“J’ai tout expliqué dans les images!”

Marc Garanger at New York Photo Festival, May 16, 2010

In 1960, Marc Garanger, 25 and pressed into the French military service, found himself over the course of a fortnight making identity card portraits of 2000 women in occupied Algeria on the orders of his division commander. Each woman was photographed once, on a single frame, seated on a stool against a white wall. A language barrier prevented the photographer and subject from communicating verbally. But in these brief interactions were moments of extraordinary intensity; many of the women in the pictures glare at the camera, while others appear more placid. Even as they are literally being identified and cast as colonial subjects, they stare back, and so these pictures have come to be recognised as a celebration of pride and resistance in the face of power, dignity maintained under duress.

Algeria, 1960 © Marc Garanger
Algeria, 1960 © Marc Garanger

On Sunday, at the New York Photo Festival in Brooklyn, Garanger, with a translator, fielded questions about “Algerian Women, 1960” to a full house. He had been honored with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and his pictures were a core component of Bodies in Question, the exhibit curated by Fred Ritchin. Members of the audience politely but persistently asked Garanger to clarify details about the pictures. Did the women normally go veiled? (Many of the women were Berber, wearing a cheich over the head but not over the face. However, many of the cheichs were removed. This was the first time that many of the women had ever been photographed. Against their will, among soldiers who called them “monkeys”, it was in any case a humiliation.)  When Garanger returned to Algeria in 2004 to seek out some of the subjects, did they harbour any ill will against the army photographer? (No, they remembered and welcomed him and appreciated having the pictures.)

Return to Algeria 2004 © Marc Garanger
Return to Algeria 2004 © Marc Garanger

The questions – many of which I shared – were respectful, and did not appear to be attempts to undermine or otherwise cast doubt on the photographer’s efforts, but rather were sincere efforts to better understand the work. I wanted to know how the women distinguished him from the other soldiers, who Garanger detested for their racism. Did they not just see him as another soldier? Was their rage not directed at him, the photographer? While he was a soldier, he was not an official military photographer, but was chosen for the task because he already possessed the skills.

Algeria, 1960 © Marc Garanger
Algeria, 1960 © Marc Garanger

I don’t think these were bad questions but after hearing Garanger’s responses and after speaking with him, I realised that they were perhaps the wrong questions. Rather than trying to sort out how these pictures came to be and reconciling the contradictions of intentions and points of view, reasons and results (questions which were necessary for us to come to terms with this body of work), we should also have been asking about the ways in which unlikely paths can present uncommon possibilities. These opportunities fueled by strong feelings may result in work that resonates even with future generations and in new contexts. For Garanger, the pictures were an important way to express his outrage; he says he had no choice but to take the pictures because he was ordered to by his officer.  But I suspect he had no choice as well as a matter of conscience; that is, his convictions forced him to make the pictures as he did.

There is something about these pictures that asks us to consider them differently than archives such as the Cambodian S-21 genocide pictures, in that Garanger’s hand is present both in the pictures and in their continued circulation. Identity pictures made by another photographer may equally have captured the outrage of many of the sitters but perhaps not the connection that resulted from Garanger’s nonverbal efforts, or the sensibility informed by Edward Curtis‘ salvage photography.  Inspired by Curtis, the photographer commissioned by J.P. Morgan in the early 20th century to document Native American life and history before it was irrevocably transformed, Garanger wanted to make pictures that would first, by virtue of their existence, be a testament. In hindsight, the thread through his making the pictures – promoting them outside of France, having them recognised at Arles in 1981 and subsequently published as a book, continuously seeking out traditional societies to photograph since the 1960s, returning to Algeria to seek out the subjects of the identity pictures, and having those pictures shown in venues such as New York Photo Festival – seems a clean narrative. But Garanger, following his impulses and convictions in 1960, could not have anticipated this course. Indeed, it was his anger, confronted with the precariousness of the moment in 1960 as France and the Algerian National Liberation Front fought the war that would lead to Algeria’s decolonisation in 1962, that made the pictures possible at all.

Garanger says that the pictures explain everything: “J’ai tout expliqué dans les images!” – this remark drew spontaneous applause from the audience. But the fact that an identity picture can equally be a symbol of resistance suggests that the image cannot alone explain everything. While his photographs do speak clearly, it is his testimony and the mythology that has come to surround the pictures that transforms them from evidence and what the festival describes as “a raw depiction of beauty and sublime dignity” into something that can be a lesson.

Case in point: the French cabinet has just approved a draft law to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public, raising the question of how France’s effort to conform its citizens to its modern values of secular authority both historically and in the present, domestically and in its territories, can articulate with a respect for those citizens’ traditions and how France defines the “personal dignity” that this law is meant to protect. This tension is evidenced in the narratives surrounding Garanger’s pictures where the women are both humiliated by their exposure and made modern by it. It’s almost as though the act of being photographed allows them and their valor to be recognised. 

“Algerian Women, 1960” was a good focal point for the Bodies in Question exhibit. Ritchin’s exhibit addresses the notion that we can recognise power in and through images when we approach them in ways other than as we customarily do. The power in image-making practices becomes revealed when we step away from the conventional view and take an oblique angle. The identity picture becomes both organising instrument and evidence of resistance; the Google street view image that I use as a navigational reference reveals that I am myself being surveilled both as I move through public spaces and as I use Google.

The strength of the show was its ability to raise a set of questions concurrently through the work of several different photographers then see the answers play out differently in different bodies of work. Michael Wolf’s images made through Google Street view, and Alexandre Maubert’s pictures of the boundaries of a wall-less prison describe rationalise space and surveillance in contrast to Tina Enghoff’s ghostly suggestions of immigrants to Denmark who suffer domestic abuse because they must remain married for seven years or face deportation and the horrible banality of Raphael Dallaporta’s pictures of nondescript buildings that are sites of contemporary domestic slavery. Benjamin Busch, another soldier, makes pictures that are largely devoid of the bodies that frequently characterise war photojournalism, but his work is a thoughtful observation on human environments in both the US and Iraq.

Also notable at the festival:

• A group of Dutch photographers who created photo books disassembled their books and hung them in what was formerly the Galapagos Artspace, now the Kunsthalle Galapagos (but still a good place for weddings) along with a number of works in progress to create a labyrinth of pages. You literally walk through the book, a kind of inversion of the traditional reading experience but no less interactive. The exhibit, curated by Marga Rotteveel, maintains a DIY spirit all the way through from the books’ autobiographical themes to the onsite photocopier used to reproduce the festival edition of the accumulated work.

• Eric Kessels’ “Use Me, Abuse Me” was a delirious mashup of surfaces and insides, a pleasantly disorienting wonderland of repurposed images. Everything has been taken apart and reassembled.  Gwon Osang’s figures are made up of many pictures of the surfaces of the models; Chantal Rens and Sanja Medic both address what ruptured surfaces might reveal.

Use Me Abuse Me
Eric Kessels’ “Use Me, Abuse Me” featured work by Gwon Osang (right) and Paul Kooiker (back).

• Lou Reed’s contribution, “Hidden Books, Hidden Stories”, included a room presenting Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambú installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a display of photo books inside boxes atop pedestals; and a 14 minute slideshow of work by 18 photographers. Here are some of my notes:

landscapes- industrial.
hospitals.  people suffering
religious settings
ice sculpture of horse?
cities, nudes
Henry Darger
man in corset
creepy dolls
more creepy dolls
we don’t know where we are going or why
the sea

You can see the slideshow here. Reed’s selections seem to adhere to his instincts for work that speaks to a photographer’s obsession; none of the work that he chose is dispassionate. With the original score by Reed and Sarth Calhoun it feels like a kind of Koyaanisqaatsi in its sense of having a grand scope and grand tensions, but with art photography, and with a logic to it that was for me always just out of reach.

Leo Hsu