As I am closing in on the final choices and hanging plan – and nearing the time that I need to write a Critical Review – it seems appropriate to summarise some of my thought processes.
Unfinished Stories aims to put previously unheard personal memories into a new collective memory, reinforced by a reconstruction of events through photography. This is not aftermath or reportage per se, nor is it reconciliation. It is a narrative of personal experiences to engender audience reflection.
Whilst the images open aesthetic questions, the use of text situates the narrative physically and temporally. Khmer-first helps anchor the series ethically.
The images explore the possibility of Kant’s ‘sublime’ – in the sense of an intellectual shock from external, memorialised events which are too profound to easily assimilate, yet with a paradoxical relationship to beautiful spaces.
When I started the project, there was a determination to ‘tell’ the stories of our Cambodian friends, both via an exhibition and a book. Whilst we had done much to document our collaborative work on children’s education, the personal had been inadvertently ‘short changed’. Our friends had not written down their experiences from Khmer Rouge times – or even talked about them properly with their families.
The project started a sometimes cathartic process, yet with enthusiastic engagement. From our first working together almost 20 years ago, the relationship between Sarath, Simeth, Ingrid and myself has been one of collaboration. Together we have consistently sought to making social change (via education) in ethical and culturally appropriate ways. Any photographic project simply extends this partnership, but does not prevent new appreciations and new emotions.
Story telling and narrative were a consideration from the beginning. I initially shot environmental portraits alongside rather classical documentary of the two best known sites concerned with Genocide – Tuol Sleng (S21, the prison and torture house) and Choeung Ek (the internationally known Killing Fields). Whilst there is much emotional power in the photographic portrayal of terrible events, some of my early efforts seemed trite and lacking in depth and respect, especially as the Genocide is long past. Photojournalists, such as McCullin, Peress or Nachtwey, in a sense have the benefit of immediacy in their portrayals of the atrocious. My work needs to shift time.
Also, from the point of view of a book, my early photography would have fallen squarely into the ‘kiss and tell’ genre of biographies about those harrowing times, currently in-store in Phnom Penh. Whilst all are personal, worthy and moving, they are text heavy and are not attempting to travel through time with photography.
From inception, there are two audiences for my project – Cambodian and Western. The physical product, the book, is hugely important to my Cambodian friends and colleagues, as it records a shared history. But to a less knowledgeable and distant audience, the objective is both education and impact. Few people have more than a passing knowledge of Cambodian history. So, a critical challenge is how to get viewers to stop, ponder and think about the implications of what happened.
As what became ‘Unfinished Stories‘ were written, I determined to shoot against them, not as a ‘step by step’ script, but as guides for more metaphorical, mindful imagery and sequences. The events recounted were of course well in the past. Imagery therefore needs to anchor the place yet also cross time, suggesting a created memory in ways that might engage the eventual audiences to discover and then reconsider history.
Fairly early in the project the use of landscape in some form seemed capable of meeting those objectives.
In a CRJ post that I wrote on Landscape, I commented that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) had first separated the ideas of ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime’. In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, he wrote:
‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. … No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime’. (1757, Part II, Section I).
His point was that a confrontation with the sublime can cause pleasure and pain, and this is an order of difference from our response to the merely beautiful. In another post, I noted that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment) suggested that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight. Beautiful objects need no underlying concept, but the sublime does. Kant wrote that:
‘The beautiful and the sublime are similar in some respects. We like both for their own sake, and both presuppose that we make a judgment of reflection rather than either a judgment of sense or a logically determinative one’.
‘So it seems that we regard the beautiful as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of the understanding, and the sublime as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of reason’. (1790, Analytic of the Sublime, §23: 97).
One interpretation of the sublime in art is thus as a way of thinking that challenge perceptions. My work is constructed with that in mind. Simon Morley, in discussing the Analytic of the Sublime, wrote that Kant shifted the discourse towards the impact of artistic work, beyond ‘just’ beauty’, and that:
‘... the sublime was essentially about a negative experience of limits. It was a way of talking about something we do not have the capacity to understand or control – something excessive‘. (Morley, 2010:16)
More generally, this connection with the power of art ‘in our heads’ is referred to by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites.
‘Photography is defined as a medium by its relationship to reality, and as an art by its relationship to the imagination’. (2016: 57).
JMW Turner, whilst drawing inspiration from reality, offers many examples of the sublime. He has always been a huge personal influence since my painting days, and his work has bearing on the present task. There is a paradox in the beautiful and the sublime which captures attention, and that is worthy of exploration. Turner was the master.
