The unbearable lightness of the delirious 'Near Documentary'
I am for messy vitality over obvious unity of aesthetic reflex, a mirror image of a historical moment. The power of the time-image, in fact, rests in its incommensurability with a teleological History; it is discontinuous, interstitial, and it serves to destabilize and falsify notions of identity and truth.
Recent exhibitions in Dhaka showcased works from photographers – Raghu Rai, Salgado, Shahidul Alam, Anwar Hossain etc – held in colossal esteem by Dhakaite shutterbugs and, at the risk of sounding too glib, the 'poornographic' picture shows of two very talented young things: Munem Wasif and GMB Akash.
Unless I am very much mistaken, the complicity between the representation of the systemic violence of poverty (here you could fill in the gap with your trope of choice: disaster-visibility/dramatization of social injustice/riffraff resistance or the binary opposition of these categories of image production: NGO/Agency formulated 'positive message' construction) and the photographic practice of its perpetuation for fun and profit is hardly been defined, demarked and/or dealt with in Akash/Wasif's generation's with any kind of seriousness or rigour.
Please, recognize, I am not taking issue with the unabashed and career-enhancing depiction of Bangladeshi miserabilia or repulsive images of violence and frission; but, I want to make a rather more difficult point – which is not easily heard above the clamour of praise for the current spate of photographer-scène-stars – about form and language: works of art, even doom-laden reportage cannot get activated within political vacuums; the form and the language – mode of production – of image-making is deeply embedded and engaged with politics and particular strands of histories.
Recent Dhakaite attempts of photographic production/ practices, by and large, mines the form, ideological credential and the language of a neo-Orientalist tradition; in effect, once this language has been set, firmly, in place and understood as the only protocol and methodology to invoke/depict our reality, it would hardly matter to expose the abusive, Corporate-Kapitalistic subtext of photographs or to celebrate one or two dissenters' work– the set of guidelines by which to judge this mode of art production and to control its critical consumption would automatically become accessible only to stage and position the canonically relevant pictorial regime of the Empire.
Also, reportage bathos – which is passing as Art Photography in Dhaka – reinforces the Orientalist hermeneutics that confuse fascination as critique, voyeurism as empathy and profit as exposing-of-social-wrongs, and was addressed by Susan Sontag, on a debate about how to respond to the pain of the Other; Sontag traced the 'pulse of Christian iconography' in the war time photographs of the recent time: she employed Goya as how his aimed assaults on the sensibilities of the viewers in 'The Disasters of War' entered a new standard in the responsiveness to suffering in the realm of art. But, even when art-encounter takes the form of assaults, contemporary viewer's jadedness, skepticism, numbness and morbid fascination regarding images of suffering are usually due to the absence of proper circumstances in which to experience and process extreme material – a question of form and context over content, since anything from a Sidr victim to a Hijra is potentially subversive or heroic or more accurately a transcendental signifier.
It could be said, without much hesitation, that GMB Akash's recent exhibition,Soulscape, (and his exceptional last exhibition First Light) has mapped out a psycho-topology that differs, albeit inadvertently, from demarking truth as representative of an already existing reality and heralds an oblique route to an emerging paradigm – still fluid and in-process, contingent to different socio-political variants – affording the spectator to take in not only the exotic fauna but also some of the topical/typical tensions and seismic turbulence of the new magmatic ground that shifts under the feet;
Amirul Rajeeb's topsy-turvy curatorial style, of Soulscape, effectuates to grasp a corpus of work (a tour d'horizon predicated on six slivers of narratives, 42 Photos) which does not fit too readily under the standard headings – and the readymade ideological template/artemes that Akash seems to privilege – and which draw on Akash's technical brilliance and a curious rigorousness for its continual elaboration of the contest between his language and vision, and sites the tension between the context/form and content on the surface of his photographs – as a semilattice of interconnections and overlaps of soon to be vanished (his)stories and multiplicities of situations: Akash's category confusion between art and journalism, elaborate layering, theatricality, and obsessive level of technical control carry within them the seed of their own delirium.
Akash has been certainly informed by methodologies and protocols of critical 'near documentary'–a term coined by Jeff Wall–that recasts the convention and prevailing attitude of photo journalism while riding the fence between testamentary and the evidentiary, eye witness account and the disinterested objective gaze of photojournalism to respond to a visual field snowed under by photos of heterogeneous truths premised with assorted reality.
'Near documentary' married the primary apparatus of photojournalism – narrative, topicality and politics – with a personal dynamic that spawned a slew of vivid, volte-face photo series that includes Robert Doisneau's Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Martin Parr's The Lost Resort, Paul Gaham's Beyond Caring, Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Jeff Wall's outstanding tableaux Dead Troops Talk which explored the role of Soviet troops during the Afghanistan occupation.
Interestingly, Akash frequently utilizes the languages of both documentary and photo reportage which, I suppose, is best understood within the framework of a broader documentary impulse that bear witness to a complex world where his delirious foci oscillate from empirical accuracy to telling story of the events as they were encountered by an active subject – deciphering codes of a new reality, trying to give it a shape where the center doesn't quite hold in the end… evidently, Akash distrusts the languages he discharges; he seems deeply ambivalent about the veracity of what this language describes and I suspect, unlike some of his colleagues, he is uncomfortable in the current market demand to depoliticizing the documentary in favour of the pictorial and the connection of this anxious tendency to the service of consumption.
As deeply moved as I am by his struggle, its breaking my heart to admit, GMB Akash's journalistic work – Born to Work series, some photos of the Survivour series and most of the photos of the sex workers etc – not so much expose exploitation and suffering as reproduce it, or, if you will, that his reproductions are not so much representational as material. Please, be aware that, blurring the difference between suffering and its emotionalized or guilt-ridden consumption is increasingly dispatched as a marketing strategy by Bangladeshi photographers with such aplomb that I would need a separate article – or a whole book – to open that can of worms.
But, on the same register, Akash's delirious photographs – two awe-inspiring photos from the Suicide Cotton Farmers series, few photos from the old home (Lonely House, the series is called) immediately comes to mind; here, to put things in a perspective, I would like to mention a photo titled Narayanganj, from his First Light exhibition that still haunts me – featuring hyper-personal documentary storytelling and freighted with the surface tension that to a greater or a lesser degree foment re-interpretation in terms of the breakdown of control and classification, which in turn signals to a possible aesthetic shift that, among other things, challenges the current market demand for the exotic and the need for spectacularzation of trauma/catastrophe, to establish a connection to a reality that demands subjective engagement and deep organic language(s) that permit(s) a different kind of truth .
Now, the million dollar question is, would Akash dare to keep on building and experimenting in this delirious vein? Would other young artists risk to take 'bad' photographs to explore and invent a new, hybrid language that tells our story truthfully?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind… the answer is blowing in the wind!
Soulscape was showcased at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, June 1-10, 2010.