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Saint Jerome once said that the face is the mirror of the mind, that the eyes confess the secrets of the heart. Pfannmüller (the photographer) and Klein (the writer) have produced a book of some 116 photographic portraits of people ranging in age from four to 80, from the Rift Valley in Africa, the highlands of the Golden Triangle in Burma and Thailand, and the deserts of Ajmer and Pushkar in Rajasthan in North-West India all of whom, in some way, capture and embody the essence of human dignity.
Dignity is not related to wealth (and many of the sitters may have incomes of a dollar a day or less); it is not related to material possessions (and many of the sitters do not even possess clothes); it is not related to accomplishments (and many of the sitters may not register any sort of CV); it is not related to the specifics of culture (and just as many of the sitters may be warriors as monks, nuns or holy men). For the authors of this book, it may be related to the way in which "people live in close communion with nature, unaware of and unaffected by the shrill political theatre around them". Whether this stands up under scrutiny, whether being in some way divorced from the hurly-burly of Western life and values is connected with the maintenance of dignity, may not be certain; and clearly not as certain as the importance and centrality of dignity to full human experience.
Pfannmüller and Klein sought to distil the elusive quality of dignity by taking a portable photographic studio to the three main locations and simply placing people in front of the camera with a neutral backdrop, mostly by themselves but sometimes as a group. The only exterior photographs are a handful of establishing shots to give a sense of place. Only a camel makes a brief non-human appearance. The project took several years to complete and was not without political, logistical and practical difficulties, but the product is a meditation on the human experience with the face as the key.
The text explains the journey, both physical and metaphorical that the two undertook. It details the sense of discovery that emerged over time and attempts to convey the mystery of what they tried to uncover. At times the text may seem over-written and phrases such as "living at the dawn of time" or "looking across time into the faces of our ancestors" may seem a little purple, but this should not overly detract from the spirit in which the enterprise was undertaken. Human dignity is a profound question and Pfannmüller and Klein give the reader, or perhaps the viewer, images to contemplate, not answers to regurgitate in some trite, eroticized way.
The sitters in the photographs look at you from the page (only a few are not full face portraits). Few, if any, are smiling. Most are interrogating the viewer rather than the other way around as it is most often. These are not voyeuristic portraits, they are not creations of otherness. Often they are challenging: a young girl with decorative scars on her belly fixes you with her gaze; a group of young men, cowherds, cradle their Kalashnikovs as naturally as they would a spear; a woman with a huge nose-ring regards the viewer with disdain; an older Sikh man stares you down. The sitters from the Thai and Burmese highlands do not appear to be as confrontational, but neither are they cowed. Dignity, it seems, is related to a sense of self and place in the world.
About half way through the book, although it is not really clear whether this was half way through the project, Klein quotes John Berger, perhaps one of the most insightful and influential critics of representation in recent times and well-known for his own collaborative work with Jean Mohr (including text and photo essays on European peasant farmers). Berger says that "the poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed on the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied -- but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture in which the beggar is a reminder of nothing".
These photographs and this text are there to remind us of who we are, and who we pretend not to be.
Like most productions of its type, the book feels nice in the hand. The pictures are glossy and large. It would look well on a stylish coffee table. But it is more. Slow and considered contemplation of each individual portrayed will reveal something of the mystery of human dignity. We may learn about self-worth, certainty and centeredness. We may learn about authenticity and lack of pretence. We may, if convinced by Pfannmüller and Klein, consider that many of the people portrayed in the book "radiate what the religiously inclined amongst us would interpret as the presence of God" and what the rest of us may find in the search of human dignity.
© 2008 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, British Columbia