Photographing the present. The unbearable & dignity - about the photographic project "mateneen"

Sofia Eliza Bouratsis

Making the image

The invitation extended by the Œuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte to three photographers – Sébastien Cuvelier, Patrick Galbats and Ann Sophie Lindström –, selected by the Artistic Committe[1] assembled for this purpose, is as follows: Complete freedom to photograph projects supported by the mateneen initiative.

The thematic is not without its challenges. How should such a complex reality be comprehended? How to look at people who have had to begin all over again, elsewhere. How to think visually about war, poverty, oppressive political situations, forced departure, the journey, the arrival in a new country, the request for asylum... adaptation to a completely different world, followed by withdrawal into oneself, the openness both obligatory and necessary towards others, nostalgia, longing, resignation, stigma, aggression, violence experienced, the trauma of war, solitude, fear, courage, audacity, distrust, waiting, poverty, novelty, encounters, love, creative or therapeutic activity, laughter, tears, patience, involvement, dignity… How to photograph human beings whose stories are both unbearable and true, both very near and very distant from ‘us’ Europeans? How in fine to make images that accurately translate the realisation of the projects to welcome these people?

From anxiety to method[2]: the three photographers have taken approaches that find their origins in both subjective documentation and artistic activity; they photograph, each in their own way, people they encounter in the context of various projects. However, in reality what they photograph is the human condition.

The strange power of the image, it would take a photograph of a dead child, tossed by the sea onto a Turkish beach, for European public opinion to react to the drama taking place in the Mediterranean[3]. It could be said that this photograph is a monument-photograph. The work realised for mateneen is of a completely different nature. Even so, it is intrinsically linked to images that have marked collective memory. It is a question of documenting, in a subjective manner, a reality which is without doubt linked to the image-monuments that have made the media headlines concerning wars, famines, etc., but which is the reality that follows upon these events.

The work of the three photographers, whose approaches are very different from each other has as a result this in common: the full meaning of the photographs is only perceptible ‘between the lines’, a watermark of the images. The resulting photographs are in fact characterised by the underlying presence of events which do not intrude on the image because they predate it. However, even though these works concern the present, they inevitably evoke the past because, without the events that forced these people to leave their countries, they would not be in Luxembourg. The implications of this past are constantly at work. It is not really a question of imagining this, but of bearing in mind while looking at the images that a “real past”[4] is simultaneously represented. A reality which is abstract and impossible to recollect – because we have known it only through other images – but which nevertheless interferes with our reception of the images. A process is thus unconsciously put in place: we delve into our mental images, into our collective iconological memory in order to (re)discover realities. These monument-images serve as well as catalysers for a complex problematic: their spectacularistion by the mass media which renders them nearly abstract.

Sébastien Cuvelier, Patrick Galbats and Ann Sophie Lindström, each according to their vision of the world and of the photographic tool, address this complexity by reactivating the lived experience. Although an inevitable form of stigmatisation cannot be denied – ‘we photograph you because you are refugees’ – it is the approach, the method, the ethos, of each one of the three photographers that successfully avoid the traps of this pitfall without ever ignoring them. This is perhaps because each photographer focuses principally on something other than the immediate facts: on the “Humanity of Humanity”[5], to employ Edgar Morin's beautiful expression.

Rather than working as journalists, trying to elicit pathos in regard to monument-images, or positioning themselves from a voyeuristic perspective, the three photographic approaches attempt to exchange the visible with thought, to elicit reflection. These three perspectives thus have in common a great respect, a dignity, a certain discretion on the photographers’ part, which is neither modesty nor a desire to shift the focus away from events. On the contrary, it is a desire to find a place for themselves within the people’s spaces of life and activity and to redirect our gaze by inserting it into the present.

The result is three narrative visual configurations of everyday life, three perspectives on individual and collective trajectories, which in reality emphasise subjectivities, subjectivities brought to light, and with which social intersubjectivity interferes, with all its common, shared or imposed characteristics (laws, cultural barriers, education, body, family, love, sexuality, sports, activities, social classes, gender, culture, mourning, trauma, etc.).

These images of everyday life – of very everyday lives – are a material for artistic exploration which, by way of the visual stories proposed, kindles a feeling of something which is at the level of collective experience. How? The aesthetic experience, when it takes place, and because it does not refer only to the operating modes of art, to its ‘world’ and to its philosophy.  Additionally because it is not only a social construction of modalities of feeling, but also, in the sense of the universe of the percept, it is the very expression of life, which refers inevitably to the collective. In this way, it gives rise to a process of identification with others – whoever they may be. From this perspective, an aesthetic approach can evoke a sensation at the shared, collective level. It is also from this perspective that it is more urgent than ever: because questioning the state of our sensitivity towards the world (social, political, natural, psychic) ??calls as well for a reassessment of our role in this world.

