fright­ens me be­cause, from my per­spec­tive, it re­veals the mod­ern hu­man be­ing stripped bare. This is an image of a hu­man be­ing that has been stripped of his iden­tity, per­son­hood and hu­man­ity. This is an image of a hu­man be­ing de­graded by other hu­man be­ings, tor­tured and de­prived of all his hu­man rights. This image is fright­en­ing be­cause it is a sym­bol of a hu­man be­ing who has been ban­ished from so­ci­ety in the most mer­ci­less and most bar­baric way. It is the image of a hu­man be­ing who has been in­car­cer­ated on a re­mote and for­lorn is­land. This is the image of a hu­man be­ing who has been striv­ing to tell the world that he ex­ists, that he is a hu­man be­ing, he is a per­son. He has been try­ing to tell the world that he is not a num­ber.

I ex­plained to Hoda that I do not see Behrouz Boochani in this image. When I look at this image over and over again, I do not see my­self. In­stead, I see a hu­man be­ing who is stand­ing be­hind the bor­ders, a hu­man be­ing stand­ing in the space be­tween hu­man and an­i­mal. He is not a hu­man be­ing be­cause he has been ex­pelled from hu­man so­ci­ety, and he is also not an an­i­mal. He is pre­cisely on the thresh­old of law and vi­o­la­tion of law; he has been po­si­tioned on the thresh­old of civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism. This is sig­nif­i­cant – both Hoda and the spec­ta­tor view the image from this per­spec­tive, they see this as the por­trait of Behrouz Boochani, but I see it from quite a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive and see dif­fer­ent as­pects.

From my view­point, this is not Behrouz Boochani. This is the image of a hu­man be­ing who with his own way of know­ing and with his flesh and bones – with his pro­trud­ing ribs – is gaz­ing back at a so­ci­ety of hu­man be­ings and wants to as­sert: “This is me, this is a hu­man be­ing.” He wants to say: “This is me, some­one who has been ex­iled to this is­land. This is me, with all the pe­cu­liar­i­ties and com­plex­i­ties of a hu­man be­ing.”

This image shows ex­actly all the af­flic­tion that this hu­man be­ing has en­dured, all the pain that has for­ever marked his body. This is an image that opens the­o­ret­i­cal spa­ces for aes­thetic read­ings be­cause it can speak a so­phis­ti­cated lan­guage of art. And this is the very def­i­ni­tion of art: the cre­ation of a work that has been pro­duced in or­der to be beau­ti­ful and also to act as a foun­da­tion for the­o­ris­ing and a pro­found way of know­ing. And in this way, it can com­mu­ni­cate the deep­est hu­man emo­tions with im­me­di­acy.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant as­pects of this image is its af­ter­life. What I mean is that this photo is ex­tremely pow­er­ful when in­ter­preted from an aes­thetic per­spec­tive and in terms of art-pho­tog­ra­phy tech­niques, and in fu­ture its method will be con­sid­ered with high re­gard. But again, I wish to em­pha­sise that what I mean is not that this is an image of “Behrouz Boochani”. It is not the photo of a par­tic­u­lar historical per­son­al­ity. Rather, this is an image that rep­re­sents a dark phase in the con­tem­po­rary his­tory of Aus­tralia. It de­picts a dark phase in the con­tem­po­rary his­tory of the Western world.

This image is the mir­ror image of his­tory, a historical pe­riod dur­ing which Aus­tralia has ex­iled more than a thou­sand in­no­cent hu­man be­ings to Manus Is­land and Nauru to suit its own po­lit­i­cal agenda and power strug­gles. These peo­ple have been de­tained for years and sub­jected to sys­tem­atic tor­ture. Over time, this image will ac­quire greater im­por­tance – but it is only a small part of a larger whole, an artis­tic project that I have been work­ing on with Hoda. This work will be ex­hib­ited for the first time at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Syd­ney.

The project in­volves a video in­stal­la­tion en­ti­tled Re­main, in which we aim to free in­ter­pre­ta­tions and anal­y­ses re­gard­ing the sit­u­a­tion of refugees im­pris­oned on Manus Is­land and Nauru from the su­per­fi­cial clutches of the me­dia and to re­po­si­tion them within in­tel­lec­tual and artis­tic spa­ces. We have been col­lab­o­rat­ing with trans­la­tor and aca­demic Omid Tofighian to es­tab­lish and de­velop this project in the con­text of lit­er­a­ture and schol­ar­ship.

Our video in­stal­la­tion is both a the­o­ret­i­cal and artis­tic project that is the prod­uct of months of re­search, in­ves­ti­ga­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tive think­ing. It brings to­gether per­for­mance art, song, historical arte­facts, deep hu­man emo­tions, the con­cept of death, the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing ne­glected and for­got­ten and the re­la­tion­ship one has with na­ture.

What is im­por­tant for me and Hoda is the cre­ation of a new artis­tic lan­guage that is not be­holden to the frame­work of colo­nial­ism, the his­tory of colo­nial vi­o­lence and colo­nial ways of know­ing. This work has been cre­ated in ac­cor­dance with the dis­course and within the in­tel­lec­tual space that we call Manus Prison The­ory. In fu­ture we plan to write more about this

• artis­tic and the­o­ret­i­cal project.

Por­trait of Behrouz Boochani, Manus Is­land, 2018,by Hoda Af­shar.

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