Allan Sekula’s rather singular take on his work is helpful. Sekula wrote that Turner was using the oceans as a contingent space.
‘This collapse, or blurring, of panoramic maritime space in painting was first grasped by J.M. W. Turner, in works produced coincidentally with the first appearances of steam-driven ‘ships in the decade preceding Engels’ voyage up the Thames. This is not to reduce the Turneresque sublime to a simple technological determinist explanation, but rather to suggest that a painted sky that presumed the wind to be a motive force had a different referential status from one in which steam and smoke were introduced as evidence of new powers. (Sekula, 1995: 45).
Turner was constructing single images, combining the real and the unreal. He was an expressionist, and a narrative poet. Sekula recognised that context was everything – in the choice of image, its interpretation through text, and its modes of display and consumption. And this included the importance of series, of photographs which at first glance are disconnected but become connected through these modes of consumption. David Campany confirmed this later point.
‘Most of photography’s significant artistic achievements in the 20th century were not single images but orchestrations of multiple images’. (2007: 13)
He quotes Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Nan Goldin and numerous others to support this.
In my work, and unlike Turner who stresses the dynamic, the determination is to stress the passive: what is left, not what was in progress.
As my research developed, several themes became clearer.
Aftermath & Traces. The core of the project is about things that happened over 40 years ago. Some physical traces remain, although if documentary is focused around the museums and memorial sites, the spectre of superficial, dark tourist photography raises its ugly head.
How should we photograph in retrospect? Campany talks of ‘late photography‘, Woollen of ‘cool photography‘, De Duve of ‘time exposures‘. All are referring to photography after the fact, rather than photography as news. (Campany, 2003). Perhaps ironically, this is taking photography back to the days of Matthew Brady and Roger Fenton, who could only record battlefields long after the battle had stopped.
Documentarians such as Sophie Ristelhueber (Fait, on Iraq) and Alan Cohen (The European Ground) told the story of past events with ‘modern’ imagery. In Ristelhueber’s case, she was reporting on fairly recent events. Joel Meyerowitz did something similar, though more classically oriented, in his work recording the aftermath of 9/11. He commented that the images almost took themselves, and he noted ‘the awful beauty‘ of the scenes.
For Cohen, the events of the Holocaust were long gone, and in fact even many physical manifestations were crumbling. Part of the creative solution for all of these photographers was the notion of traces, more abstract in Cohen’s case.
Be careful though. Allan Sekula warns:
‘… in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic ‘fact’, the genre has simultaneously contributed much to the spectacle of retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, any and nostalgia, and only a little to critical understanding of the social world’. (1978).
Natalie Herschdorfer summed up the challenge:
‘Can peaceful, seemingly ordinary places evoke experiences of horror and death? Do the scars of history leave a permanent imprint on a landscape’? (2011: 14).
My project explored this idea, with the added dimension of attempting to tell specific personal stories through a sequence of images. To some extent, Ristelhueber and Cohen’s work is rigorously impersonal. Broomberg and Chanarin offer a more intimate view in their Red House work, with graffiti traces and the like. But, again, they are suggesting a collective narrative rather than an individual one.
Genocide & Atrocity. Genocide is beyond our comprehension, to the point that some Holocaust scholars refuse to countenance its photographic record. The project raises questions about the ethics of atrocity photography, which I have explored at some length. My view is firmly that we should photograph and view such terrible things, always with a view to respecting the individuals concerned to the best of our ability. Bill Jay says this well:
‘While images still have the capacity to disturb us, I have hopes for both the human race and the medium of photography’. (1992: 43).
And Susie Linfield clarifies a useful ethical stance:
‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’. (2010: 60).
The Western collective memory of the Holocaust is driven by pictures of the camps – survivors or the remains of the dead. The Soviet Russian collective memory is different. It is more about unmarked graves and mass burials. As the army moved towards Berlin, such places are what they found, before they got to the camps, and are what they recorded. This in many ways parallels the Cambodian experience (there are almost 20,000 grave sites spread across the country, most unmarked, even today). Combined with consideration of how best to depict aftermath, this led to a confirmation of using landscape and trace photography.
Hannah Arendt, in discussing the trial of Eichmann, famously (and controversially) coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil‘. She did not mean that evil was normal, rather that we did not think properly about the unthinkable, about moral responsibility. (In Didi-Huberman, 2008: 162).
Whilst Unfinished Stories talks of evil deeds, it does so by showing what could be considered everyday places reinterpreted for new meaning, requiring new thinking.
Mick Yates. Mong Chen Hill. 2019.
