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)


Philip Cartland said...

I'm not sure how far this book covers the complexities of the genocide, but I wonder if Peress's format falls short and runs into the danger of generalising? There were other factors that influenced the genocide including population density and economics (the ivory trade), but the tendency is to view it solely as a polarised and inter-ethnic battle caused by colonialism under the umbrella of UN inaction. This tendency of photojournalism to generalise is why I think the slow 'documentation' of David Goldblatt, who often includes extensive contextual captions that help avoid misunderstanding and blanket statements, offers a more balanced record (though I realise that we could probably split hairs here forever).

Anonymous said...


You won't get much of an argument from me on what you bring up. I don't think photography can relay such specific information in most cases.
I like this book a lot but for me it exists parallel to the actual facts. That is why I ask how can a book ever encompass the events and the sense of history that was definitely a part of the process towards bloodshed. The use of metaphor is for me the strength as I do not see photojournalism as a powerful tool for specifics. the who what why where when of journalism is not included in most photos. They are too ambiguous.

Philip Cartland said...

Yes I agree, metaphor is its strength. One would hope that we don't interpret it as indisputable evidence.

Anonymous said...

worth reading re. photos from Rwanda is the piece about Alfredo Jaar by David Levi Strauss from his book Between the Eyes. Strauss not only explains, in detail, how the massacre was planned for a long time but how Jaar dealt with his images of the aftermath. A person does have to wonder, as Jeff said, what the purpose of these photos is - except to make us feel guilty about not pushing our government more to help then - and perhaps doing better to push them the next time. Also since they were shown in museums and galleries - what audience did they get and was it the right forum for Jaar's photos. Would anyone have looked at them elsewhere - he did place the name "Rwanda" around a Swedeish town - why Sweden. and as Jeff also said, who looks at Gilles book? Maybe it is done more for Gilles so that he knows he at least publically stated his feeling about what happened.

Anonymous said...

and - what is the purpose of publishing books and doing exhibitions of photos of the Rwanda aftermath - after a million people were dead? and to spend time photographing the Hutu on the run after they massacred the Tutsi. It the idea to make a record - like of the Holocaust - hoping that another massacre might be avoided?

Anonymous said...

Good review. It brings up that eternal question which applies most particularly to photo-journalism: what's the purpose of the images? Why make them? And then, where do they belong? Where do they work best?

I love Peress, Nachtwey, Salgado, McCullin, etc's work. Most of their work was made to tell a story and it is very powerful and effective in print. Then it gets put in a book and for the most part still works, but it is no longer immediate, in some ways no longer relevant. Now you experience the images as a testament to the photographers talent, quickness, bravery or vision. The subject, which was the reason for snapping the pic, becomes secondary.

But I get really uncomfortable and a little confused when I see this work on the wall in a gallery, museum, etc. How am I supposed to experience the work in that context? (This has nothing to do with "Art? Not Art?" If you want to call it art, then it's art.) Can I enjoy the "artistry" and ignore the content? Is that possible? Or do I hold these two potentially exclusive ideas at the same time? "Beautiful photograph, too bad he was in pain at the time."

I'm reminded of a scene from a Woody Allen film where he is in a white, clean, sleek modern apartment and on the wall is a blow-up of Eddie Adams photo of the execution of the VC prisoner by Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

I really don't know what to think of that, of depictions of suffering as art. I suspect that in some way it's the equivalent of taking pleasure in other's pain.

Anonymous said...

As Gilles has said...they are for history. A form of evidence.

Anonymous said...


But where should this history be stored or shown, that is the question. Should they be stored in a library where people might chance upon them - since they are in a book. What about museum walls? - maybe ok like Gilles did at MoMA with extensive captions

Anonymous said...

By some of the comments above one would think that photographs made of war and atrocity have no use beyond immediate dissemination in the press. Think of the images made during WWII and the Holocaust. Their continual publication has helped keep alive awareness of what happened generations after.

I notice a growing trend of cynicism that has tended to denigrate the work of photojournalists committed to being present when terrible things happen. Anyone who has done that work knows that the chances of the images halting the carnage are minuscule at best. But they are important, in that an honest photojournalist, while working subjectively, can show things that would not otherwise be seen.

One other example: at great personal risk, Ron Haviv made shocking images of Arkan's men rampaging through the Bosnian town of Bijeljina in early 1992, before the siege of Sarajevo started. His images became a historical record and were used as evidence in Slobodan Milosevic's trial.

Photojournalism as done today, in the age of television, is no longer as prominent in the lives of most people. Much of what is shown is crap, and pointless. But some of the work being done is important for the historical record.

Some work is used to illuminate issues that need to be handled. The role of the witness remains.

When things are hidden we tend to forget.