Text by Matti-Juhani Karila (translated and abbreviated by Anna Ovaska)
I am not a photographer, but I’ve gotten hooked on the mysterious enchantment of photos – on this “one-hundredth part of a second which makes a blink of an eye eternal”, as American poet Hart Grane described the essence of photography in 1923.
I can’t imagine that any of you who read this article would travel to Africa without a camera, not even painters whose predecessors in the 19th century were worried that photography would someday perhaps displace the images made by hand. Digital cameras have destroyed some of the charm of photographs, but much of it is still left. Something of its innermost, original essence is alive today, and this is what I have tried to capture in the three exhibitions I have curated in Villa Karo, Grand-Popo between 2007 and 2011.
Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of an individual photographer, a photograph – any photograph – seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. (Susan Sontag 1977, 3.)
One can of course aggravate and say that photos are not true. Negatives have been manipulated since photography was born. As early as in 1855 a German photographer shocked the audience in the World’s Fair held in Paris by showing two versions of one single photo: the original and the revised. He had developed a technique to modify negatives – to modify the truth. And as Susan Sontag has written: “News about the camera’s ability to lie made portraits even more popular. People wanted to get ideal pictures of themselves: photos of them at their best.”
The thought of a three-part series of exhibitions in Grand Popo was born in 2007 when I built together with Stefan Bremer an exhibition called “Les témoignages du passé – Evidence from the Past”. I had collected about hundred enlarged postal cards from the colonial Africa. Pictures were taken by white colonists and their theme was “African people”. They show how nothing can replace the power of photographs as interpreters of the past (even if they are manipulated and modified) – maybe only objects in museums and their stories can bear the same value. I had collected the images from my own collections and from other collectors’ collections, from the archives of Finnish Missionary Society and from the huge Unesco archives. “Les témoignages” covered a period of time from the end of 19th century to the middle of 20th century.
“It is nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. — Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Susan Sontag 1977, 11.)
Camera can also be used to emphasize the reality. A photograph is indisputable evidence that something has happened. Photographs can distort reality, but they also show that something, something that resembles the picture, has once existed.
After the independency of African countries, a lot of know-how brought by the white people disappeared as the former colonizers withdrew themselves back to Europe. But some things remained. The idea of making photographs stayed and African photo studios were created. From these treasures I collected the other exhibition to Grand-Popo in 2009. I don’t know any of the people in these studio photos, but I sense the importance of those moments which “make one-hundredth of a second eternal”. People rarely smile in these portraits, they are dressed up, they look directly to camera. The photos in the series cover time from mid of 20th century to the end of the millennium; portraits of African families taken by Africans.
Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and, often, is all that remains of it. (Susan Sontag 1977, 6.)
“Regarde-moi! – Look at me!” is a logical continuation to these two earlier exhibitions. I have asked fourteen Finnish photographers to collect series from the photos they have taken in West-Africa in the first decade of the millennium. The working titles of these series anticipate an interesting ensemble: “Market days”, “Coups d’oeil”, “Street style”, “Friends”, “The Day of the School Uniform”, “They are”…
Photographers Stefan Bremer, Kari Hakli, Tuula Heinilä, Tapio Heikkilä, Sade Kahra, Jari Kivelä, Tuija Kuusela, Anu Nirkko, Lauri Nykopp, Joona Pettersson, Laura Pörsti, Cecilia Rosenlew, Antti Seppänen and Adolfo Vera have promised to participate in the exhibition. The exhibition will be opened in the mid-October 2011 and it will last until February 2012.
It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participation in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph. (Susan Sontag 1977, 18–19.)
Excerpts from Susan Sontag’s collection of essays On Photography (1977)