Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Silence by Gilles Peress

After Gilles Peress published his ground breaking book Telex Iran: In the Name of the Revolution in 1984 it would be a decade before his work was encapsulated into another book. Farewell to Bosnia, his brutal portrayal of the war that would fracture Yugoslavia, was published in 1994 at a time when the Balkans were still raging out of control. Unfortunately the nineteen nineties were a busy time for a photographer who has made a point of chasing conflict and his next book, released only one year after Farewell to Bosnia, would turn out to be one of his most powerful documents to date.

The Silence is about the genocide that took place in Rwanda in spring and summer of 1994. Like in Bosnia, understanding the impetus for tribal conflict and wars of “brother against brother” was at the root of Gilles interest. In Rwanda, the Hutus and Tutsis were essentially the same people segmented in their society by the colonial Belgians in the 1930’s. The mistaken belief by the Belgians that the Tutsis were superior to the Hutus, led them to issue identity cards to indicate group affiliation. Higher education and positions of power were only granted to the Tutsi (roughly 15% of the population) and systematically denied to the majority of the population which was Hutu. Obviously this system of privilege and denial led to deep rooted resentment among Hutus towards the Tutsis.

Unfortunately, the conflict that would erupt in April of 1994 had precedent in the 1960’s when, over a four year period, 20,000 Tutsi lives were claimed in violence. The difference in 1994 was, this new conflict would have a toll of over three quarters of a million Tutsis killed within a time period of roughly four months while the international community argued pointlessly as to how to define what was taking place.

How could a book ever encompass this complicated situation with the murder and mass displacement of fleeing refugees? The power of Peress's book lies not only in its images but equally in its concept. The Silence opens with the words: Rwanda, Kabuga 27, May 1994, 16h:15.

A prisoner, a killer is presented to us,
It is a moment of confusion, of fear,
Of prepared stories.
He has a moment to himself.

Upon turning the page we see the first image of the book of a man, the presumed prisoner, arms crossed and staring straight ahead ignoring the camera. What follows in the body of this book is meant to represent three minutes of memories by this prisoner reflecting on his crimes and what he witnessed during his participation in the genocide. Upon coming to the last page of the book we again see a photo of this same man, a slight variant from the first image, but the indication of time is different: Rwanda, Kabuga, 27 May 1994, 16h:18.

As I look at him he looks at me.

Three minutes also happens to be the approximate amount of time it takes a viewer of this book to work their way from cover to cover. If you will allow the indulgence, the three minutes may also be a very veiled metaphor for the amount of time the average person, not swept up in the events and a world away, would have given their attention to this conflict.

The book is divided into three chapters with heavy biblical references in the chapter titles and imagery. The Sin, introduces us to the weapons on war in its first few pages of images. This was a war not of guns but of machetes and primitive looking clubs. The next several pages visit the scenes of some of the massacre sites and Peress’s camera is unflinching; the photographs do not aestheticize the brutality. The second chapter called Purgatory follows the mass exodus of refugees as they flee Rwanda into neighboring Zaire and Tanzania. The last chapter, The Judgment, follows the mass cholera epidemic that spread through the refugee camps in Zaire. The images in this sequence describe the process of moving the dead to mass graves dug with large earth moving equipment. Within this sequence there are images of bodies that again remind us of subjects found in religious painting throughout history.

The book is small in trim size with black matte pages. All of the images are laid out as spreads that cross the gutter and, with the book open, the page spread ratio follows the 35mm film frame proportions perfectly. This one book that runs the images across the gutter and it does not bother me. Because the design called for it in this case, the bisecting of the image is not problematic. Surprisingly, none of the subjects in the images are further brutalized by this dividing line. All of the images are represented with a black border to keep the pages entirely black including the page edges. Gilles designed the book and Carol Kismaric is credited as an editorial consultant. It is nicely printed by Steidl in Germany and was published by SCALO in 1995. A small booklet that is a chronology of events compiled by Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch is laid into the inside back cover.

Like many of books about war, this is a haunting little book that is very difficult to digest. Unlike most others, it reaches a very sophisticated level in its construction that goes far beyond traditional photojournalism in similar ways that Telex Iran achieved. One would recognize the importance of publishing such a powerful document, but I wonder, who is the audience? This is the odd dynamic of such books. They are released into the public sphere and most logically only bought by other photographers or human rights workers. And even then, I cannot imagine this is a book that gets pulled from people’s shelves very often. And when it is retrieved, are we looking again at the prowess of Peress’s images and how he packaged his essay or are we out to learn something more about what happened in those few weeks? In that case, if it is the photographer that is, in a perverse way, the center of attention, then what is the purpose of the book? I am not saying that this is the case, but when a book like this exists, one can naturally question how it functions to its audience.

One thing I know is that whenever I do look at this book, the last words are haunting.

As I look at him he looks at me.

To me these words are a look inward as much as an observation. They are haunting words because it addresses the possibility of anyone being swayed into being a participant and a killer. The evil that we guess is only present in “the other” can possibly exist in anyone. He, like us, seems to be just an average man. He doesn’t look the part of a monster and that is what is difficult for us to process. He could just as easily be a friendly neighbor and possibly was at some point even possibly to a family of Tutsis. The question of why episodes of genocide are allowed to happen in the first place is somewhat short sighted, the real question is, with human nature as complicated as it is, why doesn’t this happen more often?

One interesting side note to Gilles Peress’s book, The Silence, has to do with a catalog that was published in 1997 on the occasion of an exhibition called Guerras Fratricidas by the Foudacion “La Caixa” in Barcelona, Spain. This is a catalog of images of conflict by Magnum photographers compiled by Agnes Sire and Marta Gill. What is interesting about it is that it is basically a design rip-off of Peress's book The Silence. Guerras Fratricidas features a much larger trim size but the matte paper, black pages and page ratio are straight from the design of The Silence. The cover image wraps around from the front cover to the back just like in Gilles’s design, but to add insult to injury, it is a James Nachtwey Rwanda photo featured and not one of Gilles’s. After an appropriate dispute over the lifting of Gilles’s design, the catalog was issued with a sticker added to the back cover that acknowledges that The Silence was the design influence for the book.

Book Available Here (The Silence)