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Caroline Halley des Fontaines is a young European photographer; she has a Master's degree in Law and Human Rights from University La Sorbonne in Paris. Her first exhibition was in 2000, and she has had solo exhibitions in Berlin, New York, Paris, Los Angeles and Brussels. This collection of black and white photographs shows local people in India, Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Namibia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. These pictures are very still, and they are beautifully posed, with careful attention to lighting and the flow of lines. Des Fontaines shows people on their own or in small groups. They are in traditional dress, and they almost never look at the camera. The images are attractive and unusual, and as a whole they show considerable skill and determination.
At the start of the book is a poem by des Fontaines; it starts off as follows:
I followed your whispers across oceans and deserts.
In between times and silences,
I looked for you in unknown landscapes
that seemed only possible in the sacred imagination of painters.
It ends with
Sometimes I stare at the sky,
to see a white bird born from the clouds,
the ancient Phoenix.
The images have titles such as "The Middle Path," "The Women and the Bird," "Memory," "The Angels," and the picture on the front cover, "The Old Lady." So it is safe to say that this work has metaphysical and transcendent ambitions. To confirm this, there is a small uncredited photograph just after the poem; it is hard to know what it shows, but it has writing at the bottom, saying "Remembering our place in the universe."
The photographs are utterly without overt irony; they capture moments of peace, lovely coincidence, and unusual beauty. Most of them seem carefully arranged or posed. If they were in color, many of them could be Benneton advertisements; the fact that they are in black and white makes them a little cooler and less commercial.
If I were to guess what des Fontaines is trying to do with these images, I would say that she is giving us a rarely seen view of people in other cultures, showing how handsome they are. Most of us think of the Taliban, oppressed women, and a war-torn country when we think of Afghanistan, but she shows independent women in stunning settings; in "The Princess of Bamiyan" a woman covered from head to toe in her dark burka walks along an unpaved stone road in front of steep-sided mountains. In "The Burka and the Hand," we see four women in Burkas from behind, with one placing her hand on the back of another. We see the texture of the fabric close up, and it is a strange contrast of textures. When we think of Kenya, we think of a country with a serious AIDS problem and awful poverty. Yet in "The New Married," we see a couple in ceremonial dress, apparently sitting in a cave, lit by the a ray of sunshine from above, giving a picture of some mystery and wonder. So des Fontaines is showing us people in their innocence, always with great dignity and self-possession.
So the project here is interesting and worthwhile. It is far removed from other photo-journalistic portrayals of the third world. It does not try inspire pity for the plight of the poor, nor outrage at the effects that Western imperialism has had. Des Fontaines seems to want us to recognize the essential humanity of people in other cultures, and to emphasize how attractive they are.
Nevertheless, the project is deeply flawed. The position of the photographer here is one of tourist, bringing back her images from her travels. The beauty of many of these images is far too decorative, or worse, relies on an aestheticized otherness. Consider "Passage" from Tibet, showing shepherds and sheep in a valley covered with snow: it is an astonishingly dramatic images, with all lines pointing towards the center, but the people here are lost, appearing as details. For another example, consider the cover photograph: an old woman with leathery shiny skin light brightly; the picture has high contrast, and we see many wrinkles. If it were not for her bright eyes, it might be a death mask, and the image is quite eerie. The subject appears so old as to be almost supernatural. Or take "Memory," with a smooth-faced young man in the foreground, another man leading a camel slightly out of focus behind him, and Pyramids in the background. Half the page just shows the desert and the Pyramids are hazy; the young man has his eyes closed, and he looks meditative. The title of "Memory" suggests that he is recalling his heritage for a moment. Des Fontaines is adopting a romantic stance to these other cultures, in a rigorously depoliticized context, and indeed giving her viewer the most clichéd of ethnic signs to clue them into what they are seeing. Many of these images look like they might be odd stills from an Indiana Jones movie, or possibly one The Mummy series. The quirky yet breathtaking beauty she finds in her subjects is at the expense of any individual understanding, and result in her subjects always remaining very mysterious and strange. These pictures don't succeed in showing any common humanity, but rather turn her subjects into quasi-spiritual objects for us to gape at.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.