The borders this book crosses again and again are also those where academic writing meets popular journalism, and political poetry encounters the work of documentary photography.
Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos
This [After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives by Edward Said & Jean Mohr] is not a normal tandem of word and image, neither a coffee table book with a long, glorified caption nor a work of prose propped up here and there by sheaves of shiny pictures. Mr. Said writes to the photos so assiduously and with such effect as to make one powerful essay. And at times, we realize with a sobering lurch, he writes not to the pictures but from them.
Richard Ben Cramer , Acts Of Continuance, The New York Times November 9th, 1986
When Professor Ammiel Alcalay recently emailed me to inform me that his new book had just been published and that I may find it interesting,I assumed that it would be a work related to the question of the Sephardim. Professor Alcalay and I had recently been discussing my intention to produce a work that explores the lost heritage and last remaining vestiges of Jewish community in Northern Africa and the Levant. But I was surprised when I read the back pages of that work that Professor Alcalay had chosen to…
…comb through photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, journal entries, and newspaper clippings from the era, and incorporated them into [a] book; the result is a personal investigation into the relationships of context to text, memory to nostalgia, and present attention to the multiple traces of the past.
Professor Alcalay had emailed to tell me that he had in fact published a photography book!
Even a cursory examination of Professor Alcalay’s work reveals the fascinatingly creative ways in which personal photographs, archival images are used to recover memories, provoke ideas and illuminate imaginations. This work of a poet, historian, translator, writer, journalist and academic, contains more complex, more creative and more experimental play with photography and text than anything I have seen from the world of the ‘professional’ photographer. In fact, even the format and scale of the work is such that it invites you to lift it, page through it, bend its corners, write within it and simply carry it about.
All things that so many ‘pristine’ works of photography do not allow you to do. Alcalay’s work is a work for the public, and one designed to encourage engagement and entanglement. It refutes the idea that has become so popular these days of designing and producing photography books as ‘works of art’ or ‘collectables’ that are simply vanity plates for the desperate. Large, heavy, expensive and hence inaccessible to the general public and the casually interested, they are often as useful and interesting as an exquisite glass vase. Nice to look at, but damn if I want to stand anywhere near it.
The same desire of accessibility and public reach can be seen other photography works produced by those the ‘community’ would label as non- photographers. One such work that comes to mind is photographer Jean Mohr and academic/critic Edward Said’s remarkable collaboration After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. It is a work that I have discussed on a number of occasions in this blog itself.
Edward Said, reacting to a United Nations decision to remove all text from an exhibition of Jean Mohr’s images of Palestinian refugees that was to be displayed in the main hall of the UN Headquarters, decided to engage the images and use them to construct a textual response. As he states in the introduction to the book:
The whole point of this book is to engage this difficulty, to deny the habitually simple, even harmful representation of Palestinians, and replace them with something more capable of capturing the complex reality of their experience. Its [the books] style and method – the interplay of text and photos, the mixture of genres, modes, styles – do not tell a consecutive story, nor do they constitute a political essay….
Many Palestinian friends who say Jean Mohr’s pictures thought that he saw us as no one else has. But we also thought that he saw us as we would have seen ourselves – at once inside and outside our world. The same double vision informs my text.
There is a remarkably insightful revelation of the close interplay between the image and the text in Said’s introductory essay to this book. It is precisely as the reviewer Ben Cramer of The New York Times pointed out, that Edward Said is writing ‘…not to the pictures, but from them.’ This is perhaps one of the earliest challenges to the tiresomely predictable use conventional photojournalism, editorial and mass media publications and even curatorial spaces have made of the craft of photography.
A similar thought about the crossing of boundaries – of the mixing of modes, genres and methods, is revealed in Amitava Kumar’s brilliant and piercing work Passport Photos.
Here, yet again, we see the theme of crossing boundaries. In fact, Kumar’s book deals with the immigrant experience in the West and attempts to add the narratives and histories that are typically missing from the artifacts of the nation state: the national ID, the passport, etc. His is an attempt to return the complete humanity behind an individual labelled as ‘alien’ or ‘immigrant’. As Kumar himself states in the book’s Preface:
[The book attempts to]…restore a certain weight of experience, a stubborn density, a life to what we encounter in newspaper columns as abstract, often faceless, figures without histories.
These are not merely pretensions. These works of Alcalay, Said/Mohr and Kumar are attempts to arrive at new, more insightful truths about our modernity and about those we frequently choose to (inadvertently or intentionally) silence. Their resort to using many different forms of expression – photographs, essays, poetry, journalism, personal journal entries etc. are an attempt to break down the clichés and lazy generalities that frequently pass as ‘truths’ in media and also very often in academia. To break down these clichés these writers chose to break down the walls that separate disciplines, and producing works that go beyond our obvious expectations about use, insight and provocation.
The photographer Oliver Arthur and I recently had a brief discussion where we touched upon the fact that most photographers tend to narrow their ‘influences’ to the world of ‘officially’ sanctioned photography. That is, our inspirations tend to be just other photographers. But it is obvious that many outside this small, cloistered and frequently navel-gazing world are producing some amazingly interesting, creative, and unique works of photography that question the very idea that photography ought to be seen as a separate craft, art or creative act. Oliver herself is, as she told me, working to bring more text into her work. Or, as she put it, more text into the very way in which her work is constructed, her photographs seen and captured. The same sentiments underpin my work in India.
Works such as After The Last Sky remind us of the possibilities that come from collaborating with different forms and methods. The also remind us that we as photographers are also storytellers, with the possibility (if not always the creativity or the intelligence) to turn to methods outside of the technical, to create their narratives. If photojournalism and documentary photography seemed trapped in tiresome, repetitive, and clichéd forms (as I have frequently argued on this blog as such as here, here and here amongst other pieces), perhaps it is because we have forgotten that over time a photograph can become more a metaphor than an actual, complete and comprehensive reality. That is, the most popular and generically popular images (think National Geographic style, famine photography from Africa, prostitutes in Asia, a drug addict in Afghanistan etc. ) work as metaphors do – they transform ideas into (pre-packaged, commonly understood) images. Our challenge remains to redefine these metaphors and we cannot do it through more of the same. It is writers such as Kumar, Alcalay and Said remind us that in fact the real possibilities of photographs to offer new insights, to challenge conventions and enforce new understandings lie in their interplay with words, and their openness to being informed with content from without. The link between a well worn metaphor and its image has to be broken.