Diary of an artist in residence, University of Nottingham, part IV, 18-30 June 2017
See the note to the reader in the first post of this diary.
En route. All sorts of travel-narrative-kind-of-obstacles. Late arrival. The city is warm. No wind to speak of. The air is thick. The taxi driver is kind. He is from Bangladesh, as many here are. He makes me think of Tanzim Wahab in Dhaka whom I haven’t met since Photo Kathmandu in 2015.
Back at Patricia’s apartment. I know that this is my last stay here. She is going back to Barcelona next Sunday for a sabbatical. But for the time being she is there, as welcoming as usual. She has prepared a nice dinner despite the heat. We talk a lot. I am sad that she is leaving and happy too: for her – she is going to refresh and broaden her mind out of here – and for me, because I’m neither here to do things “as usual”, nor to get into any habits. So even if I like her company, and appreciate this place each time I come back, I assume that it is good to steer clear of comfort.
Speaking about comfort, a thing I will wonder forever about Arthur Rimbaud is why he believed that winter should be “the season of comfort” (“Farewell”, A season in Hell). It must have to do with the fireplace, the need for warmth, the collective retreat inside the cosiness of homes. Yet, if there is one season that I hate for the same reason, it is certainly summer because you have no choice: warmth is everywhere, unavoidable, and makes people loose their sense of restraint. This is maybe a question of how the idea of season and of comfort has changed in 150 years. Anyway, I will stay with Jean-Xavier next week – which is also comfortable. Next time in September, I hope to be able to stay with a Nepali family, which would be a comfortable kind of discomfort.
At Jean-Xavier’s office to say hello. He is reading L’Usage du Monde (1) again. I don’t know if I could – I mean, read it again, now, in 2017. Maybe one day. I sometimes wonder if this book is not condemned to be appreciable only by people in their twenties or in their sixties. In between, Le Poisson-Scorpion might be of a greater support. I had been struck by Jean-Xavier’s idea about L’Usage being an incomplete book. What he meant was that failure, or at least the potentiality or the inevitability of failure of any voyage, is missing in L’Usage. I am not sure. Neither is he any longer: his idea having predated his current reading, it is now subject to some reappraisal. Death and failure are well present in L’Usage, though always disguised, always in a subtle form, introduced through poetic means – at least is it so in my memory. Whereas in The Scorpion-Fish, failure is a given, a frontally accepted and experienced fact. Failure is the situation. Anyway Jean-Xavier is into L’Usage du Monde again not for failure but because he’s looking for the sublime in the book, in contemplation of an article he committed to write. By sublime he means these moments of exaltation when the beauty of the experience is beyond words, like in this famous Belgradian passage of the book: “Si je n’étais pas parvenu à y écrire grand-chose, c’est qu’être heureux me prenait tout mon temps” (2). Which is a failure (of writing) but for a good reason, and as we know (since the book exists), only temporary. I am happy to arrive in that particular energy.
We slowly drifted towards the broader idea, recently discussed by Jean-Xavier with Nadine Laporte, that contemporary travel writers seem inhibited, if not petrified, by the figure of Nicolas Bouvier. They do not seem to find a way beyond him. Books are nevertheless produced that speak about travels, but one senses too limpidly that their authors play travelling. They are the safe spectators of their own voyage, inasmuch as it was initially intended, seen, foreseen and secured as food for writing. They strike the pose. But they don’t find their inner voice, or they miss a way to exteriorise it. They are bereft of the generosity to extract it from themselves and to direct it towards the reader and the outside world. They speak about themselves, for themselves. Nicolas Bouvier, even when he speaks about himself, speaks about the other. He strives to disappear as an obstacle for the beauty of that other. Jean-Xavier is of the opinion that this is because Bouvier was not a writer (I remember Bouvier saying indeed, in a filmed interview, that he made very many journeys that didn’t leave behind a single written line). The difference between Bouvier and his imitators might then lie in their respective disposition to failure. In contemporary travel literature, if failure arises, it is rarely more than as a result of mere anecdotal incidents. It is as if it was the prospective book that made them alive, not the journey itself.
If travel literature is stuck in pastiching Nicolas Bouvier and is not able to invent something new, it might also be because the nature of travel itself has reached a point of saturation: a zone of immobility where no one really moves any more and about which there is no longer anything to say. Insofar as this is true, the reason might have to be searched for in another idea that Jean-Xavier raised: the impossibility of absence. The freedom to be absent seems to elude us. We are always and everywhere requested to be present, available not for the other that we have come to meet, but for the other selves who await (or of whom we think of as awaiting) the representations of our absence, wherever in the world we, and they, are. When we are not there, our absence is thus never fully an absence, for nothing ever really lacks any more. Neither is it ever really a presence, because we are only present to ourselves – preoccupied with seeing what is to be seen and doing what is to be done – and present to our friends, so as to deliver them the proof that we are well doing so. We spend more time avoiding any risk of failure of our “abroadness” than experiencing it.
Any evasion of that, planned as a parenthesis in a routine over-presence, and meant to serve as raw material for a book that is destined for informing as many readers as possible that its author was absent, can it be anything but a desperate attempt to stay present – in other words, a lie? Being at all times present to the world as an extension of ourselves but no longer to the other in that they are different from us, haven’t we exhausted something that has to do with life?
Speaking of the impossibility of absence – that makes a voyage no longer resemble a voyage – I had my share of it today. This time it was for a good reason (as it usually is). As I already mentioned in this diary earlier, La grande Route par tous les temps, my volume of sonnets that I collected along the roads and railways of Belgium and Asia in the 1990s, is being published this summer by Arnaud Bizalion. We worked hard with Arnaud to complete the definitive layout and print file of the book before my departure yet we were a few days short. So today I had to validate the corrections suggested by the proof-reader. I did so in an air-conditioned café, since the temperature is still above thirty and the air is loaded with humidity. So for an hour, I was back home, absent from here where I would like to be present.
