scribbling in the dark - photographer's talks: scribbling in the dark - LOOK3 Peress 2009

The scribbing in the dark series is a group of personal reflection writings on photography gatherings and slideshows. My notes are scribbled quickly in a tiny notebook, usually in a darkened room, so I ask in advance that you read the words below as my own recollections.  


scribbling in the dark - 

Gilles Peress at LOOK3 Masters Talk 

The night after the Gilles Peress talk at LOOK, my roommate Dolores and I stayed awake too late for our own good, using what the other gleaned to try to approach some kind of collective understanding of what had been said by Peress. His was the kind of presentation that alternately made me laugh and feel uneasy for the interviewer, to think that I was a privileged witness to brilliance, and to feel that a willful game of evasion was being played before my eyes.  

Despite the fact that Mary Ann Golon managed the photo department at Time magazine for over 20 years, that she has numerous poignant interviews under her belt and that she and Gilles walked through his exhibit together and also reviewed what they were going to discuss publicly, the actual interview was imbued with a sense of spontaneity, unpreparedness and it allowed for a dominant uncomfortable reality. Not suprisingly these are some of the qualities that Gilles cultivates in his work. And for many in the room, they had the same effect on the talk that they do in his photographs: one of genius. 

I'll tell you the end first. If Gilles were reading a reflection on what he had said, maybe he'd enjoy it this way. In a letter sent to Mary Ann some time before the interview, Gilles wrote "Remind me to tell you about the dead photojournalist." The talk ends like this, with Gilles telling a joke: 

A photojournalist dies, and he goes before St. Peter. St. Peter says "We haven't seen you in awhile. We've decided to do something special for you. We are going to give you the choice of where you want to spend eternity. But first, you will visit both Hell and Paradise, and then decide. Where do you want to go first?"  

The dead photojournalist thinks a bit and says "Hell." Poof, off he goes to Hell. And all his buddies are there playing golf and telling stories about their days as great photographers, laughing and drinking and having a great time.  

The next day the dead photojournalist goes before St. Peter who asks how it was. "Interesting" the dead photojournalist replies. And then it is time for him to visit Paradise. Poof. The dead photojournalist finds himself on a cloud, sitting next to an angel who plays the harp all day long.  

The next day, he goes before St. Peter again, and St. Peter asks "So, what will it be?" The dead photojournalist says "No offense, but I choose Hell." Poof, and off he goes to Hell. 

This time, when he arrives in Hell, the skies are dark, there are piles of rubbish everywhere, everyone is fighting because there is no food, and no one is laughing or telling stories anymore. The dead photojournalist is in a panic, and asks the devil "What happened? It was fantastic here just 2 days ago, even Mary Ann Golon was here!"  

And the devil says: "2 days ago you were freelance. Now you're staff." 

Gilles calls the work that was shown on the screen behind him "Still Lives" or, in French, “Natures Mortes.” The conversation between Mary Ann and Gilles begins like this: With Still Lives looping, Mary Ann asks him something along the lines of how he thinks this body of work fits into his career, a question so straight forward that I don't write it down. Gilles' reply is that the images are not a body of work, rather a fragment of a habit, dust to dust. That he doesn't think that much, that absolute emptiness is his natural state. That he rarely goes out, it makes him uncomfortable, and that he is not sure he has a career.  

To anyone who has met me, here is an analogy that will be of use to describe the next hour, which was supposed to be two. It was given by my friend Neal, speaking in a whisper while sitting next to me during the talk: "Trying to get discourse from Gilles is like trying to take a photo of Erica." Or better yet, just imagine the man sitting beside Mary Ann with a small smile on his face as he says, possibly to himself "L'enfer, c'est les autres." ("Hell is other people.") 

So this is how it goes..Mary Ann issues relevant questions and Gilles answers them honestly, but in a language that doesn't help to facilitate much understanding. Only now, after days of taking in what he said and after reading an interview he gave 12 years ago that is referenced here below, I think I might get it - Gilles' words, or lack of them, and his way of delivering them are an apt reflection of how he feels about language and why he turned to photography as a vehicle of understanding.  

Gilles' childhood was saturated by Rousseauist ideas, which hold that "man is good, man is fundamentally good, and if anything goes wrong it's just the system that has to be adjusted." His parents shielded him from knowing about the reality of the human condition. Gilles feels that he grew up as a child with an absence of images whose presence could have helped to tell him the truth about reality. In college, Gilles studied political science and philosophy, which influenced him "incredibly" by making him very untrusting of language, even his own. To Gilles, photography felt less coded, more fresh and "kept him stable and in relationship with the world." 

In his interview with Harry Kreisler 12 years ago, Gilles said: 

"I'm like a perfect child of fury. I was force-fed so much of this stuff (philosophical politics / political philosophy). At the same time I was dealing with reality. I was extremely involved in the French social reality at the time, and I started to see a huge gap between language and reality. All the intellectual theories of the late '60s in France were extremely political. It was simply a question of survival: I needed a tool and a vehicle to understand and formalize what was out there in the world, my relationship to reality. If I didn't have that tool, I most surely would be in some mental asylum somewhere. I needed something to be able to mediate the relationship to the world, other than language. It's an essential thing, like eating. It's about surviving, it's about making sense of what's out there and what's in there." 

It seems that he still feels the same today, but perhaps the disillusionment with language has increased since he talked with Harry. His words now were fewer and harder to elicit, and were given sparingly, like a homeopathic medicine. Or to use the colloquial expression, like pulling teeth. With some nudging, he told Mary Ann: 

"Photography is something I do to stay sane and to process my relationship to the world. It is a little bit like grieving." 

Photography is not something the Gilles does to express himself, rather it is a tool to help him understand the world. Gilles seemed comforted that "There are pure ideas between the moment of perception and when you put an idea on it" and that these pure ideas are accessible through the visual medium. "I'm proposing to you that photography is a language on its own, which is that when you look at images you do derive ideas; and I'm also proposing to you that you can derive ideas without going through words. So I'm forcing you to really look. And this process of looking, it's like a new set of ideas that are being proposed to you." 

Gilles said that work should be able to stand on its own, and that for him captions beneath a photo are redundant. He is interested in the space between categories, like between photography and literature, and he questions the rituals that hold photography, like the act of hanging work on the walls of galleries. He concerns himself with what is necessary, and what is just, in the service of an idea. 

Peress joined Magnum Photos in 1970, and his quote on his photographer page there is "I don't care so much anymore about 'good photography'; I am gathering evidence for history". Mary Ann asked him about the role of Magnum in his work, and he said that in the 70s the other photographers shared easily and were incredibly generous, and even now at Magnum you don't have to please anyone. 

Gilles believes that reality speaks very powerfully through photography, but that 1/2 of the 'text' of a photograph is in its reader. He told Mary Ann that history is more and more about representation, so it has become more visual. This is problematic, Gilles said, because truth is ambiguous. The authorship of the truth comes from many sources - the photographer, the camera (because he thinks that each camera allows photography to speaks in a different way), the force of reality, and the viewer who has his own interpretation of what is happening in the photo. Stating that univocal photos that try to make a point are propaganda, Gilles pointed out that great writings and photos use ambiguity so that the viewer, or reader, processes the information in his own way. And Gilles' part is to document the reality that is going on around him, from a receptive place: 

"There is a lot of the trivial of life and there is a lot of notions of simultaneity of life, of life that goes on while catastrophe unfolds, and so on. And this is why I work the way I do; I work extremely open to what's around me. I document from the most minute detail to the most spectacular scene. I do work in a very open way and I document everything that's around me. It's a very existential approach. I shoot pictures of the glass of water I drink if I feel that it means something at that time. " 

Gilles, who has taken on the roles of Professor of Human Rights and Photography at Bard College, NY, and Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley resists labels in photography. He said that he isn't a war photographer, and that he isn't interested in categories in photography. Gilles has said that he tries to avoid predictable forms and the goals of the market. Instead, he tries to find a zone of freedom where even he can't predict the outcome. Fundamentally he is concerned that war and war crimes are so easily swept under the rug by the Western world while war is simultaneously glorified and shrouded in mystique. He told Harry: 

"I've now been doing this for a long time, and I'm not a war photographer. I don't have this identity, it's one that I would also reject. But I did find myself quite a few times in fairly conflictual situations. And I see young soldiers and I see young marines that learned somewhere, and I really feel sorry for those kids because they don't know. They think it's like a nice movie. Sure, there are casualties and so on, but they're not prepared for what is the reality of war. And I think that civilians here do not have any notion of what it is." 

Whether or not Peress works on assignment, and he usually doesn't, he works from the inside out. Asked what makes a great photo, Gilles remarks that it is a very individual matter, and is a combination of things in the "I like" relationship; a photo's construction, what the photo is about, what it says about the world, and an extra something ("it pricks") which makes you decide that you like it. The beginning of forming his attention on any subject / place is for him to ask himself questions. In creating work, Peress consciously avoids being overly prepared so that his images are more an accurate reflection of reality than an illustration of an idea of reality. His desire is to create images that are "extremely transparent." Though he will do some advance research, he tries to go without an agenda, without any preconceptions about what is happening or what an end product might look like. He focuses instead on his own "understanding and then doubting (his) own understanding." This new understanding allows him to be able to provide the next generation with visual information that may help them to not repeat the same mistakes as the generations before them.  

Seeing the atrocities of war is clearly very difficult for Gilles, and the passivity of the civilized world is as "painful to witness as the horror itself...It's a painful process. I mean, during the process of doing the Rwanda book I was in a serious depression for the whole period. I had this feeling that I was going to vomit all the time. You know, you live with it." Before Rwanda Gilles had been in Bosnia. The collective impact of what he had seen as well as the lack of action in the international community left him with the sense that maybe God is half good and half evil, even though Gilles had been raised outside of religion.  

Gilles shared that he is only able to focus on the now, and that he, at least, finds peace when the chaos on the outside is greater than the chaos on the inside. And although he does want to communicate "a high level of moral outrage" he feels that "Pricking the moral conscience of the international community and, I think, the individual also is not the primary goal, but a by-product. My primary goal is to understand what is happening out there. My primary goal is to make up my own mind as an individual. " 

HK: Is human enlightenment the goal? 

GP: Yes. 

HK: Your personal enlightenment... 

GP: Yes, seeking the truth. 

HK: In terms of human enlightenment and the betterment of man, an ideal would be that I'd do something about it, right? 

GP: Yes. 

Toward the end of the presentation, a woman who had spoken with Gilles 25 years ago recounted their conversation. She said that when they had spoken his emphasis had been on matching the inner and outer realities. He replied that he doesn't feel that way so much anymore, that for him now, the aim is to work from the inside out. Gilles said that "the fertile ground of photography is at the intersection of the inner and the outer worlds." If you dwell too much in the outer, the work becomes predictable, and if you work too much from the inner, it becomes idiosyncratic. You have to strive for balance.  

Personally, I was glad he said that.  

excerpts from: UC Berkeley, with Harry Kreisler, April 10th, 1997 Conversation with History.