Documents of strangeness: photography of in-discretion

Prof. Dr. Willem Elias (V.U.B., Free University Brussels)

Chairman of the Higher Institute of Fine Arts - Flanders, Belgium

The photography of Charif Benhelima revolves around one motif : being strange. His pictures show nothing but unhominess, in which a displaced person feels ill at ease: in a remote corner, in a bed that is not really a bed or centralized in a no man’s land area. Even the sometimes-laughing children cannot put right that impression: the signs around it spoil the fun. These documents of strangeness are often not too focused and usually leave a little less light than necessary to observe well. Maybe the eye of the photographer was troubled by its object, or maybe some situations are better not brought to light.

One could easily phrase a civil answer to the observation that Charif documents strangeness, especially by putting, that one has little chance to shoot a Tyrol-pure picture, when hanging around in asylums for illegal aliens or in migrant neighborhoods. Yet starting from the same angle one could place two ideologically different interpretations. The first could be that the photographer wants to arouse compassion for the sometimes little enviable circumstances that foreigners abroad live in. The other reads that there is no place for foreigners and that they annex complete neighborhoods. These opposite attitudes are two varieties of the same thinking about strangeness. Being pro or con is essentially the result of the same kind of Western thinking. Charif is not out to be pro or con in his photography. He does not criticize facts, but questions the Western worldview itself. It is rather a philosophical reflection than a political point of view, a question about the discrepancy between what is own and what is different, between the autochthonous and allochthonous, the identity and being foreign.

In order to understand his intention, we first have to make a cultural and philosophical elaboration. There are many definitions of culture. But in this case the school definition will do: Culture is "the entity of symbols (and thus shared meanings) with which ideas, opinions and knowledge are expressed or procedures (recipes) are moulded and that also take shape in tools and other artifacts." (1) The problem here is, that whatever a certain group puts as its culture, implies a self-esteem at the same time. Furthermore it took until the twentieth century before Europe was put off the thought to possess "the" culture of "the" humankind. Being unable to imagine that there are other cultures with other, non-Western values linked to them, is still the most concise characterization of what is called the Western "small-mindedness". The problem here is that culture finds its justification within itself. Culture originates where man intervenes in nature and repeatedly does so because it has proved him right, through which it becomes a habit. The centric thinking is not confined to egocentricity. There is also anthropocentrism that postulates mankind as measure of all things. This could be justifiable if the rival appears to be a supernatural entity, but it is ecologically dangerous for anything that is non-human earthly natural. Something similar exists for culture. The ethnocentrism means putting one cultural group (etnos) above the other. Ton Lemaire, expert in philosophy of culture has phrased this, appealing to Herskovits, as follows: "The ethnocentrism is the universally occurring tendency of groups to see their own way of life as a standard for (the appreciation of) humankind as a whole. This naive overestimation and self-glorification of each society initially has a useful social function: it strengthens the integration of the group by stressing upon its exclusive value and contributes to the self-identification of the individual with his group. "

Ethnocentrism remains pretty innocent as long as groups have relatively little contact with one another and as long as they do not develop any kind of missionary consciousness. But as soon as the ethnocentrism is being rationalized into a philosophy of progress led by Western culture and / or politically organized into nationalism - as both have occurred in the modern-Western society - it becomes an attitude that is perilous to mankind. In fact Herskovits’ criticism is aimed against the ‘Europe centrism’ as the -if not only than still the most ‘rationalized’ and energetic form of ethnocentrism. After all it is the bourgeois society that ‘creates a world equal to itself’ and that for centuries is busy westernizing all cultures via colonization and missionary work, based on the idea having to bring the one true ‘civilization’, together with the true ‘faith’. Anthropology since Boas has made us conscious of the cultural definition of our acts and thoughts and has especially also made clear how our world view, our values and even our moral owe their apparently universal legitimacy merely to an early increasing of culture, conditioning of the individual in a certain cultural tradition. Exactly to the extent that anthropology has become a valuable science by putting its attachment to Western values systematically ‘in between brackets’, it discovers the relativity of all value systems, including the one of Western culture. So that anthropology, in research as well as in its content, is particularly capable and is even forced to become thoroughly conscious of the ethnocentrism of all cultures, especially of its own society.

Herskovits now presents the relativity of culture as the most important contribution that anthropology - on the basis of its insight into the cultural definition of our values and ideas - has to make to a worldwide society, in which many cultures can live peacefully together only if none of them makes its own value systems absolute nor wants to impose these on others." (2)

I cannot give a better theoretical context for Charif’s work than this line of thought. At his turn he contributes through his pictures to the cultural relativistic reaction against the euro centrism.

