DAKAR: a photo-essay by Helmut Tezak

Amnesty International has warned us earlier this week that populist politicians are busy creating a hostile climate for refugees and migrants. “Toxic political agendas are dehumanizing and scapegoating entire groups of people.” Of course, most politicians still pay attention not to cross any red line of overt racism or hate speech but their underlying messages (even from those in government positions) are easily decoded as well: ” Migrants (especially Muslims and Africans) have different norms which they have to throw away if they want to become ‘one of us’. There are too many migrants around anyway. And we will shoot from the hip at those who tell you something else.”

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© Helmut Tezak

With their persistent tweets and declarations they are all the time trying to infuse our mindset and to drive a wedge between “us” and “them”.

In the light of all this, I have taken an older photobook from the shelves that is investigating how “our” perceptions of “them” are built and how we live by our anticipations. It’s one of these rare pearls that would have been forgotten by the wheels of time, were it not saved from the yellow bag by one of my favourite antiquarian booksellers in town.

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© Helmut Tezak

DAKAR by Mr. Helmut Tezak (born in 1948) was published in 1983 with Camera Austria and has the ambition to shed a light “on the ordinary day-to-day life of the inhabitants of an African city.”  And, good to know, the African city, does not refer here solely to the Senegalese capital or to some remote spots on the African countryside. It also refers to the African quarters of Paris and Brussels. It refers to all the different realities that build the contemporary African city!

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© Helmut Tezak

Mr Tezak has dedicated DAKAR to the Senegalese ethnologist and film director, Mrs Safi Faye who is still admired today for her poetic and realistic reports from Africa in the 70’ies and 80’ies. This dedication sets the tone. We don’t have to look for evidence of an aestheticizing or idiosyncratic style. The work is old-school humanist (street)photography.

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© Helmut Tezak

Following the photographer’s footsteps we can have a rest from the heath in a dusty village, we can have a funny chat with a class of children under a tree or we can connect to the energy in metropolitan Belleville (Paris). But we can also take a breath and a pensive look at the Atlantic Ocean. The images are gritty and the realities they depict are tough.

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© Helmut Tezak

But, through the eyes of Mr. Tezak life is never miserable. It is as if the photographer is trying to show that comfort can be provided as well by the warm and natural contact people maintain with each other.  It’s very much about maintaining the humanist standards and not accepting the spiteful, negative and divisive ones of populists or hidden populists! Mr. Tezak’s final words to the book, where he is looking back on the intense two years period that he needed to produce it, are a reminder: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s fucking great to be alive!

Mr. Tezak’s photographs are unmistakably also meant to illustrate well-defined and highly theoretical reflections. He describes his book as a “photo-essay about masks, roles, behaviour and anticipation“. There is an “explanatory afterword” where he is presenting the reader with a number of concepts from domains like semiotics, sociology and culture studies. Roland Barthes’ famous texts on contemporary mythologies are mentioned (among other authors), implying that the book is meant to reflect on the myths that we – white Westerners- are imposing through the channels of publicity, television and press on the inhabitants of the African city.

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© Helmut Tezak

And on page 26, in the middle of the sequence of images, we find the following quote by Paul Parin: “The attribution of roles to others is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, instrument by which relationships in society are operating; by which relationships are maintained or changed; by which people are manipulated.”

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© Helmut Tezak

Throughout the book we also find a story line with enigmatic interactions between parents and their children. It takes the scope on a higher level. DAKAR is also a reflection about interactions between the strong and the weak. It’s about learning to listen to the messages of the weak as well.

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© Helmut Tezak

And then there is this spread with Accatone and Antigone. Is Mr Tezak suggesting that one has to be born with the genes of these two gorgeous European rebels in order to really resist the agendas of the strong and powerful? In order to engage in a genuine and regular interaction with the weak ones (including the new migrants who came to live around the corner)?

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© Helmut Tezak

The other day, I found a curious quote tagged on a P.O. Box in my street “the ruling norms are too narrow to imagine our realities“.  And when I am looking now at the photographs Tezak has made in Brussels, I remember again, why I adore this place which the US President elegantly described as a hell hole. There are so many different realities. It’s still so unpolished. The ruling norms are questioned all the time. The city is a constant invitation to defy the political agenda! I am not Accatone but I am happy to have read this book. And, it’s f*cking great to be alive!

