Essay on Blindness

Group exhibition curated by Daniele de Luigi

Works by Ana Catarina Pinho, Federica Landi, Emeric Lhuisset

[04 May - 28 May 2017]

Saggio sulla cecità

XVIII Biennale of Young Creators of Europe and the Mediterranean

Tirana Youth Center, Albania

[April 25 - June 17 2018]

Gallery U30Cinque

Festival Fotografia Europea, Reggio Emilia, Italy

© Ana Catarina Pinho, The Middle Sea, 2017



"What is humanity? It is a quality things have in common when they are viewed as photographs"
Susan Sontag

For an artist who favours the medium of photography, the crucial first step when embarking on a project about the Mediterranean is asking two big, closely related questions. Firstly, is it really possible to depict an entity of such great geographical, historical and cultural breadth and complexity? Secondly, what is the best way to utilize a medium that is so overused and so compromised by the countless problems of contemporary society.

Regarding the first question, any attempts at anything even remotely approaching exhaustiveness seem doomed to failure. This is not because it is impossible to cover the whole sea and the lands all around it, or all of the people that live in them. Instead, it is due to a core underlying principle: in order to be represented, it is necessary to have a clear, solid, stable and recognizable identity, which is something that cannot be said of the Mediterranean. In contrast, it could be described as having an anti-identity: it has an innate tendency towards constant change, crossovers and adapting all traditions, and it has always been destined to be a place where different people come together and knowledge changes hands. European civilization is built on the speculative ability to question one’s own epistemological notions. The development of this trait is entirely down to favourable environmental conditions that have facilitated a ceaseless flow of people, techniques and cultures ever since our species first came into being1. To deny it would be to deny ourselves. The uncompromising questioning of these principles that seems to be sweeping across the entire continent at present is bound to have a big impact on anyone who grasps this crucial concept. When deciding on the outlook to take, the real question for an artist is whether it is plausible today to use pictures - and more besides - to address the topic of the Mediterranean without looking at the dramatic scenes that can be found on a daily basis in the sea and along much of its coastline. On the northern shores, there is a growing desire to make Europe into a fortress and the Mediterranean into a moat that cannot be crossed. On the other side are more and more innocent victims of shattered geopolitical balance, abnormal levels of economic inequality, and power struggles steeped in objectionable values. This is where the second of the two initial questions comes into play, alongside the first one.

“The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts”
Bertolt Brecht

Artists who produce photographic images cannot neglect the need for critical reflection on the nature of a medium that now plays a leading role in shaping the forms of knowledge and the concept of the truth. It also follows that they cannot afford to use the medium naively, in the belief that showing the world as it appears is in itself an act of moral rebellion. At the same time, an act of self- analysis cannot make its own focus into a pretext for talking about itself, when the matter at hand is so full of ethical implications. For a long time, there was a widespread belief that by allowing people to see more and better, photography could make a decisive contribution to the political battles for social progress. Although photojournalism continues to feel that it has a mission to carry out today, it has lost much of its power and it is no longer capable of bringing about change by pricking people’s consciences. An enduring idea once prevailed that constant, heavy media coverage of human suffering would drive the search for a solution to the causes. However, it has been not only proved wrong but actually turned on its head, paradoxically producing the opposite effect. The pictures of the migrants that reach the coasts of Europe are some of the most emblematic images in this respect. We are shown the tear-streaked faces of desperate men, pregnant women and children so often that they have become masks of tired iconographic clichés, while the people behind them are recognized as actual human beings less and less. Although she did not hold back from sharply criticizing them, Susan Sontag credited photographs of this kind with a key ethical value, because they still have the potential to make people reflect on the causes behind the subjects that they show. However, the media sphere in which they can be found almost exclusively steers people in the opposite direction. It promotes images that are all alike and convey clear and instantly apparent concepts. Rather than rational thinking, they encourage superficial empathy for rapid consumption, which prevents the development of genuine moral stances and a social and political conscience 2 . Therefore, rather than asking ourselves if we see too many or too few of these images, we need to ask what sort of reflection they are actually capable of provoking when we look at them.

"I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, -blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see"
José Saramago

In his novel Blindness 3 , José Saramago describes the dreadful, regressive consequences for society and people in general when an inexplicable blindness epidemic hits an imaginary country. It is a clear and powerful allegory of a Goyaesque sleep of reason in the image society, as well as a prefiguration of the crisis in European civilization. Rather than trying to make the invisible visible, Federica Landi, Emeric Lhuisset and Ana Catarina Pinho have tried to reveal the difficulty of seeing and holding onto what we see. Having met groups of refugees, listened to their stories and established relationships with them, they produced works that refuse to show their faces, thus driving home the message that there can be no emotional short cuts with knowledge and understanding. Artists take actions and the blend of outlooks and reasoning is - among other things - a form of resistance. Their solutions keep empathy in check and call for rational engagement, encouraging contemplation of different ways in which our visions can divert our attention from how things and people really are. Rather than an individual act, seeing is a relationship. Without relationships, we consume images without seeing them. One last question: what remains of an image when we stop looking at it?

1. Jared M. Diamond, Guns, germs, and steel. The fates of human societies, W.W. Norton & Co. NewYork 1997

2. See Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1977; Susan Sontag, Regarding the pain of others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2003; Paul Bloom, Against empathy. The case for rational compassion, Ecco Press, New York 2016.

3. José Saramago, Blindness. A novel, Harvill, London 1997. The title of the present text is a translation of the book’s original Portuguese title, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira.

Text written by Daniele De Luigi for the MEDITERRANEA 18 YOUNG ARTISTS BIENNALE catalogue, entitled "Home". 2017.


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