“Rooted,” by Henk Wildschut

Rooted Henk Wildschut

By Luca Fiore

The Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut, 52, has been photographing refugee camps for 15 years. His latest book is the final instalment in what he defines an “unintentional trilogy.” He began in 2005 by depicting the makeshift living conditions of those who had fled their home countries (“Shelter,” 2010). He then focused on the history and social dynamics of the settlement that has emerged on the coast of the English Channel, baptized The Jungle (“Ville de Calais, 2017–awarded the Arles Prix du Livre). “Rooted,” published a few weeks ago and–like the other works–produced by Wildschut himself, depicts plants sown and cared for by refugees next to tents and makeshift homes in France, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.

rooted henk wildschutIn plastic bottles, tin jars, makeshift containers, or flower beds protected by improvised fences, spaces are made for small plants, colourful flowers, bunches of spices, and entire allotments. The book opens with a quote from a young Syrian boy: “When I see green, I remember home.” It continues by alternating between colour photos and something approximating the pages of a diary, kept by the Dutch photographer in order not to forget the circumstances he found, the conversations he overheard, and the changes witnessed in these strange dwellings over the course of time.

The photographs depict only the plants themselves, never the people who planted them. Great attention is paid to this, adding a particular potency to the images; as if to show, if ever it were needed, that the humanist photographer is not necessarily he or she who always includes humans as subjects–a woman in tears, or a child with a dirty face. Here, in its simplicity, the photographic language is more sophisticated. It moves the viewer, but does so in an honest manner, appealing to various stages of thought. Thus, a deeper, more visceral reaction is solicited; but one that is more stable and less prone to manipulation.

This is the power of true documentary photography, shot in large format with a tripod, which requires different shutter speeds–and speeds of thought–to those necessitated by the snapshot. At first glance, as in “Rooted,” one feels faced with mute images. The framing is rather ordinary; the colours and tones are flat; there is no momentarily arrested action. The photographer’s hand is here at work to remove any artifice; yet artifice is nevertheless there. Every effort is made to render, on the film, the scene as it is. What is sought is a naturalism which, far from scientific, suggests that the world, in the way it presents itself, speaks to the viewer already.

In “Rooted,” an ancestral gesture is portrayed; human beings themselves sown into the earth. It is a metaphor not only of the historical plight of these individuals uprooted by the storm of destiny–often families and entire villages–but of mankind as a whole. It foregrounds the need for stability that was already felt at the beginning of modern civilization, by the first nomads who settled as farmers. A shift from nomadic to sedentary which set the preconditions for the development of civilization. It is a metaphor of roots, of the earth itself that is both mother and father; the homeland. Yet the images of roots in these photographs are contrasted with what resides beyond the frame: the refugee, the fugitive. These are themes which even we, despite our modern comfort in peaceful Western democracies, can empathise with. Some years ago, Father Mauro Lepori, General Abbot of the Cistercian order, said: “This miserable humanity arrives with the tide to show us our own situation, as if in a mirror. Refugees, ultimately, reveal to us the very lack of stability that does not allow us to offer them a home.”

Il Foglio, 5th September 2019

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“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar

Drifless Jason Vaughn

by Luca Fiore

The opening of Driftless, a photobook created by Jason Vaughn with the journalist and writer Brad Zellar, seems lifted from a Raymond Carver novel. Zellar tells us “I once set my GPS to take me to a trout stream that bubbled up out of a series of springs back in one of the valleys. Instead it led me up to a flat, treeless plateau, where the road dead-ended at the trailer of an old man who told me his family had been up there for 75 years. I told him I was looking for the stream, and he said he had a handful of confused people end up at his trailer every year. ‘Even the fancy machines get mixed up when they get off the State highway and onto these gravel roads’, he said.” The man then led the disappointed fisherman to the fence line at the edge of his property. Zellar continues, “the land suddenly plunged several hundred feet down into a hidden and heavily-forested valley. ‘It’s down there’, he said, ‘but there are easier ways to get to it’. Back at my car, after he gave me a complicated series of directions to get down to the stream, he said, ‘Ain’t nobody know where I am but people who don’t know where the hell they are’.”

“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad ZellarThe book, published by the independent American publishers TBW Books, includes images shot by Vaughn in a very peculiar period of his life. Having just overcome the nightmare of cancer, and awaiting the birth of his second child, the photographer rented an apartment next to the Mississippi river, going on to live there for a year. The location is called the “Driftless area,” a region in south west Wisconsin, seemingly preserved from the last ice age, and characterized by particularly rugged terrain, void of any residue from glacial retreat (in English, “drift”). The verb “to drift”, however, can also mean “to wander”. The photographs taken during daily walks in this small area of the Midwest attempt to capture “the process by which people wander in a space, sometimes deciding to stop, perhaps forever, sometimes disengaging and moving elsewhere.”

