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Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Novelists on Photography: Abdulrazak Gurnah


Image by Diane Arbus 

I love it when people write about photographs in novels. It so often reads like an example of photographic theory put into a real world/fictional setting with the moralising removed. 

This is Abdulrazak Gurnah writing in Gravel Heart about how locals regard the new camera-wielding flock of tourists coming to his native island of Zanzibar. 

'At that time, respectable women did not allow themselves to be photographed tor fear of the dishonour to their husbands if other men saw their image. But this fear was not the only reason to refuse as some men were also resistant. In both cases it was from suspicion that the production of, the image would take something of their being and hold it captive. Even when I was a child, athough that was later than the time of Maalim Yahya's photograph, if a tourist from the cruise ships wandered the streets with a camera, people watched warily for the moment when the foreigner lifted it to take a shot and then several voices screamed in a frenzy of prohibition, to frighten him or her off. Behind the tourist an argument would start between those who feared for the loss of their souls and those who scoffed at such nonsense. For these kinds of reasons, I had not seen a photograph of my father's mother and so could not tell for certain if he did take after her.'

I don't know. It reads incredibly close to the irresolvable polarities that pass for theory in photography, that gulf between the people who fear 'for the loss of their souls' (or have inordinate concern for the souls of others) and those who 'scoff at such nonsense.'

That's a Diane Arbus picture up top, one of my favourite. I reduce it to his legs v the first two fingers of her left hand. I don't think it's a wholely accurate reduction.

This is Susan Sontag writing about Diane Arbus. 'To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves.'

Nonsense to scoff at or have they lost their souls. 

A little bit of both is not an option because it's the right answer - most of the time, or some of the time. 

Go read the novel anyway - it's beautifully written, crystal clear and direct and transparent. And there is more on photography including a great little passage which reminds me of Annette Kuhn's The Child I never Was

Read more about Abdulrazak Gurnah here in this article titled 'I could do with more readers.'

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