In 1990, I traveled to Corsica for a press assignment that involved taking a few photographs at Corte University. Students of my own age I approached took me vehemently to task for Corsica’s media image, refusing all dialogue. “OK” I said, “Tell me what I should photograph” — They replied: “Just go up to Muna to see the villages cut off up in the mountains, dying because the government isn’t building roads”. This was my first experience of the instinctive rejection I feel for people who lock themselves and others into some preconceived identity, which usually means they see themselves and others, as ‘journalists’, ‘continental French’, ‘Westerners’, ‘Arab’, ‘Hindu’, or ‘Muslim’ first, and only secondarily as individuals. Next day, I did go up to Muna to meet Jacques, the last inhabitant, who had been turned by a nationalist song into ‘The man of Muna’ in the same way that you might pictorialize someone for the sake of a double-page in the press. He was living in a house at the bottom of the village and in the afternoons would weave baskets under the chestnut trees. The client for the job, the French magazine L’Express, published the portrait of Jacques as the opening page to an article entitled “The Corsicans”. A few years later, when I was back in Corsica, I dropped by in Muna. Jacques had died. Most of the houses on the hillside were still closed or abandoned. I climbed the hill in the village to the chapel. At the top, at the edge of the maquis scrubland, a couple were renovating a house. The man explained to me that he spent his holidays bringing up beams, tiles, bags of cement on his back from the valley via the mule track. They invited me to have afternoon tea with them. I asked them where they lived the rest of the year. He answered: “We are from Amiens, it’s my wife’s family that is from here”. He added, his tone rather tired, that guys in the area, hunters maybe, would break down the door and vandalize the house while they were away. I left without a portrait but with the feeling that I had understood that the real sons and daughters of places are always, everywhere, the strangers passing through. If one man remained in Muna, it was the one I had just met.
In December 1994 I moved to Bangladesh after resigning from my job as a reporter for the Gamma agency a few months earlier. I have explained why I made this break in the preface to Living in the Fringe 1, my first book, and in an article published in the magazine Communications 2. I spent two years in Bangladesh during which I worked part-time without pay for local photographers’ organizations: Drik Picture Library in 1995, and the MAP cooperative from 1996. Interested in helping promote an authentically indigenous photographic viewpoint on Bangladesh, I helped photographers get their work published in the international press and obtain invitations from abroad. For my part, I was living on the income from my press photography archives, including a little nest egg of close-ups of prominent businessman and political leaders. Having understood that a photojournalist’s job is often no different from the work of a trader 3 – assessing what a situation or a person once converted into an image will fetch – marketing images of the great and the good seemed to me in the final years at Gamma to be a lesser evil compared with trading in images of victims of conflict or humanitarian disaster. By earning me, out in Dhaka, 9,164 francs, 8,227 francs and 4,399 francs respectively, Jean-Marie Descarpentries, President and CEO of Bull, Jean Peyrelevade, President of the Crédit Lyonnais bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, Director of the Banque de France – to name just a few – played a decisive role as variables enabling an economic adjustment between my career as a photojournalist and my début in documentary experimentation. It also provided an opportunity to try out my relationship with the portrait in brief situations devoid of ethical implication. In my dealings with these important, discreet money-men, who expressed surprise, surprise not entirely free of false modesty, at the interest shown in them by Gamma, I would describe the photo session as part of the personal grooming of any public figure, not unlike a visit to the hairdresser. I did not actually slip a towel under their collar, but I did often establish tactile contact by correcting the angle of the head, smoothing down a rebellious shirt collar, tightening the loosened knot of a tie. A prey to perspiration on occasion due to the concentration involved, I would also see damp patches form under the arms of my models, see their temples sweat and glisten, see drops moisten the tiny hairs on their necks. An important head of staff, a prominent figure born in the interstices of public service and commercial banking, would face the camera lens like sugar dissolving in tea: irreversibly sopping wet. In the stable form of the portrait I discovered a hint of an underlying liquid element 4. In the portrait I had always been interested in the space through which individuals flow and flee, in contrast to images that aim to present an individual or the world as a finished, complete object. The quality of a portrait or a documentary photograph does not come from the ability to capture the subject but in the rightness of the conjoined presences of photographer and photographed. Many people in the worlds of both contemporary art and the media do not see this. What they prize and value above all is the excellence of the “eye” of the person who takes the photograph. As Jean-Luc Godard would say, they are confusing camera and projector 5. Where I am concerned, I see the work on co-presence as a relationship built in time and space, a slow shaping of the real which makes the documentary similar to the work of the sculptor. Standing as it does a fair way from naturalism, as well as from fiction, the portrait is for me a reflection held out, a floating form based on dialogue, like the mirror the hairdresser passes behind the head of the customer.
