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Depth of Field, volume 4, no 1 (September 2014)

Artistic ‘Non-Compliance’ with the Protocol Rules of Photojournalism. A Comparative Case Study of Luc Delahaye, Gilles Saussier, and Bruno Serralongue[1]

Hilde Van Gelder

Article


Prologue: The ‘too soon – too late’ Logic

Between 1993 and 1995, Bruno Serralongue – then a student in Nice – initiated a photographic project called Les Faits divers [‘News Items’]. Early in the morning, he would buy the local newspaper, Nice-Matin, in order to locate places where accidents or crimes had occurred the day before. Serralongue subsequently went to some of the spots reported by the newspaper and took a picture of the surroundings. Often, the places where each of these incidents had occurred were only just quietening down. The light conditions were sometimes not entirely optimal to take the picture (for instance, it was still too early in the morning). The aesthetic outcome of such a photographic approach is one of an utterly banal image. Yet, the apparent neutrality of his pictures takes on an extremely precise meaning, when we acknowledge the additional text added by the artist in the white margin at the foot of each image. By means of a silkscreen reproduction, Serralongue included summaries of the articles published in Nice-Matin below each respective image. In N°29, Monday 16 May 1994, the text informs us: ‘The altercation involving two youths on a scooter and two men travelling in a 504 could have been a very banal scenario: an exchange of insults […] wherein everyone continued on their way after letting off some verbal steam. […] Unfortunately, it went beyond this. […] In front of the Ruhl casino there was an episode as brutal as it was alarming. […] A male passenger of the 504 quickly got out of the vehicle, brandished a handgun and immediately fired towards the passenger of the scooter. […] With a bullet wound in his left lung, the young Nasser had to be admitted to the hospital in a serious condition.’[2]

This intriguing strategy of interaction between the text and the image, a characteristic feature in Serralongue’s approach, reminds us of the traditional processes pertaining to photojournalism.[3] However, the predominant photojournalistic protocols demand, through a precise articulation between an image and the text accompanying it, the transmission of as much information as possible in a minimal amount of time. Confronted with the aforementioned example, one can only conclude that the proposed relation between the picture and its text is a mistake: the represented image is a non-event and in no way corresponds to the terrible circumstances described in the text. In a subversive artistic gesture, Serralongue here plays the role of the ‘incompetent journalist’, who seems as if he does not ‘understand well’ the rules of his profession, and who, irrevocably, turns up too late at a crime scene. With this approach, Bruno Serralongue follows in the tracks of a number of artist-photographers, who have recently placed the rules of photojournalism under critical scrutiny.

‘Anti-Photojournalism’

One may categorise Serralongue’s way of working under the term of ‘anti-photojournalism’.[4] This is a concept forged by Allan Sekula in a text called ‘Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]’ (2000). Describing the way he photographed the Seattle WTO protests on November 30, 1999, Sekula defined the basic elements of his method in the following way: ‘No flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence’.[5] The famous photograph of a besieged street in the centre of Timisoara taken by Gilles Saussier, then working for Gamma, exemplifies what Sekula criticizes.[6] Not only was this picture awarded third prize at World Press Photo 1989, but it also adorned the cover of the German magazine Stern in January 1990. At the same time, it was being published in other glossy news magazines such as Paris Match. This photograph, which went on to become a symbol of the heyday of photojournalism, shows soldiers from the Romanian army trapped by snipers hiding on top of a building.

At the time, newspapers and magazines had systematically attributed the shots to the Securitate, Nicolae Ceauşescu’s security forces. Today, however, one is still unsure whether the gunshots were really fired by the Securitate. What is certain is that this assumption enabled the public attention to be diverted from the alleged harm done by the army itself, here presented as a victim of war crimes. Thus, this picture symbolically gave clearance to the army for its own suspected crimes against civilians, namely the presumed execution of a hundred people. No photograph exists to provide direct proof of such an act beyond an image of its ‘traces’ in terms of an about to become mass grave, which was made by Saussier on 24 December 1989.[7] Time magazine (8 January 1990), which reproduced the latter picture, added a caption that explicitly accorded the responsibility for this massacre to Ceauşescu’s security forces, and not to the Romanian army. Still, a great number of accounts made it known that it possibly was the Romanian army that, in December 1989, fired at the unarmed crowd in Timisoara. Subsequently, Saussier expressed his indignation at certain ‘standard’ interpretations of war pictures by the media, which he judges as not only too narrow-minded but also potentially dangerous, as the media now rule the power of information.

Spurred by a feeling of urgency – just like Bruno Serralongue – Saussier launched into a critical reflection on the processes and the rules currently in fashion in the realm of photojournalism. Photojournalism is traditionally based on press agencies commissioning stories from their photographers, which frequently implies travels to conflict zones, putting their lives at risk. They are sent out with a very specific mission and a clear knowledge of the kinds of images newspapers and magazines are seeking: as a result, they will bring them the pictures they want. Once a picture is sold, the photographer does not have any control anymore on the way it will be used by a magazine. Besides, the fact that many of them seem relatively unaffected by this is an issue that is strongly criticized in the film Episode III – Enjoy Poverty (2009), directed by artist Renzo Martens in the Democratic Republic of Congo.[8]

Allan Sekula was among the first to raise his voice against such photojournalistic methods. In a 1976/79 text called ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation)’, he draws our attention to what we, as spectators of these images, tend to neglect: that each photographic image is embedded in a mechanism of power defined by Sekula as an ‘overall communicative system, with its characteristic structure and its mode of address’.[9] Today, the collective denial of this mechanism of power is still very operative, and in place ­– notwithstanding, for example, the well-known tragedy of photojournalist Kevin Carter’s suicide soon after he was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer prize for an iconic picture shot in Sudan of a vulture waiting next to a starving child. It is precisely for such reasons that Bruno Serralongue, in his work as an artist, questions the fact that – in terms of the choice of the picture to be published in a magazine or a newspaper to illustrate a story – it is the editor, and not the photographer, who both selects the image and determines the public debate that is created around it.[10] As an artist, Serralongue makes a clear statement by positioning himself as the one who independently chooses his own ‘commissions’. He thereupon goes to the places that he wants to photograph at his own expense. In return, he gets to autonomously decide which image will be shown to the public, how it will be presented, and with which text or caption it will be contextualised.

Critiques of the Snapshot

With this artistic process carefully developed in terms of an act of performance, Serralongue expresses a critique both against the photojournalist’s passive submission to his/her commissioners and against the logic of communication of the latter, which incurs the danger to misuse certain images for transmitting a specific worldview to the mainstream public. As for Gilles Saussier, he quit being a photo reporter in 1994, resigning from Gamma and renouncing his press pass. In his first book, published two years later, he was sure to publicly insist that his project was ‘the result of [his] individual initiative’ and that he had ‘never been assigned or remunerated by any organization or media to implement it’.[11] Bruno Serralongue never even had a press pass. Instead of using traditional, easy to use cameras – as traditional press photographers do – Serralongue is not afraid to work with technical cameras, demanding the use of a tripod and producing large-format negative prints. The characteristic slowness of this working method stands in sharp contrast with one of the basic rules of classical photojournalism: the snapshot.

This rule of the decisive moment is also strongly contested in the book Gilles Saussier published in 2010, called Le Tableau de chasse. This title does not seem to have been chosen by chance: it tacitly reminds us of a famous passage of Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977). Sontag describes, with a hint of irony, a popular and widespread image of the camera: as ‘a predatory weapon – one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring’.[12] As for pictures, they are considered as trophies won by the photographer thanks to his skills, his slyness and his good fortune, because he was at the right place at the right time. Vilém Flusser went so far as to compare the photographer’s activity to that of the hunter. In a chapter called ‘The Gesture of Photography’, he compares the gestures of the palaeolithic hunter in the tundra to those of the photographer. According to him, the difference lies in the fact that the photographer does not operate in the ‘open savanna’, but inside a dense ‘jungle of cultural objects’. The various paths he takes while hunting are therefore based on his ‘artificial forest’.[13]