Sébastien Cuvelier : Choosing the human voice

To photograph, Sébastien Cuvelier meets people and spends time with them. Sometimes they become friends. “Integrating this work into my life is in fact integrating these people into my life.” It is also his way of working: the human relationship precedes making the image.

In this case, he tells the story of five people and activates his account with an element that he adds: press articles concerning the country and the reasons why these people had to leave. A constant back-and-forth takes place between the unique history of each person and the ‘great’ history of their countries.

Since it is forbidden to enter the homes of asylum seekers, he has chosen to discover their worlds, the places they frequent, what they like, so that he can become part of their history to the extent that they wish reveal it to him. The project therefore develops by way of what they show him and what they give him (family photos, photos from their previous life, travel photos). To this are added elements that recur in the five stories: the identity papers of each person, their favourite places in Luxembourg, their corporeality.

It is a choice, a humanist method, to dive into the stories of these people by way of their own stories – to focus on the places they like in their new life (or their places of residence when that is possible) as well as on the ‘places’ of their body (face, gaze, hand, hair). This attention to the real space occupied by the body, its image, its staging, this anchoring in the present allows spectators to travel to places that are otherwise abstract, while grasping the explicit and implicit links that bind them to the people who reveals themselves by accepting the photographer's proposal.

Five people, five stories

Farnaz’s elegance, sensuality, beauty and nonchalance are at odds with what we usually imagine as the ‘typical refugee’. The connection between the photographer and her is made through poetry – which plays an important role for every Iranian – and this pleases the photographer, this contact through the imagination, around an unreal environment: “I wanted it to be sweet, dreamy, frontal”.

"I tried to make a portrait that resembles him. Khalid is like an icon, a star". He then photographs his destroyed telephone, that of his journey, adds a photograph of the young man as he was before, his current place of residence and water – “for what he recounts about the sea”. We also see the “report à l’éloignement” (postponement of deportation) document, an incomprehensible administrative status with which this boy must live, this paper folded in his pocket that he cannot lose. With Khalid, we also discover the only landscape in the series: the lake at Esch-sur-Sûre. According to the photographer, it is a place favoured by refugees: “it is a paradise which is not too far”...

Sébastien Cuvelier begins by strolling through Palestine, within Google Street View. Then he visits Nisreen at her home in Luxembourg. A peaceful image: in front of the young woman’s house are poppies, the same flowers as in front of her house in Palestine. At the entrance of her new house, a ‘welcome home’ mat with a woven image of Palestine. Self-persuasion or “tactics of everyday creativity”[6] : one feels that the process is underway, but that it will be long. Nisreen gives the photographer two images where she is happy, at home: a child in her father's arms and then as a teenager. “I will never get a portrait of her like that,” missing her country will from now on be a part of her gaze. The young woman has five different identity papers, three passports (Luxembourgish, Jordanian and Palestinian – which is not recognised) and she needs all these papers to travel.

Yannick is from Cameroon. He comes from a country where instability was imported by colonialism, “we are the cause of its current state”, says the photographer, juxtaposing a CFA franc note (the image of the ‘good African’) with that of the ‘model migrant’. Yannick does not come from a country at war and does everything in his power to integrate in Luxembourg: he speaks Luxembourgish and he is involved in the Red Cross. His girlfriend, also from Cameroon, lives in Washington. Their relationship began on Skype. Sébastien Cuvelier photographed them during their first meeting. When we spoke with the photographer, he was no longer sure if Yannick had been able to remain in Luxembourg.

Yasha shows his bracelet from two angles: a Christian cross is hidden inside. When a person is born in Iran, they automatically become Muslim: any other religious choice would make that person an enemy of the people. Yasha is a Christian and a believer. He prays, he likes to sing. He met Sébastien a week after the young man’s arrival in Luxembourg. He was still lost faced with the incomprehensible immensity of what was happening to him. With a concern for gifting and authenticity, he offers Sébastien Cuvelier – and this book – photographs taken with his mobile phone during his long journey to Luxembourg.

Patrick Galbats : photograph the psychic state by means of the place

Patrick Galbats’ work is marked by a poetic, sometimes even romantic, realism. For this project, he wanted to photograph “the precarious moment when everything is temporary”, people and places suspended in a strange temporality, a long period of transition which can last indefinitely, people who live far too long in the ephemeral, the episodic, the transient. To respect legal limits – a prohibition on photographing everything – he chooses to depict atmospheres.

“They are all grateful and happy for Luxembourg’s help. However, before leaving their country most of them worked, here they wait: it hurts. They miss their family. They are starting to live again by way of projects for integration”. The photographer explains that he is interested in the environment created by the various institutions and associations for refugees in Luxembourg and in the activities they organise.  This is because, during the long wait for papers, they allow people to find an anchor in the present, learning a language, meeting other people, living something that resembles a life.

Rather than photographing a person sitting waiting in an office, he decides to concentrate on a veiled woman looking at the news from ‘Digital Inclusion’ on an iMac, to photograph the results of art therapy workshops for women, to photograph their chairs after a meeting, or the cardboard house built by a young man based on the memory of his real house, back home. The photographs are neither arranged nor staged. Based on the people portrayed, it is unclear who is the project leader or colleague and who is a refugee. And of what importance?

While awaiting their papers, asylum seekers do not have the right to work. The photographer therefore chooses to focus equally on workshops whose practices resemble the concept of ??work (bicycle repair, computers, a pickup truck, a broom). He documents ‘the things that are there’ and that can indicate the mental state of the people: the piled up suitcases contain the personal effects of an entire family in their hotel room. One immediately senses the instability that these people face while dreaming only of one thing: finding stability. One senses the lack of privacy experienced by those who must share a room with six or eight others and where personal space is therefore extremely limited. One senses as well the joy of cooking, when that is possible. And one considers the importance of the activities that enable life to feel ‘normal’ again when we are at our nerve’s end.

Patrick Galbats’ conceptual photographic work is particularly delicate: it is also because there are few faces in this work that those who do appear are characterised by an expressive intensity; and because sharing cultures is so difficult that one feels upon seeing the collections of objects and clothes that they are a way of entering into an ‘encounter’. By largely avoiding the human presence, by focusing on the experience of the place, such as it is, on “the systems of objects”[7] as they are arranged, and by photographing ‘what is’ but, which is not normally paid attention to, the photographer releases all the evocative power of the image.

And the provisional endures, memories intrude into the images by way of small details, the underlying psychic state expands: To what extent should one try to transform a place that one expects to leave quickly into a home? And with what means? Employing a form of withdrawal – he photographs the woman waiting in an empty restaurant from behind – the photographer transmits a feeling of weariness. The photographic result appears to have taken a distance and it is precisely this that enables one to sense so clearly what cannot be seen. It is furthermore what enables this strange identification with these people that one can suddenly experience: boredom, helplessness are widely shared feelings, however only for some, they are not lifestyle choices. A certain slow pace emerges from these images.

By means of the proximity-distance that Patrick Galbats constructs, he integrates the viewer into the situations – the joy of children playing in the garden, the ambiguity of the surveillance camera supposedly protecting, life shared together and its difficulties, parties, emergencies, waiting. The abstraction of the images is no longer the reifying abstraction of monument-images. On the contrary, it becomes an abstraction with universalising power. Abstraction marked by a certain tenderness – probably that of the consciousness of our being a community with a common destiny as human beings.

Ann Sophie Lindström : “the heart in the eyes”[8]

Ann Sophie Lindström's photographic work contains a dimension that could almost qualify as performative since she lives to the extent possible with the communities she chooses to photograph. Physical engagement, moving, changes in lifestyle form integral parts of her process as a young ‘visual storyteller’, as she describes herself.

“I wanted to make a story. I quickly realised that I could only show fragments of fragments from the history of these people. As a result, I chose to show different stories and people in a elliptic way. The rehearsals of a play interested me: because I photograph what takes place between people, their relationships, their interactions with each other.”

At the request of the subjects of her images, Ann Sophie Lindström distributed their photographs to them. They often asked her to photograph this or that. The impression is conveyed that she tries to become simultaneously close and invisible. She captures situations where people create substitute families (the theatre group, the sports team, etc.). She captures intersubjective links that overwhelm: the mother’s gaze, that of the young woman who practices martial arts, the desire to live, to defend oneself, to grow, to move forward. She also captures poverty, love, tenderness between a couple sitting on their sofa.