Black and white colours are alternated in a poetic and unrhetorical style, itself contrasted with Zellar’s non-didactic captions. A nest amid branches. Different types of reflection on the surface of a stream, webs of branches, a hydrangea bush at different times of the year. A child walking. An adult walking. An old man walking. A waterfall of ice. Flocks of black birds. Photographs that, very slowly–requiring patience–become metaphors, and improvised thoughts. They open and close like the action of an accordion, alternating epiphany with riddle.

Next to an image of a section of frozen lake, its rippled surface illuminated by a ray of light, Zellar writes: “Some people would just as soon leave the jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on the table.” Next to a night shot of some branches lit by the camera’s flash: “The voice of one more exhausted foreigner: ‘There are so many reasons’.” Or elsewhere: “Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt. Oh, the cold stone panic of never…”

The last photograph is of a sheet of ice floating on water, a large stone on top of it, seemingly suspended on the surface of the water. On the page to the left of the image is the quote: “We are alive. We are burning. We are libraries one fire.” Under the photo, meanwhile, the Italian of a music score: “Con fuoco. Con brio. Deciso.”

The book concludes with three quotations; one from the American poet Robert Hass, one from Samuel Beckett and one from Sophie Scholl, the German dissident murdered by the Nazis in 1943, aged 22. This last quotation reads: “A little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does.”

Il Foglio, 18th July 2019

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“Slant,” by Aaron Schuman

Slant Aaron Schuman

By Luca Fiore

Amherst is a New England city with a population of 38,000, in the state of Massachusetts. It is the birthplace of Aaron Schuman, photographer, writer, curator; a man with a CV befitting his 42 years. The city is known above all for being the home of Emily Dickinson. Schuman now lives in Bristol, England, and every now and then returns to visit his parents. It was during one of these visits that he developed an interest in reading police reports from the local “Amherst Bulletin”. “CITIZEN ASSISTANCE: 4.14am–A man shovelling snow on State Street told police he saw a strange orange glow coming from the eastern sky that might have been something on fire. Police determined the glow was probably the sun coming up for the day. Or: “SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY: 5.53pm–A woman called police after being approached by a photographer in downtown who asked if he could take pictures of her feet. The photographer was not located”. And so on: “NOISE COMPLAINTS: 7.19pm–Residents at The Boulders reported a loud argument between a man and a woman and banging on the walls that caused a painting in their apartment to fall to the floor. Police determined that the neighbours were engaged in what was described as “overzealous copulation”, and were not arguing”.

Slant Aaron SchumanSchuman was, at first, struck by the comic quality of these short snippets, and decided to collect more Police reports. However, the more he read, the more he became fascinated by the contrast between the bureaucratic style of the reporting, and the mundanity and irrelevance of the events described. The clippings began to evoke images in the style of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander or Diane Arbus: “ANIMAL COMPLAINTS: 6.30pm–Police took a report that four dogs were sitting on top of a vehicle parked on Pray Street. Police were unable to find the dogs or the vehicle”. Two years later, Schuman returned to Amherst with his Yamiya Rz67, but left his clippings in Bristol, on purpose; he did not want his images to be solely their faithful visual projections.

The book generated by this work (Slant, Mack, €35), collates 46 photographs and 50 clippings, and opens with an Emily Dickinson poem which says: “Tell all the Truth/but tell it slant”. For Dickinson, “slant”–also the title of Schuman’s book–is the term for half rhymes which lack a perfect coherency between sounds, and toy with assonance or consonance. In English prosody, the term is generally considered to offer an effect of disharmony. Similarly, Schuman’s images of Amherst become a black-and-white poetic account of a city afeared, where neat whitewashed villas harbour an underlying tension–of which the police reports are but one manifestation.

A barn on which someone has scribbled “In Border Patrol we trust”; a child’s slide erected on the roof of a house overlooking a street; dark skid marks on an asphalt road in the middle of a wood; a giant spider’s web among trees illuminated by sunlight. These are all oblique references to the text of the police reports, and the relationships between the images offer an outlook which is, by turns, ironic, concerned, sarcastic or empathetic. Why is that child dressed as a policeman? What are we to make of two gravestones in a cemetery, one engraved with “Helen” and the other with “Helen’s Mother”? The book concludes with a police report about people sleeping in their cars, pretending to look at the stars, and with a photograph of a “drive-in” sign surrounded by stars. The very final image looks like a starry sky, but cannot be; perhaps, it shows the last remnants of light from a firework.

Il Foglio, 7th June 2019

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