Can a photograph tell the truth? Roland Barthes recalls the amazement he could still feel when he looked at a portrait of Jérôme Bonaparte: “Quite some time ago I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’” For me what Charles Meyer’s portraits from Vukovar and Kosovo offer is something like Barthes’ amazement, that I am looking at eyes that looked at… In their detailed precision – so that as I look at these three photographs I find that there is always more to see, that more is always waiting patiently for me to find it – the art that guides my eyes has the feeling of a truthfulness that I experience as enhanced vision.
Charles Sanders Peirce would have called this the experience of experience: I notice what was unnoticed but existed despite my intent.What I took to be a shadow turns out to be a black snake, “I think otherwise” than I had thought a change in perception which changes my mind, “a sense that the snake was there in spite of me”, the feeling “when I did come to see it… of being compelled to see it”. Was it hiding in plain sight? Heidegger would regard this experience of experiencing as an experience of truth, not in the sense of an accurate representation (a true statement, for example, fully adequate to what it states) but as the unhiding of something hidden that simultaneously changes my mind. In Meyer’s photographs this experience is specific to its reference: images become more luminous as I feel a referential force.
In my experience this feel for the reference has become rare and increasingly suspect in an age of digital manipulation. Barthes’ description of referential power can seem increasingly naive, but what Meyer’s photographs show me is how exquisite aesthetic balance can still serve to witness this experience. A photograph, Barthes writes, “is literally an emanation of the referent”, and while this may mischaracterize many photographs (which might more accurately be called “imaginary signifiers”), it does not mischaracterize Meyer’s.
The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed to my gaze. Light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.… [T]he thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminance), has really touched the surface which in turn my gaze will touch.
Of Meyer’s portraits, I might say that he photographs this touch. The image serves the reference as its palpable emanation. The eye becomes as tactile as a finger reading Braille. What is there to see? Some context may be helpful. Meyer is a Boston-based photographer. The three photographs are part of a portfolio entitled The Aftermath of Conflict: People from the Balkans, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. How does someone from somewhere else photograph the aftermath of conflicts? The man on the bicycle is Vinko, a survivor of the siege of Vukovar. Meyer photographed him in 1998. The siege occurred from August to November 1991. In 1998, through a translator, Vinko told Meyer:
I am three generations in Vukovar. I am not Serbian or Croat, but I’m Hungarian. It was an art to stay alive. By accident I stayed alive. You know why? I like to drink. And I get drunk and I lie down in the basement. So I did not know when the bombs would stop or start falling. I was a child of the Second World War and I saw worse things. I was scared for my two sons. It was hard for me. One was in the Croatian army and the youngest was in the opposite army. That was the most difficult for me. What am I? I am not Croat, not Serb. I’m Hungarian. I am not ashamed of Vukovar. It is my city. There is a future. But it takes time. Some people have dreams that everything will be solved very fast. But it’s not possible. I’m a carpenter. You cannot rebuild so fast. When Vukovar is again like it used to be, I will be gone. I will be dead.
Meyer’s second portrait from Vukovar dates from a year later, in 1999. Another survivor, smoking a cigarette, no name. This time there was no translator present. The wall behind the man becomes his testimony.
Meyer’s third portrait, from 2000, is of a monk from the Decani Monastery in Kosovo. The Visoki Decani Monastery is a Serbian Orthodox walled compound, south of Peć. It was built in the 14th century. It is still under the protection of KFOR, whose armoured vehicles form a background for the field the monk has been scything. He was sharpening the scythe when Meyer made the photograph; the photograph catches the sharpening in motion. Unlike the other portraits, this one has been framed by the photographer without its subject’s apparent collaboration. It is a portrait, it is almost a landscape, the subject almost a detail among details, to be discovered gradually, perhaps by the way he directs our eyes with a feel for his work. When I first looked at the photograph, I saw three trees, then I saw five. Is there a man standing beneath the tree in the background on the right? I am unable to tell. Not everything can be resolved, but I think there may be a man there, facing away from me, a vague shape that is almost a tree. This uncertainty seems important to me; because I am uncertain, I keep changing my mind, and that for me is evidence of the photograph’s truthfulness.
And the reference? The KFOR vehicles read carefully bring all the Kosovo conflict to bear, that they should be there as background while a Serbian Orthodox monk scythes this field. And the bullet-riddled wall that frames the man smoking in 1999 in Vukovar and that he seems as he poses to pose for the camera as well. And the devastated water tower behind Vinko in 1998, as it was becoming as much a monument for the siege of Vukovar as the Eiffel Tower is a memorial to progress for tourists to pose before in Paris. There are many photographs of the Vukovar Water Tower on the Internet, but Vinko is not a tourist.
Peirce says that a bullet hole in a wall is the sign of a shot even when no one interprets it as such. It is an existential sign, an index. To read the index is to notice the reference, and for me Meyer’s photographs are an indexical art, an experience of the truthfulness of reference produced by its referents (an index, after all, cannot lie although it can be misinterpreted; it means what it means although I can mistake the referent that produced it). If I read these three photographs in chronological sequence, I notice how Meyer has collaborated with his subjects to photograph their poses, how the poses also index as they offer intensifying reference. In this context, the third photograph reads from the point of view that the collaborations in the first two portraits established. If in them I see two men seeing, the Kosovo photograph offers me something to see. Together these photographs frame the Balkan conflict, the siege of Vukovar from near its beginning, the scene in Kosovo from the end (though of course it is not the end). How do I see and what do I see? Emmanuel Levinas says that the face of a stranger always questions my ethical “responsibility for others” and “for that which I did not do” and a “distress which is not mine”. Quietly – with a meditative calm like a recollection in tranquillity – Meyer’s photographs present an ethical imperative. As Barthes knew, the durations of transmission between then and now, between the moments the camera records to the moments its transmission arrives, are hardly insignificant when responsibility is in question. The referent produces a reference that becomes legible only later – like duration between the moment when the gun was fired and the moment I recognize the evidence of the shot. In my experience of Meyer’s art, this duration is also what is photographed, and for me there is an eloquence in the difficulty it entails. It is overdetermined: I sense a distance in time between now and then even as that distance feels erased. These experiences seem incommensurate, an anxiety. The proximity makes me feel responsible. The distance leaves me feeling helpless. Meyer’s photographs offer an ethical art that poses this difficult rightness. In the aftermath of conflict – in the necessary silence of a photograph – they listen for a human sound.