The photos are taken directly unposed. They communicate emotions (that the subjects do not repress in her presence), effort, bodies and energies which must coexist. The stories revealed by the photographer are all peopled with heroes, beautiful, tender, unknown, but to whom we feel close, because on their faces we read our life, we see ourselves. These are not only ‘photographs of refugees in the context of projects for integration’. They are also images of human beings fighting for their life. And yet traces of the vestiges of war, the journey, the uprooting, traces revealing that these people are far from home, are very present. An obvious perceptual shift that immediately requires the viewer to spend time in front of each image, in an attempt to grasp the elements that contribute to its construction, despite the spontaneous force of the emotions it triggers.

Ann Sophie Lindström’s visual storytelling has the particularity of immediately diving into intimacy, of visually writing intimacy. It contains political involvement as well (a concern for what is most fragile and important), a humanist perspective, an aesthetic position too (getting to the bottom of things). The stories she tells through her images help us – by discovering the lives of other people – to better understand our most complex emotions. Because visual writing about oneself as a practice addresses not only the subjects and their idiosyncrasies, but it also maintains delicate links with collective memory and experience. From there, the idea emerges according to which the home as a place exists only as an ideal; and leads one then to play with the fantasy of returning while at the same time suggesting that the body – the packaging itself, the skin, the shell – probably constitutes the one and only home possible.

The presence of the present

The complex feeling of ‘homesickness’ corresponds – more or less – to the Homeric term nostalgia and – more or less as well – to the German word Heimweh. The Homeric term designates the pain that Ulysses feels in the face of the constraints that prevent his immediate return to Ithaca – his journey lasts ten years. Coming from the words ??st?? (return) and ????? (suffering), nostalgia indicates a state of mind, a mood – which is of particular interest to psychoanalysis given that the psychic dynamic, which it describes, is based on the abandonment of pleasures to which the subject unceasingly wishes to return by way of their fantasy.

Sébastien Cuvelier, Patrick Galbats and Ann Sophie Lindström, by revealing the auratic character of the people and places they have photographed, anchor the gaze – thought – in the ‘here’ and ‘now’. The hic et nunc, according to Walter Benjamin who wrote this fortunate sentence, so often quoted in connection with photography, probably because of its poetic quality rather than the harrowing reality which it evokes, and according to which the aura is “the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be.”[9]

Freud explains that there are only two possible approaches towards the perishable nature of everything (the source of nostalgia): depressive collapse or refusal – denial, which reality rapidly takes responsibility for denying. The proposals of the three photographers would seem to imply the idea that a third approach could be possible in the face of the irreversibility of time.  It would consist, to employ the term of Vladimir Jankélévitch, in “seizing the happy occasion” that of the journey in the here and now – in the photographic hic et nunc.

A further feeling that these three photographic projects convey: a series of unbearable and yet abstract events (war, departure, voyage, arrival) are at the origin of a journey, a journey that also transcends this series of events. And what if being a refugee is not a permanent condition? And if by means of an emphasis on the collective experience – mateneen – by means of attention brought to bear on the here and now, weariness, collapse, refusal and denial could, as a start, be transformed into experiences lived in the present?

By discovering and questioning the figurative potential of the three photographers’ different approaches, their ability to mould them to produce an aesthetic experience becomes apparent, to enable a lived experience to emerge. Equally, their ability to visit an individual and collective memory or even to question it, to tell a story or simply to sketch it… the eternal and “sweet present of the present”[10] of photography.

[1] See details at the end of the work.

[2] To borrow the title-tool of the ethnopsychoanalyst Georges Devereux : From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences, De Gruyter Mounton, 2014.

[3] Aylan Kurdi, a 3 year old Syrian child tragically found lifeless on a Turkish beach during the summer of 2015. Photograph by Nilüfer Demir.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, translated by Jonathan Webber, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 182.

[5] Edgar Morin, La Méthode (II). Tome 5 : L’Humanité de l’Humanité, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, « Opus », 2001. 

[6] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall, London, University of California Press, 1984.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des objets, Paris, Gallimard, « Tel », 1968.

[8] According to Philippe Soupault's formula, humanist photographers (of whom Boubat, Doisneau and Ronis are the most famous representatives), view their contemporaries through the filter of their own humanity and portray men in a deliberately positive light, or at the very least are indulgent and always respectful.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, translated by J.A. Underwood, London, Penguin 2008.

[10] Jacques Prévert, “Alicante”, in Paroles, Paris, Folio, 1972.

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