The Other, and Us
Photography has long suffered from the myth of certitude, “the camera never lies” serving as a crutch. In fact, photography is quite subjective and can at times be mysterious.
Serious photographers know that relying on a perception of the camera as truth-teller both diminishes them as observers and elides their responsibilities as interpreters. Each becomes, as French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire characterized them in 1858, no more than the “very humble handmaid” of the arts and sciences, “like printing and shorthand.” The medium’s role? “Let photography quickly enrich the traveler’s album, and restore to his eyes the precision his memory may lack,” Baudelaire stated. “But if once it be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!”
For many practitioners restoring “the precision his memory may lack” can be viewed as sufficient. But others find that the medium becomes most vital when it does not attempt only to certify existence but to interrogate it. Who is this person? Was she really like that? What is going on? How could this have happened?
The photographers who resist the facile confounding of the photograph with truth work with a recognition of the limits of their own knowledge. The images produced are seen as interpretive and open-ended, recognizing each reader’s crucial role in determining their meanings. They may acknowledge the making of the photograph as collaborative, welcoming the input of the subject whose role can be amplified when adequate psychic space is provided for what is, at least partially, a mutual act of depiction.
Kent Klich, a Swedish photographer who has lived many years in Denmark, was invited by an NGO to St Petersburg to photograph in an institution that houses, usually permanently, those considered to be physically or psychologically disabled, or simply elderly. The NGO was there to consult on how residents might be deinstitutionalized and integrated into mainstream society, having previously worked with this institution to open a ward that emphasized more open communication among residents and staff.
Klich, who first was trained as a psychologist before switching to photography, has worked for many years in situations around the world in which people have been marginalized. He has done long-term projects with street children in Mexico, orphans in Romania who contracted AIDS from tainted blood transfusions, the locked-in inhabitants of Gaza, and has spent nearly four decades working with Beth, a woman in Copenhagen who was asked by her mother and aunt, at the age of fifteen, to prostitute herself so that her relatives could buy cigarettes and beer; she then became a sex worker and drug addict.
But Klich is surprised when he first arrives at PNI A nearly twenty years ago, the first of many visits. “The building complex looks like a ship made of white bricks sailing through a forest of birch trees,” he recalls. “A watchman at the entrance is sitting behind the steel door leading into the guard house that you have to pass to enter the fenced-in building.”
He is somewhat reassured: “He knows of my arrival.”
Yet there is an absence. “It is Saturday and it feels empty. Quiet. Around 1000 people live here, very few move around in the long corridors. The silence explains nothing. I see the doors to the dormitories but do not enter, keep myself to the common areas with TVs, and the park with its benches. Later, I will understand the silence….,” he writes. “The only doors that are insulated against sound are the ones leading into the administration.”
Initially, he is not sure what he is doing there. “From the beginning, I have doubts about myself working here being a foreigner who does not speak Russian. I have a background in psychology, hands-on experience as a teacher and as a social worker in Sweden. I have made several long-term projects on drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness in Denmark where I live, and on young adults living on the streets in Mexico. In Romania I became familiar with the negative effects of institutionalization. The children whom I met there were deprived of affective and personal care, submitted to collective routines that did not allow the unique personality of each individual to be expressed. In PNI A I will meet men and women with similar experiences.”
But there is, he states, ”a photograph I will not be able to make.” What is this photo? ”Silence as a result of the overconsumption of medicine.”
PNI A is located on the outskirts of Ensk. In the entire country there are approximately 500 such psychoneurological “internats,” or institutions, where some 160,000 people live. As Klich discovered, the residents are forced to live locked-in together, without privacy, their lives controlled by those in charge but essentially neglected, without the support that their conditions require. Few are allowed to return to society.
A major difference between a prison and a PNI, according to Klich, “is that in a prison you know how long a time you are going to serve; in a PNI you don`t.” Leonid Tsoy, a psychologist who had worked in the same network of institutions as a member of an NGO, sees the status of the residents as considerably more problematic. Tsoy points to a “lack of transparency” as to their living conditions that creates “a favorable situation for various violations of the law and the rights of residents in the Russia welfare institutions. This means corruption, cruel and humiliating treatment, and even physical violence.”
In Tsoy’s study, “Psychoneurological Asylums in Russia: The Relationship Between Normativity and Violence,” he cites violations including “the prohibition of mobile phones, confinement to grounds of the residence, restrictions on visits from family and friends (the restrictive ‘closed-door regime’ is standard practice in Russian psychiatric hospitals),restrictions on walks, denial to patients of the right to refuse a psychiatric treatment, as well as the use of restraints (such as the ‘flexible restraint’ – when a person is attached to a bed by means of straps or towels, which are used to restrain the arms and hands, etc.).” He also found a consensus among NGOs that the PNI are obsolete and discriminatory institutions that are in need of radical change.
Klich, an outsider, is one of the many social documentary photographers who have long been drawn to the marginal and the liminal in an attempt to make visible that which has been overlooked by society or shunted aside. At times, one’s foreignness may make it easier to perceive what insiders are unable to recognize or prefer not to admit. (For example, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s landmark book, The Americans, exposed essential aspects of a country that were largely unknown to its own citizens). Coming from abroad also may give one a protective immunity, an ability to critique the society in which one is immersed without having to bear the repercussions that a local might.
The ideal strategy for such work is to combine the points of view of the outsider with those of insiders. Certain photographers choose to include insider perspectives via lengthy captions, interviews, and a variety of documents that both amplify and ground the narrative. Some include work done by their subjects, as Klich did here by presenting the hand-drawn imagery of long-term resident Aleksey Sakhnov, adding an intimate and visceral graphic perspective to living within the constraints of confinement. Leonid Tsoy’s text provides his own detailed study conducted at close quarters from the perspectives of someone who is both an insider and outsider. Together they open multiple doorways into that which is generally kept locked and hidden, rendered to a large extent invisible.
Other strategies may be invoked as well. Due in large part to the demise of the press in many countries as a credible, influential witness in recent years, photographers striving to ameliorate problematic situations frequently ally themselves with humanitarian organizations that have the expertise and resources that can make a difference. Certain photographers then choose to work primarily to promote the NGO, simplifying the situations depicted so that the images only reflect well on the organizations that hired them. But there are many others who keep a distance from any such promotion in order to add their own insights as an autonomous observer, and who work to deepen their own understanding of a situation in order to express their findings to the viewers. In Klich’s case this first visit working for an NGO marked the beginning of a nearly two-decade journey that, while acknowledging the initial challenges that confronted the NGO, engages with the larger humanity of its denizens who live not only under physical and psychological constraint but beneath the labels that categorize and often denigrate them.
The assumptions that others can be understood by the categories in which they are placed –psychologically ill, physically disabled, poor, homeless, old, etc. – are often facile, and unfortunately become the currency of much of visual journalism. They simplify reality while denying individuality, confirming preconceptions rather than deconstructing them. It is also a form of schadenfreude, bolstering the readers while distancing them from those they observe. Similar visual strategies are used to elevate celebrities and politicians without acknowledging to the reader the artifice involved.
But when a photographer is unwilling to rely on stereotypes, conscious of the limits of his or her own understanding, then a second, potentially transformative collaboration begins. Rather than confirming roles, the photographer seeks to negate their premises and transcend them. Rather than concretizing, the photographic encounter with both subjects and readers becomes dialectical, provoking reconsiderations of that which one previously thought to be the reality.
It is similar to the two kinds of relationships entered into by humans, I-Thou or I-It, that the Austrian philosopher Martin. Buber outlined in his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou). Buber proposed an “I-Thou” relationship as a connection between essential beings in which the other becomes, in a sense, one’s whole world, transcending categories (as in love, for example, or a deeply felt recognition of the other that envisions much more than its label). Buber contrasts this to the “I-It” dynamic, in which the other is objectified and becomes part of a category (“starving child,” “pretty woman,” “brutal dictator”). The latter attitude denies the other’s uniqueness, shrouding them in what is essentially a cloak of invisibility while leaving others with little desire to explore further.
As Buber explained: “I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself. I can classify it as a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life. . . . In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.”
Buber continues: “It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. . . . There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.”
Interestingly, Klich decided to call this book, inspired by what one of the inhabitants of PNI A had said, “A Tree Called Home.” Here the tree, as with Buber, becomes one’s everything, even if it may seem far from it to the casual observer or to those with preconceived ideas. Klich’s self-imposed task has been to uncover some of these more hidden dimensions. But his work functions as well in a sphere that is more political and less ethereal. Invoking Ariella Azoulay’s Civil Contract of Photography, here Klich’s photographs can be seen as transcending the prescriptions of state power by offering an enlarged version of citizenship to those who, as in this case, are typically excluded. These photographs serve in their own ways to enfranchise the residents of PNI A, rendering the conceptual frontiers between them and the larger society much more permeable. They also proffer the hope that in more pragmatic ways the lives of these people who are confined, as well as of others in similar situations, may be improved.
“Here is my secret,” stated the little prince in the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” There is much that occurs both beyond the frames of these photographs and within the walls of the PNI. A Tree Called Home is both an acknowledgement of the profound humanity that dwells there and a clarion call for transformative change. It is up to us, the readers, to then imagine the rest, and to ask ourselves in which ways we might respond.
Fred Ritchin, August 2020
© Kent Klich. All rights reserved.