Dead portraits



Beirut, Saturday, July 26, 2003


I confess I find it difficult to make portraits of friends, family, and acquaintances—even on their death beds. It’s much easier in that regard to capture the faces of unknown people in the street—at least they can be treated as objects. Since the growth in the past century of individualism and individual freedom as part of the western heritage of democracy, individuals tend to see themselves in a myriad of roles, some public, related to work, while others are private, within the domains of self and family life. Espousing psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and various medical treatments as part of their own self-discovery, individuals look at themselves as complex entities, and feel frustrated when a photographer does not “capture their soul.” They’re irritated when the photographer, whether professional or not, imposes upon them an image through which they’re unable to recognize themselves. They thus forget to read those photographs in the context of a photographer’s style and portfolio. Besides difficulties I encounter in being satisfied with portraits, I’m not that much curious about the work of photographers who tend to focus almost exclusively on portraits, celebrities or not. Take Richard Avedon, for example. He became known for his glossy and large black-and-white portraits with a pure white background, which decontextualizes the bodies and personas behind them while focusing on the face. Avedon was probably right in labeling his portraits as auto-portraits, promoting that auto-biographical element in them rather than making the reverse claim that they’re the portraits of others—those who are portrayed in the pictures. The photographer thus sees himself in everyone of those pictures since each one mirrors his own style and syntax. But the honesty of the photographer—his recognition of auto-biography—might also be his dishonesty: is it possible that the photograph only reveals the auto-biographical style of the photographer and nothing of his subjects-cum-objects? Aren’t the white backgrounds—rather than blurred ones, or others that might offer clues of contextualization—supposed to point to the persona behind the face? And is that possible at all? Can we get anything of value of the person in front of the lens? Or is it a narcissistic exercise of the one behind the lens? Or the narcissism of both combined, the photographer and his object? Individuals would like to project an image of themselves to the outside world as if their persona was composed of a single layer.


By virtue of their complete solitude and silence, objects—a nature morte—have more charm in them than human beings. They exist for their own sake, with no specific reason, and for no specific purpose, and hence are not prone to psychologism and inner introspection. They won’t be upset at photographs taken on their behalf. Photographers tend to think that their photography reflects a subjective/objective view—Avedon’s photography-cum-autobiography—while in reality they’re constantly at the mercy of their objects, seduced by them, and unaware that they’re technically reproducing what is already there as a combination of lights and shadows. It’s as if the object is photographing itself, even unaware of the existence of the photographer, in an attitude of pure self-seduction and self-destruction. It would be nice if we could have human beings as pure objects of desire. In effect, portraits look best and have that awkward feeling in them only in moments of silence: “We must seize people in their relation to themselves—in their silence (Il faut saisir les gens dans leur rapport à eux-mêmes, c’est-à-dire dans leur silence)” (Henri Cartier-Bresson).


I thought of Cartier-Bresson’s “silence” when I saw the first set of pictures of ‘Uday and Qusay Saddam Hussein. Has the mask finally dropped? Can we see them in their moments of truth now that they’re dead bodies? Or, more precisely, can the camera perceive them in their moment of truth? The most revealing was probably the difference between the two sets of pictures, the first one, prepared by the U.S. Army and released on CD-ROM, shows the two brothers bearded as if permanently on the run. The second set, released the following day, had the two mostly cleaned and shaved, and since a much larger number of photographers were involved, the “portraits” came with a multitude of points-of-views, probably in an attempt to avoid the point-of-view shot. In this case, however, no one seems to be interested in knowing the “truth” about the two Hussein brothers, as if we already know it. Photography is here used in its evidentiary, hence political, role—as direct “proof” that something effectively took place—even though American common law has always looked suspiciously at photographic evidence, whether video or still images, and does generally provide direct eye-witness evidence more weight.


The sons of dictators are always such a waste (the daughters prove more lenient and are another matter). If from Stalin to Saddam Hussein dictators had to forge their way brutally through conspiracy and assassination, their sons only inherit the most morbid traits of their personalities, without even the political visions and survival skills of their illustrious fathers. ‘Uday Hussein had apparently found his raison d’être only in the wake of the pulling down of his father’s statute in Firdos (Paradise) Square. Like many Iraqis he was eager to organize a “spontaneous resistance” to the occupier—a “resistance” that yesterday (07/26/03) killed three American soldiers guarding a children’s hospital north of Baghdad.





copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal