The story is simple: There are documentary photography and photojournalism, which aim at showing us the world as it is, and then there’s all the rest, which doesn’t. Especially not when we’re dealing with staged photography. In a nutshell, this is what one could call photographic orthodoxy. Photographic orthodoxy is in no good shape any longer, for a large variety of reasons (the idea that a photograph could ever be an objective depiction of the world is fundamentally flawed is just one problem). So it recently has required an ever increasing amount of support beams (“photo illustrations” vs. photographs etc.). Needless to say, the problems won’t go away. You can whistle as much as you want in the dark, it won’t help. If you’ve followed this blog even just semi-regularly you’re probably aware of the fact that I find this situation rather unfortunate. In this day and age, photography still is less than it could be: Just like in any other area, orthodoxy always stands in the way of potentials being fulfilled. (more)
Take Mohamed Bourouissa’s Périphéries, currently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (until June 19, 2010; click on the image above for a larger version). Everything is real in Bourouissa’s photographs - the people, the locations, the problems it shows - except for the actual situations. The situations are staged. Now, you might ask how one could actually tell that that’s the case, and the answer is: You can’t. You need to know.
In principle, that should tell us something, but of course, we also need to be careful here.
The problems with France’s banlieues are very real, and they involve a large number of factors: Unemployment, race, religion, poverty, social issues, immigration, etc. This article is a good starting point if you want to read up on the issues. You can’t properly understand Périphéries without knowing anything about the world it portrays. But even if you don’t know the background, the images will still affect you, simply because of what you, the viewer, bring to the table.
Strictly speaking, Périphéries is not real, it’s art. But toss orthodoxy aside for a moment, and everything about Périphéries is very real. Here we have a young photographer working with images - even alluding to traditional paintings - to portray a veritable powder keg, in what I think might be one of the most arresting bodies of work dealing with the banlieues I’ve seen so far.
Bourouissa pushes the boundaries in very convincing ways, and he does it in such a smart way that it’s easy to miss what he is doing. What seems clear is how he is doing it: By staging photographs to portray a complex world. An excellent show.
Further reading: DLK’s review