When I was first living in Dhaka, I would often go to the old part of the city at dawn, before the traffic jams and pollution discouraged the journey. I found there a rich cosmopolitan past linked to communities of traders and artisans whose city areas took their names: merchants from Portugal (Firingi Bazar), France (Frenchganj, later Farashganj), Armenia (Armanitola), weavers (Tanti Bazar), conch shell workers (Shakhari Bazar), and so on. The political situation was volatile, with the city constantly subjected to shutdowns caused by general strike days (hartals), called by the Awami League against the party in power, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). In a context characterized by political violence, the rise in power of the Muslim fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami, censorship and threats against intellectuals (the trials of the writers Ahmed Sharif and Taslima Nasrin 6), I found comforting the irrepressible generation of disruption and noise in Bengali street culture that makes things so difficult for the strategies of purge and standardization deployed by the religiously devout and the politicians. I wanted to use my photographs as testimony to this permanent process of invention, recycling and pollination of forms, and to show that over and above the political and religious tensions – as manifested in the communal riots over the period from 1926 to 1941, the partition of Bengal into India and East Pakistan in 1947, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1964, the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the violence committed against the Hindu minority following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the re-election of the BNP in 2001 – a complex Bengali cultural identity that overflows religious confines was nevertheless being perpetuated. Outside Dhaka, I was also interested in the injustice visited on indigenous minorities such as the Garo tribe in Madhupur forest, to which I devoted a photo-essay similar to National Geographic Magazine storyline format.
In Old Dhaka, I moved away somewhat from well-worn paths of this kind. I now combined a practical approach based on the idea of the decisive moment with an investigative stance imbued with social science and association of images (diptychs, triptychs) in the arty and vaguely semiological mode of authored photojournalism. In the streets and shops, around the main religious festivals (Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha in the case of the Muslims; the Durga, Kali and Holi Pujas for the Hindus), I would pick out fragments of reality at the locations of past crimes and riots. In this picture puzzle, like some game of Cluedo - “When your playing piece enters a room, you can immediately make a suggestion. You do this by calling into the room any character or weapon involved in your deduction” as the game rules put it - the Hindu enclave of Shakhari Bazar had pride of place. Behind Shadarghat river terminal and the Islampur Road mosques, its meandering, three-hundred-meter street also provided a haven of shade and respite from the rising tide of bright, insistent gazes. My visits to Shakhari Bazar were so frequent that I eventually had a small number of friendly contacts there: initially, in the workshops of the makers of traditional statues of deities, and later at the Kalpana Hotel; in the hairdressing saloons where I would sometimes take pictures of barbers running their razors over the throats of their customers. Barbers, and other possessors of sharp or blunt instruments, such as the Shakhari craft workers in the Hindu camp, or the butchers, where the Muslims were concerned, have often played a prominent role in rioting. In March 1941 for example, the traditional Holi Puja (or “Festival of Colors”) provided the starting point for some particularly serious clashes after a Muslim woman was sprayed with ink while walking through Shakhari Bazar 7. During Holi Puja in 1995, I took a series of close-ups of children covered in colors that earned me a reputation with the very young. Usually, my portraits were a way of getting myself accepted, of establishing contact with the street people. For me, Shakhari Bazar was a piece in a much bigger puzzle that I wanted to build around the various communities in the former territory of Bengal. I planned to do parts in India, in Calcutta and in the north-eastern states (Assam, Meghalaya). Inspired by my reading of La ressemblance informe 8 by Georges Didi-Huberman – and especially the chapter on “’Fine Arts’ and ‘Ethnography’: worrying facts for the criticism of form, and irritating forms for the criticism of facts” – I was playing with the symbolic charge in visual elements whose scope and possible meaning I was able guess at, but which I was unable to genuinely feel myself. I was particularly troubled by a passage on the fear of eruptions of violence between Hindus and Muslims in The Shadow Lines 9, a novel by Amitav Ghosh. Probably because I felt that it would have been impossible for me to write the following lines: “It is a fear that has a texture that one can neither forget nor describe. It resembles the fear of earthquake victims, people who have lost their confidence in the immobility of the ground underfoot. And yet it is not the same fear. There is no other like it because it cannot be compared with the fear of nature, which is the most universal of all human fears, nor with the fear of State violence, which is the most common of human fears. It is a fear born of the certainty that normality is contingent, that the space around us, the streets where we live can suddenly become, without advance warning, as hostile as a desert that is suddenly flooded. It is that – not the language, the food, the music – that separates the rest of the world the thousand million inhabitants of the subcontinent, it is the peculiar quality of the solitude born of the fear of a war between yourself and your reflection in the mirror”.
