The Decision to Shoot

Daido Moriyama

For some years now, I’ve been thinking about the potential of photography. What is it capable of? Of course, this question is inextricably linked to a more fundamental question: what is human existence itself? To seek an easy answer to either of these questions is to enter a boundless, unknowable labyrinth.

Furthermore, knowing the horror of the connection between our forcibly resigned, befuddled selves and the oppressive cruelty of world events, unfolding inexorably before our eyes into an indeterminate future, we becomes lost in the powerlessness of the self. Having said this, to propose that photography is capable of nothing (as if to say one must die if one cannot find a reason for living) compounds the cruelty, just as the Subject suffers the ravages of time.

Until a few years ago, I was able to stave off an awareness that there is not an ounce of beauty in the world, and that humanity is a thing of extreme hideousness. So I could shoot and believe in something. But there came a point where rationalization and belief became impossible – a sensibility that continued until quite recently.

This lasted for more than ten years, during which time – with camera in hand – I passed intuitively and corporeally through an intricate weave of dramas, with countless individuals in various spheres, to find myself possessed, at one point, by thought, as though my very body had been wrapped in that woven tapestry. in other words, I came to focus solely on the darkest, coldest regions at the heart of human existence. I was tortured by an incomprehensible feeling of unease, an indescribable sense of powerlessness. Until recently, I have been plagued by the feeling that I was missing something entirely. It’s only now that I’ve finally come to feel myself of being steadily released from such plagues.

For almost two years, outside of a few very rare assignments, I almost never carried a camera – but lately I’ve begun to put my heart back into the effort. I now take my camera with me every day, and have started again to make photographs incessantly. Just as I used to do, I now photograph everything, as if possessed, but disliking photographs as static, strictly decorative visual art pieces, and being distrustful of the fanatical emphasis on realism in photojournalism, I am now striving to go beyond established styles and widen the boundaries of photographic expression. Unlike in the past, however, when my zeal was informed by rote repetition, an almost overbearingly methodical approach, my photographs now contain a certaindecisiveness. Of course, the word “decisive” may sound overbearing in itself, but it’s actually an extremely simple concept. It just means that I have no choice but to photograph within the context of this life, rather than searching for a hidden ideal beyond it.

No matter how bleak the times – or the situation in which I find myself – may seem, no matter how ugly the relationships of human society may be, I must not allow myself to be marginalized by them, or all will be lost. There is no way that a single person can have a truly comprehensive view of the world, but it is possible for him to conceive of an outline of its totality. It is therefore from the gap between his perceptions of cruel reality and his weltanschauung – in other words, from the interplay between the extremes of the real and the ideal, as they are juxtaposed in his shutter – that meaning arises.

It is without question precisely in this juxtaposition that one can find the potential relevance of photography to history, culture, and politics most closely approaching the realm of probability. One may never be able to discover anything so enigmatic as “the truth” in a photograph, but if one were to settle for something close to it, it may be that it consists of neither an absolute affirmation nor an absolute denial of anything, but something between the two. For example, if one were to photograph a single tree as an absolute instance of a tree, and at the same time doubt the established concept of “tree-ness” itself, and see it as a physical entity that is something other than a tree, then one would begin to realize the necessity of having multiple vantage points.

I recently saw a multi-page photo spread titled “The Bangladesh Atrocities” in a certain weekly men’s magazine. The spread, shot by two Associated Press cameramen,* had won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for journalism. True to its title, the piece depicted with a realism that verged on cruelty the massacre of suspected collaborators by their Bengali compatriots that occured throughout Dacca after the Pakistani army initiated its withdrawal from the capital in December 1971. The extent to which those photograhps portrayed human suffering was shocking. But I was only somewhat emotionally moved by them. I tried to form a mental picture of how the rays of sunlight must have looked on that day, the sounds that might have occured at this scene, and even the final sights that those dead people’s eyes might ahve looked upon. It was all certainly gruesome, but there was nothing for me beyond those imaginings. Naturally, I thought to myself: “Why is this?” Why do Robert Capa’s photographs of war, or WIlliam Klein’s candid street scenes feel so real that they weigh upon me even to this day, yet these other, utterly shocking photographs don’t take me anywhere beyond the scenes they depict?

Perhaps it’s this: perhaps the cameramen lost themselves in the Bangladesh photographs and became an intrinsic part of the recording device, so that they only effect that the photographs could have was as illustrations of the misery of war. Photographs such as those by Capa and Klein, on the other hand, contain the living pulse of the human being behind the camera. The former is nothing more than a journalistic photograph of an atrocity, while the latter is a framed portion of the world that bears a poignant relationship to the world as a whole.

I have two favorite passages by Albert Camus, to the effect of: “Even if you could trace the course of the entire world with your finger, you wouldn’t understand the world any better, ” and “The graceful green hill, that hand thrust toward my uneasy heart, have more to teach me about this world than anything else.” I want to perceive the world from this vantage point, and I ask to do it with camera in hand. If, in the actuality of the world that engulfs me, and occasionally even in its reverie- if, in the very midst of its most ordinary, mundane scenes “love,” say, or “fate” lies dormant underneath the surface, and if those noumenaare at some point connected to the world at large, then there is nothing left for me to do but continue releasing the shutter.

*The journalists were Horst Faas and Michel Laurent.

Moriyama,Daido. Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers.Akihiro Hatanaka. New York, NY: Aperture, 2005.
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~ by crossmd on April 14, 2010.

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