Intimations of an 'estranged familiar'
The subject of the dichromatic gaze burns holes in the eyes of the picture, eyes drunk in the 'ultra-real' (in the photographer's own language) vision of its auteur. The 'real' of Gazi Nafis Ahmed does not belong to the representative realism of art, what Nabokov would call the actually unreal 'painted world' (realism tout court), but the medium with which his medium, black and white photography, self-differentiates as a confrontational, intimate, intense conduit, to be 'more real than the real', wherever that search may take one. The ultra-real in this sense is anything but 'sobering'; it is a search for the heightened/deepened frictional moment of kinesis ('motion' in Greek) captured visually through contrasts, when that which is passing, moving, errant or awaited, finds a textured, undeniable solidity in the planes where shadow and light embolden each other. There is a wildness, an intensity in Nafis' use of black and white, tempered with a willful subjectivity.
'Kinetic,' his latest exhibition in Dhaka's EMK Center uses the lexicon of physics, the concept of friction to describe his photographs. Curator Aaref postulates this rubbing of molecules as 'constantly colliding with each other, creating the particular characteristics of its particles, ie pressure, temperature, viscosity, volume.' Nafis is self-avowedly interested In the raw edge of whatever it means to be 'human' on the other side of the camera, and rather than magic, or mystery, what he elicits in textures, contrasts and movement, is a heightening of temperature, volumes, frictions, to a point from which the camera does not wish to return. Thus the movement has an effect of stasis, as at the end of the two dimensional kinesis one encounters an iconographic model being replicated while the camera pans through regions of urban heterotopias.
The movement followed is not the full circle of the 'collective state' of the Bangladeshi people – the photographs of the Muslim collective, or the Hindu collective, or drug addicts or the poor or homosexual communities; it is a fractal of a whole that is, however, too heterogeneous to be repeated
The contortion towards the exorcism of pain in Ta'ziyeh is captured in closes-ups of the face and the actual incision of the sharp object fully penetrating the skin is exactly too intimate and particular to be some fragment of a social collective/consciousness. MK Aaref perhaps does some injustice to the starkness of Nafis' images in his summary of this exhibition along the lines of the 'development narrative'. There is something more gripping than social commentary here, a 'human' that finds expression silently if we allow ourselves to get 'drunk' on the ultra-real. Although there is an undisguised thread running between the development narrative and his chosen subjects (Nafis has chosen to work on overtly developmental and occasional socio-political projects), there is something seductive in his ability to elicit friction from the lens as it reflects neither pain, nor desire alone, but that moment right before an extremity (of any emotion, even that of stark vulnerability in a kitten, that is at the same time wild/strong in a scene where the eyes are focused on, rather than the surroundings), where an undeniable surge surfaces before the camera, like the intake of breath before the final scream.
There is desire in his shots, but also, a distance that seduces with its complicity, its apparent familiarity with the subject, only to tease out of the movement, the moment, even the pose or carefully caught irony, flash of desperation or dignity, a kind of grace that can only come from the voyeur who 'already saw'. He invites us into a world that should be unknown, but appears, to speak with his voice, in a language that intimates an 'estranged familiar', as something we feel we know a la Nabokov ('I repeat: there is something I know, there is something I know, there is something'). The quality is not exactly 'human' as a social category of a species; rather it is a direct appreciation of the subject's grace and subjectivity prevailing over his surroundings. Where the subject is apparently 'a burnt house' in Old Dhaka, the focus is on the signs that link us to the unseen humans, those whose houses were burned, and their world discovered through the lens in a moment of clarity that sets the pattern of his archiving.
Nafis refuses to be seen as one looking down from above, he wishes to be intimate, but through this intimacy, talk to the structures in the background, unable to deface the subject he carefully sculpts out of old alleys, shadows and light; the mirroring of a diseased street with a rabid dog; the ages that seem to pass between a moment's tiredness; the frozen moment of a needle entering, whether in a ritual of self-flagellation, the intimacy of the flesh with its pain – the raw search for one's own agony and numbness.
This is humanism bared of the conceptualization of humanism: the sharp ends of the curvature of hair in a close-up of a woman's face, as dramatic as the actual blade piercing skin in a man's, is less about 'empathy' as about such fierceness that the usual documentary photographers of Bangladesh do indeed appear to capture in 'coloured' reality, rather than 'ultra-reality.'
The fierceness is retained, there is an 'ultra' to the real that makes the real a figment of the human quality of having 'emotion'(reacting/feeling),thus, one is made human or made real via the circle of kinesis captured, subjects framed, the world bustling with intensities that pale before the creature who inhabits it all, glowing without colour in a world that comments on itself as flesh/spirit mutely articulating the 'society/form.' The subjects of 'Kinetic' collude with the photographer to appear 'human' to us, if estranged in a setting 'of' us, within our vision but outside our touch.
Kinetic, Nafis' solo photography exhibition ran at the EMK Center, 5 to 17 November 2013.