Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An evening with Robert Lyons

German photographer Robert Lyons focused on Africa and first Egypt when presenting himself and his work during his lecture at the Art Institute in SF. However he is not a photojournalist rushing to burning places to get the latest scoop. He doesn’t even see himself as a documentary photographer and questions the essence of documentary photography itself. For him photography is always fiction. Every photograph is constructed. Every photograph is subjective as it’s the photographer who selects the subject, the frame and the moment to ‘make’ his own image.
Nevertheless truth exists in fiction since it is part of reality, and we have no choice other than to believe in fiction when seeing images from the other side of the world.
His work is in balance between constructed reality and decisive moments of fiction. As he photographs with a medium format camera he plays with his subjects to capture what he wants, he can take the liberty to ask his subjects to take (or retake) the pose or wait for the story to tell itself in front of his camera.
To reflect the news about Egypt or probably more to offer a different vision of what we see today in newspapers he started his lecture by showing the series he did there in the 80s. Since he was a child he has always been fascinated by the magic and mystic of this country, mother of civilization. As he traveled there he started to become more and more interested in the people, living between modernity and tradition. Every time he visited Egypt, Robert Lyons spent a few weeks there provoking fate that will make the beauty of his photographs.
Egyptian Times is the book he made in 1992.
Robert Lyons then took us on a trip around Africa. Between 1990 and 1997 he made several trips to different countries. Through his images compiled in a book called ‘Another Africa’ he wanted to demonstrate but also confront how the West looks at Africa. Through his images Robert Lyons is trying to explain the complexity of this continent that cannot be reduced to one entity, a continent of extreme richness – in different standards - between tradition and modernity. 
 The main piece of work Lyons showed and explained during his lecture is his work on the Rwanda genocide. It’s the work that created the most effervescence in the audience,. And there is a good reason for that:
3 years after one of the biggest genocides of all time (which happened in Rwanda in 1994), Lyons visited the country to meet the people on each side of the prison bars. If you remember this conflict, as usual the West didn’t or took ages to react. We saw this conflict as a terrible violent even ‘tribal’ opposition between 2 races – a massacre of the Tutsi by the Hutu. From where we stand and from what the media have probably wanted to show us these two populations look very different – even physically. But the images of Robert Lyons show us the faces of two populations next to each other without mentioning who they are.

  One could be a murderer and the other a victim.

Robert Lyons is redefining the idea of ‘The Other’. The Other who has committed such a horrible crime but is still a human being. The other who in other circumstances could be us. And that’s what makes us feel uncomfortable, maybe even guilty. It’s easier to define the murderers as monsters, to dehumanize them, to assimilate them with their evil acts. It’s easier to judge without understanding.
Of course there is a risk in depicting the victims and their torturers on the same level. The risk of not condemning the acts, the risk of minimizing the genocide, the risk of finding excuses for the unbelievable by portraying Humans.
But that’s not what Lyons is saying with these images. It’s quite the opposite. He is not making a statement but he is questioning human nature. He is also questioning our ability to judge by ourselves, to make our own conclusions and to look at the facts and history before judging events only with the eye-catching images we see in the news everyday. 

“I intend to present the human face of these people and, in doing so, to bring their stories closer to those of us not directly involved with the genocide... People are simultaneously archetypes and individuals in this project. In this way and within a specific anti-sensationalist context, I believe that ideas surrounding healing, reconciliation and a strong culture of human rights might ultimately emerge.”

In the book ‘Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide’ the images are combined with interviews, where each person tells their personal story. But you have to wait till the end of the book to know who everyone is. 
More on Robert Lyons :
Another great book about the Rwanda genocide: 
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Stories From Rwanda »
by Philip Gourevitch :


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