The Proselyte Photograph (Part 1 of 3)

The photographic image is the Western god, the idol which has lost its link to that which it refers. Its theology is that of the rational, and its monofocal perspective the imposed rite for viewing the truth of the world. We are all its worshipers, even when we fight to exclude ourselves from among the faithful. In the 21st century, the Logos from which emanates the two other monotheist religions has been entirely supplanted by the Christian Eikōn. The crusade continues daily on screens and in print, and its shock-troops are those photographers who propose an immediate vision of history stripped of it’s substance, removed of its thought to leave only the all-puissant image, effacing the material, poetic and spiritual, to impose its authority, ferocious and convincing.

This orthodoxy of imagery swallows all other images devouring their potential significance before it can even emanate from the surface, eliminating all other perspectives without ever eliminating perspective. The pixels and grain of which the photographs are composed are presented as neutral bearers of information, but each little square, each tiny dot is a grain of belief reinforcing the edifice of the church’s monopoly over the image. Not solely in the Christian manner, but church with small ‘c’, the Church’s inheritor, institutional authority of image as truth.

This is why the photojournalistic image, more than any other warrants the most critical regard, the most severe reaction, one which must not simply be of refusal, but of blasphemy. The photojournalistic image in presenting us the historical event un-critical, unthought, empowers the reigning dogma by returning to our gaze of curiosity the disembodied rectangle of censured vision and prettified pixels which we are to meekly receive as not only legal but moral proof to the real event. The origin and authority of the photographic image is clear  – the Christian iconography in which the history of Western images, especially the photographic is deeply enracinated.

Seeking to illuminate the worshipers upon the plight of those less fortunate like crusaders of yore, these camera-bearers ride out into the Evening Countries, into the Jungles and Deserts of the third- and sixth- world countries, lofting their cameras high to bring light to the primitives with their vision of absolute truth; vision which accepts no suffering that is not the suffering of the martyred god, no redemption which is not that of the photographic church of humanism. These modern crusaders leave the uninitiated only the choice between worship of the holy lens or submission to oblivion by its absence.

The most orthodox of icons attach themselves to the existing power structure by effacing the alternatives they could have selected, preferring instead to gain historical validity through recognition by the powers-that-be in the form of photographic awards, personal prestige or monetary compensation. These images, witnesses of history which are to leave behind a record of truth for posterity, are in fact but aesthetic police-officers refusing any possible vision which would reveal rather than impose. Today’s photojournalism is but a subtler extension of the same photojournalism practiced by Riefenstahl in Hitler’s Third Reich, only the imposed aesthetic truth does not pivot about race, but culture. The chosen mission of the crusading photojournalist, who endangers his life in the wilds of the world (but inevitably comes from a middle-class family) is simple – to subsume all images into the body general of the authorized vision. Every cross and every Christ, even one drenched in piss is still an icon which furthers the Christian dominion over the image’s production.

These photographic images, banners of Cavalry hoisted high upon front pages celebrate themselves as real monuments to activism or humanism, but whose vision effaces the other rather than rendering them visible, establishing a parasitic relationship in which the photographed only exists to bestow another icon upon the genuflecting majority.


Hocine Zaourar, "Madonna of Bentalha",  Algeria 1997

Hocine Zaourar, “Madonna of Bentalha”, Algeria 1997, World Press Photography Award 1998


Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

This image of a mother’s sorrow is one without object and one without substance. It has been created so as not to show the sorrow of a mother of flesh and blood, but rather to produce a link which refers to the greater iconographic pain of Mary for her crucified son, an image which portrays the comforting of Mary by her retinue of women on the way to the Crucifixion. Her dolor is nearly audible, and in this sound-imbued image we can hear Mary’s wail at the foot of the cross pierce through the image’s surface as St. John comforts her, in a gesture which is not, as the caption would have you believe, of an Algerian mother in Bentalha in 1997, but one pulled straight off of a cathedral wall. The figure’s sideways-tilted head thrown back head in a gesture of suffering is Mary deprived of her flesh of the son, absent from the frame, but whose presence animates its composition. The manifestation of this dolorous icon as a photograph in a specific historical time and place is more than a simple portrayal of the Madonna in her sorrow, but an image whose purpose is to paint over the other potential image – that of political turmoil, personal suffering, individual pain and the history of colonialism that brought it about.

Detail from "Lamentation of Christ", c.1522. Correggio, origin. Antonio Allegri c.1489-1534.  Oil on canvas, 157 x 182cm. From the Cappella Del Bono at S.Giovanni Evangelista in Parma

Detail from “Lamentation of Christ”, c.1522. Correggio, origin. Antonio Allegri c.1489-1534.

Hocine Zaourar, despite being Algerian himself, using photography as his language, or rather being used by the language of photography, can nonetheless do little more than present the single image that photography will allow. There can be no Islamic Madonna, for there is no Islamic tableau of a mother’s woe. And thus by choosing the model of Christian suffering, there is no longer any Islamic sorrow, and no longer any Islamic mother.

With such images pervading the space of history, one easily understands the natural mistrust of the photographed when faced with the missionizing regard of the camera. To be on the lens’ receiving side is to be made into a victim, is to be stripped of the language of one’s own gesture, of one’s own reality and of one’s own self. The colonizing is no longer that of geographical space, but that of photographic space. Although today we can attempt to understand the mechanics of the missionizing regard, the Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have always instinctively understood that the photograph steals the substance from the photographed being of object, encaging its spirit in the photographic frame.

Today still, press photographers clamber around the world on all fours, simian-like proselytes whose mission is to collect souls to feed the image-machine, to shove down the juggernaut’s maw photographs for consumption along with flesh, petrol and hope, images which will only be shat out behind in a wake of the wreckage of history, material and spiritual, and the agent of this destruction is this proselyte photograph, declaiming its truth, stripping the individual of his force and the viewer of his curiosity.

The Proselyte Photograph (Part 2 of 3)

The Proselyte Photograph (Part 3 of 3)


One comment

  1. Pingback: The Proselyte Photograph (Part 2 of 3) | retinalechoes

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