Close encounter with an alien dialect, on Babak Salari’s photographs
Close encounter with an alien dialect: A review of Babak Salari’s photographs: Remembering the people of Afghanistan
by Bahram Bahrami
The word ‘aks’, in modern Persian, is used to indicate photography. The word, borrowed from Arabic, however, has another meaning in the original language: inversed or upside-down; as if to suggest that photography is not a straight record of the world photographer sees, rather, as Susan Sontag describes in her marvelous book ‘On Photography’[i], an evaluation of the world. She believes photographer to be a poet rather than a scribe. Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucidia,[ii] argues that there is a chilling element in every photograph, what he calls ‘the return of the dead.’ He recalls a portrait of Jerome, Napoleon’s younger brother that was taken in 1852 and in amazement realizes that he is ‘looking at eyes that looked at the emperor.’ What amazes us in Babak Salari’s Afghanistan collection is a similar experience. One can, however, classify these photographs as photojournalistic reviews of history too. Babak’s photos, of course, go beyond photojournalism and claim the status of art. In one of his many photographs in this collection, some men are digging a grave for a corpse; we find the jagged faces of men dusted with a layer of death; as if they are digging the grave for themselves and not the dead man. The dead man, shrouded in a white cloth looks more of a living thing than they do. His hand is showing, as though he wants to say something- something he was not permitted to say when he was alive. He wants to say it, loud and clear, now that they can’t harm him. He wants to say it. But he can’t because he is dead. This is the same process that forces artists and authors of the neighboring areas to choose symbolism to express things that are not permissible to be said or stated. We do not see any woman in the shot. The photograph is a sort of a replica of daily life in Afghanistan where women are left out of public and even private spheres: very similar to the dead, they too are covered in a shroud called burqa. Not that they want. The brave and pious men of the country have covered them, to be buried in the same fashion as the dead of Babak; so that they do not utter that which ought not to be said and thought; things forbidden to be said. The dusty men are not in a rush to finish their morbid job. And why should they hurry? There would always be enough dead bodies, here. There is no end for the dead and dying. Another day and they will join again to bury more bodies. This time it might be the man with a spade in his hands, or the one on that yonder corner who is staring at Babak’s camera that is registering this very moment for the future generations. This photograph is, so to speak, a visual rendering of Reiner Maria Rilke’s Ernste Stunde Who dies now somewhere in the world without reason dies in the world: sees me[iii]. Wherever there are people with untold stories, or with stories less frequently told, one finds Babak and his camera. In a world obsessed with a sadistic attitude that rejoices at images of chopped heads or stripped bodies, his camera finds a new angle to show humanity stressed but not possessed. His Cuba adventure has a similar humane narration. Barthes in his book argues against photography as a repro of immediacy of realities of life. Kenneth Kobre writes: A photographer has only 3 fourth of a second to attract his viewer to his shots.[iv] Babak’s works are not talkative. He draws his masterpieces with some quick and selected strokes. One easy way for a photographer to attract, is to juxtapose, either technically through contrast or subjectively through content. Take, for instance, a photograph where background shows high rises in a metropolitan area such as our Toronto, and then place a traditional tent of people of First Nation in the foreground. This would automatically attract a viewer. Or pile up a heap of junk from old fridges, computers, TV sets to toasters and what not, in the foreground of a splendid nature. To find similar juxtapositions is an easy job for a photographer in order to attract viewers. Babak’s photographs do not need such contrasts. He manipulates them in a different way: A waste land in the background and some children rampaging through a pile of garbage, a boy holding to a stack of cardboards... A brick making tower standing high and dusty, a brick maker clad in black, with a black and smoky face… Or a wall covered with photos and postcards, like a background for a performing artist and in the foreground a woman covered in burqa, ready to act or rather, ready to mime, because we will not hear her… because she must not be heard. Babak’s narration of Afghanistan is a narration about ignorance, ignorance of a world about a nation that according to ethnological findings are of the same rout of family as Europeans from west who have sent their soldiers to teach them civil society’s secrets and democracy. But what if they don’t? The clockwork monster, Taliban, the monster that west invented to oppose the soviet colonialism in Afghanistan, would scalp and murder people barbarously. Babak’s narrative, in this sense is an achievement. He is an exploring devil of a photographer. On Face book, one day I get a message from him from Romania, and the next day he is in Lebanon with his novelist friend Rawi Hage. And another day I find him sitting in a café, by a river, in a city alien to me; sitting under a shade and spooning the bitter coffee of life. That is Babak, restless and exploring always. His collection from Afghanistan is a documentary of people’s life in this war thorn country. Babak is a master of blacks and whites and the grey spectrum in between. He discounts color. My favorite photo is one where he has captured a street side photographer sitting at his ‘shop’; we see frames, albums and strange enough, a bird cage. The street photographer is watching Babak. Babak’s camera has picked the bird cage, without any special treatment of the irrelevant object. He has let it be there. I look at the bird cages in the shot. The photograph takes me back to 1971. My elder brother Fereydoun and his family had returned from Afghanistan after a year stay in Kabul. He was at the time working for NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company) in Kabul. He brought two things with him as souvenirs, which fascinated us. One was a photograph of Buddha of Bamiyan, one of the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. For centuries, the giant standing Buddha on the Silk Road in the Hindu Kush mountain region, in the Bamiyan Valley had certainly seen many passengers walk, ride, drive by or even take photos. It is not there anymore. It is lost. I am not talking about the photograph my brother took with his Leica. The celestial Gautama Buddha is not there. The clockwork monster destroyed it intentionally by dynamiting the colossal carving. As if my brother, himself a good photographer of his time, had foreseen the statue’s fate. The second thing the family brought with them was a parakeet, which in Persian is called Meena. The bird, which was smaller than a pigeon, the size of a robin and of the family of Psittacidae, was able to imitate any sound or any noise. It could copy the sound of drills, hammers and even the cry of a new born baby of the neighbor next door. She would repeatedly call Maynah, Maynah…[v] In those days her accent was as amazing for us as the stories my brother told us about the giant Buddha. Today the accent is not an alien accent, neither for us nor for the world. Babak’s camera has had a close encounter with this alien dialect and has brought it home for us.
[i] On Photography, Susan Sontag, Anchor Books Doubleday, 1977 [ii] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Translated by Richard Howard [iii] Wer jetzt stirbt irgendwo in der Welt, ohne Grund stirbt in der Welt: sieht mich an. Reiner Maria Rilke, poems: Ernste Stunde (solemn hour)
[iv] Photojournalism: the professionals approach, 6th edition, Kenneth Kobre [v] Another is the parrot, which also is found in Bajour and the countries below it. ... They call it the Meina. It learns to speak, and speaks well and fluently. Memoirs of Zehir-Ed-Din Muhammed Baber: emperor of Hindustan Bābur, Charles Waddington - 1826 - Mogul Empire