I called G. to compensate… We planned to see each other twice: tomorrow in Beeston at the Commercial Inn, the Nepali-managed local pub. I can join him at the end of a meeting with other Nepalis so that he can introduce me to them in case they might be interested in my project. Then on Wednesday I have been invited to his home to watch, discuss and digitize his photographs.
Last time I came here, in April, I flew with Ryanair from Carcassonne. I assume that I forgot to tick some box on their website since I now regularly receive their junk mail. I must get rid of that. This morning’s was saying: “Amusez-vous au soleil à partir de 19,99 €” (Enjoy yourself under the sun from 19,99 €). It made me think of this broad question of travelling so I searched for the English version of the advertisement, that says: “Relax under the sun from 19,99 €”. I like the idea that their translators believe that a French speaking person would be more eager to click on a button that delivers the injunction to “enjoy”, whereas an English speaking person would be more attracted by the instruction to “relax”.
I went to Beeston around eleven to meet with G. and his friends. They were late. I waited for a while on the terrace of the pub. Eventually G. came with other Nepalis, some of whom I had already met at the New Year’s eve party. A few promises to take part in my project were made. We will see if they stand with time. G. then invited me home for lunch. He cooked for quite a while (you might insist on offering your help but it is seldom accepted). It was a good occasion to meet his sasu, his mother-in-law, who is here for five months. I called her Ama (Mother) as everyone does. Much in the same way as Nepalis would have done when leaving their country, I also carry along a family album when I am travelling. I opened it for Ama, and showed her pictures of my parents, sister, and other relatives, including a very old photograph of my mother at the age of two, who is taking a bath in a zinc basin hardly larger than her size… That particular one seemed to appeal to Ama. I wonder what memory it revived. Then I watched her stringing the beans and cutting them into pieces. She was profoundly quiet and persistent at the same time. She smiled at every Nepali word I pronounced. Ama is fasting today. G. observed his fast yesterday. In this Western dining room bearing only few traces of Nepaliness, dressed in her impeccable sari, even if she looked like she had been transplanted in someone else’s landscape, she was conveying a strong sense of being in the right place.
I stayed at home to write for the rest of the afternoon, then went out again. I had dinner at the Gurkha Kitchen. I hadn’t seen Andeep, his wife and his staff since February. Warm welcome. He bought a new Harley Davidson, the only one of its kind, especially designed and crafted for him. An impressive machine, with an engine about four times the size of the one in my 2CV. It is being displayed in the entrance hall of the restaurant like an exhibit in a museum with an explanation plaque hanging from the ceiling. The chromes shine. No customer can miss it. He has not started the engine but he promised us that the broken glass of the small meter-like-something attached to the side of the frame was splintered by its vibrations. I take his word for it. The bike is not even equipped with a tachymeter. Andeep summarised its philosophy succinctly: “just drive”. He is happy, like a kid. This was a much-anticipated splurge for him. Fast forward to the next dream now. This is also a way to be in exile I suppose: never giving up experiencing every possible dimension of your dream, whatever it takes.
Sometimes I wonder what exile still means. No. This is not true. I know what it means. No. This is not true either. I know a little bit about what it means to have chosen to move away from the place where I was born, where I grew up and where my mum, dad and sister have stayed, and to build another home away from that original home, with all possible guarantees of comfort, including the freedom to return and see them whenever it pleases me – and all this, without having had to renounce my mother tongue. But that is about it. I don’t know what exile means. (Although I know that I never again will be fully at home anywhere.) For a start, I have an issue with lexicon when it comes to displacement. “Expatriate”, “exile”, “migrant”, “refugee”: I don’t know what each of these words precisely encompasses, if they actually even integrate a high level of precision. So I don’t know which word it is appropriate to use in what situation. I also have the impression that the semantic boundaries between them are more political and social than lexical, and at the same time rather blurred. In French, as far as I know from my limited experience abroad, the word “expatrié” is mainly used to designate a rich Westerner living in another country, rich or poor, for professional or family reasons, with a very good salary. Does “expatriate” cover the same signified? I imagine yes but I might be wrong. I wonder, for instance, how Chinese engineers living in Africa would name themselves in English: “expatriates”? And would unskilled workers use the same term? What is sure is that Nepalis here don’t call themselves “expatriates”. In fact I haven’t heard any of them designating their displacement. In Qatar, they definitely considered themselves to be migrant workers. “Exile” sounds to me to be more of a forced displacement whereas “refugee” would be the condition of someone who fled his country and is still looking for, or has just found, a shelter somewhere, that will maybe become a place to recreate a home, temporarily or not. This is my own understanding of this subtle vocabulary. It is probably very subjective. With Nepalis here I often feel that each individual situation corroborates some part of what I believe is covered by all of these terms. This is a question that I should ask systematically.
But before my structural mind drifted to linguistics, what I wanted to raise was that I am not sure of what being here means for them from a human point of view. I tend to think that most of them do it for their kids. But it is not that simple. An example: P. was at the Gurkha Kitchen tonight, chatting with fellow Nepalis. I met him in February, and we should have spent some time together in March to speak about his photographs but he stood me up. I had travelled to the other side of town to meet him but he had neither shown up nor had he picked up the phone. I hold no grudge against him for that. Things like that happen. He invited me for a beer. We talked a long time today. P. is very clear-sighted about his presence here. He used a word that I had not heard before among the Nepali community here: “greedy”. He said: “if we weren’t greedy, we wouldn’t be here.” What he means is that he is, and that they are, only in it for the money. Money for them, money for the education of the children, money for the house, money to take care of the elderly people, for weddings, phones, televisions… Whatever, but money at all costs. This is a far less self-sacrificial picture than the “we have no choice” mantra I heard so commonly in Qatar. But yes, he has been offered a choice: he has had the opportunity to earn more money here than at home, and he seized it. I find it courageous to acknowledge it. It probably has a lot to do with the anxiety of missing the basic needs, given the poverty levels in Nepal and the sufferings of the war. This said, it is certainly not only the greediness factor that triggers a departure. We decided that we would meet again on Tuesday. I hope that he will come.
