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Photo by Walid Raad (Courtesy of Centre Pompidou)
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Photo by Walid Raad.
Memories lie because they build on memories; photographs lie more convincingly because they offer proof
In 1997, an Arab Image Foundation was established in Beirut “to locate, preserve, interpret and present” the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, from the nineteenth century to the present. More than 150,000 photographs have been collected from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and the Arab diaspora in Mexico and Senegal—a vast fragmented record of things, people and places of whose past existence we are offered documentary proof. “To locate, preserve, interpret and present”: I am uncomfortable with the verb interpret.
Walid Raad is a thirty-eight-year-old American-Lebanese artist whose work centres on Lebanon’s bloody history. One of his most astonishing pieces is an assemblage of amateur photographs of the Lebanese Civil War entitled We Decided to Let Them Say «We Are Convinced» Twice. It Was Convincing That Way, which hangs in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It is an overwhelming installation focussed and manipulated by the curious title.
The title contains a number of suppositions. “We,” “Decided,” “To Let,” “Them,” “Say,” “We Are Convinced,” “It,” “Was Convincing” and “That Way.” Each of them begs the question, beginning with who is “We” and who is “Them.” For instance, there are two We’s in the title. If I am part of the first “We,” I’m in a position of power, and apparently I have authority. If I am part of the second “We,” I am part of “Them”: I am duped, I’m merely allowed to believe. Depending on my choice, the rest of the title acquires a variety of other meanings.
The photographs presented here belong, the artist tells us, to his childhood. They record a moment that he remembers capturing with his camera. Now that we know that, two images come to light in every photograph: the photograph itself and the artist’s memory of that photograph. Or, if we prefer, the image that we see and the image that we see knowing that a child has taken it. We also know they are photographs of a war. We don’t know whether the child was aware of this. To know there is a war you must know that there was a time in which there was no war, a time before the war, a time when war was not the commonplace experience. The child may have been too young to know such a time. A photograph might have suggested to him that such a time once existed. Or he may have thought that such a photograph was merely the result of a fortuitous angle. In these photographs of war there are soldiers and tanks, but also everyday skies and everyday buildings. A photograph has no active memory.
A memory is never a photograph because it changes. A photograph is never a memory because it changes too, but in a different way.
A personal digression: In my memory, I’ve collected sixty-one years’ worth of images that stand for the world as I know it or think I know it. All are blurred, as if taken by a shaky hand, with a camera always out of focus. All shift as I peer at them more closely, and become something else. They are like the shimmer of hot air on an asphalt road, vaguely visible but impossible to grasp. If I try to concentrate on one in particular, it changes colour, shape, tone; the faces take on other traits, the landscapes show other features. A door appears that wasn’t there before. A window closes.
My photographs are a random lot. I’ve not always collected photos, and many of the ones I once collected, I’ve lost or given away. Several are in boxes, waiting to be sorted out. A few come from family albums: sepia portraits of relatives I never knew, travel pictures of places I’ve never been to. My mother gave me a number of photographs of cities she visited after the war: Dresden in ruins, Paris recently liberated, Strasbourg and its cathedral, London in the fog. My father next to a camel outside Haifa. My mother and aunt by the ruins of the Parthenon. My mother carrying a straw hat in her hand on Beirut’s seaside promenade.
These photographs are a very partial record of certain moments of my life, and not moments I’ve deliberately chosen. Some of the moments recorded in these photos I can’t remember. Some look different from what I thought they were, or include people I didn’t know were there at the time. Going through these photographs, I can construct an image of my life very different from the one I remember. Since the photos have the weight of authority, I must believe in their version, however unreal. Credo quia impossibile est.
My first image is both a memory and a photograph. A fake brick wall (which I later learned belonged to a fireplace in a house in Buenos Aires) and the corner of a crib with white bars. A baby with his back to the observer is holding on to the railing. I am that baby, and I remember the scene precisely, clearly. The memory is very old, because we left for Israel when I was barely a year old. I remember describing the scene as an older child and wanting to know where the brick wall had been, but nobody could tell me. Many years later, when we returned to Argentina, an aunt whom I met for the first time showed me the photo—which I could not have seen before and which was exactly as I remembered it. I had remembered the scene as if I’d taken the photograph, as if I’d been both in the crib and outside, as if I’d been both the baby and the observer. Of course, this is impossible. One of the two is lying.
