FACE TO FACE
by Milanka Todic
We look before we speak; we see and then hear. These are the principles according to which we grow up, behave and function as individualities in a culture of massive media images. As the first medium of the technical reproduction of images, especially in the era of mobile phones and small but powerful digital cameras, photography offers everyone a chance to visualize their view of the world through a medium and tear it out of temporal and spatial continuity. All these images are so conspicuous and assertive that no one wonders anymore if they understand them or if they know how to interpret them correctly. Not so long ago, when he returned from his trip to Africa, Rastko Petrovic warned that a photograph is a constructed and culturally coded image and that the black man, unaccustomed to decoding visual signs, could not even recognize his own son in a photograph.
In the mass industry of media images and a world which cannot be ruled by territorial conquest anymore but by the adoption of the field of perception, as Paul Virilio says, the most difficult thing is to find one’s own, creative, point of view from which one can perceive and then photograph that world. For Jelena Juresa and her research project entitled What It Feels Like for a Girl, the decisive moment was a chance encounter in a Paris metro in 2005. If each one of us is at the same time the object and the subject, the observer and the observed, the photographed, the question can be raised of what it feels like to be a photographer. What It Feels Like for a Photographer could be the subtitle of this essay.
Documentary photography, as well as all traditional genre classifications known in media history, have been called into question in the last few decades, not only due to the advent of the digital camera and computer programmes for generating images. At the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that reportages could only be made about the shocking destruction of war, or for commercial and advertising campaigns. Only a few authors, and Jelena Juresa is certainly among them, have chosen the photographic image as a framework for their serious research on the self-perception of women in the cultural context of a transitional society.
In the studious, intertextual and intersubjective feat What It Feels Like for a Girl, Jelena Juresa used the photographic image in a radically new way, without yielding to either journalistic sensationalism or artistic perfection. Her decision not to change the initial technical and technological position during years of work on the chosen subject, and to stick to the primitive Holga camera, even after getting out of the Parisian metro which was ‘’shaking like mad,’’ represents only one of the moments which adequately illustrate her determination in carrying out the authorial idea. If, at the moment she got permission to photograph a stranger with a dog in the Parisian metro, the author was in imperfect conditions, and all conditions outside the comfort of a photographic studio are seen as such, she has kept this deficiency as a specific quality in all her subsequent photo sessions with other women. What seemed like a technological flaw carried within it qualitatively significant advantages which, after all, marked the entire project. Namely, the technical imperfection of the camera, manifest in the insufficient sharpness as well as blurred corners, provides a number of challenges, among which one should emphasize the spontaneity and immediacy of communication with the chosen models. The leisurely and relaxed way in which the women look into the camera behind which there is yet another woman, not a man, represents something entirely different from the artificial and pretentious assertiveness advocated by commercial photography.
It has been shown that, today as well as during the first decades of photography, the act of photographing, when devoid of big spotlights and long hours of posing and artificial smiles, can re-establish the ruined aura, the absence of which Walter Benjamin associated with the industrial technology of photography production. When it is almost ‘’painless’’ and reminiscent of a simple exchange of glances in the presence of a camera, as the portraits of Jelena Juresa show, taking photographs can establish not only the physical aura for which the specific type of camera is responsible, as was the case in the past after all, but also the metaphysical one.
Communication and intersubjectivity, that is, a modest exchange of energy between the model and the artist is very difficult to transfer to any medium of representation. Good portraitists are, thus, talked about with special reverence. Jelena Juresa consciously eliminated from the focus anything that would turn one’s attention away from the portrayed model, reducing representation solely to women belonging to different age, social and cultural settings. There are no exalted postures or chosen representative sceneries as the focus is on the position of the female subject in today’s world. In a way, all those different women can be synthesized into a possible status of every woman today. For that reason, all the girls/women in the project What It Feels Like for a Girl have been given the same frame, that is, have been cut or torn out of concrete reality. In the ascetic and disciplined take of Jelena Juresa the accent is shifted from the ‘’flattering’’ interest in the female face to the fragmented body, which significantly distinguishes this approach from most other strategies known in contemporary photography.
Conservative and professional photographers almost invariably place the perfection of the craft in the foreground and then the value of the photograph as goods, instead of the model’s individuality. They do not search for experiments so determinedly and are not interested in explorations in the visual and media fields in the way an artistic photographer is. Professionals submit to the perfection of the chosen technical tools, often in place of a personalized dialogue with the model and personal imagination. Unlike them, Jelena Juresa, like Paula Miklosevic Muhr, Lise Sarfati and many other contemporary authors, neglects the technical aspects in favour of the ritual and communicational qualities of photography. The series of twenty portraits taken by Jelena Juresa was based on these principles. The media or the photographic attention shifts from the ‘’beauties’’ and ‘’famous heroines’’ towards the margins, or to put it more precisely, towards real women who live self-consciously. Instead of the stereotypical ‘’cover girl,’’ the focus is on a personalized portrait of a woman.
As documentary photography is being questioned, it is difficult to determine its aims now, if even the most fundamental principle of every photograph – this happened – is called into question due to the software for producing photographs. By opting for the so-called pure photography, Jelena Juresa decided to develop her photographic practice according to the guidelines of the avant-garde. ‘’Use photography as a weapon!’’ advised John Heartfield in 1929.
Nowadays, giving up the false and pretentious aesthetics of the Pink TV culture, which reaches well beyond the advertising pages of magazines and paid time on TV, in favour of simple shots featuring portraits of anonymous middle-class women is equal to a revolutionary turn. If social identity is constituted through our appearance, as agents paid to project one’s image claim, it is clear at first sight that the book and the exhibition of Jelena Juresa are about girls from the neighbourhood and the women we meet every day, instead of famous and well-known people. Their appearance, or more precisely, their photographs do not show happiness, wealth or power. They are not a confirmation of successfully performed surgical interventions on the body, either, but a visual testimony of female individuality here and now. They are photographic images of Nada, Aleksandra, Milena, Biljana, Vlatka, Jelena, twenty of them altogether who declare themselves as individualities as well as synthetic types of a transitional culture.
Since the photographic portrait, just like any photograph, is a pure coincidence, bearing in mind that each portrait synthesizes more than an instant look is of key importance, as well. Therefore, although photographing with the Holga is miles away from traumatic posing in a studio, it is not devoid of the tension so accurately described by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: ‘’Beyond doubt, metaphorically speaking, my survival depends on the photographer. This dependence, however, is not purely imaginary; I noticed it in a feeling of apprehension of vague origins: a photograph – a photograph of me – is going to become now: will it deliver me as an unpleasant person or a handsome guy?’’ What someone will look like in a photo is always very uncertain, for both the portrayed person and the photographer. The certainty is intensified by the realization that, once put in a frame and frozen, the photograph exists independently and for much longer than the physical existence of the person portrayed, which is why it is necessary to articulate the visual message of the photograph well.
In essence, while observing pictures, first of all photographs, mediated by the medium, a mental image is created of the portrayed person’s social status. Even though the photographs of Jelena Juresa show only a fragmentary image and merely an ephemeral aspect of each portrayed person, we tend to accept the coincidence as definitive. However, every body is marked by history and the particularities of its existence, of which the photograph says nothing. Hence Susan Sontag’s accurate remark that the caption is the photograph’s missing voice. The caption, even the scantiest one, will anchor the meaning of the photograph in a certain social or cultural narrative and provide it with spatial and temporal coordinates. Finally, the series of female portraits in the project of Jelena Juresa can be understood and interpreted only when the text and image simultaneously overlap. At the moment when the visual message is supported by the textual one, the process of reading and interpreting can begin, or even better, the decoding of the pictogram – the photographic image.
The need to discuss photographs and to find an additional explanation for each one is exciting precisely because many photographs tell us nothing and they do it perfectly well. Thousands of photographs pass entirely unnoticed before our eyes every day when we only flick through newspapers and search the Internet pages. Seen outside the context and text, the photographic image treasures the merely accidental likeness to the portrayed person or the depicted event. The photographic portrait, as well as all other visual signs, does not necessarily refer to the essence of human existence. Therefore, it is important to point out that in the project What It Feels Like for a Girl by Jelena Juresa photography is chosen as the visual medium of research, not only of representation, of the position of the female subject in contemporary culture.
The strategy of this research required functional multimediality in order for the chosen topic to be logically viewed from different angles. The complex dialogue between image and word, or more precisely, the visual-textual-audio narrative was the cornerstone for work on this project. Jelena Juresa successfully created the projected intertextuality and multimediality. Each one of the three media and levels of meaning mentioned – photograph, language, voice – manifests different procedures of inscribing and branding the female body in the project What It Feels Like for a Girl.
