“Jaco, Beaufort West Prison, 2006.” from Beaufort West, Mikhael Subotzky, p. 72.
Mikhael Subotzky’s Beaufort West is a book about a town built around a prison. Literally — the prison is located in a traffic circle in the middle of the town. Subotzky states, “The image of the town radiating out of the prison was what really drew me to work there.” (p. 78) This is illustrated with the aerial photo that opens the book, which shows how the town’s streets do indeed appear to radiate outward from the circular grounds of the prison.
But while the town of Beaufort West radiates out of the prison, this aerial view is not the central one in the book, Beaufort West. The photograph out of which the book could be said to radiate is the one I’ve included at the top of this post. Subotzky describes this image as follows:
This is Jaco sleeping in the exercise yard of the prison. It was Jaco who painted the massive mural there, with the help of the other prisoners. And it was their idea — this idyllic image of the landscape outside the prison, painted on its inner walls. It is very much a Karoo landscape, a Beaufort West landscape, un-peopled but with animals and beautiful trees and hills. The prison has now had it painted over as part of their recent renovations. (p. 79)
It would be easy for me to brush past this photograph. Growing up in the Bay Area, one tends to become quite desensitized to murals. At this point, I’m more likely to have an emotional or intellectual response to a blank wall than to one that has something painted on it.
But there’s a passage in the included essay by Jonny Steinberg that caused me to go back and re-examine this photograph, and to a lesser extent the whole rest of the book. Steinberg writes:
It is not just that the Karoo landscape in [Subotzky’s] pictures is inhabited. It is that the landscape is so patently a backdrop to the imaginings of the people in the photographs. They are using it: to transport themselves, to elevate themselves, to re-describe themselves. In picturing them Subotzky does more than simply stitch the desert and the people back together. He takes us on a sometimes disquieting adventure, asking us to imagine how the desert is imagined by those who live there.
Almost every photograph carries a suggestion of theatre, and almost every theatre uses the desert as it stage. The boy on the rubbish heap who has donned the Spider-Man mask he found in the trash; the children launching the white sheet into the wind; the screaming man and the princess on their manicured horses; the white girl with the competition tag and high heels on the black-floored stage, posing for an audience off-camera; the snake and the elephant staring so very sweetly at the ill man on the bed; the prisoner lying beneath a massive mural of cacti and sand and stone, like a giant bubble representing the inside of his mind. (p. 75)
Steinberg applies this interpretation of Subotzky’s photographs more liberally than I would. I do not see the desert on the beauty pageant’s black stage, for example, and many of the photographs seem to me to be conspicuously devoid of imagination, almost as though there were an imagination shortage. Or as though imagination were a luxury good which not all could afford. But the reading does apply very well to the photograph of Jaco, which records a creative act that imposes an imagined (but not hypothetical) transparency upon the opaque walls of the prison. The photograph also invites the viewer to participate in the imagining, which is an essential aspect that I more or less missed on my first viewing.
Whether or not I agree precisely with Steinberg’s explanation of the place/function of imagination in Beaufort West, I think he is right about the centrality of it, and this is something that distinguishes the best of Subotzky’s photographs in Beaufort West from a lot of good but unremarkable documentary photography: they document a place both as it is and as it is imagined.
When this clicked for me, my mind immediately leapt to two books that are (superficially) unrelated both to each other and to Beaufort West, but which are relevant to this question of imagining a place. The first is the graphic novel Scalped by Jason Aaron and RM Guera; the second is Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie.
For those who are not familiar, Scalped is a series of mostly crime noir stories set on a South Dakota reservation. Part of what makes Scalped so powerful — in contrast to more literal depictions of Native American life — is the fact that it is a work of imagination. It deals in dream and memory, and both the prose and art are dramatic and stylized. And some of the images in it have a strength and power and emotional penetration to them that real depictions of struggle and suffering often do not.
