After Hell and Purgatory, Paradise

-Not soo much about Portugal, this time-

The longer I am around, the more irritation I receive from looking at photographs. I get bored easily especially now digital photography has conquered the world and everyone can shoot “great pictures”  and moreover manipulate them to make them “even better”—at least different—by changing colors, light and frames and by adjusting balances for whatever reason. Each and every day I can see all this in previous times so rightfully contained human creativity erupt all over the Internet—this so-called democratic media of the common man and woman who now, finally, are given the opportunity to break loose and prove they are not the creative dummies we all thought they were. I think I can detect a whole lot of misplaced happiness, melodrama, not-funny humor, kitschy charm, as well as landscapes and cityscapes that do not reflect the real world around us either. And, as if it isn’t bad enough that no one has to really concentrate on working the camera because later, at home, horizons can be straightened out and nasty clouds can disappear or appear at will to lessen or to add drama—now, oh boy, now apps hit the market that allow everyone, anyone, to really interfere with the images they shoot and mix them together and even introduce “artistic” deformations.


Meanwhile, if I am not careful I find myself attracted to a city or a landscape by looking at photographs; most are presenting so much beauty that I cannot stay away, have to visit, see the beauty with my own eyes—only to experience disappointment on site because the reality, however splendid, does not reflect the images that so attracted me. I page through old photo books of the Pacific Coast in California and the American Southwest, books I have cherished since the 1980s; and I see the coast and the desert as I know and recall these places from long road trips and hikes. I look at today’s Internet images of the same places and I think: shit, was I blind that I have missed thát much beauty? I look at contemporary photos of, say, Lisbon and Porto or the Douro on the Internet; and later, while visiting these great places, I indeed love their beauty because it is different from the images. And if, back at home, I look at the images I myself took, the digital spook in my iPhone has manipulated them already on behalf of me in such a way that, often, I have a hard time recognizing the locations. Was it really this white, that blue, was the sun truly this brilliant—I can’t remember. Even faces are not the same, they’re either healthier-looking and without blemishes, or represent merely sad, sad puppies.

High in the sky

The arrival of the drone hasn’t contributed a lot of good either. Now I can see the whole frigging earth from way up yonder (which seriously interferes with my dreaming about it). But all these drone pictures cannot compete with the detailed, well-composed thematic photos of the earth my friend Gerco de Ruijter has been taking since he studied art in Rotterdam, some 30 years ago; he still hangs his camera from the line of the kite he flies, hand-propelled, so to say. While beating the winds as well as the unevenness of the terrain under his feet, and while being only somewhat aware of the invisible earth directly below his self-built contraption, he slowly directs his kite-camera to locations he suspects of having to tell him, and the future viewer, something—something he intuitively selects but from his ground zero position cannot fully observe and comprehend. As soon as he thinks he is hitting “the truth” he punches the button on his remote control; then he has to patiently wait until he is back in his studio (sometimes several weeks later) to find out if he succeeded; he throws away 95% of what his camera brought home because he decides most shots are not worth keeping; only the ones he likes best (which have “power”, the power to confuse me into shocked admiration) he keeps, stores and prints. Tell that to the eager amateur of today who cannot part from any of the mass of exciting digital shots he or she so proudly arrives home with.

The eye of the machine

Of course there are many great contemporary photographers, and some are not even professionals. I hurry to mention a few of them I befriended while living in the U.S., such as Dave Leiker (of Emporia, KS: the master of the prairie) and Blaine Ellis (of San Francisco, CA and Abiquiu, NM: the quiet discoverer of all silent details of human presence); and the latecomer-professional Don Wolfe (of Kansas City and Matfield Green, KS: whose elegant sensitivity to minimalism excels). They have “the eye” and this is precisely what many of today’s so-called photographers do not have: they just own a digital machine that has an eye. They do not observe. If they “wanna shoot, (they) shoot,” to borrow Eli Wallach’s line in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, and indeed most of their camera’s shots are either bad or ugly. Not so the photographs taken over a period of 15 years by the Chinese artist Lu Nan—these are not just good, they are excellent, from an artistic and a technical as well as a documentary viewpoint. Lu Nan has not just the eye, he also has a strong social conscience and this in combination with his eye has hit me: smack in my eye.

