The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

05 January 2011


Saratoga poet Marilyn McCabe has sent, via a friend, her poem inspired by Balazs Gardi's 2007 image of a man holding a wounded boy in the Korengal Valley in East Afghanistan. Nearly everyone who commented on this image compared it to some masterpiece of painting or sculpture, by Michelangelo, by Caravaggio, by Rembrandt, by El Greco, or just generally from the grand tradition of western art. Photojournalists and documentary photographers have long winced at the suggestion their work "looks like a painting," because the essence of documentary photography is that it decidedly is not a painting, meaning it is not manufactured, arranged, distilled, or otherwise interpreted to create or enhance dramatic effect. Traditionally, the first authority of a documentary photograph is precisely its literal truth, the spontaneous representation of reality it certifies and thereby honors.

El Greco, Pieta, 1587-97
More than once, I was asked if Balazs had "set up" his image; if, like a film director or one of the cadre of postmodern artists who create photographs from fictional tableaux, he had somehow staged the scene to heighten its impact. Though I have never spoken to Balazs about this, I am certain the answer is an unequivocal no. The verity of Balazs's work is its most obvious strength and virtue. (One does not endure, as Balazs Gardi does, the difficulty and sometime danger of documentary photography to create false images and present them as real.) Balazs does not call his photograph Pieta. He did not set out to create a pieta. Yet life, in its horror and beauty, offered him one and he accepted. And thus did he join a long tradition of images of suffering and pity.

Eos Lifting the Body of Her Son Memnon, Attic red-figure cup, 490-480 BCE

And yet, if a documentary photographer does not create like the masters of old, this does not mean his eye and soul are not moved to similar depths of recognition and compassion. This, I think, is a more agreeable and profound sense in which a great photograph can resemble a painting -- or symphony or any other sublime human creation. In her poem, Marilyn captures this affinity with eloquence, and mirrors it by concluding with a quotation from a master of her own medium, W. H. Auden, writing on Brueghel. The result is a richly-faceted meditation on how art reflects and magnifies our common humanity.

Afghan Pieta  
  Eyes of the one holding the limp body,
  the grainy surface as of stone,
  or pigment made of rough powder.
  The triolet: help sought
  from the less of it, bonds
  broken, things cut down.

  There’s a body.
  There’s a body
  and there’s life

  left, it’s seeping,
  wounds we must look for
  in tell-tale places.

  There’s the cradle:
  the holder’s arms,
  chest to body.

  The ache the eyes
  are always turned toward:
  the third figure obscure.

  The matter is always
  man. The suffering
  old masters always knew.

                                             --Marilyn McCabe

Balazs Gardi, Afghan man and wounded boy, 
Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, East Afghanistan,  2007

1 comment:

david brickman said...

Like you, Tim, I have no doubt about the authenticity of Gardi's photograph - but we can't blame people in 2011 for raising the issue.

Even battle photographs have a long history of being set up (Civil War examples abound). The debate rages on over whether Robert Capa's fallen Spanish soldier was staged, with no apparent clear answer. W. Eugene Smith, himself the author of a famous Pieta-like picture from Minamata, rebelled against his time's strict rules for documentary photography by interpreting available light as "any light that's available."

Not that bouncing a 60-watt bulb of a dirt floor is the equivalent of staging, but it's impossible to satisfy the skeptics' interpretation of "literal truth" in a postmodern world. Stated most simply, all images are fictions - reality does not exist in a frame, in stop-action, or in black and white. Of course, it's the truth behind the image that inspires us, but it is also open to interpretation.

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