Rawi Hage’s fourth novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, will be published this month.
Sight, or the idea of sight, has had its share of obscure interpretations throughout history. Sight has been explained through the fantastical: superstitions, visions and even the notion of an inner-beam-like projection that made the eye illuminate its subject. It was not until the ninth century that Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab mathematician, astronomer and physicist, explained that vision occurs when light bounces off an object and reaches the eye and consequently the brain, rendering humans a receptacle of what nature has provided rather than an initiator in the manner of a science-fiction-like human-ish cartoon figure, with eyes that beam lasers and melt matter. In short, our brains operate in the manner of photographic devices. Photography, and its forebear, camera obscura, and the notion of projection and reception has its roots elsewhere; photography is a product of a west-east exchange.
The philosophical implication of that distance and unintended collaborative exchange could well be long and extensive academic study from the Greeks to our postmodern narrative. I shall try to be brief.
Photography has a great deal of commonality with fictitious work: They both rely on selective process, on discrimination and exclusion, they could both produce the mysterious, the ambivalent and the precise. A slice of life, to quote Chekhov.
But what I was drawn to in the photographic process was affirmation through sight and a human need for proximity. What matters to me is seeing as a witness, the corporeal in the image, the presence of my body in proximity to a subject, its closeness to an event or a structure. That closeness has been for many photographers a meaningful act of solidarity or condemnation with respect to social issues.
Unlike writing, which for the most part is an act of the imagination and of remembrance or classification, a photograph requires movement, mobility and intimacy. But what if that mobility, that presence is imagined by a writer? What if, for instance, in every scene a writer imagined, or experienced, the "I" planted itself as a witness and an observer? Do we prefer to couple the physical act of seeing with the imaginary act of seeing that is fiction writing?
I have, I must admit, throughout my writing career relied on this act of being in a space without physically being present in it – the possibility of seeing without witnessing, not unlike a blind man who carries himself everywhere without seeing things – as a writer who is a kind of camera man. The only difference is that for a camera man, the set exists, he walks in it and around it, but for a writer, the set and the scene is constructed around the protagonists or the narrators.
Documentary photographs did not offer the portrayal of a truth, but a sense of participation, of bearing witness. In the physical proximity to a subject, there was an underlying message, that one exposes the subject’s very being by sharing their exact same space, whatever the subject is experiencing or illuminating and bouncing back in images and reflections, knowing or unknowingly. In other words, solidarity or authenticity was above all manifested in the photographer’s presence in the events they captured, whether they were a participatory presence or not.
This approach was later dismissed as opportunistic, naive and even predatory by the postmodern movement, whose assault on documentary photography was fierce. Truth, or maybe the notion of the presence of truth, was now overshadowed by the absence of any one truth. The photographer was often compared to a hunter, a soldier, and even considered colonial, and maybe there was some truth to that. But for the humanitarian photographers – whose work contributed to the uprisings against the Vietnam War, who at the time made sure to document massacres and abuses – to be disregarded, expelled, demonized, even called naive ideologues of a false photographic trade, and here let me emphasize the word trade, was a brutal and costly outcome of the transition from modern to postmodern photographic lenses.
The abolition of the darkroom coincided with the undermining of a tradition of the photograph’s somber narrative. Now all should be exposed as a bright, transparent version of many possible truths. The classic photographer became guiltily associated with one single grand narrative: W. Eugene Smith and his work on a toxic village in Japan, Walker Evans’ Great Depression project, or the projects of the Canadian/American photographer Mark Ruwedel in his project Pictures of Hell, a look at settlers naming of indigenous land, all were neglected in favour of the sluggish academic whose appropriation of and simultaneous dismissal of the “explorer” photographer methodology took over. The corporeal or modern photograph was no longer viable: the iconoclastic tendencies of vast legions of academics took over the practice (now art) of the “archaic” photographic medium only to replace it with hermetic jargon and save it for the small priesthood of postmodernism.
The camera was no longer seen as a dark box that captures light and transforms it into a form, but as a tool of oppression and misrepresentation. “There is no truth, a photo doesn’t tell the truth and that’s the truth.” The camera in my hand became a burden that couldn’t be pointed at anything. A wave of out-of-focus images filled the art scene, nothing was identifiable, nothing was assumed, there was no date, place, or time, the only commitment was to a non-committal discourse.
Sight in Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind is blindness. Blindness was not something I ever contemplated until one day I met John, a blind poet, who eventually became a mentor and a friend. John lost his vision as a kid in Lebanon during the first Lebanese civil war (1958). He picked up a detonator that exploded in his face and blinded him. Our common ethnicity and love of literature and poetry grew into a lifelong friendship. We also embraced a love of dark places. I longed for those days in the darkroom where the most magical images and reflections would surface from the latency of a photograph to become an image filled with maxims and stories. For John, as he would repeat to me, blindness was not even a nuisance, not everything looks tragic in the dark. John felt some affinity with Oedipus in the play.
“It’s only when the king lost his vision that he attained wisdom,” John would say and smile.
The proximity to life in all its tangibility can make a blind man present and close to his subject, he said. “The necessity of touch, smell or hearing makes me a close witness and I like being a witness, a witness is always part of the scene, an accidental collaborator.”
“An experiential witness?” I said.
Yes, he said, the experiential witness, the necessary presence.
After John’s death, I took up walking and photography again, caught between grief and his idea of a necessary presence. Those innocent days of the photographer as un être, a “naif” individual who sought to enter bleak zones with an excuse, a camera, had gone. The assault, the accusations that precipitated from the high priests of the postmodern in academia had taken its toll on my innocence and my perception of a photographer’s solidarity.
And for a long time, I despised the kidnapping of that “naif” art by academics. Many academics these days attack any remote act of appropriation but they can be the most habitual appropriators, by not having the capacity of an artist to imagine or truthfully construct a bodily sensation of existence and being. The unattainable jargon of postmodernism first dismantled the possibility of a physical encounter between photographer and subject, confusing the space between language and meaning, the possibility of a lucid comprehensible discourse. It killed the image-makers with their visions, and it alienated the masses with their tongues, and it was left to the populists to fill the cultural void. But I take heart from John’s message of always seeking to bear witness, all the same.