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photo-eye Book Reviews: Parasomnia

Parasomnia. By Viviane Sassen.
Published by Prestel, 2011.
Reviewed by Alexandra Huddleston
Viviane Sassen Parasomnia
Photographs by Viviane Sassen
Prestel, Lakewood, 2011. Hardbound. 104 pp., 55 color illustrations, 9-1/2x11-3/4".

The cover photograph of Viviane Sassen's new book Parasomnia shows a young boy floating facedown in flowing water. Only his outstretched arms and his curly hair emerge from the milky-blue current. The ambiguities of this photo set the tone for the book: there is a frequent feeling of suffocation and disorientation, the intimation of death that comes from holding one's breath for too long, but there is also a strong element of play, a feeling of buoyancy and laughter -- though perhaps with a more desperate edge than in her previous work.

Before Sassen gained a name in the art world with her first big project dominated by African scenes and subjects -- Flamboya -- she was already a successful fashion photographer. Indeed, the influence of the fashion world is still strong in Parasomnia. The size and thickness of the book is similar to that of most women's fashion magazines. While some of the photos without people have a hint of the documentary, most of the scenes are clearly predetermined and posed (her process is depicted in the book Sketches, but even without the backstory, the lighting and the clothes are much too clean!), and those large swaths of negative space would still serve as great places for a brand name.

Parasomnia, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2011.
However, Sassen successfully uses these elements to create a refreshing vision of an imaginary Africa. She cites magic realism and surrealism as two of her major influences and has clearly stated that she aims to create work that confuses both herself and others. Although the short story by Moses Isegawa that opens the book is set in Uganda, Sassen's photographs were taken in many different African countries (as well as few European ones). Indeed, it has always been the business of fashion photography to create fantasy worlds, especially ones that feel just this side of believable.

Parasomnia, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2011.
In his Spring 2012 Aperture Magazine review of her work, Aaron Schuman writes that one of the most important points of Sassen's photography is how it deals with the West's problematic postcolonial relationship with Africa. This is an element in the work, though perhaps a less important part of the photographs themselves and rather more relevant to how they have been received. Glancing at a cross-section of Sassen's photographs, it's interesting to note that she has used her signature style (flat, bright light; a fondness for verticals; deep black shadows that semi-obscure the subject; faces hidden or turned away from the viewer) with both white and black-skinned models. However, it's her work in Africa that most successfully caught the attention of her Western audience; it's this work that most successfully created an imaginary world that Western viewers still apparently desire.

Parasomnia, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2011.
This is an updated imaginary Africa: Henri Rousseau's lush vegetation and stalking lions have been replaced by pastel high-rises, stuffed zebra heads, dusty red streets, graves, and good-looking young people in fashionable, hip clothes. Although she was born and has lived most of her adult life in the Netherlands, her early childhood years in Kenya are often cited as an influence on her recent work. However, just as Rousseau created his jungles without ever leaving France, Sassen could well have created her imaginary world without ever visiting Africa (admittedly, since this is photography and not painting, she did need to be "on location" to create many of these photographs). Such is the nature of the imaginary.

Parasomnia, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2011.
What then of parasomnia, a word that describes a multitude of sleep disorders from sleepwalking and nightmares to bedwetting? Isegawa's short story sets a very concrete scene -- a morning scene in an urban slum -- but the story of the photos is one of dreams and desires. The cool tone of the printing contrasts with the bright primary colors. The playful poses and beautiful clothes of the models contrast with the signs of urban poverty and stunted vegetation. The playful and irregular design (where some photos wrap around to the next page and it's next to impossible to find any two images that are the same size, shape, or placement) sweeps us into and through this imaginary dream world so full of tensions. The true success of the work is that while Sassen successfully creates an imaginary Africa that is clearly deeply desired by the West, once in it, there's a tension that doesn't allow the viewer to relax or want to stay very long. This is a play and tension that needs a book to unfold, and that isn't evident in her luscious individual prints.—ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by Shane Lavalette

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ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON is an American photographer who was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa.  She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MS in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, Zeit Magazine, National Geographic Explorer, the Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience Grammy Award winning album, and exhibited in group and solo shows worldwide.  Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives.  In 2007 she was awarded a Fulbright Grant to photograph and research the legacy of traditional Islamic scholarship in Timbuktu, Mali.  Her current work in progress explores the relationship between modernity and tradition in a pilgrim’s life along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain and the Shikoku Henro, a pilgrimage of 88 temples on the island of Shikoku, Japan.