Memories lie because they build on memories. I think that I remember something, but in fact I remember remembering it, and so on through countless layers of memory. Every memory is a mise en abyme. Photographs, however, lie more convincingly, because they offer proof of what they are saying. “Look! Can’t you see that what I’m telling you is true? Here it is, black on white, or in full colour. How can you deny the testimony of your own eyes?”
A photographer talks about her work in Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Indian Nocturne:
A few years ago I published a book of photographs . . . It opened with a photograph that I feel is the most successful of my career . . . a blow-up of a detail; the photo showed a young black man, just his head and shoulders, a sports singlet with a sales slogan, an athletic body, an expression of great effort on his face, his arms raised as if in victory; obviously he’s breasting the tape, in the hundred metres for example.
The second photograph . . . was the whole photograph. On the left there’s a policeman dressed like a Martian, a plexiglas helmet over his face, high boots, a rifle tucked into his shoulder, his eyes fierce under his fierce visor. He’s shooting at the black man. And the black man is running away with his arms up, but he is already dead: a second after I clicked the shutter he was already dead.
If we compare a memory to a photograph we’ll notice that what is true and what is a lie begin to softly flow into one another, breaking the margins that contain them. The figures in the photograph will refine and correct the figures in our memory; the emotion in our memory will reorganize and rename the figures in the photograph. Photographs can alter time and freeze desire. Memory can too, but in a different way.
In a poem written after his sixtieth birthday, the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma recalled his first lovemaking, in a pine copse near the university, and how, as he and his partner rose from the sand “happy as beasts,” he discovered a young boy watching them, in his “first experience of requited love.” And the poet addresses the voyeur, now surely old, and wonders whether he, lying in bed with another body, witnesses once again the long-past scene, and once again spies on the poet’s embraces, the poet’s own desire still young in the old man’s memory.
The photograph (like the voyeur’s eye) retains the scene. Memory retains the time of the taking. In memory, the photographer (like the voyeur) never grows old.
My sixty-one years of images have become infinite. Every image (like every photograph) is now compounded by every other photograph (and every other image). Every one exists in its own time, in the time of its taking, and in every time I have recalled it or looked upon it again. Every time is layered with what I have learned since, and seen since. The photograph of the baby is also my memory of the baby and of the photograph, and also my knowledge of the impossibility of remembering it, and the certainty that it happened. This is true, in some sense, of every photograph and every image.
One example: a photograph of my high school class. There are thirty-seven adolescent boys in the photograph. We are all fifteen or sixteen years old, we all wear ties and jackets, our hair is more or less well combed. We are all smiling, or trying to smile. None of us is thinking of when, many years later, someone will see this photograph and know what happened. I look at the photograph and become at once two persons. One, the adolescent hiding behind thick glasses, trying to look calm; the other, the reluctant witness on the other side of the page. That tall boy in the upper right-hand corner became a lawyer and died two years ago of heart disease. That other one, next to him, also tall, was tortured by the military police and left the country; I think he lives in Brazil. The one below him, the blond boy, was killed in a military prison. The one to his right had to escape to Uruguay, but returned in 1983. The fat one to his left joined the guerrilla movement and then worked as a military informer; he died of cancer not long ago. The one next to me was drugged, blindfolded and thrown off a plane into the Rio de la Plata. I don’t remember his name, but there is a plaque outside our school that was set up to remember these men. Like the photograph, the plaque fulfills the service of memory. I can relinquish the responsibility of witnessing to paper or bronze. But not entirely. The photograph says: you were here. And: you are there. The meaning of here and there is not entirely clear.
The photograph of my mother in Beirut is in black and white. She’s wearing a white dress and holds her hat in her left hand (there must have been wind on the promenade). A man is staring at her from a doorway above which I can read the word ESSAI. She’s smiling. Far behind her, under a big tree, I think I can make out a restaurant that I visited when I went to Beirut for the first time, four or five years ago. I think it’s the same one, but I can’t be certain.
I look at the photograph and three images of the city come to mind. The first is the one my mother described to me many times. She had been to Paris, to Rome, to Venice: she thought there was no city as lovely as Beirut, as elegant, as welcoming. Years later, whenever things went wrong in Buenos Aires (and they went wrong often) she would complain and shake her head and, instead of repeating “Moscow, Moscow!” like one of Chekhov’s three sisters, she would sigh “Beirut, Beirut!” as if her life in that paradise would have been different had she stayed. Perhaps it would, because Beirut was for her an impossibility. Impossible things tend to be perfect.
The second image of Beirut that comes to mind is the city I visited in 2004. The friendliness of the people, their extraordinary courtesy, the constant shift in tone bred from the variety of cultures, the pride and relief in seeing their city built up again after the war—the war before last, the war before the next war—the lack of shame with which they showed the scars, their ingrained and shared belief in the vital importance of poetry, music, good food and intelligent conversation, left me, as I returned home, with a sudden longing for what I experienced as civilization.
Photo by Walid Raad (Courtesy of Centre Pompidou)
The third image is the beleaguered city I see every few months on the evening news, over and over again. Like any ravaged city, it was both a place of incommunicable daily personal suffering and also the image of every city in no matter what war: a place in which walls that took so long to build lie crumbled in the streets and someone stares at a fallen roof under which lies a brother, a sister, a friend, a parent, a child. And soldiers race past.
But there is a fourth Beirut, I think. It is made less of stones rebuilt and stones demolished, than of the perseverance of memory, of that which is partly a recollection and partly the faded image on a black-and-white photograph, like the one in which my mother looks happy.
One of the most moving aspects of the Iliad, for someone reading it today, is the sudden realization that although the teller’s voice is Greek, the tragedy is shared. That is to say, the excuse for the conflict is a kidnapping (of Helen by Paris), and the allied forces, under the insistence of the most powerful of the warlords (Agamemnon) agree to continue the siege and the fighting until their property is restored; but, as the poem makes very clear, the awful consequences of the war are felt on both sides, and both Patroclus the Greek and Hector the Trojan are victims of its savagery. The author (or authors) of the Iliad felt that his allegiance lay with both.
The Greeks exalted war as a heroic activity, relished by the gods who sit watching the show (Homer tells us explicitly), “for all the world like carrion birds, like vultures.” But the fact that it was (or could be) heroic did not blind them to the horror or the suffering. And against the bloodthirsty whims of the gods, the Greeks never failed to recall that human beings are (or can be) compassionate. In Sophocles’ play Ajax, after Athena gleefully tells Ulysses, her protegé, that his foe is cursed with endless misfortune, Ulysses speaks a few heartbreaking words that suddenly render the Greek hero far nobler than the wise and gory goddess: “The unfortunate man might well be my enemy,” he says, “yet I pity him when I see him weighed down with misfortune. Indeed, it is towards myself more than towards him that I direct my thoughts, since I see clearly that we are, all of us who live upon this earth, nothing but ghosts or weightless shadows.” Memory of who he is dignifies both Ajax’s destiny and Ulysses’ own.
Images in memory, like collected photographs, lend context to what we are and what we see. In one of the last books of the Iliad, the murderous Achilles runs after Hector, who murdered Achilles’ friend Patroclus. Both are soldiers, both have blood on their hands, both have loved ones who have been killed, both believe that their cause is just. One is Greek, the other Trojan, but at this point their allegiances hardly matter. They are two men intent on killing one another. They run past the city walls, past the double springs of the river Scamander. And at this point, Homer breaks off his description of the fighting and pauses to remind us:
And here, close to the springs, lie washing-pools
scooped out in the hollow rocks and broad and smooth
where the wives of Troy and their lovely daughters
would wash their glistening robes in the old days,
the days of peace before the sons of Achaea came . . .
Past these they raced.
In my mother’s photograph of herself in Beirut, and in these photographs of Beirut taken by Walid Raad years later, they still race past.