The cultural identity therefore arises because certain habits and views in a certain time and place, often by coincidence and arbitrariness, have come into being and have been repeated. For this collection of remaining fortuities one is usually prepared to fight and die. The most powerful one can impose his culture and undo the other. Culture as non-nature, claims the incontestable ‘genuineness’, linked to the concept of nature, for itself. This is what Roland Barthes calls the principle of the mythical character of culture: "It turns history into nature." (3) A cover photo of Paris-Match serves as a good example for this. A young black in a French uniform salutes the French flag. This content of the image (the signify) becomes a form again (significant) in a second semiological system, through which connotations arise. With regard to this photo it means that France is a big Empire that all its sons, regardless of their skin, serve its colors faithfully and there is no better answer to them who make accusations of a so-called colonialism, than the diligence of this black man to serve his so-called oppressors. The French Empire becomes a fact since those good Negro salutes in the same way as ‘our boys’. Through this equality the French imperialism gets a foundation. The image becomes a contemporary myth from the moment the French imperialism passes for something natural instead of a historically developed situation. What makes it in fact possible for the reader to consume the myth naively is that he does not see a semiological, but an inductive system in it. Where there is only talk of equivalence he sees a sort of causal process: in his eyes the significant and signify have a natural connection. This confusion can be expressed in another way. Each semiological system is a value system. The consumer of the myth however considers the meaning (signification) as a factual system. Therefore the myth is born as a system of facts, while it is only a semiological system. This example and Barthes’ theory about today’s myth, namely as speech, explain the mythical character of statements or images that want to depict those cultural identities as natural facts.

The example of the cover-picture also says something about how Charif Benhelima does not work. Just because he does not, as mentioned above, adopt an ideological (pro or con) attitude, but aims at raising a political philosophical phrasing, his pictures don’t immediately initiate mythical reading. Charif claims nothing, he observes and records. The surroundings determine a great deal, eventually present as emptiness, as a blind wall; but more often as revealing signs: a windowpane as a surrogate mirror; sitting in front of a window without desire to watch; where did the hairdresser go? He does not photograph the outside world as objects. On the contrary, he shoots himself as a shadow, as fiction in search of his own past. The photographed people are like brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. They are masks, behind which he himself is hidden, looking for his own ‘biographie déraisonnée’. It makes me think of a comment by Roland Barthes: "Since all pictures are contingent (and therefore exactly beyond significance (hors sens)), photography can only generate a meaning (aim at generality) by putting on a mask." (4) According to Barthes the mask is the meaning (sens) to the extent that it is completely pure, like in classical theatre. He puts a picture of Avedon as an example, who in a portrait of a native slave reveals the essence of slavery, because his face has turned into a mask.

We regularly find such masks in Charif’s work. For instance the series about Héléna Benjouira. She plays the part of a foreigner without legal documents. Finding herself weakly in this situation without documents is making her complete existence suspicious. Charif depicts her humanity through her maternity in indeed unexpected circumstances. However it is not a report on the adventures of a certain Héléna. She stands for the Outcast Foreigner himself.

Another Barthian mask is the picture of a man who, with his trousers down to the ankles and leaning back on a chair in the middle of the asylum room shows his naked member. The theatrical connection is clear. ‘Obscene’ comes from the Latin ‘ob’ that means ‘in front’ and ‘scaena’ that means ‘stage’. On stage one has a good overview on things. Theatre and theory have the same stem that refers to ‘seeing’. With regard to his unashamed pose the theory is quite clear. The impudent attitude of the Belgian government towards asylum seekers makes it unnecessary to hide the genitals. The humiliation is already too big anyway. Facing the cynicism of politics the asylum seeker places his own revolting cynicism. The attitude of the man is literally ‘obscene’; any sexual or erotic connotation is absent. The game he shows represents the game that is controlled by the Belgian government. He could be an ant saint, a not yet tortured martyr. The German cultural philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has described these two forms of cynicism at length. In order to distinguish them from each other he suggested a different spelling. He interprets ‘cynicism’ as humiliation out of power. The reaction against this through obscene gesture by the oppressed, he calls ‘cynicism’. I may not withhold the next extract from the reader, because it clarifies Charif’s photos so well:

"Even amongst the powerful one can find something that comes down to half freedom. They allow themselves this normally only under pressure, because by doing so they betray themselves to the consciousness of the opposition. The ruler’s awareness knows its own impertinence: the ruler’s cynicism in the modern meaning of the word is something different than the cynical offensive. The classical cynicism, that was primary and aggressive, stood in plebeian antithesis to idealism. The modern cynicism on the other hand is the ruler’s antithesis to the own idealism as ideology and as masquerade. The cynical ruler lifts up his mask, smiles upon his weak opponent - and oppresses him. C’est la vie. Noblesse obliges. Ordnung muss sein. The pressure of circumstances often comes before the insight of those concerned, doesn’t it? Forced power, forced circumstances! The hegemony lifts a corner of the veil in its cynicisms, only informs itself half and tells tales. The power cynicism is an impertinence that has chosen for the opposite side. Not Goliath is provoked by David here, no, the Goliaths of all times - from the arrogant Assyrian soldier kings to the contemporary bureaucracies - rub in the brave yet desperate David what stands above and what is below; cynicism in public service. The witticism of those who are already at the top leads to odd excesses. When Mary-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, inquired after the reasons of the people’s agitation, she was answered: "The people are hungry, Your Majesty, they have no bread to eat." Her reaction: "If the people have no bread, then why don’t they eat biscuits?" (5)

Indeed the category of the obscene by no means complies with the dictionary definition any longer: "Statements and representations in which the sexual aspect is brought to the attention, deliberately and especially out of proportion". All proportions of the obscene in its narrow meaning are surpassed. In this context there is no more. On the other hand obscenity in the widest sense has spread as an omnipresent feature of the entire society. This is a guideline for Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy. Obscenity appears in all shapes of modernity, in the hyper reality of everything that is continuously being filmed, filtered, reviewed and corrected by the wide-angle lens of social life, morality and information. To the situation of the foreigners seeking asylum, the following judgment of Baudrillard applies: "Something can only be meaningful if there is a scene, and there can only be a scene if there is an illusion, a minimum of illusion, of fictitious movement, a challenge to the real thing that thrills, tempts and upsets you. Without this highly aesthetic, mythical, playful dimension there is not even a political scene where something could happen. And this minimal illusion has disappeared to us: the events in Biafra, Chile, Poland, terrorism, the inflation or the atomic war have no necessity nor plausibility to us whatsoever. What we possess of it is an overrepresentation by the media, but not really an impression. All of this is simply obscene to us because it is made by the media to be seen and not to be looked at, to become hallucinatory transparent, to be absorbed from a distance just like the genitals absorb the voyeur. We are no spectators nor actors, but voyeurs without illusion." (6)

This criticism on everyday watching through media-eyes does not apply to a photographer like Charif Benhelima. He does not cheat our eye, but he makes us part, even accomplice of the event. I would like to call his method of working photography of ‘in-discretion’ to indicate the relation between the object (what is photographed) and subject (the operator). One or more chapters in the history of photography could be written about the way the knowingly photographed people assume a pose. They thus adopt an air and show how they dream or think they are. August Sander is a school example here. In Charif’s work the pose does not arise, all but a few exceptions in the series ‘Children in a foreign urban environment: Brussels 1990-1995’. The photographer and photographed person have become one. He is not a hunter but a housemate, a trusted relative, with a third mechanical eye, a prothesis that one has gotten used to. The resignation to be photographed is big. The camera is merely a sympathetic smile or a cheerful wink of a companion.

It might be surprising that for these situations, photographed in good faith, I do use the term in-discretion. ‘Indiscretus’ means ‘not to be distinguished nor separated’ in Latin. In this meaning ‘discrete’ photography is the kind where photographer and photographed person are separated by the two different worlds they belong to. Charif belongs, at least symbolically, to the world he photographs and his familiarity is accepted. There is no distinction, so therefore: photography of indiscretion. Because of such intimacy, this indiscretion is very positive and one can ask questions about the discrete voyeurism of the uncommitted photographer. Strangeness is not unknown to Charif.

Being foreign is a curious phenomenon within culture. Throughout history an ambiguous attitude has always been adopted towards being foreign: xenophobia versus cosmopolitanism. The modern definition of strangeness is that the stranger is he or she who does not belong to the state we are in, and does not have the same nationality. This is a neutral legal meaning, but usually they are not so permissive. Julia Kristeva (7) notices that only negative definitions of the foreigner exist. The foreigner is the other one, who does not belong. This is how the notion ‘barbarian’ originates in Greece, in the fifth century before Christ, to indicate that someone comes from another city-state. In 451 Pericles promulgates a law that obliges each citizen to prove that he originates from Athens on the father as well as mother’s side. Three years later it becomes a condition to enjoy the advantage of political rights. Those who deviated from this rule were equal to bastards. The result of this was clearly phrased in a verse from the Ion by Euripides: "I will be called a Nothing, son of nothing." Originally the term ‘barbarian’ was only used to refer to non-Greeks. Homer (8) would have invented the word on the basis of onomatopoeia of unarticulated or incomprehensible jabber. At first it was also applicable to Greeks with awkward and incorrect usage. In the work of the three Greek tragedians the word only occurs in the following meaning: ‘incomprehensible’, ‘non-Greek’, and therefore ‘eccentric’ or ‘inferior’. It lasted until the invasions by the barbarians in Rome before the meaning ‘cruel’ was added, as it still is the case. A similar change of meaning occurred to another Greek word for foreigner. The ‘metoikos’ is originally ‘somebody who lives with us’, but turns into ‘métèque’ in French, that stands for ‘sinister stranger’. Also the French ‘hôte’ (guest) has a doubtful origin. Derrida (9) has pointed this out, based on a study of the linguist Benveniste. The Latin ‘hostis’ that etymologically lies at the basis means ‘guest’ but also ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’. Xenophobia is derived from a word that offers a bit of hope. The ‘xenos’ (stranger) is not simply the absolute other one, the barbarian, the completely expelled or different wild one. ‘Xenos’ comes from ‘xenia’, which means ‘pact, contract, collective bond’, in other words ‘papers’. But that basic meaning was lost, namely that a foreigner is someone you have made an agreement with. The xenophobia creates a group of ‘illegal aliens’ without ‘xenia’. But what is left of hospitality?