If discussing personal destinies is a taboo, especially in a society of spectacle and consumerism which aggressively emphasizes scenarios of pleasure and happiness via the powerful entertainment industry, then Jelena Juresa has taken a radical turn in the public representation of intimate contents and used photography as a weapon. In the articulation of this series of portraits, she gave up on the established iconography and typology of ‘’sweet’’ femininity which would be based on the allusive messages of various attributes such as mirrors, lace, flowers, etc. She also ignored the well-known repertoire of the stereotypical representations of femininity, ranging from sentimental helplessness to seductive glamour. Shocking feminist strategies also proved unnecessary for the formulation of her authentic attitude by which she readily shared the authorial position with all the other personalized narratives – female stories which can be read, as well as heard.
If Jelena Juresa is behind the entire project, not only behind the photographic portraits, then the other twenty authors are behind its textual animation. The function of each woman in the work What It Feels Like for a Girl was two?fold – from the position of the subject and that of the object. The women, the models as objects of the photographs, were denied agency in the visual aspect, but they got it back in the narrative and audio aspects. As the objects of the photographs, the women did not lose their voices in the other, media, lives. Thanks to the audio aspect of the work, they all avoided the fate of the beautiful mermaid who willingly gives up her voice for the life of an ordinary woman, though with a prince. On the contrary, all the women portrayed are active participants in the art project and their personal stories shape the textual and audio aspects of Jelena’s multimedia work. On the whole, all the work on shaping the project can be interpreted as what Foucault called the ‘’techniques of personal self-production.’’
The individual stories, as well as the individual photographs/portraits, were carefully sought for and even more carefully articulated as the functional elements of the new structure of meaning, the hypertext. Discussing the complex relations between the image, text and speech, that is, the photograph, language and voice, would be too demanding now, but it is enough to point out the fact that meanings constantly flow from one system of representation to another in this three-layered media structure. The outside the photograph focuses on becomes the inside as one goes through the rhetoric of the printed text in What It Feels Like for a Girl. For the second time, after encountering the story narrated in the first person, in the book the observer is face to face with the image which is again questioned and constituted in relation to the caption, the verbal message read. This play of image and text is completed by speech. The sound of the voice does and does not depend on the other two systems: the visual and the textual. The recorded voice essentially erases the borders between these two heterogeneous media with its assertive existence in the present. Namely, the audio always refers to the present while the photograph and printed text belong to the past. “Live” speech figures, therefore, as the third system of representation and meaning in the complex project of What It Feels Like for a Girl, providing the dialectical relation between image and text with its final synthesis.
The outside, at least the one the photographic portrait reveals, is and is not the inside of the intimate story. There is also the voice, asserting itself as an actual presence, as the present shared by the narrator and the observer/listener. Image, text and speech are bound together like the pages of a book in the innovative multimedia project by Jelena Juresa. The project’s multimediality requires the polysemy of interpretation, but the interpretation must at all times remain open for new “noises” or new meanings.
Speaking in the spirit of Derrida’s theory of logocentrism, speech can be understood as presence. The speaker whose voice is heard has to be present for the listener in some way. The written text accompanying the photographic portraits is a substitute for the absent writer or narrator. In the end, the simultaneous presence of speech successfully establishes communication along the lines reader/listener or the present/the past. The observer, and it all began with a look through the camera, laid the foundations of this multimedia pyramid in which the contours of the metaphysics of presence are reflected.
The enigma of the visual particularly refers to the female exterior, whose body, according to some theories, can itself be seen as a text. The metaphor, developed by Jelena Juresa, of writing and inscribing cultural layers on the body also resembles Derrida’s re-created body. The processes of inscribing on and copying the body do not include only aesthetic and surgical interventions, diets, exhausting trainings and body-building, but also all those, more or less voluntary, actions of up-bringing, education, and then taking photographs, talking and listening. The body, especially the female body, is the constant object of observation and re-tailoring. In the era of images mediated by the medium, the very act of observation can be labelled as a sign of intolerance, and can even be understood as a form of sexual harassment by looking. The metaphor of the textualised body, as Jelena Juresa articulates it in the project What It Feels Like for a Girl, is ready to take on and transform the most diverse messages and meanings. Creating a palimpsest of the female body, or as Elizabeth Grosz says: “a historical chronicle of prior and later traces, some of which have been effaced, others of which have been emphasized,’’ Jelena Juresa created a work in which the juxtaposition of image, text and speech remains open for a critical insight into the mass media representation of the female body. The question of marginality cannot be raised if the whole project of Jelena Juresa is related to the well-known and impertinent feminist slogan “the personal is the political.” The traditional exclusion and suppression of what is personal from the sphere of the public, dominated by the media, is radically reversed by her daring representation and affirmation of female individuality.