Rushes, 1986 © Alfredo Jaar
I believe we have lost the ability to see and be moved by images. Alfredo Jaar, 2002.
Whether in the gold mines of the Amazonian rainforest, the detention centres of Hong Kong, or the refugee camps of Rwanda, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar has worked a beat familiar to many photojournalists in recent decades. Yet his photography, and the contexts in which it is used, confounds expectations and subverts journalistic convention, demonstrating a scepticism about the ethics of photojournalism and an ambivalent attitude toward the uses and effects of photographic imagery tout court.
Ahead of a major exhibition opening this autumn in Milan, two books surveying his output – The Politics of Images and Let There be Light – offer an opportunity to examine, amongst other aspects of his work, Jaar’s engagement with the uses of news photographs in the mass media.
Jaar trained as an architect but turned to film-making, having become disillusioned with what he termed the ‘total dependence of architecture to capital’. In a bid to escape the stifling conditions of Chile’s military dictatorship he left Santiago for New York in the 1980’s, where he began to produce art installations that combined his interests in both film and architecture. Probably his most prolonged exploration of the implications of photojournalism began in 1994 within the context of the Rwanda Project – an open-ended attempt to address the difficulties of picturing the aftermath and legacy of that country’s descent into genocide. He has held solo exhibitions at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Lausanne’s Musee des Beaux Arts, and has taken part in the Venice, Seville and Johannesburg Biennales.
Rushes, 1986 © Alfredo Jaar
The Politics of Images offers a comprehensive overview of Jaar’s career, accompanied by essays from Jacques Ranciere, Griselda Pollock and Nicole Schweizer. Politics includes early work produced in Chile before his departure for the States, and several important bodies of work that resulted from a trip in 1985 to Serra Palada, an open cast gold mine in north-eastern Brazil. There he photographed and filmed the astonishing working conditions of the self-employed miners (who were also photographed around the same time by Sebastiao Salgado). An insistence on the importance of context to the subsequent interpretation and distribution of his work has been central to Jaar’s practice; and the Serra Palada material was initially installed on a New York subway station alongside indicators of fluctuations in world gold prices. The work has since appeared as art installations in a variety of exhibition spaces – re-edited, re-cropped and in different formats. The sleek presentation and high production values of the latter might appear at odds with the work’s content but Jaar has upheld the integrity of the approach:
I think the mise en scene is fundamental. The mise en scene is the context that allows me to present my information in a seductive way…this theatricality is absolutely designed by me as away to seduce the spectator…because I deal with information that most of us would rather ignore.
Unframed, 1992 © Alfredo Jaar
Jaar’s insistence on establishing an interpretive context for his own photography is symptomatic of a wider mistrust of the economics of control and ownership that structure the mass media. These concerns were foregrounded most notably by news coverage (or its lack) of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Despite the appalling scale of the exterminations neither Time nor Newsweek gave a cover story to events until months after the killings were over. Jaar’s Untitled (Newsweek) placed magazine covers – from the start of the massacres until belated recognition – alongside brief texts charting the worsening situation in Rwanda.
Untitled (Newsweek) © Alfredo Jaar
Jaar arrived in Kigali three weeks after the end of the genocide in which Hutu militias had killed approximately one million Rwandans. Let There be Light is the most complete collation of the first four years’ worth of work – with an introduction by Ben Okri and essay by David Levi-Strauss – on what became known as the Rwanda Project. Though Jaar spent nearly a month interviewing, documenting and photographing survivors and refugees, he ultimately felt unable to exhibit any of the work. He commented in retrospect:
For me what was important was to record everything I saw around me, and to do this as methodically as possible. In these circumstances a ‘good photograph’ is a picture that comes as close as possible to reality. But the camera never manages to record what your eyes see, or what you feel at that moment…I have always been concerned with the disjunction between experience and what can be recorded photographically. In the case of Rwanda, the disjunction was enormous and the tragedy unrepresentable (Trans, 1997)
Rwanda Rwanda, 1994 © Alfredo Jaar
Though he had made thousands of photographs around Rwanda and in the refugee camps on the Zaire border, when he was invited to use public advertising spaces for an art project in Sweden he chose to display only the name ‘Rwanda’ as a response. His resolve not to exhibit any of his photographs was also evident in the Real Pictures project in which he painstakingly produced an edit of sixty images from the trip , only to encase them in black funereal boxes labelled with descriptions of each hidden picture. As such they confirmed his stance regarding the unrepresentable, literally obscene, nature of what had happened; and at the same time they addressed his concerns about the distribution and consumption of such imagery.
I came back with thousands of images of horror. And also with the realisation that it was not possible to show the material. I felt that it wouldn’t make any difference to show these images because I feel people here have lost the capacity to see, they have lost their capacity to be affected. This is due to the relentless bombardment of images we suffer every day and how it completely de-contextualises everything.(Camera Austria, 2004)
Whilst his work suggests an antipathy to forms of media coverage, Jaar is by no means opposed to photojournalism per se – he has described himself as a ‘frustrated journalist’ and in interview has remarked:
The problem is not in the photojournalists, but in the distribution of their images […] They…take their pictures and immediately have to send them to the central agencies, which in turn distribute them to the media […] There are several editing processes that take place, beginning when the scene was photographed to the moment it is published in a magazine. This is where the problem lies. If we go back to the source and see the original photography taken by the photojournalists I think that, for the most part, we find that the photographs are very powerful, and that they communicate a very strong sense of reality. The problem lies in the distribution and the final presentation of these images in the media. (Trans, 1997)
The Silence of Nduwayezu, 1997 © Alfredo Jaar
A further work from the Rwanda Project – The Silence of Nduwayezu – again gives form to Jaar’s sense of photography’s futility and inadequacy in the face of atrocity – in this case by heaping on a lightbox one million duplicates (to correspond to the numbers killed) of a single transparency. The photograph in question is a close-up of the eyes of a survivor of a Hutu death squad massacre. Gutete Emerita lived, but witnessed the killing of her husband and sons. In a sense Jaar’s strategies appear to contradict the priorities of traditional photojournalism; but in another light his work might be considered an extension of concerns experienced by others in the field. The titles of Simon Norfolk’s For Most of it I Have No Words or Gilles Peress’ The Silence, for example, both refer to the inadequacy, failure or impossibility of verbal representations of atrocity. Jaar’s approach is to extend that position to the realm of photography, precluding the possibility of a spectatorial or voyeuristic consumption of his work…and requiring instead that his audience engages – actively and critically – with the issues he raises.
I am…disillusioned by the role of most of the media, which is in the hands of a few corporations that have transformed it into a business like any other. I still believe, because we have no choice, that the world of culture is the only space left in the world today where we can speculate and suggest new ways of understanding the world – the only place where we can dream (Art Journal, 2005)
© Guy Lane, 2008
Alfredo Jaar – It is Difficult, Hangar Bicocca, Milan October 3rd, 2008 – January 11th , 2009
Alfredo Jaar: The Politics of Images – ed Nicole Schweizer (JRP / Ringier)
Let There Be Light. The Rwanda Project 1994-1998 – Alfredo Jaar (Actar, Barcelona)