The Proselyte Photograph (Part 3 of 3)

Georges Merillon, Kosovo, 1990, world Press Photo Award

Georges Merillon, Kosovo, 1990, World Press Photo Award


Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory.

The conundrum which arises from the nature of the proselyte image is how one can create within the (fundamentally Christian) history of imagery, without binding oneself to the limitations of the aesthetic system it establishes. If every image inscribes itself in the missionizing history of images, how can the artist work with these images without falling into the trap of the simple inversion of its values or absolute retirement from the pictorial universe? In short: how can one create images without bearing the banner of dogma?

There is of course no single answer, for the imagery of consumption is the ruling force, and response to dogma is always multiple, and always negatory. The way out of the system is anything that is not, anything that refuses to play the game – irony, laughter, nonsense, provocation, the mise-en-abyme. As Borges put it, the only way out of the labyrinth is the view from above, the view which annuls the labyrinth’s force, by exiting from the space of its rule.

This photograph by Georges Merillon, also a World Press Photo Award winner, seems at first glance to be as iconic and orthodox as the photographs of Hocine Zaourar and Samuel Aranda. Like the other Madonna images, it makes direct reference to the orthodoxy of realist imagery inscribed in the history of the Church’s imagery. The gesture-map of the multiple figures and the triangular composition, with its center of action between weeping mother, laid-out body, the beseeching woman in the center all make clear references to painting of the Lamentation of Christ as his blood-drained body lay upon the slab at Golgotha.

Sandro Botticelli, Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints,  ca. 1490-1492

Sandro Botticelli, Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, ca. 1490-1492

In many ways, although this photograph’s outer form is exactly that of the proselyte image, it contains an anomaly, a willingly one, one which both grants the photograph depth and offers the thread of its undoing. Unlike the Madonnas of Bentalha and Yemen, the color scheme in this Mary photo is not the palette of “enhanced realism” but rather uses the muted grays and greens and yellows and reds of the Flemish interior (the Flemish painting of the mundane and personal which was the alternative to the sanctified image imposed from above). The choice of color space (and choice it is, as anyone who has fiddled with image printing, Photoshop or Lightroom knows), creates not a reference to the realistic color of the outside world, but points rather to the selection of hues as an artifice in painting. The mise-en-abyme in color, which refers to the photographs production is doubled in the artifice of its over-elaborate and constructed composition, which also adds a measure of doubt to the image.

On the right of the group of wailing women lamenting the dead stands a young girl dressed in what seems to be anachronistically modern clothing (although in fact it is the villagers who still dress traditionally). All the women, excepting her, act out their pre-ordained roles as the victims in the photograph. They play out the scene which the camera’s presence requires of them, no different from African natives who exchange their jeans and hip-hop tee-shirts for grass skirts and bones through the nose when the white man comes visiting in with his khaki shorts and thousand-dollar camera. But this one young girl, this individual, petulant, doubtful, savvy, refuses to play by the rules. She acknowledges the camera’s presence and rebelling against its power looks not at the corpse or mourners, but at us. Through the camera lens she stares, gazing up the stream of the image’s production to land her glance, ironic and challenging squarely upon the audience’s eyes, challenging us with her sullen gaze to disregard our faith in the image, inviting us to blasphemy.

Merillon’s photograph inscribes itself in the history of pictorial representation, and thus orthodox representation as it only must, but it also provides an exit, one selected by the photographer. This young girl staring at us from the photo’s extremity with her iconoclast gaze and anachronistic dress could have been simply cropped out to keep the image’s doctrinal purity. But she was left in.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

Orthodoxy would have us see the image of traditional primitive Kosovan villagers desperately in need of Western assistance if not sympathy. Yet within this orthodoxy is the grain of profanation.  The young woman’s incisive gaze, reminiscent of that of the curious onlooker in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp, profanes the image’s dogma with its show of mistrust, even disdain for the act of photography, of which it must bear the brunt, liberating the photo from the conformist reproduction of the proselyting pieta.

The way out from faith is not in another faith; is not to replace Christian dogma with secular humanism. Rather the exit resides in the doubt the image assimilates within its form, a doubt that denies the image the power it naturally asserts, to grant the viewer a path to the view from above – the distanced regard of skepticism, of irony, which reveals the convolutions of the labyrinth.

The quest for the holy image and its proselyting power is all too clear when one sees time and again the imagery which the Western media not only produces consistently but lauds with its awards. All three of these World Press awarded photos are fundamentally a part of the same image-machine which would extend the reign of the orthodox image, and the photojournalistic mission (in the Christian sense) is to return with these relics which can be lofted as a banner to convert the heathens and incite the faithful.

The secret to undermining the proselyte photograph lays in the image’s intelligence and in the subversiveness of its effect. The missionizing image much be profaned, must be contaminated by doubt, so that when it is hoisted high as a witness for judgment, its effect will be (unrealized at first) opposite of its intended one: rather than imposing faith upon its public, it is doubt which will spread through the masses in waves, causing the idols of faith to tremble and waver upon their pedestals.

The Proselyte Photograph (Part 1 of 3)

The Proselyte Photograph (Part 2 of 3)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: