Island is an art-video made by Alan McCluskey on location in the White house in Veyrier, Switzerland in 1983. Taking part in the video, amongst others, are Betsy, Chatouille, Chen, Christophe, Christiane, Crepo, Derek, Diego, Dorothee, Dutch, Huguette, Ingrid, Joanna, Kira, Jean-François, Kerena, Louise, Maia, Marie-Dan, Mathieu, Shan, Solar Stan and Tox.
It’s 1982 and the Falkland War has broken out. Beirut cowers under a deluge of bombs and Palestinians are being slaughtered while in Cannes the great names of modern cinema present their latest films. Further north, by Lake Geneva, promising fine-arts students listen to filmmakers Johan van des Keuken and Steve Dwoskin, while elsewhere in the city a group of talented young actresses and actors put on a play. Such is the material of my video-art collage, La Terre Promise (The Promised Land). Click to see stills from the recent digital transfer of the video.
Did it ever strike you how untruthful photos can be. They draw you into a frame and hold your attention captive. They lead you to forget what is beyond the frame both in terms of time and space. In the above photo, you see nothing of the parked cars or the haphazard roofs not to mention the slush on the roads or the dreary people trudging about their day. You don’t know that the wild flurry of snow didn’t last more than five minutes. And why should you? That would spoil the photo.
Photos can ‘lie’ in other ways, by the angle they take on the world. The example I want to use comes from a video, but the dynamic is the same. Imagine the moment. A group of postgrad sociology students are seated around a table watching a video, an extract from a French TV documentary comparing the editorial meetings of two French dailies, the right-wing Le Figaro and the communist L’Humanité,. Le Figaro is filmed such as to always include several people with the camera at chest height. Shots are chosen in which participants are smiling or expressing their opinion. In comparison, L’Humanité is filmed from much lower down, framing only one person at a time. Images of participants are chosen in which they look on silent and unsmiling. The postgrads were quick to point out the convivial nature of the Figaro meeting compared to the domineering attitude of the chief editor of Humanité. They quickly moved on to speculate about what that implied. They were quite oblivious to the fact that the impression they took as fact might well have been created by the way the camera was oriented and by the choice of images when editing.
So while we relish in photos that move or inspire or anger us, we need to remember that they invariably only tell a partial, if not slanted tale of reality.
I gave the photo in the picture above to my wife as a Valentine’s present. I find it difficult to look at it without being moved. It’s a photo that tells stories. A lot of my photos are like that. They are not just would-be postcards that grip the world by their teeth and leave you no room to go beyond. They are open doors to stories. In line with my new novel, Stories People Tell, I am beginning to think of organising a new exhibition entitled Stories Photos Tell. Priority at the moment goes to finishing the novel which is reaching its climactic finale, but I have selected a number of possible photos…