Thank you very much for your photo-essay, Mr. Tezak!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yu & Me: A photobook love-letter by Bojan Radovic

Imagine that you are a young man and you are living for photography. You are travelling for years across your home country to enjoy the sensations of being free and of meeting all the time new folks. You are developing a project. In every place you are passing through, you want to document those daily life situations that define your culture and that naturally also define parts of your self.

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© Bojan Radovič

And then what follows is the total collapse of your country, the desintegration of a society in which (for that matter) ethnic and religious diversity were provided for by the constitution. All of a sudden newspapers report about ethnic cleansing, there is civil war! Your freedom to roam up and down, to meet and to greet has come to an end. Madness and violence have made some regions and cities inaccessible. The project is stopped, unfinished and it is never properly presented or shown. You have to get on with your life.

This is what happened to Slovenian photographer Bojan Radovič who was born in 1960 and raised  in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. During the eighties – in his twenties – he had founded a photography gallery in Novo Mesto and he was very much occupied with curating exhibitions and organizing symposiums. And, yes, he was also working on his “Images from Yugoslavia”.

 

We are more than fifteen years after the eventual break up of Yugoslavia and after the introduction of a free-market economy in the newly formed countries. I guess it must have a been weird exercise for the photographer to re-examine through a contemporary prism all the persons, buildings, roads and landscapes he had observed back then through the lens of his camera. And yet, that is what Bojan has done with the self-publication in 2014 of his book YU & ME!

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© Bojan Radovič

Today, it is known that Yugoslavia was already slowly declining during the eighties. Even when the country enjoyed some independency from the Soviets, its leadership was authoritarian and many Yugoslavians were familiar with feelings of fear and distrust towards each other. There were growing frustrations about the empty shelves and omnipotent bureaucrats. Reportedly, the Yugoslavians were also more and more suffering from unhealed wounds caused by internal conflicts during WWII.  Old country curses from childhood were weighing on everybody.

It is maybe a bit tricky to try to look for these elements in Bojan’s book which he calls a re-collection of his initial work. Can the book be read as a premonition that very soon robbers, killers, snipers, rapists, looters, thugs, radicals and weapon dealers would take control over the order of the day? We see types who turn away from the lens or who keep their eyes closed. For who? For what? Do they know something already? Is there already something going on that is not quiet right?

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© Bojan Radovič

Fact is that, throughout the book, which is an abundant inventory of the SFRY, we mostly have to guess what is going on. There are no verbal references provided.  We see mostly only parts of wholes that remain out of scope. The broader scenes are never disclosed.  With his exercise Bojan Radovič has proved to be an absolute master in setting up a grand and enchanting photographic riddle. I am totally absorbed by it.

But there is much more what is attracting me. We also see many faces that have a healthy, radiant look.  The book does not show a neurotic desire for a lavish, western, consumerist lifestyle that would have been in the air.  We see cups of tea and cigarettes that will be shared. A couch can anytime be turned into a bed for the unexpected guest. The emphasis lies on the ancient Balkan codes of hospitality and deep friendship.

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© Bojan Radovič

In spite of the old curses and the unhealed wounds, the young photographer clearly kept on looking at the bright side of life.  As if he wants us to know that the common people of his country have always remained happy to speak doberdanski, the combined esperantolanguage of Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, Albanians, Slovenians and Croats. As if he wants to show that his folks had nothing to do with the icy intolerance propagated by their politicians. As if he wants to tell us now that the imminent war with its discipline and lethal technology was the plan of a diabolical organization that operated high above the men and women he met on the street.

And Bojan had good reasons to share with us the sunny side of life. He writes: “In my life that decade was important in many ways, I got graduated, I got my first job, I married with Ksenia and we got our first child David.”

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© Bojan Radovič

And there we have her already on the first page, the beautiful Ksenia. We will see her many more times posing for Bojan. We can follow her during her pregnancy and it seems that she has often accompanied Bojan on his unnumerable excursions to the remotest parts of their country, visiting friends and family members.

Thus, YU & ME should maybe simply be read as a love letter from a photographer to his wife whom he has met in an uncertain era, a long time ago.

Thank you very much, Mr. Radovič.

 

 

 

 

reporting on the art of the photobook