"At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."
“Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is.”
Sartre, Being and Nothingness
“Do Be Do Be Do.”
An exhibition at Recontres de la Photographie in Arles is dedicated to existentialist photography. Based on the reviews, Shoot! is mostly concerned with the parallels between cameras and guns and ‘existentialist’ is as valid a description as several other philosophical terms. Is there such a thing as existentialist photography?
It would help if we had a universal definition of existentialism. Unfortunately the people who set out to define it, particularly for the benefit of non-philosophers, admit difficulties trying to sort out its various manifestations. Anybody who pondered the contradictions involved in contemplating existence could be labelled an existentialist, so Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are prototypes but one of the most famous existentialists, Camus, denied he was one and Genet, who Sartre anointed an existentialist, never thought of himself as a philosopher. Anyone who has meditated on the absurdity or the paradoxes of their life could be said to be engaging in existentialist philosophy but then we must define terms like absurdity, angst and alienation because they meant different things to various philosophers. One way to begin is to find a single idea and work off that regardless of whatever disagreements it raised at the time. So if Sartre argued a case and Camus refuted it we can ignore Camus for the time being (or take his side).
One of Sartre’s key concepts was that we could only know ourselves through the other. Franz Fanon only thought he was black when white Europeans labelled him as such and Genet only decided he was a thief when law enforcers labelled him one. Since so much of existentialism is concerned with freedom and responsibility, those two examples are problematic; they immediately suggest there is no freedom, except that presumably Sartre’s existentialist hero was someone who could subvert their label. Being regarded as a thief gave Genet permission to steal.
This idea of the ‘other’, the ‘gaze’ or the ‘look’ is where photography comes in. We can make the argument that any family snapshot is an existentialist artifact. When we look at a snapshot of a family picnic we base our judgement of the entire event on that one instant the shutter was pressed. If someone in the photo is yawning, looking away or in some other way out of sync with the rest of the group we can base our entire assessment on that single detail. It’s no longer merely a family picnic but one with particular tensions at work. Likewise, someone blinks as the flash goes off and in the photograph they look stupefied or drunk and no protests on their part can deny the evidence.
There are always three people involved in a photograph; the photographer, the subject and the viewer. When we don’t know who the photographer or the subject are the viewer’s point of view becomes all important. Existentialist photographs, those that adhere to Sartre’s concept, are the snapshots where the anonymous photographer and subject’s intents becomes misconstrued by the viewer. Anybody who has ever looked at thousands of snapshots knows this disruption between the viewer and the photographer is actually rare. In most images we see exactly what the photographer and the subject wanted us to. In the photograph above, a woman, most likely the mother, took a photograph of her children and stood with the sun behind her. The children shielded their eyes against the glare. In the result an enormous shadow looms over the children who cold be backing away in terror. An ordinary snapshot of a day in the country? It doesn’t look that way. The shadow the photographer casts is sinister., In the photo below, it’s the boy’s third birthday but there’s something a little miserable about this scene. If this is a party, where are the other children? Why is the table set for adults, and why does everyone look a little strained, ensconced in a gloomy darkness?
This then is one form of existentialist photography; those images where the relationship between the photographer and the subject are broken for the viewer. We can come up with three rules for defining it. One is that photographer and subject should be anonymous amateurs. Professionals will always show us exactly what they want us to see. Knowing nothing about who took the photograph or when and where means our response is completely subjective. A second rule is that whatever event was being recorded, it should be very ordinary. The existentialist hero is always a commoner consumed or trapped by the mundane problems of everyday life. Thirdly, a detail disrupts the scene and turns an everyday event into something else. Though we may be aware that this disruption could be the result of bad timing or poor camera skills, we don’t let that interfere. Our judgement reflects the absurdity the existentialists argued was the conundrum of modern times. Like the bureaucrats in Kafka’s The Trial, we base our decisions on misinterpretations and in the process condemn people to being what they are not.