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A Closer Look: Sicarios & Interrogations

cover of Sicarios by Javier Arcenillas
In the last few years (and I feel this may be a consequence for many as they reach middle age), I have been thinking about how to do something larger than myself, to make an impact on my community for the better. Considering I am leaning towards a universally philanthropic thought-process and my line of work, I have been thinking a lot lately about activism and photography. I have started to face the uncomfortable nature of the art form and the seemingly conflicting notions of voyeurism verses activism. Is it simply looking or looking with a purpose?

cover of Interrogations by Donald Weber
I agree that emotions should not form our criticism of photography, but I want to think AND feel when regarding. As Susie Linfield states in her book The Cruel Radiance when speaking about the approach of movie critic Pauline Kael, she “urged her readers to reclaim their emotions as a key part of their aesthetic, intellectual, and moral lives: feeling could enhance rather than undermine critical thinking” (Linfield, 13). Linfield’s essay argues that a photograph displaying the suffering, misery, humiliation of another human being makes the viewer not just see that “this is so,” but feel that “this must not be so” (Linfield, 33) and that photos are the perfect vehicles for personifying the abuses of human rights, putting a face on the injustice. The camera is not a means to stop the violence, but a way to bring awareness about the global inequalities, to bring about global consciousness. Amongst these arguments, she points out that for many years good photojournalism (and one can assume documentary photography as well because many genres cross those the previously defined boundaries) has not been considered art -- a photo within this genre with “craft, care, structure, and visual power” could be considered “morally suspect” (Linfield, 44). I can't agree with Linfield on all her arguments, but I would agree that a photograph can be beautifully framed and well-printed and still make the viewer consider and react with empathy to the pain and suffering of the subject—and likely even more so.

Although a single image and a series of images are a totally different animal, I believe Linfield’s aesthetic argument applies to the photobook as well. Two recent books that exemplify this point are Javier Arcenillas’ Sicarios: Latin American Assassins and Donald Weber’s Interrogations. Both are lushly printed, thoughtfully edited, and provide visual and textual insight to the photographer’s motivation and intent. In Sicarios, the conditions of the lives of assassins and those living in Guatemala make up more of the story than just the killings. Many images are violent and disturbing, partially because often the victims have committed a minor injustice, if any at all, and the assassins are often young men who see no future for themselves, men for whom killing becomes a job motivated by simply a need to make a living, and often a meager one at that. Sicarios is a vehicle for Javier Arcenillas, with the help of his friends at El Periodico de Guatemala, to tell a very real story. Included is an introduction by the director of El Periodico, Juan Luis Font, and an interview with Arcenillas, and complete plate listing with detailed captions. Each plate is equally as engaging as the next showing fleeting moments of movement in intense situations or scenes in crisp sharp fine details. The printing, at Ofset Yapimevi in Istanbul, resulting in crisp whites and lush blacks, are quite seductive, leading me to want to look and discover what is in each frame.

from Interrogations

Donald Weber’s Interrogations is a masterpiece of design by Amsterdam’s Heijdens Karwei and printed by Wachter GMBH & Co in B├Ânnigheim, Germany. The book is stitched with one thread in the center and wrapped in a textured printed paper that mimics one of the wallpapers of the interrogation rooms. The uncut text block allows a play on design; the "creep" extends way beyond the cover. This element is cleverly designed, but feels as though it may also be commentary on the character of those unseen in the second section. It is finished with a cardboard slipcase. It is presented in three chapters: Prologue, which shows some images of daily life; interrogations, portraits of confused, distressed and scared citizens being questioned by the authorities; and finishes with Epilogue by Larry Frolick and Weber, a text which further illustrates Frolick and Weber's love for the Russian citizens and their role in this project: "letting the denied tell their stories through you." Interrogations illustrates Weber's love for his temporary home of the ex-Soviet Union and the bureaucracies and inequalities that still exist and often impede "progress."

from Interrogations

Each book is an object with its own voice, but documentary or photojournalism's ability to speak to the viewer in an artistic language can be seen in many if not all of Arcenillas’ and Weber’s images. In Interrogations, one of the suspects holds his head in his hands seeking respite from the questioning. It is one of many well-composed images; the table leads the viewer in from the left to find the man’s white hands clasping his head. His kempt fingers and short-cropped hair are in sharp focus while the background is blurred bringing attention to his gesture, one of frustration, fear, pain, and submission. His dark clothing also serves to draw more focus to the center of the frame while light falls softly on the man’s jacket creating highlights and shadows. In another image, a woman’s fuzzy brown jacket and darker brown hair frame her face. Clearly the woman has been crying as her cheeks glisten in the harsh interrogation light, its presence shown by the shadow that falls on the exterior wall. She looks away from the camera in a non-confrontation glance over her shoulder. The colors in all photos are muted, subtle; Weber’s palate is decidedly contrary to a vibrant, thriving environment.

from Sicarios

Arcenillas chooses black & white as his medium to dramatic effect. Plate 55 shows a single corpse lying on a gurney on the way to the morgue at San Juan de Dios Hospital. The corpse is shrouded in black material while white medical tape holds the wrapping around the deceased. The photo’s bottom edge is cropped below the gurney pad filling, the frame the whitish painted wall. But almost perfectly centered on the wall is the emergency fire pull station. It is a portrait of an object, the composition reminiscent of the Lisa Kereszi’s Water Fountain, PS 26, Governor's Island, NY 2003, and centered below this banal device in a vignette of light rests the lifeless body resulting from the everyday conflict that faces this region. Throughout the book Arcenillas consistently contrasts death and life. A young girl stands in an alley and stares into the camera. The two walls that form the alley lead back in linear perspective and end approximately where the girl’s eyes look right into the lens. Her face is unsmiling and concerned and her hands are held near her body in a closed unwelcoming gesture. The darkness of the deep rich soil is countered by equal amounts of the overcast sky. These photos display what Linfield calls "craft, care, structure, and visual power," the descriptors of art. Both Arcenillas and Weber use their mediums and subjects not just for the message. The content of these images is equally weighted between artistic composition and social commentary.

from Sicarios

What is not readily present in Arcenillas and Weber’s photos is what Weber in his afterword calls the “unseen subject… Power.” For the sicarios, most of the victims are of the same economic class and many killers only receive modest pay, “fifty dollars and a jacket” and likely Weber’s subjects do not fair much better economically. Arcenillas himself in the introductory interview mentions that he can not save the world with images, but present the world with one of the “most real stories [he's] ever told,” and like him, Weber states that, “the artist’s goal is to shock us with our own wordlessness: to show us proofs of life in its willful alternative histories.” As I was unaware of the conditions of both of these regions in Russia and Guatemala, the books and photographs acted as education tools. I may not remember all images in the future, but I will recall the feeling I had when looking and now have knowledge to act, if not for this specific community, for someone to make something better. Many of my memories of childhood are faded, but I remember the feeling of childhood. I will remember the feeling of these books.

Both books were selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by Melanie McWhorter

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Melanie for your insightful comments about Sicarios and Interrogations. Your response is exactly what we were aiming for in selecting Javier as the winner of the first FotoEvidence Book Award and we're grateful to see it expressed so thoughtfully.
    (David Stuart is an editor at FotoEvidence, the publisher of Sicarios)

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