The imagined landscape both creates a counterpoint to the realities depicted in it and establishes a precondition or basis for fully confronting them. Getting past the mere facts which we already assume and take for granted to get to the reality of another person’s human suffering does, after all, involve an act of the imagination. (As Frantz Fanon put it, one must try “to feel himself into the despair of another person.” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 86))
Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie is somewhat harder to explain. Let’s just say that it has to do with the nature of knowledge and experience, and with daydreams, and that it is very French. Here is the bit that struck me as relevant:
Upon being faced with a real world, one can discover in himself the being of worry. Then he is thrown into the world, delivered over to the inhumanity and the negativeness of the world, and the world is then the denial of the human. The demands of our reality function require that we adapt to reality and that we manufacture works which are realities. But doesn’t reverie, by its very essence, liberate us from the reality function? From the moment it is considered in all its simplicity, it is perfectly evident that reverie bears witness to a normal, useful irreality function which keeps the human psyche on the fringe of all the brutality of a hostile and foreign non-self.
There are times in the life of a poet when reverie assimilates even the real. Then, what he perceives is assimilated. The real world is absorbed by the imaginary world. Shelley gives us a veritable phenomenological theorem when he says that imagination is capable of “making us create what we see.” (p. 13)
It is easy to see the prisoners’ mural at Beaufort West as an expression and a depiction of reverie (in Bachelard’s sense). It is a dreamy-looking work that appears to us, as Steinberg points out, as though it were a thought bubble floating over the head of the sleeping Jaco. And I think it is not at all difficult to see the way Jaco’s mural or Samuel’s Spider-Man mask can reflect what Bachelard calls the irreality function, in relation to what other photographs in the book show to be a brutal and hostile reality.*
* I am being somewhat free with Bachelard. The quoted passage is about understanding the inside of an experience; using it to classify recorded objects is something of a leap.
But as I mentioned earlier, I am not sure that this imaginative reading of Subotzky’s work stretches as far as Steinberg thinks it does. The imaginative quality is not pervasive or consistent in the book; it characterizes some images strongly, but others weakly or not at all.
I am also not sure about the nature of the imagining itself. To what extent is Steinberg correct in describing it as the subjects’ self-imagining, and to what extent are the subjects serving as fodder for the photographer’s imagination, or the viewer’s? Some of the photographs seem to be less about the subjects dreaming themselves into their own landscape and more about the photographer discovering a surreal playground of imagery, and reveling in the enigmatic drama of it. These photographs — such as the shop with the mannequins, or the museum’s operating room display — seem more self-indulgent and less revelatory, for all that they are striking and compelling images. They are good photographs, but it is possible that they diminish Beaufort West as a book. At the least, I think they place an asterisk on Steinberg’s reading of Subotzky’s work.
Also, my thoughts about the book keep returning to something I mentioned earlier: the idea of imagination as a scarce resource inequitably distributed. Who gets to imagine, on what terms, in what media? Who controls the means of expressing and recording imagination? More to the point, when we try to answer those questions, to what extent do we end up taking the measure of things in the town of Beaufort West, and to what extent do we just take the measure of Subotzky’s work in the book, Beaufort West?
There is a related — or at least, I think it is related — issue of the enigmatic. It seems to me that some people in Beaufort West are permitted to be more enigmatic than others, to have more privacy, to be more unrevealed. This has partly to do with real conditions — people who live in houses always have more privacy than those who live in prisons — but it also has to do with how the photographer pursues his project. We see in great detail — perhaps even to the point of exploitation or voyeurism — the private lives of some people, while with others we see only the public surface. This does not seem to break down along the lines of who is interesting and who is not interesting, but more along lines of class and race.
This is not to say that it is racist for the book to contain too little documentation of white people, of course — but there is something about the relationship between how different segments of the community are represented which I think warrants some further scrutiny. At a minimum, the question of which folks’ private lives can be left as an exercise to the reader, and which require extensive (even intrusive) scrutiny, gives an indication of the perspective which the book assumes for the viewer — a perspective which I think is not without problems if we try to read the book in the way Steinberg suggests.
In closing, I should point out a couple of meta-concerns you should have about these concerns I have about Beaufort West: First, I am strongly influenced by Steinberg’s essay, but I am not sure how fair it is to take that interpretation as the primary one in approaching Subotzky’s photographs. Second, this book is about a town I know nothing about, in a nation I know nothing about, on a continent I know nothing about. Some of the relevant issues are universal, or at least transcend geography — but many are specific, I’m sure, and not all of those specifics can be worked out contextually. You should bear this in mind when evaluating what I’ve written about Beaufort West, and I’d love to hear from anyone who does have more knowledge about this part of the world, and anyone who has a different read on Subotzky’s photographs.