Monday, 26 October 2009

Reading photographs

When looking at a photograph, the gut reaction comes first — I like. I don't like. This pleases me. That doesn't. Often, there it stops. It might occur, however, that we want to go further, that we feel we want to explore a picture.

Example one: I have known Werner Bischof's photo of monks walking under tall trees along the walls of a temple while holding umbrellas to protect them against the falling snow for quite some time. Judging from the temple's architecture and the monks' robes, it was shot in the Far East. I have always felt drawn to that picture, mainly, I believe, for its meditative quality. There has never been a need, or a desire, to know more than what was revealed before my eyes. The fact that this picture is close to me has not only to do with Bischof's eye for the good moment, it has also to do with me, with my way of looking at the world which, of course, is largely determined by my background. Having grown up in Switzerland, snowfall, to begin with, arouses familiar feelings in me; moreover, having spent considerable time in the Far East and being interested in Buddhism, I look at Eastern monks with sympathy.

Then one day, while reading about photography, I started to become curious and wanted to know more about this picture. I consulted literature. In one book on Bischof the caption read "In the court of the Meiji temple, Tokyo, Japan 1952," in the other "Shinto priests in the garden of the Meiji Temple, Tokyo, 1951" — I could have done without them. According to the authors of these two books, Bischof had been very attracted to the Far East and felt passionately about it. This fascination, I believe, can be felt by anybody, even by people who do not know of his attachment. However, I cannot really be sure — for I am biased because I share Bischof's enchantment with the Far East. Having thus discovered common ground, I wanted to learn more about this fellow Swiss who had travelled the world, and I detected a "Weltanschauung" for which I have a lot of sympathy: "He objected to the behavior of great and powerful men and of dominant institutions. He demanded a great deal of our generation, and demanded no less of himself. He wanted to use the language of form to influence the evolution of the world, for the good of all of men," said Arnold Kübler, the founder of Du-Magazine. It goes without saying that the affinity I feel for Bischof's convictions made me look at his photos increasingly empathetically.

Example two: I was in my teens when the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked little Vietnamese girl running from a Napalm attack, came to my attention — it hit me instantly. The emotions that this picture then conveyed have not changed, essentially, that is — I still feel moved, sad, and angry, but above all, I feel pity when looking at it. It is a picture that holds a tremendous fascination for me, and eventually led to several visits to Vietnam. I remember vividly the strong sensation of history, here it was, on this very road, that came over me when travelling from Saigon to Tay Ninh. The photo was taken in 1972 by the Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut who then "took the little girl to a hospital where the quick treatment saved her life." This is good to know, not least because one is often left wondering how a photographer could have possibly taken pictures when he should have helped. Today, Kim Phuc — 75 percent of her body was scorched with third-degree burns — serves as unpaid goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. Her photo — I cut it out of a newspaper some years ago, put it under glass and into a frame — is still with me. It is there to remind me of the emotions and beliefs of my youth.

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