We expect an image to provide visual information, but who is to interpret it?
This blog summons words to decode images from a wide gamut of photography, from the artistic to the documentary. For the writer/photographer, that act of deciphering is the struggle, and brings realisation that the relation of words to pictures is always a matter of translation between two very different languages.
Writing on photography is an act of interpretation and interpolation, while factuality remains locked within the image artefact and cannot be extracted by language, but merely implied.
Fotomuseum Antwerpen (FOMU), at Waalsekaai 47, 2000 Antwerp, presents two projects-in-progress by Belgian photographer Bieke Depoorter (*1986) and curated by Joachim Naudts; Agata (2017-…), a project in collaboration with a young woman whom Depoorter met in Paris, and Michael (2015-…), which presents clues about the life story of a man gathered from three suitcases full of collages and scraps of writing, after which the man disappeared without a trace. Both set words and pictures together.
Depoorter joined Magnum Photos in 2012, and became a full member in 2016; a high achievement for one at the age of twenty-five. Yet in five ongoing projects she questions the very idea of the documentary image! Her position prompted her to return to Egypt with her book As It May Be (2017). There she asked others to write directly onto her photographs, initiating a dialogue between Egyptians and giving a voice also to people who would not otherwise have allowed themselves to be photographed. Furthermore, in the multimedia installation Sète#15 (2015) and the short film Dvalemodus (2017), Depoorter conceives her subjects as actors, and her narratives as projections onto factual environments.
From 2011, at crucial stages in the Egyptian revolution and attendant unrest, Depoorter regularly travelled to Egypt. There, in an effort to discover more about private life amid turmoil and suspicion, she asked strangers if she could spend the night at their homes. With extraordinary faith and generosity, women, their husbands and children shared their daily life, their food and even their beds with her. The resulting images are vivid vignettes of domestic life, usually showing the three walls of an entire room and its occupants.
Through this engagement she became more conscious of her outsider status, culturally and as a photographer, prompting her to return with a dummy of the new book to ask Egyptians of all ages, opinions and religions to respond to and interpret her book by writing directly over the images, so that we receive in the printed book images overlaid with text, with Arabic script and a translation into English opposite each. In the above image, her collaborators’ commentary adds to our understanding when one notes what is on the television “That’s Hareem al-Sultan (‘Women of the Sultan’). I watch that show and I really like it,” and another accounts for the placement of the child on a cushion on a cabinet; “She is cleaning, that’s why she’s put him up there.”
Such a strategy was employed, but somewhat differently, by Jim Goldberg, also a Magnum member, in his 1985 book Rich and Poor reissued by Steidl in 2013 and recently exhibited alongside Collaboration. A Potential History of Photography, January 24 – April 8, 2018 at the Ryerson Image Centre.
He turned his camera, not only on the poor and underprivileged and powerless, the habitual target of documentary photographers—the archetype being Don McCullin’s confrontational imagery in the Antonioni film Blow-Up (above)—but also on the rich. His underprivileged subjects he found in a transients’ hotel, and the wealthy on the board of trustees of his art school the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), a private, non-profit college, both in San Francisco.
Goldberg gives them the apparent last word – allowing them ample space under the image to write a statement on each finished print of his full-frame 35mm negative. The interaction between image and text is the big surprise here – with remarkable candour the rich subjects often write the most revealing and sometimes damning comments on themselves and their priviliged lives. Compare this with Bill Owens‘ similar scheme applied to the middle class in the 70’s in his Suburbia, Wendy Ewald‘s collaborations with children, or Mary Lloyd Estrin‘s documentation of the rich, in a rather extraordinary book now sadly out of print; To The Manor Born.
Amongst the most powerful records of the latter demographic is his portrait of Edgar and Regina Goldstine in their expensively furnished Californian home (above). In March 30, 1986 (the year Depoorter was born) a New York Times review by Thomas DePietro of Rich and Poor, was negative;
The final juxtaposition of text and image seems to reflect a sad lack of trust on Mr. Goldberg’s part in both the power of his photographs to speak for themselves and in his viewers to understand them without comment. For Mr. Goldberg, a picture is worth roughly 30 words.
Edgar died in 1983 and Regina in 1986, and between those dates Goldberg’s book came out, so we do not know their responses to this ‘betrayal’. DePietro concludes;
In these photographs of uneven quality, we come no closer to that ever elusive and nagging subject – class in American society. Mr. Goldberg sees America baring its sad and sorry soul here, but we see some rich and poor Americans posing self-consciously for his camera.
Despite this poor assessment, Goldberg has gone on to produce other, still more edgy, series, some published as books with the text-and-image format including 134 Ways To Forget, Raised by Wolves, Open See.
Depoorter, however, takes an extra step to avoid the outside-looking-in perspective of stereotypical documentary photography by exposing her book, or at least a dummy copy, to critique by her subjects’ compatriots, not all of which is favourable (above).
So does this tactic ‘reflect a sad lack of trust’, as DePietro said of Goldberg’s work? Photographic prints may ‘speak for themselves’, but their language comes in a visual, though ‘literal’, form quite different from the symbolic annotation that we use express the spoken word on paper. When in another language, or from another culture, words need translation, while pictures are enriched by interpretation, even where it might contradict what is in the image!