After Gilles Peress published his ground breaking book Telex
The Silence is about the genocide that took place in
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:
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:
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
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
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
Book Available Here (The Silence)