I cannot say, looking back, when precisely I grew tired of manipulating these signs that touched on acts of violence in which I myself had risked nothing – not my life, nor that of my loved ones, not my property nor my trust in fellow human beings – and refocused on my point of contact with reality. Some decisions were milestones, such as stopping my teaching of photojournalism to Bangladeshi photographers to avoid inculcating in them the pictorial habits from which I was trying to wean myself. There was also the end of my collaboration with the Drik Picture Library, whose role as World Press agent in Bangladesh seemed to me to be propagating the worst categories of Western photographic aesthetics rather than encouraging the emergence of any independent indigenous viewpoint. Drik’s demagogic chauvinism – “Third world by third world photographers” – reminds me of that of Nargis Dutt, a Bollywood star who attacked Satyajit Ray in the Indian parliament in the following terms “Why do you think the film Pather Panchali should have been so popular abroad? Because Westerners want to see India in an abject position. This is the image they have of our country and a film that confirms that image appears authentic to them”. In Imaginary Homelands10, Salman Rushdie sums up the debate between Nargis Dutt and defenders of Satyajit Ray as a dispute between a philistine/commercial/chauvinist position and one that is aesthetic/purist/conscious. He adds that this split is encountered in numerous forms and is not confined to the world of the cinema … And lastly, there was the decision, taken on my return to France late in 1996, not to join the Editing agency, which had been instrumental in promoting the work of the Bangladeshi photographers with whom I had been working.
In the spring of 1997, an exhibition of my photographs of Old Dhaka was scheduled for the brand new Dhaka City Museum. I cannot say now how the idea came to me of coupling this exhibition with a street exhibition in Shakhari Bazar: perhaps a meeting in Delhi with the Indian photographer Satish Sharma, whose projects for public spaces and collection of vernacular photographs I liked? The memory of an open-air exhibition organized by Drik in a village? An article on Jean Rouch showings in Africa? The friendship that had grown up with the owners of the Kalpana hotel, Brindapan Nag and his son Dipok? It was the latter who took care of the erection of a cloth and bamboo marquee tent like those used for wedding banquets and religious festivals (pujas). I selected seventy-four portraits from the pictures taken in the street, choosing those in which the individuals would have no difficulty in recognizing themselves. The exhibition opened on March 19, 1997 in the presence of the First Secretary of the French Embassy. This official visit to Old Dhaka and the Hindu quarter was an achievement in itself. In this city, which by 2015 will be the fourth biggest conurbation in the world, with twenty-one million inhabitants, the few galleries, museums and cultural institutes are concentrated in the residential areas of the modern city which is springing up in the north, turning its back on the historic centre and the Buriganga River. Three or four thousand people visited the exhibition in the days that followed: residents of the street as well as the mass of street vendors, day laborers, beggars, fakirs, street children, and others. On March 21, the photographs were handed out and the exhibition wound down to a close as each person took away his or her portrait. Apart from the return of the images to the local population – which also had its ironic side, mimicking the first colonizers’ distribution of glass trinkets – nothing in the unfolding of this project was premeditated. The only real truth in documentary as opposed to reportage is the truth of not knowing in advance the meaning, the duration or the use of the images produced. I had not planned to keep a register of the names and addresses of the owners of the portraits, as I did during the exhibition, nor to photograph them under the tent holding their picture. The idea of using the exhibition space as a picture-taking space and as the commencement of a documentary process came to me on the spot. This approach was nevertheless part of a process of reflection which led me to prefer playful interaction to the analytical work of description, pursuing the goal of displacing the exoticism of the Other on to the artwork itself. I was not seeking to document Bengali syncretism in order to preserve and archive it according to some taxonomic logic. On the contrary, my idea was to feed impurities into it, to participate in it through my photographs.