The human face

I discovered Lu Nan’s work in Lisbon, in one of the city’s excellent contemporary art museums, Museu Coleção Berardo in Belém. The museum is a part of a magnificent, brutally modern, palatial complex that also houses a theater, shops and restaurants and hosts a first-Sunday-of-the-month art market. I walked slowly through the large room exhibiting Lu Nan’s trilogy (144 images) and became so moved I followed up by sitting down and watching three video presentations of his work (225 images). The trilogy has similarities with Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ which also begins in Hell, continues to Purgatory and ends with Paradise. Where Dante used the pen, Lu Nan uses the camera, his small Nikon FM2. His three titles are: ‘The Forgotten People. Living Conditions of Psychiatric Patients in China’ (and they are Hell); ‘On the Road. Catholic Faith in China’ (Purgatory); and ‘Four Seasons: Tibetan Peasants Day-to-Day’ (Paradise). The peasants’ “paradise” appears in my contemporary eye to be almost as miserable as the circumstances in the prisonlike hospitals; the marginalized Catholics, forced into secrecy, appear not to be much better off either. Yet the Tibetan peasants, coping with unimaginable hardships including the primitive tools of past centuries, show their ability to forget their miserable conditions because they are coexisting with the earth and the seasons, and living in a creative freedom they know how to enjoy and appreciate. In Lu Nan’s eye, the members of all three groups are important human beings even if, in our day and time, their circumstances remind us of the Middle-Ages.

The forgotten people

In Hell I see men and women who wear striped uniforms that remind me of concentration camp prisoners; some are completely naked; some are huddled in a corner of their cell-room; others are aimless standing in the middle of a courtyard or lying motionless in iron beds. If their eyes are open, they look at the finite; the ones that face the camera are the ones I want to forget. In Purgatory Lu Nan shows how in many of the areas where he spent so many years “there are no spaces of worship; to exercise their faith people have to use reserve or secrecy.” The images show a heritage of Mao’s Cultural Revolution; even today these believers live under the supervision of the Chinese regime and are prohibited from maintaining places of worship other than the official ones, which are outside the control of the Vatican. Paradise completes the trilogy and portrays “the very harmonious relations between rural families, the various generations, and how they relate to the environment.” The photographs accompany the cycle of the four seasons and the agricultural activities that mark the rhythm of life. There is a happiness in those images that almost makes me forget the horror of the photographs in Hell and the suppression shown in Purgatory. But even in “paradise”, how primitive are their circumstances…

Spelling the truth

Wherever one looks at the trilogy, one can see an extensive portrait of the human condition in images of abandonment, despair, violence, pain, resignation, faith, resilience, introspection, pride, hope, affection and transcendence. Lu Nan is not a political commentator. He crosses the territories of his subjects in a more philosophical way. His message is not a political scream: it is a cry of recognition of human dignity. “I am not motivated by social criticism or any political statement. My photographs are about people and only address people. I love them and I honor the humanity in their lives,” says Lu Nan. I cannot wait to see his new photographs (of prison life; of life in mega-cities), for I am one of his astonished admirers; my senses are kicked wide awake by his photography. I feel discomfort, revolt, compassion. Looking at Lu Nan’s photos leaves me confused and shocked. But isn’t this what photography should be all about?

Talking about “truth”. I was just reminded of a project by Dutch photographer Geertjan Dusseljee, who was taking realistic photos of a large series of low-end Belgian homes. He wanted to publish the series and told the printer “to print the book as shitty as possible, to convey the wretched and pathetic atmosphere.” It was a complicated and difficult book production; recreating the shabbiness and desolation of the homes wasn’t at all easy. While producing “beauty” is no big deal in our time.

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