by Christian Caujolle
After each photograph, there is a silence. Another kind of time is established, whose nature we are not familiar with, which seems to tip the moment into eternity, which may give us the illusion of being a subtraction of the infinitesimal from the flow that goes by. A time which tells us that there had been a before and that we are in the after. That the before has definitively disappeared. That we will no longer have access to it. That the image will remain. Only the image.
Here we are in the afterwards. In the immediate afterwards, there was commotion, chaos. It is there in the images taken from a helicopter which followed the irrevocable progression of the black wave sweeping away everything in its passage, crushing, mixing, tossing vehicles against walls which caved in under the shock and transporting huge ships, as though they were weightless, to the tops of trees. These images are now archival. Perhaps they will come to life again one day when they become documents for History. Later, after the afterwards.
In an less immediate afterwards than the one reported in the media coverage of the disaster, a French photographer, Denis Rouvre, travelled twice to the Tohoku region, where the tsunami had laid waste to six hundred kilometres of coastline and where the inhabitants had lost everything. He came to see. Merely to see. To photograph what he saw. Without a particular task or precise aim in mind, just to have the feeling, for want of comprehending, of knowing a little more. Two series arose from this: landscapes and portraits, in square format and in colour. These journeys also gave birth to a photographic viewpoint, one without affectation or display, with none of those vain attempts to prove anything in particular. There exists a situation, one among many, of thousands of displaced people, rehoused in prefabricated homes. To face the situation head on, to show it, make it known.
Although at the beginning no precise project existed, the result is two projects which form two parts of a whole. Close-up portraits, always against a black background – like the negative of these so-called identity portraits which the government requires to be taken against a white background – from which faces stand out, faces with strong features, often of elderly people, steady in front of the lens, without any expression we could name. Merely stating that they are there, they have courageously accepted to pose for this stranger while not even really knowing what he will do with their image. In echo, the vast, frontal landscapes which breathe, and in which the foreground occupies an essential part. We must push our gaze into the distance, searching for signs, which are there in the precision of the framing. Is it really there, there where the traces are yet to be made out that the terrible spectacle, constantly repeated in a loop on television screens, took place? We are truly in the afterwards.
In their frontality, in their unity of subtle colour and without stridency, these two series of images are closely linked. We could almost talk about landscape portraits when so many of these wrinkled faces evoke soil and the labouring of it. Here, it is a question of the work carried out by time, the effect of the shock as well, perhaps – the way mankind transforms the environment. The calm and equilibrium favoured by the square makes the tension more palpable, this tension that is never explicit, which baths these two sets that, although restrained, are more sensory than psychological. The artistic exercise is still documentary, even though Rouvre’s approach rejects narration just as it does description and finds the right balance between showing and feeling, experiencing and allowing to be seen.
Everyone who has been to Tchernobyl, even recently, speaks about the silence they found there. It is the immediate experience of the after-disaster and to convey it, one must stay like this, on the razor’s edge, between two series, by observing two distances, without ever forcing anything, by agreeing to receive. We think of Akira Yoshimura’s words in Le Convoi de l’eau* and One Man’s Justice. Or of the words of those who stood up to talk about the after-Hiroshima. Now we are in the after-tsunami and Fukushima, the greatest ecological and human tragedy experienced by Japan since World War II, and of images that whisper the drama. Afterwards, in the silence, pain endures.
*Translator’s note: Yet to be translated into English.