The resultant landscapes and traces are indexical, in that they are directly, causally connected to the scene in front of the camera. The places exist in Cambodia, some being ‘hidden’ Killing Fields, and others being geographically critical to the personal stories.
But the photographs are also symbols, in the semiotic sense of Pierce, as they represent sites where things happened, without being literally that place. They are a phenomenological geography.
An-My Lê, in a 2007 interview with Art21, discussing her work ‘Small Wars‘ commented:
‘I think there’s always an element of something not quite understood in the sublime, something otherworldly, conflicting – something beautiful that’s not always beautiful, and something that’s not quite controllable and within our reach‘. (In Stallabrass, 2013: 46).
Her project involved Vietnam war reenactment in South Carolina. The photographs are black and white, often ethereal landscapes, and they have some aesthetic similarity to mine.
Time & Memory. The images are timeless. All are presented as being ‘out of time’, with no clues extant as to when they were taken. The events happened 40 years ago – and so could the photographic imprint. Yet, one could view the spot today.
The photographs are an attempt to create an index across time, which fits with the nature of the discourse. Sarath and Simeth tell of historical events, but they talk of them today. They evoke memories of the past, yet their emotions flow today. Images anchored in either time would not do justice to the temporal narrative.
Thierry de Duve wrote a short but profound essay on Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox. He sees a paradox in all photography.
A snapshot freezes a moment and purports to tell a truth, yet it carries no information about what he calls ‘the fluency of life‘, the contingent events surrounding that frozen moment. A snapshot is indexical. It is showing some kind on ‘unperformed movement‘, where the actual posture or pose is eternally frozen.
By contrast a time exposure is an autonomous representation of a state of affairs, a process, a set of contingencies. Yet, when it is viewed, it strangely stands away from the actual event from which it is drawn. It becomes a symbol, in the sense that it is outside of time. De Duve writes:
‘Only in time exposure (portrait, landscape, still life etc) may photography appear with the continuity of nature’. (In Campany, 2007: 58)
He comments that one could take a snapshot of an athlete and capture a most ungainly pose which would yield an artificial result. By contrast a considered portrait of the same individual would not look artificial and would sit outside of time. The portrait symbolises the person. It is this symbolism that I am attempting with my landscape work.
Text. I have separately written at length about the use of text as part of the image, rather than as a caption. Exemplars such as Paul Seawright, Karen Knorr, Duane Michals and others show the way.
Paula Luttringer, in Wailing of the Walls, uses almost an archaeological approach – semi-abstract, traces, suggestion – often reminiscent of Sophie Ristelhueber. In 1977, she was kidnapped and held in a secret detention center. Eventually she was released, and after her return in 1995 went back to tell the story. She did it through photographing the cells, and including short, simple and powerful testimony from the victims.
Of all the work reviewed, this is perhaps closest to what I am trying to achieve, although Luttringer’s depiction of the actual cells differs from my more metaphorical photographs. Also, each of Luttringer’s images seems self-contained rather than as part of an on-going narrative. Still, I believe that this is stunning work.
I will not repeat more of the considerations about text here, other than to confirm that the text can alter the way people approach the work.
In the latest (and final) iteration, the use of Khmer text really anchors the work. It opens up the encounter with the photograph, questioning yet also anchoring place. And it definitively sets the story as ‘theirs’ not ‘mine’. This is a Cambodian narrative, told in a Cambodian way, for a Western audience.
Technique. I have equally written a great deal about the use of infrared. Drawing inspiration originally from Judy Glickman Lauder, there is a curious combination of indexicality and otherworldliness that shows through the photographs.
Glickman Lauder speaks of ‘timeliness’ in her infrared images, a point with which I concur. Her works seems strangely unanchored in time, and she also speaks of ‘ghosts’. I believe that in my work, a more appropriate word is ‘hidden’.
The Cambodian context is deeply rural, and that is where the history happened. In those days, most of the country was thick with woods and forest, sadly not always there today. Infrared allows us to focus on that environment, whilst also, because of chlorophyll’s transparency to light, illuminating the background vegetation to create luminous backdrops.
In choosing the final images, I have attempted to balance this artificiality with reality, to create a paradox, a questioning of what is there to be seen.
Concluding, the images are constructed. They are artificial, out of time, paradoxical. They are simple, yet they are complex in being both symbolic and indexical. And the inclusion of quotes makes them a tiny bit controversial.
Hopefully, the images will form an interesting and thought provoking narrative for both of my audiences, whilst doing respectful justice to Sarath and Simeth. I will leave the last words to David Hume for all to consider.
‘Epicurus’s old questions have still not been answered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from? (1779, Part 10).
Header: J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). 1842. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00530
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