I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Rescuing the power and clarity of photographs in a world bombarded with an excess of images.
The Sound of Silence, Jaar’s eulogy to the South African photographer Kevin Carter, premiered in 2006. With the artist’s upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, opening April 11th, it will have been exhibited 25 times in 18 different countries. Recently, for a commission by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Jaar created a sequel, Shadows, dedicated to Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing. Jaar blends Wessing’s methodology of the photo essay with his own acute sensitivity to space, movement, timing and, of course, light and shadow. Lilly Wei, Katy Donoghue, and I toured the exhibition in Savannah with the artist. We then sat down together to discuss the power and politics of images within the context of what will eventually become a trilogy devoted to the dilemmas of photojournalism and the representation of suffering.
Kathleen MacQueen Two of Wessing’s images from 1979 Nicaragua are featured prominently in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. They, in fact, prompted Barthes to distinguish between images that inform and images that wound—the studium and the punctum—in other words, images that have impact…
Alfredo Jaar Absolutely, this is the book on photography: the notion of the punctum is the key notion in this work also. What shocks me is that the images Barthes chose are not nearly as powerful as the image Wessing took of the two women. I don’t know if he never saw that image or what, but it doesn’t matter: what he says about the power of an image is wonderful.
KM The irony of Barthes’s understanding of the photograph as a reproducible copy of an irreproducible event is that events of conflict and suffering are in fact reproduced globally, year after year. How do we keep these events from enduring a certain complacency of redundancy?
AJ We are all fighting against the constant repetition of an overabundance of images and this is why images have lost their power. Everywhere you look, people are taking pictures with their cameras or phones. Billions every day. Our phones contain millions of pictures of nothingness. When Wessing was working, photography meant something and people were communicating something with images; now it’s much more difficult. Shadows takes a nostalgic, romantic look at this period when images were much more important than today. Even so, I do not dismiss the importance of images today; I still believe in them but they become increasingly decontextualized.
Katy Donoghue How did this sense of image excess influence your presentation of these images?
AJ Hopefully, I am telling a story with three images. Then comes the climatic moment of the piece—the raison d’être of the work, the key image—I fade the background to black asking the audience to focus on the women alone, and 10 seconds later the women fades to white. This is a rear projection but at that moment, a complex system of LED lights, from within the screen, takes over. I was dreaming about this effect of blinding the audience with their silhouettes and I didn’t think I could get it but I found an engineer who could do this—I’m going to work with him forever.
The light goes on and on and it blinds you. Some people cannot look at it; others can. What I’m interested in is the afterimage effect when the light goes off: This image becomes imprinted in your brain and you see the figures everywhere; you cannot get away from them. I’m insisting on the power of this image. It’s a very poetic gesture. And in this darkness you leave with an imprint of the image in your mind’s eye and you then complete the experience with the last 3 images. I’ll be honest with you: I’m very insecure. I still don’t know if it works. The Sound of Silence is so clear: I tell a story, I show the image, I blind the audience, then I tell something else and the audience leaves. It’s so didactic. But with this one I don’t know what people will think. I am yet to be convinced that it really works, that people will understand and it will be effective. I don’t know.
Lilly Wei What I like most about your work is that poetic moment when the political content becomes much more personal. How important is the text for you in order to create coherence, or context, for the work?”
AJ It’s a composition. If I don’t use text, how do I contextualize that one image? I could have used ten images at the beginning and ten others on the way out but I wanted to be as minimal as possible, so I use three at the beginning and three at the end. Had I used more images, the one in the middle would have become less important, so I wanted to concentrate, like Wessing, on the essential. This is a haiku—it says the maximum with the minimum—a visual haiku: each line is represented by a picture. Remember when we used to say: “a picture is worth a thousand words”? (laughter)
It’s a challenge. Even if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter…Wessing’s son was so proud I was using images by his father, who died two years ago, that he decided to come to SCAD to see the work. Of course, his opinion is very important to me and he said, “Koen would have loved it!” The work pays homage to a photojournalist. I admire these guys. With all my projects, I run into photojournalists everywhere. One of my best friends is Susan Meiselas. They leave everything behind, go to places of conflict and hardship, and take all kinds of risks just to bring us information. When victims see these photojournalists, at least they know that someone cares enough to be there. I always saw them as a sign of solidarity in the landscape of tragedy. Now, of course, there are all these issues of manipulation and exploitation of images, and blah, blah, blah; but these people are there because they believe in reporting reality to the rest of the world. I have no problems with not being the author of these images and I’m not taking credit for them but I create a context where these images can be seen properly.
