As I Was Dying, the new book by the Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, could be seen in some ways as a riposte to James Nachtwey’s monumental summation of the horrors of the 1990s, Inferno. The cover is stark and simple, featureless except for the title. This prepares the viewer for the reverential tone needed to approach the book; the subject matter is essentially the shadow cast by death on the world. In 67 brooding images, each printed double page, we are taken on a journey into darkness and pain. However, unlike Nachtwey’s opus, with its blinding intensity and clarity of vision, this journey is a more uncertain one, with images of confusion, darkness and flux, but with powerful emotions at its core.
One image from Kosovo typifies Pellegrin’s journalistic, visual and emotional strategy, in focusing the viewer’s attention on one individual, caught up in a greater enterprise. The dark, brooding nature of the chiaroscuro lighting, the reflections implying a world outside of the photograph, the dislocated framing, the sense of visual depth, and above all the isolation of the main actor in the image yet still related to his environment are all characteristic of his output over the last decade.
While the complex, fractured compositions of this book echo those of the other leading figure from the earlier generation, Gilles Peress, Pellegrin’s have a drama and darkness that does not generally feature in Peress’ work, but that is more akin to the images of Joseph Koudelka, and in their focus on picking out the emotional experience of an individual are almost more reminiscent of W Eugene Smith. But perhaps the greatest influence in combining all of these is the work of Robert Frank.
Pellegrin’s book, like The Americans, is a kind of odyssey too, even if driven by a news agenda rather than a personal one, and he has the same ability to find an emotional point of contact in a situation and capture this in an image. Like Frank, many of his photographs operate at the boundaries of exposure. The result of this working with marginal light conditions is that many of his images are blurred and out of focus, but they are capable of heightening the drama and expressiveness of the scene.
That this makes Pellegrin’s images less complete in their narrative function actually enhances his message. He is not trying to show the “truth” of a situation, or even try to explain it in any depth, but rather to seek a bridge between the viewer and the subject, to open up a space that interaction can take place, a “hole in reality” through which the audience can try to enter the world of the characters in his dramas. He openly acknowledges that he is an outsider, but an outsider who can act as an entry point for western audiences into the world of the “other”.
The images are presented without captions, and in a sequence that leaps from the Middle East to the Balkans, from Indonesia to Africa, and then back again from conflict and violence to natural disasters. This discontinuous narrative has a serious flaw. Although ostensibly a book about the moment of death in general, in essence it is at heart a book about the violence of man to man, and conflating natural disasters and the death of a pope, say, with images from manmade conflicts seeming to weaken the force of the message.
His approach does however signal a shift in emphasis from the concentration on visual complexity for its own sake, and his work stands as a more emotive and psychological response to the new political landscape of the 21st century, a response that seeks to engage the audience’s imagination as well as their understanding. Perhaps this focus on a more generic category of human suffering, on the universality of human cruelty rather than its uniqueness, is a powerful moral answer to the attempts of governments to pretend that incidents of brutality such as Abu Ghraib are the exceptions to the rule.