The Distance in Between

While flipping through the pages of the book Fotografie Lateinamerika edited by Erika Billeter, I stumbled on the portrait of Chief Casimiro Biguá from the tribe of the Tehuelches (Patagonia, Argentina), made by the Italian photographer Benito Panunzi in the year of 1865.

Among the typical photographs of indigenous people made by that time by European travelers and anthropologists, — and when I mean typical, I mean men, women and children carefully staged either in their familiar surroundings, a neutral background or a painted backdrop, posing and looking straight into the camera — this particular photograph stood out from the rest.

The chief Casimiro Biguá stands in front of a neutral gray background. The head shot and its title may have had no other goal than to show and say: the one portrayed here is the chief Casimiro Biguá of the Tehuelches. And so it does. But the photographer also made the decision of including the right hand of Biguá, which he presses over the left side of his chest. It was precisely this partly shown hand at the bottom of the picture that made me stop on my quick look at the book and look at this picture closely and carefully.  

Casimiro Biguá is looking at an indefinite point in the distance. His hair and the band he is wearing around his head look a little bit messy as if he just had been called to be photographed. At the first glimpse I see resignation and sadness on his face. I see a man who had no choice but to accept to do what this foreign man with his camera asked him to do. But then, I also see his hand and I get an idea of his possible posture in front of the camera. I see his hand, his eyes and his mouth and to me this man no longer appears to be resigned but self-assured, sad but full of pride and certainty in spite of —or because of— the situation in which he is involved.

But, how can a partly shown hand change the way I read this photograph?

On the picture, the hand of Biguá resting on his chest builds a barrier that makes me take a step back and look again. I don’t get to see Biguá directly, I cannot access directly to him without being aware of that element that separates us.
His gesture creates a distance between us, but most of all separates him from the photographer who is studying him with the camera. I realize, that it is the awareness of the boundary Biguá marks between him and the photographer and not the one that I perceive as a random observer of this picture what makes me look at this photograph in a different way.

I continue to read about this picture in Billeter’s book and I find that she also alludes to the distance the hand of Biguá evokes. However in her interpretation she focuses on the late effect it may have on the observer. By including this gesture, following Billeter, Panunzi  delivered for the first time a non exotic portrayal of an indigenous by making his own interpretation of the genre of portrait.

Including the hand of Biguá on the picture was with no doubt a decision made by the photographer. Nevertheless it remains open to interpret the distance it evokes and that what makes this picture, according to Billeter, non exotic.

Indeed, the partly shown hand included on this portrait gives us the chance to see and know more about the portrayed situation. However, I may say that, if this picture is a non exotic portrayal, then this is more because of the possibility it opens to be interpreted as such than it is because of itself. Then, after all, Panunzi was studying the tribe of the Tehuelches using the classic anthropological research methods and tools of that time that carried out the colonial enterprise and which included: the examination, classification and domination of people that were “different” or “exotic” to the Europeans.

Looking at the picture, I see Biguá standing in front of a photographer, who is collecting information for his study. By acknowledging Biguá’s gesture while being photographed, I no longer see the picture of Biguá or his non exotic portrayal made by the photographer, but I see him standing in front of the eyes that see him through the lens of a camera. I see him staring at a certain point in the distance, I see both resignation and pride. I see his hand on his chest. I perceive his awareness of the distance between the two worlds that collide in that moment. Looking at his eyes, mouth and hand pressing over his chest, I see him saying to the photographer: you may have my picture, but you haven’t understood anything.

Billeter, E. (1994). Fotografie Lateinamerika1860 – 1993. (German edition).Warbern-Bern: Benteli-Werd Verlags AG.

Field Notes from Bangalore

Observations taken during my research for the project Concrete Discontinuities and Supporting Surfaces. 

– There is always something supporting something in order for that something to become something. The question is: at which cost? Under which conditions?

– In Bangalore I have seen things that made me reflect on certain dynamics and issues from my hometown because of their similarity.

– Between tensions and intensities life is lived in a hurry to, by all means, be lived.. to get there, to find ways, to cross no matter what.

– Large buildings have glass as their façades, that function like mirrors. These mirrors are not opaque from the inside, on the contrary, one can see through them. While from the outside, no one can see what’s behind them. It is a one way direction of seeing and being seen. The one who sees from the outside, can see themselves reflected with the environment she or he is in. The one who sees from the inside can not only see the other on the outside, but also the reflection of the other in her or his environment.

– Somehow it gets done, with twenty hands, no precaution, no certainty.

– I encounter things, situations, people who I’m tempted to photograph — they come to me like images I feel I’ve seen before. Those images seem familiar to me and in a way, they make me feel comfortable because I know them somehow. But I refuse to photograph them. The suspicion, that I feel this familiarity because those images are rooted in a widespread stereotypical cliché-representation of what something should be or should look like, makes me feel uncomfortable with myself and what I stand for. It might sound like an easy task to come to India and show “India” to the world because we know which images satisfy audiences, sell, get to be printed in magazines and win photo prizes. But that’s not the work that has to be done. That’s only the lazy comfortable option. The work should be digging deeper and creating images that in their complexity dare to go beyond the already known, seen.
– In a place in which almost everything is privatized the question about the collective and collectivity floats in a vacuum.

– “Your home is your identity” that was the slogan of an advertisement for building materials displayed on the back of a bus.

– Men seem to dominate the public space.
I see more men than women in the streets. They gather around coffee shops, small stores, they drive the Rickshaws, they are in business, they are everywhere... this quantity of men in the public space, I haven’t experienced before.

– Male faces, portraits, photographs dominate the urban landscape. Almost no women are represented outside of commercial and or political advertisements of male politicians.

– As a woman, I feel one has to walk the streets as if being numb. Numb against the objectifying male gazes.

– Why do terrible things so often have fancy names, like for example The British Colonial Rule? This should be called The British Invasion and extraction of a land’s resources and human lives.

– A never-ending story: The big-monumental-modern-shiny-blue-silver buildings couldn’t have existed without having rough wooden sticks supporting them and human-flesh-energy putting them together as cheap labourer, carrier, caretakers for their growth.

– “The Boom”. This term denotes a particular mostly short period of time where a rapid growth and development is witnessed. And “The Boom” doesn’t have to “ask permission to” it just appears. But can we still talk about a “Boom” in Bangalore after several decades?

– I thought of starting to create my installations from the margins not from the centre. But then I thought, why that? Every place in itself is its own centre.

Concrete Discontinuities was a collaboration project with artist and photographer Marvin Systermans during our artist residency at Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan and the IIHS in Bangalore, India