So if I am not sure what being here means for them in general, these two people seem to have a clearer idea about that question. In this huge motorbike, in this acknowledgement of greed, there is the expression of a will, there is a strategy, there is a personal attempt to face a situation, there is a critical reaction to Nepal’s societal immobility… In short, there is meaning. It now rests with me to incorporate this meaning into an artistic gesture.
G.’s invitation for lunch yesterday was maybe a necessary step for him to familiarise himself with me and to appraise my sincerity so that he would be more comfortable with my presence today. Or maybe it was just for pleasure. Probably a combination of both. So today had been agreed as a time to open albums, watch photographs, speak about them, and digitize them. The conversation was beautiful and simple. As soon as you enter a Nepali house, you enter a different conception of time and of presence. In this house especially, for G. cultivates mindfulness. I love these moments. This is exactly the reason why I am here. These hours justify everything. All the efforts, the questions, the time spent, the concern of not finding or of not knowing what I am looking for… I could exchange many days of different sorts for a day like this one. Everything I am – failures, successes, strengths, weaknesses, appetence for solitude as well as for the other – all these tensions, these apparent (and often effective) contradictions, all find themselves validated by circumstances like these. I am in an unfamiliar house in a country that I don’t know, one thousand kilometres away from home, alone with someone I had never met three months ago and who is also a foreigner here, we are browsing through stacks of photographs, some of them incredibly intimate and moving, and he will soon leave me in his living room for several hours and give me the time to appreciate them, select them and then digitize them… I owe him a lot, as well as to the other Nepalis who opened their door to me, for making me feel as comfortable as that. For as such, it is not: it is not comfortable to enter people’s lives, to ask them many questions about their experience, to watch and to scan material as personal as their family albums… It is a peculiar idea to base a work on such an intrusion.
I often think that the pictures already exist which can enable me to say what I want to say. It is only a matter of finding them. I believe it even more when I look at the family photographs that I am being showed here in Nottingham. Yet I still don’t visualise accurately what the outcome of this collecting effort will look like. I am so touched by the photographs themselves that I find it hard to conceptualise why and how I should transform them into something else than what they are. What can my language add to them? That is a question. I will have to find a way though, because my work is to transform them: I haven’t been invited as a curator in residence. I will have to articulate them together and to add a personal layer of meaning onto them, so that the outcome of this transformation says more than the original pictures (3). I am not worried; I know that it will come because there is love, beauty, honesty and necessity. But it requires me to dispose of some layers of assertiveness. This is the difficult and the interesting dimension here: learning how to take not too much space, and yet to find my own place – as an artist, I mean, since, from a human point of view, their kindness helps me to adjust my position. What I ought to bear in mind is that I am working about their perception of their experience. What I am attempting to create is thus not an account of their experience. It would rather be a vehicle for my emotion before their images in that they are traces of their experience – an emotion that will then have to be externalised and eventually reach beyond my own person.
If this externalisation happens, it will be as the encounter of two displacements – theirs and mine – conceived in the continuity of our lives. A continuity that I have already wanted to explain: “us in the elsewhere, that’s still our life that goes on, but elsewhere – that’s still us, in the daily life of the other. For the worse (our certitudes about the elsewhere, without escape) or the better (our dissolution into the elsewhere, in a light and temporary way)”; us with our sensitive and cultural baggage, the very part of us that is the most difficult to be absent from. In that respect, what I am doing here is maybe not even “carrying out a project” – in the sense of pursuing a task bound to be accomplished in disconnection from my life and to produce an outcome that will not influence it, and in the wake of which I would simply move on to the next one – it might just be an exercise in absence from myself and in presence with the other.
The externalisation stage is therefore crucial for if we miss it then navel-gazing becomes the danger. We should be interested in ourselves only to the extent that we have the capacity to be the current depository of an emotion bigger than us, then be the vehicle that transmits this emotion under a new form towards a potential reader. Finding the audacity to emit a voice is only a matter of negotiating one’s own transparence. Back to Nicolas Bouvier and the erosion of the ego. In photography though, such models are more difficult to find. I agree with Gilles Saussier’s words about Raymond Depardon’s Notes (4), which he describes as “a salutary book” because it undertakes “the absences of the reporter” and his “existential void”. But then I agree with Gilles Saussier too when he states that “Faute d’inventer de nouvelles procédures documentaires pour renouer avec le monde et échapper à son fonds dépressif (…) Raymond Depardon (…) a transformé le principe de l’effacement du photographe cher à Henri Cartier-Bresson en un pathos autobiographique de la perte de soi” (5). While this is not very kind for Raymond Depardon, and maybe exaggerated, there is probably a part of truth in this criticism, if only for the many followers that this approach has engendered. Nowadays photographers don’t even try anymore to abide by any principle of disappearance whatsoever, and are just happy to indulge in the “autobiographical pathos of the loss of self” which amounts to its over-affirmation.
At some point in the conversation with G. we were looking at the map of Nepal that I always have in my bag. He showed me where his home-town is located, pointing at another place on the map near Chitwan, he had these surprising and symptomatic words: “but currently, I am living here”. I looked at him and we smiled: “no, you are not: currently you are living in Nottingham”. What he means is that he owns a house there and that it is the place where he hopes to go and live when he returns. And even that is not sure, because G. studied in the Netherlands for a long time before arriving in Nottingham and from time to time he feels nostalgic about that country (we sometimes speak Dutch together: if this is not a lesson in otherness, I don’t know what is…). He could even make his home there, he says. He considers it when the political situation of Nepal is too discouraging.
In the evening Patricia invited me to a party with her colleagues form the Spanish department at Eduardo’s house. We spoke about photography with Simon and Adam, about literature, Belgium and Trappist beers with Adam and Bernard, about translation with Alex… A magician came and showed us some tricks that left everyone puzzled. One thing I would like to do while I’m here is a practical photography workshop for students and/or professors on the model of the “Photographing the Everyday” workshops in Kathmandu. I have already raised the idea in some conversations, without much feedback so far, but here the idea was received with enthusiasm. Maybe the starting point of something. We will see.
I went to see T. this morning. He is wonderful. He treats me like the son he does not have (he has four daughters). He gave two phone calls to Nepali friends living in the area who agreed to participate in my research. We arranged a meeting tomorrow and another one on Saturday. As simple as that. Then he invited me to a wedding on Monday in Leicester with the whole family. I spent the rest of the day writing. Then I took Patricia to the restaurant to say goodbye because tonight is my last night in her apartment. Tomorrow when she comes back from work she will pack her belongings, and on Saturday she will move them somewhere; on Sunday she flies to Barcelona.
We spoke of various things, among which were my current concerns about having something to say and daring to emit a message. This is what Patricia said: art is there, that’s it. There’s nothing we can do against it. We need it. We need to use it, we need to absorb it and to make it. In other words, she is of the opinion that my question is irrelevant. It deserves to be looked into further.
This morning at eight I went to meet D. R., the first of the two friends that T. called on my behalf yesterday. He lives in Nottingham with his wife and kids. Their reception was warm. The youngest boy was leaving for school when I arrived. His wife recognised me because she attended the New Year’s eve party in April. She works in a pizza factory. She sprinkles toppings on pizzas that are then sold to Tesco, Marks & Spencer and other large retailers. He manages a restaurant. They have been here since 2011. They describe themselves as working class people, which means that they don’t have a lot of time to do anything other than work.
I am very impressed by the interiors of the houses. There are always a few objects from Nepal but not many. D. R. has a bit more of them because he used to have a handicraft shop some years ago. They are on display in the living room in a nice vitrine that gives the artefacts a quite solemn aspect. Aside from these objects, from a few pictures on the wall and a television set, their places are quite plain. There is always a chimney.
We had a long conversation about their experience and my interest in it. His wife stayed with him most of the time and took part in the conversation. This is not insignificant. It changes from the remote conservative villages from Sunsari district I visited last year in Nepal, where I interviewed families of migrant workers who were then in Qatar. It was impossible to speak to a migrant’s wife without her in-laws listening to us and most of the time speaking in place of her. Then they let me scan their pictures. When I had finished D. R. had to take his daughter to Leicester for some shopping in anticipation of Monday’s wedding, which they will also attend. I wondered why they organise weddings on Mondays. I got the answer: because this is the day that all Nepali restaurants are closed.
I went back to the apartment and spent my ultimate hours in that friendly place, not without having first picked up a simit (a torus-shaped bread encrusted with sesame seeds), some peynir and a bottle of wine from the Turkish supermarket for a lunch that reminded me of the Asia Minor part of the journey of L’Usure du Monde. Then back to the impossibility of absence again for another step towards the publication of my Grande Route: I was required to approve the final file of the book for press. A hard thing to do remotely on a small non-calibrated laptop screen. I did my best and decided that for whatever I was not able to handle, I had to trust my publisher and his collaborators and let it go a bit, the latter being quite demanding for me. The Turkish lunch helped. I preferred not to be under Patricia’s feet when she would come back home and start emptying her cupboards. I had bid farewell to her this morning anyway. So when my work was done I went out and waited for Jean-Xavier at the John Borlase pub. He arrived around five.
Change of rhythm. Change of energy. I will now be in a family with a five year old daughter. Guitars and books everywhere. Memories as well, already, since I stayed here in January for two days. It is probably going to be a Baudrillard week, too. Sitting in the living room between the bookshelves and the Lowden guitar that has its permanent whereabouts on the sofa, I hesitated. I went for the books, picked up a Baudrillard at random and came upon this:
Quand tout se passe entre terminaux interactifs sur l’écran de la communication, l’Autre est devenu une fonction inutile.
Jean Baudrillard, L’Échange impossible, 1999 (6)
Still pondering this presence/absence issue since our conversation earlier this week in the park of the University, I received this as an addition to my inner debate. We still need the elsewhere to pretend that we can escape our own sphere, but the “interactive terminals” prevent us from being fully absent from that sphere and in the same time they exonerate us from being present to the other any longer. I would nuance that in light of the relative surge of real life that is effectively generated by the omnipresence of Nepali migrants online: they know how to use social networks to recreate a proper sense of community in the elsewhere. It has limits (like personal affinity, the very limited free time), but they do coordinate real projects thanks to these tools. They help them to exist abroad. A large part of the images that tell the story I am looking for are stored on their Facebook profiles. Anand Kila is lucky to count them among his friends.
At ten I was knocking on D.’s door, the second of T.’s friends who accepted to meet me, but no one came out. I checked the address, which proved to be correct. I knocked again and an Indian woman opened the door, only to tell me that there was no Nepali man named D. living in that house. She left me on the pavement, looking more than sheepish with my scanner under my arm. Finally D. arrived from somewhere down the street and we went in together. The Indian woman seemed sincerely embarrassed for having misunderstood me. That was funny.
D. has a very long migration story: one year in Malaysia, eight years in India, six in the United Kingdom already, each time working in restaurants and food factories… His family did not join him before 2014. His wife works in the same pizza factory as D. R.’s wife. They have few printed pictures with them. I scanned most of them. Then we ate a wonderful and pure non-veg dalbhat prepared by his wife. Thank you so much for inviting me to your table, didi. Both of them will be there at the wedding in Leicester on Monday. This is going to be a big event. The families expect up to one thousand attendees.
Writing. And while writing, I listened to G. S. Sachdev, an Indian bansuri flute player. And while listening, I stopped writing and thought about this. Years ago, when I was listening to Sima Bina on the return of a long journey in Iran, or to Cat Stevens’ Katmandu just before and right after months in Nepal, I was listening to that music not for the music itself, but as the vehicle which would one day, I was certain about that and I was wrong, bring me back to Iran more intensely, or make me reach a long vanished state of Nepal of which I was convinced that Cat Stevens still held the secret. In other words, I was not listening to music as a form of art, but as a support for my expectations. Whether these expectations were humble or insane, exoticizing or generous, it did not matter; music was not used to attain an absolute inherent to itself but was diverted from its essence to fuel a personal phantasm. The same was true with La Catedral, by Agustín Barrios Mangoré. When listening to this piece, I was waiting for the person who had initiated me into that music to arrive in my room and take me away anywhere out of this world and save me from I don’t know what. I was undoubtedly ready to leave straight away. I think that since then this twisted relationship to music has been simplified. Today I tend to listen to music as a gesture that nourishes me (rather than creating a void in which I am ensnared) at that very moment and in the very place I am. Its beneficial effect can last more or less long and accompany me elsewhere but music is no longer spoiled by any disconnected promises, neither by any self-centred expectations. It only promises the experience of a moment spent in beauty – or in wrath, or in an unknown dimension of comprehension – but taken for what it is and not followed by the frustration of seeing my expectations unmet. I think that this is what I still lack with Nicolas Bouvier, I keep on expecting something more from the book than its beauty, a solution to God knows what. I am not sure of all that, but I sense that there is something to question in that double idea. Anyway, this too shall pass.
Jean-Xavier lent me Errance, a book by Raymond Depardon (7). I read it in the bus downtown. There are certainly many reasons to criticise Raymond Depardon’s work, yet one thing I cannot but recognise is the tenacity with which he has sought to put words to the contradictions, the doubts, the joys and the regrets that are inherent to photography. This is an endeavour that I believe should be incumbent to every photographer. But it seldom is. The idiosyncrasy pointed out by Gilles Saussier aside, Depardon is truly deserving, in my opinion, for having paved the path for a whole generation of reporters and documentary photographers, well, obviously not to the erosion of the photographing self, but at least to a more humble comprehension of what a photograph is and is not, of what it creates and what it ruins, and of the photographer’s responsibility in this process. Manifestly not everyone is eager to follow it, but henceforth it has been impossible to claim that this path does not exist.
In the beginning of Errance, Depardon quotes a text by Alexandre Laumonier published in Le Magazine Littéraire in 1997, in which the author says that “le problème principal de l’errance n’est rien d’autre que celui du lieu acceptable”, then he goes further: “L’errant en quête du lieu acceptable se situe dans un espace très particulier, l’espace intermédiaire” (8). The link is obvious with the situation of Nepalis here. They too are in an “intermediary space”. They patiently strive to turn it into an “acceptable place” but they know that it will always be precarious because the only acceptable place is Nepal or, to be more precise, a fantasised vision of Nepal (see G.’s “currently I am living there” the other day…), that they have frozen in their heart before leaving, that ceased to be true at the very moment that they boarded the bus to Kathmandu, and that they will never experience any more. The real question is: why did they leave it (all the more so as by leaving it, they annihilated it as such) if it was “the acceptable place”? They know all too well that when they will go back to Nepal for their retirement they will not be easily accepted by the other inhabitants of “the acceptable place”, who will then have to relearn how to share it with them. Is it so then that migrants are condemned to be eternal wanderers? Maybe, but with the exception that they do believe in a specific acceptable place, they know its name and its location, they remember its colour, its taste, its boundaries, the faces of its occupiers and they cherish all that, whilst in my opinion the true wanderers – “lighter than a cork, dancing on the waves” (Rimbaud) – know that their quest is moot and that its goal, an “acceptable place” for them, does not exist, for the only thing that matters is the quest. There is no path towards an answer. The answer is the path.
This Lowden guitar, goodness! It is also going to be a musical week. It is not a nylon strings guitar, but it is so beautifully balanced that you can play any type of music on that instrument. I found online the scores of some pieces that I have at home and that I studied in 1993 or 1995: an étude by Mauro Giuliani, and a little ballet by Ferdinando Carulli that I used to play for Olga when she was in her mum’s womb. It all came back in a nice flash. And suddenly I felt like I was Ana Vidovic. Well, no. But playing such a beautiful instrument opens a whole new scope of possibilities, and you get the impression that you play better than you thought you did. Then I tried the Gibson ES 335 and we jammed like teenagers on the chord chart of Purple Rain and Lullaby. Actually, Jean-Xavier jammed. I was happy enough to play not too gawkily and to manage to keep time…
I believe that we are made of all our experiences, and they are not stored in hermetical drawers. They all co-exist. When I will be with hundreds of Nepalis tomorrow at the wedding, today’s occasional guitar playing will have somewhat infused in the way that I will be present there, and it will somehow make me be Nepali in a different way, more wholeheartedly. I hope so.
I also discovered two texts about photography in Jean-Xavier’s library. One by Roland Barthes, “Le message photographique” (9) in which, as early as 1961, the question of objectivity is addressed in an efficient and elegant way (although I think that many other suggestions put forward by Barthes in that article have become obsolete, especially about the text/image relationship, but that would be the subject of another text). I really wonder then why the objectivity issue persists and why for instance at Visa pour l’Image or at the World Press Photo they still ruminate the question and still try to convince themselves and their audience that photographers are witnessing something else than their own status of mere but inescapable filters. In L’Échange impossible again, Baudrillard has a text entitled “La photographie ou l’écriture de la lumière: Littéralité de l’image” (10), that I still have to read.
Today I have been invited to participate in the Travel Seminar of Charles Forsdick and Zoe Kinsley at the University of Liverpool in September. Happy about that! All the more so as, except with Jean-Xavier here, I quite miss the kind of informal discussions that I had in Oxford in March, with people like Andrew Nelson, from the University of North Texas, Tristan Bruslé of course, that I already mentioned in this diary, or David Gellner… Oh, and this reminds me that Brigitte Steinmann, who also took part in the Oxford workshop, told me about thousands of pictures form Nepal that she took in the 1980s. I need to follow that.
T. had requested me to get ready to proceed to Leicester for the wedding around eight thirty this morning. At nine thirty I received a message saying: “sorry, we are late because my family not ready”. They arrived at a quarter past eleven, and by the time we reached the venue the afternoon had begun, but not really the festivities. It was a huge place, with tens of tables. The people were gathered according to their belonging to the groom or bride family and for the others, to their city of residence. So I sat somewhere in the Nottingham area. T. got immediately very busy helping the families with the organisation, his wife stayed with her friends, but T.’s daughters made sure that I felt comfortable and spent time with me. I also knew several other people that I had met at the New Year. The groom arrived around two o’clock, preceded and followed by a long cortege of beautifully dressed women and a large orchestra of traditional Nepali musicians. We received petals of flowers that we were asked to spread on the groom when he would pass by. The party headed towards a large stage profusely decorated with flowers and a plethora of shiny items of all sorts. I didn’t see when the bride and groom met, but soon they were together on stage. A long puja started. Mantras were chanted by the priest. Om mangalam… In the meantime, some snacks and drinks were served to the party. Later people started to dance. I took many pictures of them, especially of T.’s daughters. While some were dancing, others were climbing up the stairs onto the stage to pay there homage to the newly weds. So did I, with T. and his spouse. As a non-hindu, I didn’t need to obey the whole feet-washing and tika-giving ritual that is performed by each and every relative for the bride and the groom. I just wished them an auspicious life, in Nepali, I posed for a picture with the groom, then went off the stage. There were a few other white people in the party, but not many. A dalbhat was served around five or so. The band played music all the time, then they were replaced by a sound system playing Hindi pop and people danced for hours. Later, around seven or eight, the party started to progressively leave the venue. A Rolls Royce painted an iridescent white was waiting for the couple outside. The groom’s brothers (or the bride’s? I am not sure), had to carry the groom on their back around the car for three laps before they were authorised to gently place him on his seat into the car next to his wife whose father was crying a lot because she is now going to leave for another house. Then the Rolls Royce started, nearly without noise, and disappeared around the corner, under the sad gaze of the helpless dad…
Today we had planned to meet again with P. but we hadn’t arranged a schedule yet. Made rather wary by last time’s disappointment, I called him in the morning to make sure that he still had our meeting in mind but he didn’t pick up the phone. I know at present that it is because the number I had was wrong, which might also be a reason for last time’s failure. Things are never quite as you think they are. Anyway he called me a bit later. So I went to the restaurant where he was working and where he spent a part of his days off. We had a long discussion. I wanted him to look deeper into his idea of “greediness” being the main factor of migrations, in which he happily persisted. It is not a random idea that fell from nowhere and alighted into his mind. It is a well-argued and hard-wired belief that has been fuelled by his conversations with other Nepalis for the twelve years he has been abroad. His principal point is that in the destination countries, most migrants face social difficulties or integration problems, and are often doing hard and uninteresting jobs (like sprinkling toppings on pizzas in a factory). Yet they do cope. They are courageous. So why don’t they dedicate this courage and this energy to their country? Because there are no job opportunities? It’s a lie, he believes. Jobs are available in Nepal since there are still people living there. Therefore, if people choose to work abroad, they do so only because they wish to earn more money so that they can afford to buy more goods, and, moreover, so that they can show to the ones who stayed how successful they are. It is wrong to pretend that they do it for their family. They do it for themselves, to appease their greediness and their conceit. Besides, he does not consider himself as an exception. He did have a good situation in Nepal. He quit because he wanted more. He is the only Nepali I have ever met abroad who speaks with such a cold lucidity about expatriation. I don’t know if he is absolutely right but I think that many migrants should think about it.
I had asked P. several times before if he had a photo album. He always confirmed that he did. I thought that he had understood my question. He hadn’t, neither the album nor understood my question. Both for the same reason; he does not hear well, and he lost a bag some time ago in which there was his hearing device as well as his wallet full of pictures. I had also hoped that he would take me to his room but he didn’t. Well, I didn’t dare to ask, I should say. P. is not on Facebook either. Anand Kila will not be able to become a friend with him and collect his pictures from there. He is not interested in any opportunity to be seen, noticed, talked about… I sense that he prizes and shelters his solitude. Anand Kila understands. He is on Viber though. This Internet phone service allows him to stay in touch with his family and is his only concession to the century. We choose a few pictures from his messages together, that he forwards to me. Then suddenly he went upstairs and came back with two prints. One of them is nondescript, the other is extremely attractive, maybe too much and too immediately. It is a very nostalgic picture. It represents him and his wife in a room in Kathmandu probably in the eighties when they were students, in a monochrome tone that makes it look like a cyanotype.
I asked P. how he would describe his own displacement from Nepal. He definitely perceives himself as a migrant worker. He doesn’t know the term “expatriate”.
I went back to the University and showed Jean-Xavier the two images. What he said did not surprise me: “I see two dangers in your project: nostalgia and exoticism”. I would be ill-advised to attempt to refute the first one. I understand the danger. There will be a part of nostalgia in this project, as there is in all my works, simply because so is my relationship to the past and to “all that flees” (Baudelaire). And also because the people I meet here do carry their load of regrets and vain hopes to be able one day to revive the past. The Nepali landscape is absent around them, and this absence weighs upon them. They are nostalgic, but not constantly and not only. So am I. We are also very much forward-looking. So I do hope that the work will reflect this tension.
As to exoticism, what Jean-Xavier is worried about is a potential mis- or over-interpretation of the pictures from Nepal, especially the old ones showing connoted socio-anthropological realities related to architecture, rites or people’s attire… A meaning that could inadvertently be conveyed by these specific pictures is that the work advocates or at least inclines towards a categorisation of people in that they come from that remote poor country where they have these peculiar traditions that look so different from here (walking bare footed, pasting rice and pigments on the forehead of departing people or on the occasion of religious ceremonies, wearing saris, etc.) and to confine Nepalis in this narrow vision of their otherness, without leaving them the freedom to be differently other – that is to say, in the way they like.
I think that I know how to come to term with that plague. It all has to do with the “narrative void”, a concept developed by British photographer and artist Mac Adams, which we could introduce like this: the interval between images is the place par excellence where the narrative construction happens. When I will start to compose e-kus with the images that I am gathering here, this is the very tool that I intend to call upon in order to counter the risk of contaminating these images by the exoticism of my gaze and the potential exoticism of the reader’s: associating images in a manner that any chance of exoticization induced by one would be annulled at once by the other, or, more precisely, by the relation that will emerge from their juxtaposition. That should be fine.
Jean Baudrillard again. Another random choice from Jean-Xavier’s library: La Transparence du mal (11). It is dark. Every other sentence I think: yes, of course! Well. So what? Certainly, it ought to be of some relief to find out that things I intuit or sense have been so well translated into words by another human being (even though I don’t agree with everything he says). But with respect to action, what can I draw from that finding? How can I transpose it? How can I apply it and make it effective at a larger scale than my own immediate environment? The author is dead. He is being studied by academics. I suppose that this is an achievement. But has he enkindled any movement, not necessarily to which I could adhere, but at least that would make me feel that steps are being made in other directions than the general one, and that there are still people who doubt, question, criticise, search, try and fail? This is more a reproof of my inaptitude to act than of the writer’s inaptitude to incite me to act. It is exactly the problem that I was confronted with when I read that essay of political philosophy, À nos amis, by the Comité Invisible (12), or earlier, with the work of Ivan Illich. How to be a non-passive, non-spectator reader of these texts? Especially when you have chosen to live on a remote hill some kilometres away from an ordinary small town, so that you don’t have many people around to be non-passive with – and the one you have are always the same, speaking a metalanguage intelligible to only you and them… (Remarkable how this commentary on home looks like a description of the photographic world. I might want to worry about that.)
Jean-Xavier is still searching for the sublime in L’Usage du Monde. Yesterday he worked late then came out of his office with new issues related to the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime proposed by Emmanuel Kant. We discussed that for a while. So this morning, the first thing I thought of was Kant. I might want to worry about that too.
For the first time today, one of my Nepali friends came to the University for a brief meeting with Jean-Xavier. I would have loved to introduce him to both G. and T. but T. and his family are going to Nepal very soon to celebrate his mother’s eighty-forth anniversary puja and are busy packing so only G. could come. G. is a former student of the University so the place is familiar to him. I am happy because he repeated to Jean-Xavier how important this project is for him and for the community. I sincerely hope that the exhibition in November will help to uncover the community a bit and bring them out of their relative invisibility in town. We will work together towards this goal. They now can be in touch even when I am not there. We also had a long and productive meeting with Lisa McCabe who is in charge of organising the exhibition with us. The rest of the day was dedicated to administrative tasks. Some of those need to be done. As it happens, I had to understand and fill the ethics forms of the University, and to prepare a consent form that I will need to have signed by the participants. As a matter of course these texts are oriented to academics: they have been designed to make sure that research and field inquiries involving people comply to a very strict ethical policy. Therefore, the questions and requirements that they contain are not necessarily applicable to an artistic project so it became a slightly delicate exercise. Without those forms, no exhibition.
Rain has come back. I had nearly forgotten how despondent it turns everyone here, myself included.
Today, I had the pleasure to judge a selection of pictures on behalf of the University. Each year they organise a competition aimed at rewarding the best pictures that have been published on Instagram by their students abroad with the hashtag “UoNgoingplaces”. The idea for the students is to show that they enjoy being somewhere through a picture. The idea for me was to apply as judgment criterion the above-mentioned mantra by Jeffrey Ladd: “A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness”. I did enjoy the confrontation between these two potentially (but not necessarily) utterly opposite visions. A nineteen picture edit came out of my effort. Anyway I am not the one who will have the last word. Nicola McLelland, head of the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies where I am in residence, will decide. I hope that my choice will be of some help to her.
However, it was rather weird to fulfil this commitment with that Baudrillard book in mind. Dating back to 1990, when the Internet was still stumbling around in its own umbilical cord, this text is impressive in that it foretells the transition of the world into the era of networks:
Au fond, la révoltion a bien eu lieu, mais pas du tout comme on l’attendait. Partout ce qui a été libéré l’a été pour passer à la circulation pure, pour passer sur orbite. Avec quelque recul, on peut dire que l’aboutissement inéluctable de toute libération est de fomenter et l’alimenter les réseaux.
Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du mal (13)
It makes you feel like stopping and speaking. I hope that the contradictions that were aroused in my mind did not make my choice too obscure.
I went to a bookstore to buy presents for home. There were hundreds of photo-books. I sometimes think that I have attained a point of saturation with photography in general, and photo-books in particular. Not that there are too many books (and I will soon add two more items on the top of the pile), no: there are simply too many good books. It feels suffocating. And to think, I will be in Arles in three days…
I went to the Indian supermarket to buy everything I needed to cook a dalbhat for Jean-Xavier and his family. Back home around four, I started right away. I prepared a nepali-style tomato achar, a fiery mango chutney inspired by Jean Papin, wilted sag and spinach cooked in mustard oil and fenugreek powder, toor dal of course and rice, then a vegetable curry with cumin, turmeric, coriander and a few other spices, and a good bottle of wine. Three hours in the kitchen! I like that. I missed timur (Sichuan pepper) and jimbu, but for the rest, it was a nice dalbhat that made everyone happy!
There is a ping-pong table in the hall of the railway station. A man was standing by the table scrutinising the passers-by. He caught my eye. “Five minutes?”, he said. I hadn’t played since last summer in Belgium. It was eight o’clock in the morning. I only had a coffee in my stomach and two bags on my shoulders. I was not fully awake. But why not! It was very enjoyable. A young Chinese man watched the rallies. Then when the first man had to go, he proposed to replace him and we played together until our trains arrived.
Mine was bound for Birmingham New Street. It was followed by another one to the airport railway station, a quick shuttle to the airport terminal, a plane to Lyon, a tramway from the airport to the city, a train to Valence where I was awaited by Marie and Olga, and then I drove through the hills of the Baronnies towards home. We reached on time for a Chimay and a nice family supper.
(1) Nicolas Bouvier, L’usage du Monde (Geneva: Droz, 1963, 1999).
Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World, trans. Robyn Marsack (London: Eland, 2007).
(2) Robyn Marsack’s translation (see note 1) of this quote is the following: “If I didn’t manage to write anything substantial there, it was because being happy took up all my time.”
(3) Jeffrey Ladd, « Escape, by Danila Tkachenko », Hatje Cantz fotoblog, 6 October 2014, http://www.hatjecantz.de/fotoblog/?p=4461. Cited by Jörg M. Colberg, in « It is what it is », Conscientious Photography Magazine, 13 October 2014, http://cphmag.com/it-is-what-it-is/. This is so powerful a pedagogical tool that I turned it into a motto!
(4) Raymond Depardon, Notes (Paris: Arfuyen, 1979). I haven’t been able to find a published English translation of this text.
(5) Gilles Saussier, “Situations du reportage, actualité d’une alternative documentaire”, in: Communications 71 (2001), http://www.persee.fr/doc/comm_0588-8018_2001_num_71_1_2090.
I haven’t been able to find a published English translation of this text, so this is my attempt: “for lack of finding new documentary approaches which could have allowed him to re-engage with the world and to escape his depressive nature”(…) Raymond Depardon (…) turned the principle of the effacement of the photographer into an autobiographical pathos of the loss of self”.
(6) Jean Baudrillard, L’Échange impossible (Paris: Gallilée, 1999), 57.
Jean Baudrillard, Impossible exchange, trans. Chris Turner (London, New York: Verso, 2001), 40. Chris Turner’s version of the quote is the following: “When everything takes place between interactive terminals on the communication screen, the Other has become a useless function”.
(7) Raymond Depardon, Errance (Paris: Le Seuil, 2000), 12.
I haven’t been able to find a published English translation of this text, so this is my attempt for the two parts of the quote: “The main issue about wandering lies nowhere else than in the quest for the acceptable place”, “While this quest is happening, the wanderer is experimenting a very peculiar space: the intermediary space”.
(8) Alexandre Laumonier, “L’errance ou la pensée du milieu”, in: Le Magazine littéraire, 353, April 1997. I haven’t been able to find a published English translation of this text.
(9) Roland Barthes, “Le message photographique”, in: L’Obvie et l’obtus (Paris: Le Seuil, 1982).
It was first published in: Communications 1 (1961): 127-138, http://www.persee.fr/doc/comm_0588-8018_1961_num_1_1_921.
Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message”, in: Image, Music, Text , trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 15-31.
The book is actually available online here: https://grrrr.org/data/edu/20110509-cascone/Barthes-image_music_text.pdf.
(10) Baudrillard, L’Échange impossible, 175.
Baudrillard, Impossible exchange, 139. Chris Turner’s translation (see note 6) of this text is entitled: “Photography, or Light-Writing: Literalness of the Image”.
(11) Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du mal (Paris: Gallilée, 1990)
Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, trans. James Benedict (London, New York: Verso, 1993)
(12) Comité Invisible, À nos amis (Paris: La Fabrique, 2014). I don’t know of any English translation of this essay.
(13) Baudrillard, La Transparence du Mal, 12.
Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, 4. James Benedict’s translation (see note 11) of this quote reads: “The fact is that revolution has well and truly happened, but not in the way we expected. Everywhere what has been liberated has been liberated so that it can enter a state of pure circulation, so that it can go into orbit. With the benefit of a little hindsight, we may say that the unavoidable goal of all liberation is to foster and provide circulatory networks”.
Photograph: At a wedding party, Leicester, England, 26 June 2017.
Kindly proofread by Alisha Sett.
The e-kus created during the residence are available online in the Stories section of this website.