The Zambians (3): Image and Realpolitik

The image itself

There are hardly any iconic pictures in public circulation and only a few in public exhibitions; so, now let us look at the rest of the world’s photographs and why they may be important. The saying is there are no new photographs: the blind woman or man, the people in the underground, signs, and others; they have all been taken by famous photographers of the past. If you take a picture of a blind person, it will be compared with Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and others. This of course is irony by default - it has been done before - in its most unintellectual form.

People are unavoidably misguided by their nations’ simulacra, which, in the West, generalise that Africa is starving to death or dying of disease or from war. The statistical evidence shows this is nonsense; so, whatever happens, this view cannot be allowed to prevail in the absence of photographic records of the social histories of Africa, and the rest of the world, which are mostly nothing like the Western bourgeois view.

A number of art critics insist on eloquent composition, perhaps some dynamism, perhaps some rhythm and repetition, appropriate colours. In today’s context, most artists will compromise these features to demonstrate tension, imbalance, disharmony and a good measure of irony. Many think the English are dull, do not smile, do not enjoy themselves and do not like sex, and that it always rains in England. So, take photographs of English people, smiling, enjoying themselves with their many children on a sunny day, in colour. This is irony and is exactly what Martin Parr did in The Last Resort. The image is still the result of a photo-mechanical-electronic-chemical process. If you take your camera to the beach on a sunny day, you can take similar pictures. If you did not know about irony, would your pictures be art? Or is it someone else viewing and valuing them that makes them art?


There are some notable facts about photography. The photograph was the first form in the history of mankind that could capture a slice of time. Photography has always been debated as somehow comparable with ‘art’, but an artist’s painted portrait may take months, with daily layers of artist’s impressions affected by the weather, his observational skills, his disposition at the time, the disposition of the sitter as well, so that a portrait is a composite of slices of time and interpretation. In addition, better paintings are constructs of sketches and not necessarily what is in front of a painter at a slice of time. The reality is that photography is not comparable with painting and never has been: it generally records what is in front of the lens at a particular slice of time.

Second, the photograph is always taken on the very edge of time, quite literally at the end of the human universe. As soon as it is taken, it starts to be history and becomes a record of memory, for the photographer, who now has a reference to an event and is helped to recall both before and after the photograph, which always has meaning for him. There are two aspects to this, one is the physical but static surroundings both inside and outside the frame of the image; the other is the dynamic corridor of time that the image slices.

Milk collection in Choma, ZambiaMilk collection in Choma

In the latter case, if the camera was to remain stationary at the location, action continues to occur inside and outside that framed window and would be captured in a never-ending video. Atget’s shoes are sold over time but the shop continues to exist in its captured form until it changes; and the shoes have lives that can be imagined but not seen, that are now forever attached to their image in the shoe shop, and to social history by style and fashion. If, on the other hand, the camera moves with the image, as it might in Three Men on a Bus, the cover of my book Postcards from Zambia, for how many minutes or hours does that combination of elements exist before a similar image can no longer be taken, before and after, from any perspective? So the photographic image records an event which is bigger than the image frame and extends to earlier and later than the time that the image was captured. Of course, at the time the image was captured, there was neither future time nor future, only conjecture and prospect. It is easy to forget that there was no future at the time the image was taken, that everyone in an 85-year-old photograph is dead, and that you, and what is around you, were not here! That the image is there at all, leads to questions of who the people were and who their children are; I find this very interesting. It is curious that nobody points this out of dead Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, and I am really not sure that this is in any way relevant, particularly since such a record was never otherwise possible before photography. I am very happy with my photograph of my late father flying his Blenheim in WWII, taken by his colleague unknown to me, who was a friend of my father’s.

The bell curve represents the normal distribution of human conditions. For me, this sensible statistical concept contradicts the apparent belief that photography can only meaningfully document the miserable for the pleasure of the elite and suggests that, in the population of photographs, there should be a full range of images from abject misery to absolute joy. Without this concept, it is not clear that the reading of photography is a function of the photographer’s, or reader’s, perception of the world, instead of a function of photography itself. There are many examples that photography does not only cover misery: the already mentioned Martin Parr’s ironic pictures of happy Englishmen in colourful sunshine, where the sun never shines and the men never smile, come from a normal distribution of English photographs, which is consistent with the idea that photography is as country-specific as literature.

42-second slideshow

Cover of the photobook The Zambians The Post Office The barber's shop The disenfranchised peasant The ox and cart The mobile phone The clamp burner Working hands Child labour Talking heads Munkoyo man The truck driver The spectator The charcoal truckers The wild honey hunter The guardsman The charcoal packagers The aspirant The tree stump The dignitary's welcome The tyre sales centre

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, June 2013

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