In his book, Saussier hints at this very logic of photographs being understood in terms of ‘hunting trophies’, as the following sentences show: ‘The idea of being at the right place at the right time, dear to the hunter and the photographer’;[14] and, on the next page, ‘the decisive moment of the gunshot’.[15] Saussier went back to Timisoara in 2004 in order to take pictures for a new project, which eventually became Le Tableau de chasse. He writes that, during this trip, he fortuitously took part in a hunt with a group of local journalists. The result is a long sequence of pictures, accompanied with texts by the author, in which he develops a deep reflection on what news pictures and photojournalism in particular are able (or unable) to accomplish. Among other places, Saussier went back to the pauper’s cemetery in Lipovei Street, the site of the media polemic on the already mentioned alleged Timisoara massacre. There, he took several pictures of modest tombstones – crosses planted in the ground in a disorderly manner. In the book, he reproduced some of these images, adding fragmentary commentaries in the guise of an attempt to give a voice to those who had left only diffuse traces. In this, Saussier put his initial practice of press photography into perspective. He tried to seize the complexity of the situation, which was not apparent in the award-winning picture, and largely absent from the interpretations that were later made by tabloid magazines.

Consequently, Le Tableau de chasse also offers a crucial reflection on historical representation in photography. ‘Anti-photojournalism’, therefore, is a ‘non-compliant’ artistic practice. It expresses the artist’s desire to come back to a politically conscious conception of the photographic image in order to rediscover what circumstantial photography may tell us when freed from a constrained context that is too heavily standardized or submitted to the interests of established powers. Anti-photojournalism turns out to be a process aimed at conducting a critical investigation of the way in which press photographs tell us about the history they depict. It may also be understood as an encouraging attempt to profoundly reconsider some of the currently predominating rules of protocol in photojournalism.

Two Radically Opposed ‘Non-Compliant’ Artistic Practices

This stance of resistance taken on by Serralongue and Saussier versus the established system of photojournalism as it is practiced today therefore seems to allow for the emergence of a new protocol – this time within the realm of visual art: ‘anti-photojournalistic’ photographic art practice. In line with the arguments provided by John Roberts, this protocol is linked to the one adhered to by those contemporary photographic artists who actively choose, without any regret, to ‘work outside of the temporal constraints of arriving on time’.[16] While Roberts does not mention them, Saussier and Serralongue could certainly belong to this category. And this all the more because the new artistic protocol they are proposing appears as an attempt to distinguish itself from another contemporary artistic protocol: the one Roberts identifies as elaborated by photographers ‘trapped in [their] melancholic attachment to the “lost” event’.[17] Roberts uses the work of Luc Delahaye as an example, which I will return to shortly. There, I will also investigate how this other protocol as well develops within a dialectical relation to reigning protocols established by photojournalism.

In the case of Gilles Saussier, the term that he chose as the title for his book – ‘tableau de chasse’ [‘hunting scene’ or ‘hunting tableau’] – refers to the history of painting, and more particularly to a painting’s ‘historicizing’ power ( fig. 1 ). Yet, the fact he chose the small format of simple pages in a book – and not the large-size photographic tableau – bears witness to his critical standpoint with regards to the way in which a ‘historical scene’ may tell us a story about the unfolding of history ( fig. 2 ). This is exemplified in an image of the hunting episode that emblematically brings to mind the people who were massacred ( fig. 3 ). The same may be said of Bruno Serralongue. He stressed that despite his frequent use of larger formats, he does not wish to create works functioning like ‘history painting, perfectly closed in on itself’.[18] To achieve this goal, he is careful to work with sequences of images and never presenting one of these images without showing a representative set at the same time ( fig. 4 ). Thus, each image is a component, a fragment, taken from a larger narrative that unfolds through the careful observation of the entire sequence.

FIG2

Fig. 1. Gilles Saussier, pages 34-35 of Le Tableau de chasse, Cherbourg-Octeville, 2010. © Gilles Saussier.

FIG2

Fig. 2. Gilles Saussier, Le Tableau de chasse (2010), exhibition display in Anti-photojournalism, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona (2010). © Gilles Saussier.

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Fig. 3. Gilles Saussier, pages 31-32 of Le Tableau de chasse, Cherbourg-Octeville, 2010. © Gilles Saussier.

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Fig. 4. Bruno Serralongue, Deux hommes, zone des dunes, Calais, juillet 2007, from the sequence Calais, 2006-2008. Ilfochrome on aluminium, plexiglas framing, 156 x 126 cm. © Air de Paris, Paris. Installation view at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2009.

The anti-photojournalistic protocols of Saussier and Serralongue are therefore extremely clear. They do not wish to confront us with images that, at least at first sight, appear to contain the information they seek to communicate to the spectator only within themselves. In this, they distinguish themselves from, for instance, their fellow Frenchman Luc Delahaye. Until 2001, Delahaye was a press photographer under contract to Newsweek. He was also a member of the Magnum agency from 1994 to 2004. Today, like Saussier, he has decided to put aside his press pass, in order to engage as well in a non-compliant artistic approach with regard to contemporary photojournalism.[19] Luc Delahaye became renowned in the art world for what I will provisionally call his ‘pseudo press photographs’, which were stretched to a wide, monumental format. His History series (started in 2001 and still in progress, but no longer titled as such) is well known. Although they are a part of a series, these often very large pictures are presented to their viewers in terms of images that can also operate quite independently from one another: each photograph already seems to contain a finite narrative within.[20] This has led certain authors, such as Abdellah Karroum, to define Delahaye’s pictures, often shot at the core of the action, as ‘documents of an immediate history [characterised by their] directness [and] their narrative structure’.[21]

Melancholy for the Iconic Snapshot

In light of this reading, it is essential to stress that creating an ‘immediate’ snapshot, one in conformity with the current norms of photojournalism, is not Delahaye’s goal. Like Serralongue and Saussier, Delahaye also frequently uses a camera (the Linhof panoramic camera) that is too heavy and too slow in processing to create snapshots in the traditional sense of the term. He sometimes also makes use of digital composition techniques. Naturally, the production constraints of such very large, composite pictures exempt them from the ruling protocols of current photojournalism. Yet, it is rather in the choice of his photographed subjects that Delahaye diverges from both Saussier and Serralongue, and therefore remains more faithful to his photojournalistic heritage.

When looking at the subject of Taliban (2001) – a dead warrior – one experiences a tension between the immediate feelings conveyed by the work, i.e. as if it were an emblematic photojournalistic snapshot, and the rather alienating effect it has on us in terms of its presentation as a large-size, iconic tableau. One good example of Delahaye’s ‘tableaux-portraits’ (as Michael Fried calls them) that can help to further clarify this ambivalence is a comparative analysis of his representations featuring men who have died suddenly.[22] Taliban shows a Taliban soldier in Afghanistan who has just died in a ditch. The same can be said of Death of a Mercenary (2011), shown in large format in 2012 at the Paris Triennale as one part of a diptych coupled with another photograph, House to House (Tawergha), taken one-half hour before Death of a Mercenary.[23] On the website of the exhibition, the latter picture is accompanied by the following comment: ‘Death of a Mercenary […] shows a mercenary of Gaddafi’s forces. Hiding in a courtyard and unable to escape, he was shot by the rebels. The photographer recorded the last moment of this man.’[24]

In such works, Delahaye confronts us with men who have just met their death. These pictures are ‘iconic’ in a twofold sense of the term. Not only do they deal with a consummate subject of representation in traditional photojournalism, but the large format of the photographs also underscores Delahaye’s willingness to make them function as paintings (‘icons’) and to have them interpreted through what Michael Fried calls their ‘pictorial field’.[25] Here one may find the major difference between Delahaye’s pictures and those of Serralongue and Saussier. The latter two have, firstly, relinquished this eminently classical photojournalistic subject (the man who has just died), which reveals the ‘phallus of the reporter’, to quote Saussier.[26] Secondly, they refuse any ‘melancholic attachment’ (to recall John Roberts) to pseudo-photojournalistic hunting for this ‘phallus’ and its subsequent sublimation in the tableau-form.

Instead of again looking for men that have died on the spot, Saussier in 2004 paid a visit to workers in a Timisoara factory ( fig. 5 ). He put his ‘trophy’ (the one he received on the occasion of the World Press Photo prize in 1989) next to them on the floor, i.e. next to living men, people with a future ahead of them. This eminently modest gesture has a concrete scope: to place oneself on an equal footing with these workers, by ‘putting the weapons down like the chief of defeated troops’.[27] Saussier’s book thus becomes a testimony to the artist’s determination to both fully debunk the iconic dimension of the sensational brand of photojournalism he was practicing in his youth and to reject the tableau-form. As for Bruno Serralongue, his photograph Deux hommes, zone des dunes, Calais, juillet 2007, from the Calais (2006-2008) sequence, is well known ( fig. 4 ). It shows two migrants in the sand dunes of Calais who grew to trust the artist to the point of accepting being photographed frontally, in a very recognizable way. Even though this is a quite large picture containing, at first glance, a similar iconic potential to a painting or a photographic tableau, it is obvious that its integration within a larger sequence is a way for the artist to secure the ‘performative value’ of his pictures rather than their pictorial, ‘iconic content’, as Carles Guerra has argued.[28]

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Fig. 5. Gilles Saussier, pages 54-55 of Le Tableau de chasse, Cherbourg-Octeville, 2010. © Gilles Saussier.

Involvement or ‘Distance’: An Ethical Issue for Contemporary Artistic Photography

With such shoots at eye level, face to face with his subject, Serralongue reminds us of an extremely codified strategy of documentary photography: the regime of facial identification, which, as Martha Rosler showed, went bankrupt in the late 1960s because of its own ‘physiognomic fallacy’.[29] This was the time of disappointment in facial identification mechanisms between the one taking the picture and the persons represented, as it was felt that the charity mechanisms that these images set into motion only served to strengthen the system (something against which Rosler was strongly opposed in her work) or led, conversely, to the reporting of these people to the police because the pictures were handed over to the authorities, as Sally Stein (1983) showed for the case of Jacob Riis.

Serralongue’s photographs do not aim at reporting anyone to the police. On the contrary: in explicitly opting for a frontally portraying pose, he seeks to create new grounds for equality between the photographer and the subject, and reinvestigate the potential impact of the ‘physiognomic’ approach today. As he subsequently decides to hang his pictures on the exhibition room’s wall at the spectator’s eye level, they are meant to lay a claim on our reflexive commitment as beholder, and aim to settle through a lasting ‘after-effect’ in our minds. We are forced to position ourselves – at least in our imagination – on the same level as the photographer and the subject, and engage in a visual dialogue with them, i.e. in an exchange of meaningful glances that may lead to creating changes in our opinions about these people, and potentially also our behaviour towards them.

One can now once more compare Serralongue’s approach to that of Luc Delahaye, who states: ‘I want to show the event at the very moment it is taking place. […] But then, right in the middle of the event, my effort tends to disappear, I am taking distance verging on indifference.’[30] Delahaye’s pictures express a strategy of ‘deliberate non-engagement’.[31] Michael Fried has celebrated this ‘cold sense of distance’, which the artist describes as one that the spectator may as well feel in front of the dead men in Delahaye’s pictures: it is a necessary precondition for the work’s aesthetic appreciation.[32] In a similar vein, Mark Durden emphasizes that Delahaye’s ‘dispassionate’ and ‘subdued rhetoric’ allows Taliban to be a work that ‘begins to open out a space for empathy and identification’, through the dignity and respect for the dead man that speaks from its pictorial format and related aesthetic beauty.[33] In his view, it is the pictorial shape of the work that comes to ‘counter the atrocities and violence of the circumstances in which this picture was made’.[34] It may indeed be argued that Delahaye is transposing the representational regime of photojournalism towards visual art in an encouraging gesture: he forces us to think about the dead man in question for more than the split-second that we would be looking at such an image if it were published in a news magazine.

Durden also suggests that the depicted contents of Taliban, when exhibited next to other pictures by the artist, such as Ordinary Public Consistory (2003) – which shows a ceremony in the Vatican ­– are placed within the perspective of the larger geopolitical context of ‘the current global conflict’: seen in this way, the disastrous state of affairs in Afghanistan is brought to our attention, generating empathy for the situation and the people there.[35] To further substantiate that claim, he uses a passage from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), in which she describes a photographic triptych by Tyler Hicks, published in The New York Times on 13 November 2001.[36] The photographs portray a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform that had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers, at the moment of his capture (first image), of him being pulled to his feet (second image), and after his execution (third image).[37] But there is one crucial difference between the Delahaye picture and what Sontag is focussing on: she takes the moment of the soldier ‘begging for his life’ as the key one: the moment when there was still hope for him being saved.[38] It is then, she argues, that we can emblematically arrive at an understanding of this man as ‘someone (like us) who also sees’, and not ‘only as someone to be seen’. For Delahaye’s dead Taliban fighter, instead, there is no more hope. The same can be said about his aforementioned Libya diptych: at the moment we see the journalists run into the house, we may imagine the soldier still being able to see us. But that is not what is shown to the spectator. The second image confirms what we already feared: he is someone ‘to be seen’, but he no longer sees us.

In that sense, both Serralongue’s and Saussier’s pictures place a very different claim on the spectator: Serralongue asks us to come to an understanding of the two men represented standing in the dunes as people who ‘also’ see (like us). Their eyes explicitly address our own eyes; these men are observing us with an expression that is both friendly and anguished. This strongly provokes the spectator, spurring extremely ambivalent feelings: we are directly confronted by people who could be us – they are our own image reflected in the mirror, our projection. It is not so easy to ‘detach’ oneself indifferently from such a picture. While being aware of the shortcomings of the above-discussed ‘physiognomic fallacy’, Serralongue and Saussier themselves are nevertheless by no means discouraged. They throw themselves upon our ‘civic skill’, which is a term proposed by Ariella Azoulay.[39]

Azoulay suggests to consider our perceptual relation to the represented subjects and to the artist producing the work in legal terms, that is, according to a triangular or contractual relation. In civil law, a contract implies that all parties fulfil the conditions on an equal basis: each party having not only equal value as an individual with a free will, but also receiving an equitable benefit from the contract’s terms. A dead person is not in possession of such a free will, and therefore, a valid contractual agreement always presupposes that all of the parties involved in its signing are living. Seen in this light, the men represented by Saussier and by Serralongue need to be considered as our equals. Consequently, they should benefit in return from the images that the artists took. This approach contrasts sharply with the general consensus among photojournalists that they are the sole owners of their pictures, implying that any profits obtained via their images should not be shared with those depicted in them. In this perspective, it is moving to discover, in Le Tableau de chasse, that the factory workers Gilles Saussier visited gave him a gift in return, to express their gratitude ( fig. 6 ).

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Fig. 6. Gilles Saussier, pages 56-57 of Le Tableau de chasse, Cherbourg-Octeville, 2010. © Gilles Saussier.

Counter-Photojournalism Vs. Near-Photojournalism

Serralongue and Saussier’s call for awareness serve as a lesson in what they defend as being acceptable on a civic level. Through our status of civilians of art – as members of an imaginary community of equal citizens of the world – they invite us to rethink the notion of civic-mindedness for our current society. They are doing this in the hope that their pictures may contribute to the realisation of new forms of community life on a global scale: forms that surpass the ever-crumbling model of nation-states and even the United Nations Organisation as conceived today, and can serve to empower international law, which in its current state, remains impotent, as Jimmy Durham has recently argued (2013).

In summary, it is therefore appropriate to return to the contemporary artistic protocols linked to photojournalism, which I now wish to distinguish one from the other. Beyond simply objecting to established photojournalism protocols, Serralongue and Saussier also seek to find alternatives to the artistic sublimation strategies as practised by Delahaye: producing pseudo- or ‘as if’-photojournalistic images turned into monumental photographic tableaus. For a final comparison, let us turn to Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986), 1992. This work was recently described by fellow artist Eric Baudelaire – when citing it as one of the landmark pictures that has inspired him most – in terms of ‘being on the limit of something’.[40] Implicitly bringing to mind Susan Sontag’s famous analysis of this very work, Baudelaire explains how the picture represents a ‘circular relationship of the dead who are speaking to each other and who are no longer looking at us’. To him, they are entirely severed from all contact with the spectator: ‘the world of the dead in Afghanistan is the farce of the living dead talking among themselves and no longer having any relationship to us’.

From Sontag’s argument – that it is perfectly understandable why these dead soldiers are ‘supremely uninterested’ in us, ‘the living: in those who took their lives’ – there is potentially disappointment.[41] It is perhaps disillusionment with regard to what photographic images are able (or unable) to achieve. Michael Fried has identified Jeff Wall’s pictures as ‘near documentary’, while comparing them to those of Delahaye.[42] In line with that analysis, I propose to define Luc Delahaye’s approach as one of near-photojournalism, an artistic method that facilitates the transformation of a potentially shocking image into a neutral, artistic picture. The resulting visual effect, we know from Fried, is one of ‘a cold sense of distance’, allowing the development of a comfortable, but disengaged, ‘indifference’ on the spectator’s side, as Delahaye himself says: a passive contemplation.[43] With Serralongue and Saussier, on the contrary, the call for the spectator is active, even activistic. Saussier has emphasized that, even when he is aware that Jeff Wall has influentially claimed that today the socially engaged photographic image needs to contain a solid dose of ‘irony’, he for his part aims to be ‘more present to the objects and beings than when [he] was a photojournalist’. He adds that, while doing so, he will not allow himself to be guided by the ‘orientations of the art market’.[44]Photography, Saussier adds, is before being anything else an ‘act’. Via the faces of these living men, whether they be in Calais or in Timisoara, Saussier and Serralongue search for the place where art can make a difference, where it can create a space for hope, even if only imaginary, in more egalitarian modes of community among human beings.

The stakes are real: one may remember that his 1992 Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) was sold on 5 August 2012 at Christie’s in New York for the fabulous hammer prize of $3.200.000.[45] Even when the artist takes no direct profit from such an auction sale, and even if the artist reinvests a substantial part of the money that he makes from selling his works into the creation of new works or is engaged in donating works, one may wonder about this particular ‘trophy’ that he has created for the ‘market’, which is for the sake and glory of the private collector. The same as well applies, if not more so, for the pictures by Delahaye described above. Strikingly, such works have hardly caused controversy, despite the many ‘ethical quandaries of representing the dead’ that they raise.[46] This is probably due to our admiration for the risks that he takes when making them. Saussier – of whom a photographic image circulated for a while on the internet, with him holding a camera in one hand, while pointing a gun with the other – knows all about that. He addresses this issue rather dryly in his book, while describing the previously mentioned hunting episode: ‘each journalist was allowed to take up the arms for a brief moment’.[47] Saussier saw no use in turning to the paradoxical ‘trophy’ of the near-photojournalistic tableau. Opting for anti-photojournalism instead does not necessarily have to be seen as a cowardly choice. Serralongue, for example, was certainly not free of any danger when he set up his camp nearby the Calais tunnel.

What is perhaps most troubling about Delahaye’s representations of dead men, is to find that ‘[m]ankind’ continues to see ‘its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’, even if Walter Benjamin already expressed his deepest concern with that.[48] Seen in this light, the deep involvement of Serralongue and Saussier seems to be of the utmost importance today, one that potentially even surpasses the domain of visual art only. What I mean by this is that anti-photojournalism may very well turn out to be a rejuvenating tool for photojournalism in itself – a tool that seeks to ‘counter’ certain aspects of its predominant premises.[49] This ‘counter-photojournalism’ therefore has the potential to become an ‘ante-photojournalism’, which helps the field to at least seriously reconsider – if not to overcome –some of its ‘post-photojournalist’ deadlocks.

CV


Hilde Van Gelder is an associate professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Leuven (Belgium). She is director of the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography (http://www.lievengevaertcentre.be). She is editor of the Lieven Gevaert Series (Leuven University Press), and editor of Image [&] Narrative (http://www.imageandnarrative.be).

Notes


1. A shorter, French version of this essay was published in D. Méaux (ed.), Protocole et photographie contemporaine (Saint-Etienne: publications de l’université de Saint-Etienne, 2014), pp. 201-215.

2. Bruno Serralongue, 2010a, pp. 63-64. This image is available at http://www.airdeparis.com/bnews.htm (accessed 23 June 2014).

3. Cf. also the interview with the artist by Pascal Beausse in: Bruno Serralongue, 2002, p. 15.

4. Anti-photojournalism is now considered as a very widespread artistic method, as it was shown by the remarkable eponymous exhibition organised by Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan in Barcelona and Amsterdam in 2010-2011 (no catalogue exists).

5. Sekula 2003, p. 87.

6. The image is available at http://www.archive.worldpressphoto.org/search/layout/result/indeling/detailwpp/form/wpp/start/3/q/ishoofdafbeelding/true/trefwoord/year/1989 (accessed 23 June 2014).

7. This image depicts a group of people standing up mourning in front of a row of dead bodies lying on a fallow piece of land behind a concrete building. It is reprinted in Saussier 2010, p. 40.

8. For more on this topic, cf. T.J. Demos and H. Van Gelder 2012, 5-22.

9. Allan Sekula . Dismal Science, 1999, p. 127.

10. On the general issues related to this topic, cf. also David Bate’s critical text (2007).

11. Saussier 1996, p. 142.

12. Sontag 1977, p. 14.

13. Flusser [1983] 2000, p. 33.

14. Saussier 2010, p. 30.

15. Ibid., p. 31.

16. Roberts 2009, p. 298.

17. Ibid..

18. Bruno Serralongue, 2002, p. 19.

19. Cf. Lennon 2004.

20. For such an isolated, contemplative installation view of Luc Delahaye’s work, cf. http://unrealnature.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/delahaye_talibanalone.jpg (accessed 23 June 2014).

21. Cf. http://www.latriennale.org/en/artists/luc-delahaye (accessed 23 June 2014). This is a translation by the author of the original French text.

22. Fried 2008, p. 152.

23. These pictures are available for consultation online, for instance at http://zoumzoum.blogs.liberation.fr/2008/2012/05/la-guerre-%C3%A0-domicile.html#more (accessed 23 June 2014). An installation view at the Triennale may be found at http://www.designartnews.com/news/re_opened_palais_de_tokyo_in_paris_with_la_triennale_d_art_contemporain/item/51_5217_jpg/ (accessed 23 June 2014).

24. http://www.latriennale.org/en/artists/luc-delahaye (accessed 23 June 2014).

25. Fried 2008, p. 184.

26. Saussier 2010, p. 55.

27. Ibid..

28. Bruno Serralongue, 2010b, p. 134.

29. Rosler [1999/2001] 2005, p. 221.

30. Guerrin 2003, p. 17; quoted by Fried 2008, p. 378 n. 51.

31. Fried 2008, p. 184.

32. Ibid., pp. 183-184.

33. Durden 2012, p. 247-248.

34. Ibid., p. 245.

35. Ibid., p. 247.

36. Sontag 2003, p. 12.

37. The images can be consulted online at http://freemasonrywatch.org/executions.html (accessed 23 June 2014).

38. Ibid., p. 65. The following quotation is on the same page.

39. Azoulay 2008, p. 14. Cf. also Azoulay 2012.

40. Eric Baudelaire, in a video recorded interview with Alexander Streitberger and Hilde Van Gelder conducted at his studio in Paris on 10 June 2014.

41. Sontag 2003, p. 113.

42. Fried 2008, p. 186.

43. Guerrin 2003, p. 17; as quoted in Fried 2008, p. 187.

44. Chérel and Saussier 2008, pp. 27-28.

45. Cf. the information provided via Artprice.

46. Duganne 2007, p. 64.

47. Saussier 2010, p. 25.

48. Benjamin [1936] 1969, p. 242.

49. ‘Counter-photojournalism’ is a term suggested by Alexander Streitberger in 2009 about the work of Bruno Serralongue during a research seminar at the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels. This seminar was recorded on video.

References


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