In April 2001, while preparing the exhibition “Des territoires”, to which I was a contributor, at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, I decided I would return to Shakhari Bazar. Using the register from the 1997 exhibition in which I had recorded sixty-nine names and the same number of addresses, I set out to document the fate of certain of my pictures: their dissemination in shops, homes, their cohabitation with posters of stars of cricket and Bollywood, portraits of Bengali cultural heroes, such as the writer Rabindranath Tagore, or monsoon-faded family photos. These visits to the pictures and their owners gave me an excuse to take other portraits (portraits of the pictures, family portraits). I also handed out new prints of the portraits done under the 1997 exhibition tent. The images distributed in this way became the guiding thread for a process combining several generations of images, several layers of superimposed or interlinked portraits.
Having ceased all my work with the press, three years went by without my having the wherewithal to return to Bangladesh. In 2004, a project for a joint exhibition mounted by various art centers11 enabled me to make my first journey back to Shakhari Bazar. I returned again in 2005 and 2006 using my own resources earned as an artist. On each occasion, my photographer friends at the MAP cooperative put me up in their office behind Kawran Bazar, Dhaka’s big food market halls, an area renowned for its shanty towns, its illicit alcohol and its mastans (“goons”). The friendship remains, but it is not always an easy matter to explain the path I have followed, nor my refusals to photographers for whom the main alternative option as professionals is to produce pictures for non-governmental organizations and to enter “photographic essays” in international photojournalism competitions12. Just as in France, with my old friends in the world of photojournalism and magazines, I can feel the silence, the reservations deepening. Conversely, my relationship with the street and the inhabitants of Shakhari Bazar is increasingly warm. The work has continued to shift over the years of observations, chance events, encounters, like the photographs people give sign painters for copying. Out in the street, cumbersome and highly visible as I am with my camera on a tripod, I see the people of the neighborhood come up to me as they would go to a studio. In this way I rediscover the activity of the neighborhood portrait photographer imported by the colonials, made popular by the natives and fallen into disuse with the violence of the war of independence of 1971. I also return to the New York Street Photography tradition whose “dark city” side, the Harlem of Aaron Siskind and Roy de Carava, Bruce Davidson’s East 110th Street, the Bowery as seen by Jacob A. Riis and Martha Rosler, Helen Levitt’s Upper East Side, have always been my own preference13. I see this tradition as an experimentation with a shifting of the photographer’s vantage point on the street: reversing the threshold to look out rather than in14. Far from abolishing the experience of distance and otherness, of “getting inside” the people you photograph (like Mary Ellen Mark, whose Falkland Road photographs15 double up with the possession of the prostitute’s body by her customer16), Street Photography is a conquest of space that runs counter to the private, domestic domain: it is a way of generating intimacy in the common flow down the middle of the street. Like a swimmer who, having reached the middle of the river, will sometimes play at just treading water in the spot where the current is strongest, the depth below unknown.
Just as the portraits of the char dwellers (the chars are riverine islands in the Bangladesh river delta), in Living in the Fringe, can be read as allegorical figures for Lutetia 17, Shakhari Bazar represents the archetype of the pre-Haussmann Paris street. A historical thoroughfare because it is used by the common people, enlivened by the crowd in constant movement. Where the successive extensions of the historic Paris axis stretching from the Louvre to La Défense coincide with the gradual eviction of the lower classes from the capital, an uninterrupted series of symbolic territorial annexations invading the near or further periphery of the city, Shakhari Bazar represents the long-term establishment in Dhaka’s centre of a foreign community originally from Southern India, and now the old city’s soul. This meandering street calls for no extension, no distant perspective, no bridge other than a natural opening out on to the river, an arrival at the waterside. In Shakhari Bazar, the inhabitants leave the street for no destination other than the Buriganga River, where the ashes of the dead are scattered after cremation.
1. Living in the Fringe, Paris, Figura, 1998. This volume contains a photographic survey conducted from 1991 to 1996 devoted to the landless peasants of the river islands on the Brahmaputra River and the Bay of Bengal.