KM In paying homage to these photojournalists, are you also identifying with the dilemmas of their practice as indicative of the dilemmas of your work as an artist?
AJ Absolutely. I have the best of both worlds. Sometimes I use their work with their agreement and sometimes I am very critical and that’s all right with them because they ask themselves the same questions all the time. That’s why I’ve always treated every work of mine as an exercise in representation. As exercises, some are more successful than others, some are more didactic and some are more poetic.
LW Which are more successful for you?
AJ The Sound of Silence has been so well received everywhere. My assistant Ravi reminded me that I had the same insecurity when I showed The Sound of Silence for the first time in Houston in 2006. I really thought, This is too simple, it’s not enough. I’m not afraid to recognize and confess my insecurity because art is communication and to communicate with another human being is very complicated. To communicate with an audience in a context like this is also very complicated. You lose control—you don’t know what’s going to happen—it’s very difficult to predict. So I’m insecure. I create the framework but I don’t know if it’s going to work or not. But it’s really fantastic when institutions trust you—give you the funding—and say, “Go ahead, do it!”
KD You’ve spoken in the past of empathy and awareness and that the goal is not just to make someone know about a specific thing but to get them to feel something and even do something. Without words, do you think the audience reaches this level sooner with this work?
AJ You never know. It’s extraordinary. I sit with my assistant and I ask: “What is the worst possible reading of this? What would be the exact contrary of what I am trying to say?” Anything is possible. Regarding awareness and empathy: in that sense, this work is a little safer than The Sound of Silence. This time I can take comfort in images without words. The images are crisp and clean. You see the tragedy unfold before your eyes and the way the images express pain is so…I’m trusting it, if people make an effort to look, it will communicate.
KM And yet, these images are now part of the archive of the past. Do you think we are making connections between what happened then and what’s happening now? What does it take to make people care?
AJ That’s a good question. I don’t know.
LW In essence, as you said earlier, what you are trying to do is to rescue these images. Because we are inundated with so many images, they lose their power. So by stopping, enlarging, pinpointing certain things, you ask us to pay attention.
AJ Absolutely. I am creating a model of looking at the world. Here you have a story being told with images and you discover how important images are. So perhaps one lesson from this work is that after seeing it, people will pay more attention to these kinds of images. That would be the most beautiful reaction that I could hope for, that they do mentally what I have done to these images. These are very simple exercises that help you see and understand the world.
KM It has been an important motivation for your artwork: to change how people think. How does your work influence the way you think?
AJ Everything I learn about the world, I’ve learned as an artist. It’s a marvelous learning experience. You do these exercises and you learn. You see what works and what doesn’t work and you ask yourself the same question: Why do we do these things? Is it worth it? The technical solutions in Shadows were not resolved until the end. We had different ideas when we began installing. We are happy with the final result but it was not the original solution. We spent nights working on this to find the right way and we found ourselves still there at 3:00 AM—myself, two assistants, and the technician—we hadn’t had dinner and I asked myself: Why? Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we having a drink and going to sleep? Who cares about these things? Who cares? (laughter)
KM And yet here we are.
AJ And you’re hoping someone will read you…and I’m hoping someone will go inside to see what’s going on.
KD You describe yourself as a project artist. Why do you think it’s important to make that distinction?
AJ I am not the typical studio artist who does things. I don’t know how to do things out of my imagination. I have never created a single drawing or object. It is always about the context, responding to a situation and giving myself an objective: a story to tell and how to tell it. I never studied art, I studied architecture, so my work always has a program and an objective. I work on projects. This project is a politics of images, which is part of a trilogy, and I hope one day I will be able to show all three together so that I can invite people to see three instances of three extraordinary images.
KM Did you know from the beginning it would be a trilogy?
AJ No, but I’m always doing trilogies; I don’t know why I’m stuck with this idea of trilogies. I’ve done so many trilogies…(laughter) I just like three. I don’t like two at all and I don’t like four or five. (laughter) I love three.
The Sound of Silence began in 1994 when I saw and clipped that image and kept it in reserve until I knew what to do with it. It took a while and this one took twenty years. So who knows what will be the third image, but in my head I’m dreaming about finding an image about Asia. The first one is about Africa, the second about Latin America, so it would be nice for the third to be about Asia. I have a great relationship with Japan. I’ve visited about twenty times, and I’ve been learning Japanese for many years. I also collect Japanese photography. Something will happen.
KD You talk about not having to be responsible to the country where you are born.
AJ The origin of that attitude is 1982, when I first came to New York City from Chile. It was not the global art world that we have today but a very closed bunker. An international exhibition then meant a few Americans and a few Germans and that was it. It was very provincial in a way. When I started showing in New York in the ‘80’s I was immediately attacked for doing work about Africa instead of Chile. My reaction was: Because I’m from Chile, I have to do work about Chile and because you’re from New York, you can do work about whatever you want? (laughter) What is that? It’s not fair.
So my first work was to photograph gold miners in Brazil and I put them in the subway. That work put me on the art world map because I was bringing the world to New York. That’s the origin of that attitude of mine, and now that I am truly free to do whatever I like. I can do work about Chile and nobody cares. (laughter)
KM Blindness is a recurring theme in your work but also synthesizing your methodology to the elements of shadow—the title of this work—and bright blinding light. Why is this so important?
AJ I began working with the language of architecture. What is this language? First of all scale. Scale is meaningful; when you enter this space, if the ceiling is 8 feet or 20 feet, you would notice the difference. It would affect your body. It has an impact. So space and scale are important, along with circulation and movement and, of course, light. In the same way light is fundamental for photography, this is true for architecture as well. Without light there is no architecture. And, actually, if you push it…without light there is no life. (laughter) It is a fundamental and fabulous medium. You can use it as a tabula rasa, a place where the audience can make their own projections. It is malleable, flexible. It is all about the context. You can say whatever you want as long as you know how to control light. It can have a spiritual dimension. It can be cold and oppressive, anything. That is the power of light.
KM But also of shadow.
AJ We struggled with the title. What I like about Shadows is this: first, it’s a positive shadow. The dark shadow is you. The work blinds you, forces you to create your own shadow, asks you to look at yourself. It’s the girl’s shadow that has been transposed to your body that projects its own shadow. There are a lot of interesting psychological connections that can be read different ways. The effect here is the afterimage effect. I did not invent this, it’s a known phenomenon. When you go into the dark and you see a very strong light that then disappears, it stays with you so that the image is imprinted in your memory. That is the climax of the work and hopefully you will leave the space with that image in your mind’s eye and in your heart—an image of loss and suffering. There is no movement. There is nothing there: only light, then black. It’s quite a magical effect.
LW Why the final three images?
AJ It would have been too spectacular to end there. I wanted to complete the story. It’s a circular thing…to stay longer.
KM The Sound of Silence speaks of the wound of the messenger, the bearer of bad tidings, condemned because of the message he relays. Shadows brings us back to the primary witness to express the blindness of trauma, the difficulty in facing horror.
AJ It’s a good point because effectively all the dilemmas of photojournalism were included in The Sound of Silence. In this one, the photographer is absent. We don’t see him, he doesn’t exist, he is doing his job, silently present.
KM 2014 is the centennial of World War I, the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, and the deadline for US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Given the wide-ranging debate on the relevance of information to response in the aftermath of catastrophe, what are your thoughts now on the most effective means of bearing witness today?
AJ I have no idea. I think it’s becoming more and more difficult because there is an increasing control of images and information. The Snowden revelation is frightening: How much is manipulated, created, faked? We live in scary times and, instead of clarity, it gets more and more confusing.
KM But we try…
AJ Yes, we try.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee