The conversation regarding photographers as exploiters of the pain of others is an old one. Countless times, photojournalists and images that “aestheticize suffering” have been questioned. Alfredo Jaar takes this conversation forward in his show called “Shadows”.
The first thing we see when we enter the exhibition is an interview with Koen Wessing in which he discusses a particular incident in his career: he explains what it feels like to photograph a traumatic experience not as an spectator, but as a living person that is physically in the middle of the action; and all that goes trough his head while it is happening, while “he is doing just his job”.
After this, we are conducted to a corridor that leads to a completely dark room with black walls. Photographs hang on the walls, but they are backlit pictures that include the holes for the sprockets, as if we were looking trough a loupe at a contact sheet in a light box. We soon realize it is the progression of the incident Wessing was recounting. We are looking through his contact sheets, we are reliving his darkroom experience. I first thought the darkness of the room was an analogy to the photographer’s darkroom, and it could be, but the images are not color, so there could be a guiding red light as there is in the darkroom. Whatever the intention is, the lack of lights is disorienting and makes you feel insecure. , This also makes the images harder to ignore because there is no other information to take in.
These photographs lead to another dark room with a projection that begins with complete darkness. Slowly, we start seeing the image Wessing was talking about: two women completely lost in intense sorrow. The two figures cry and contort themselves in profound suffering. This image is bigger than its frame and Jaar knows it all too well. The image fades slowly away and we are left with the white on black silhouettes of the bodies. The white becomes brighter and brighter until it hurts your eyes and then returns to deep black.
We then proceed to a black room similar to the first one, with images presumably from the same roll of film as the image in the projection. Our eyes hurt, we are completely moved and we can barely hold our eyes on any of these pictures; they are all masterfully taken and beautifully framed, but you are too moved to really stop and look at them. Then you are abruptly thrown into the outside: a white wall gallery that blinds you again, in the middle of Chelsea, in New York City.
They say an image is worth more than a thousand words but that is not entirely true.. An image gives a different set of information and Jaar is conscious of this. The bodies squirming in pain is create a powerful image but taken out of context they become ambiguous in their nakedness. The only people who can fully understand an image of an event are the ones who were in the incident. This image speaks to the photographer in a way it could never speak me, it makes him relive the situation through the instant when he clicked the camera. This makes it difficult for him to do the necessary darkroom work that is commonplace for his profession. With the aid of the senses Jaar provides an experience that helps situate us in the shoes of a photographer who we hear say “he is only doing his job”.
I left the room with many feelings that were difficult to contain inside my body. I thought about home and the situation in Mexico today; about how the truth of what is happening is so difficult to unpack even for us who live it. That lead me to think about something else: a Chilean referencing a Dutch in Nicaragua. What does it mean to have a foreigner working on difficult issues in a country that is not his own?
I wondered about the video of the interview. Is it just there to explain where the images came from? Is it there for much more? And the questions started pouring. What is the role of the traumatic image in an overly image saturated world? What does it mean to see it in a gallery as opposed to a newspaper? What about a foreign book? How does Jaar deal with that? I started to think about a full gamut of topics, issues and situations. The exhibition was so hard to figure out and so basically human at the same time.