2. “Situations du reportage, actualité d’une alternative documentaire”, Communications, 70, “Le parti pris du document. Littérature, photographie, cinéma et architecture au xxe siècle” , 2001, p. 307-333.
3. “In Reporters, Francis Apesteguy is a trader in the real who knows what the market price is for a photograph of Richard Gere with glasses or without glasses, of Admiral de Gaulle with or without donkey-ride. […] In the continuous flow of information and images, the reporter is a market trader before he can be a picture-taker”. Gilles Saussier, Conversion du réel, text for the exhibition program “Fifty-Fifty”, with Karim Daher, Galerie Zürcher (Paris), December 10, 2005 – January 25, 2006.
4. In Living in the Fringe, op. cit., page 39, a pearl of liquid slides down the wrinkled cheek of Barkat Ali Mundol, a peasant from Gabshara island in the Brahmaputra River, which many readers see, wrongly, as a tear. It is actually perspiration. When its existence is precarious, the human body tends to sweat more than it weeps.
5. “The reverse angle shot is the presence of the Other. For the Americans, it has become the same shot. Other people don’t interest them. They have never made a distinction between a camera and a projector”. Jean-Luc Godard, quoted by Philippe Lançon in “Godard, facétieux fossoyeur”, Libération, 12 July 2006.
6. Taslima Nasrin was condemned to death under a fatwa pronounced by a group of Islamic fundamentalists (the Council of Soldiers of Islam) for having published in December 1992 a book entitled Lajja (Shame, translated by Kankabati Datta, New York, Prometheus Books, 1997) which deals with the persecution inflicted upon Hindus after the destruction of the Babri mosque in India. In September 2004, I published an interview with her in the magazine Marie-Claire.
7. In Communal Riots in Bengal, 1905-1947, Delhi, Oxford India Paperbacks, 1993, p. 155, the historian Suranjan Das underlines the active role of the Shakahri craft workers in the mob of rioting Hindus in 1941: “Almost all the murders and sporadic assaults on Muslims which followed, were carried out by them”, p. 155. “During the 1926 violence the crowd was interested more in destroying property and causing injury rather than taking human lives. By contrast, contemporary observers contend that in 1941 for the first time in Dacca there was a large number of murders in the communal violence”, p. 149. “109 people (58 Hindus and 51 Muslims) lost their lives”, p. 143.
8. La ressemblance informe ou le gai-savoir selon Georges Bataille, Paris, Macula, 1995.
9. The Shadow Lines, trad. de l’anglais par Christiane Besse, Paris, Le Seuil, 1992.
10. Imaginary Homelands – Essays and Criticism 1981 - 1991, London, Granta Books, 1991.
11. Pôle Image Haute-Normandie (Rouen, France), La Filature (Mulhouse, France), Cherbourg-Octeville regional centre for photography (France), Geneva regional centre for photography (Switzerland) and the Nicéphore Niépce museum (Chalon-sur-Saône, France).
12. Ironically it was partly due to my help that Shafiqul Alam Kiron became the first Bangladeshi photographer to win two World Press Photo prizes for pictures of women survivors of acid attacks.
13. As opposed to the 5th Avenue of Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerovitz. Cf. Joel Meyerovitz and Colin Westerbeck, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Boston, Bullfinch Press Book, 1994, p. 373-403.
14. In the work of Walker Evans, the threshold is embodied in steps, an entrance stairway, a doorway to a shop, to a church, or to a hairdressing salon, as photographed from the other side of the street. For Helen Levitt, the entirely mental space of the street is cut through by the edge of the sidewalk, a line that marks the symbolic threshold between childhood on one side, and, on the other, sexuality and motherhood.
15. Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981 (republished Göttingen, Steidl, 2005).
16. In “Bad Girls”, an article published in Photographers International, no. 40, 1998, pp. 58-59, I contrasted the photographic approach adopted by Shezad Noorani (on the Kandupatti brothel in Dhaka) with that of Mary Ellen Mark.
17. Recent archaeological excavations indicate that the original site of Lutetia – “a town of the Parisii situated on an island on the River Seine’, as described by Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico – was not the Île de la Cité, but apparently a spot now in the suburbs inside a bend in the Seine on an area covering modern-day Nanterre and Gennevilliers, its southern access guarded by the Mont Valérien.