Recent Work, Charlotte Cotton

Aperture 180, Fall 2005

I first became famil­iar with Lise Sarfati’s work through her series of stun­ning pho­tographs made in Russian cities, includ­ing Moscow, Norilsk and Vorkuta, in the 1990’s. A flu­ent Russian speaker, Sarfati focused in this body of work on a kind of bru­tal bohemia,” and the inten­sity of life in the midst of post-Soviet decay. Those images proved her to be a sen­si­tive and imag­i­na­tive observer-of dread-filled, decay­ing indus­trial sites that serve as metaphors for chronic loss and waste, and of phys­i­cally and socially ostra­cized young peo­ple. She showed us the inmates of an insti­tu­tion for young offend­ers in Iksha, patiently bid­ing their time and their pun­ish­ments. She fol­lowed the lives of Moscovite trans­sex­u­als under­go­ing gen­der rede­f­i­n­i­tion. Throughout her work, Sarfati man­ages to cre­ate a loose and lay­ered visu­al­iza­tion that allows us, the view­ers, to con­sider the com­plex­i­ties of any place or time, and one that trig­gers emo­tions and thoughts that move beyond the osten­si­ble sub­jects of her pho­tographs.

Sarfati has a capac­ity for shift­ing her pho­to­graphic anten­nae and adopt­ing mul­ti­ple under­stand­ings of a place and its soci­ety. This was proven in her Russian imagery, as it is in her new series made in the United States, which is fea­tured in these pages. Her work plays an impor­tant part in today’s debates about the uses and visual lan­guages of socially engaged pho­tog­ra­phy, in that Sarfati stub­bornly resists objec­ti­fy­ing” the sub­jects that she is com­pelled to pho­to­graph. Her sense of curios­ity is pro­foundly intu­itive, and pro­foundly human. While we are used to view­ing pho­tographs of such sub­jects-​includ­ing the legacy of the col­lapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as well as the leit­mo­tif that American youth can offer on the state of U.S. soci­ety-​Sarfati con­sciously under­mines any desire for or expec­ta­tion of a sin­gle or defin­ing per­spec­tive upon com­plex social ideas. Her pho­tographs are much more con­cerned with acti­vat­ing within us a con­nec­tion-​via aes­thet­ics and the inten­sity of her encoun­ters with her sub­jects-​with our world on a much more imme­di­ate and less quasi-​infor­ma­tional way.

When I met with Sarfati recently, I made the mis­take of describ­ing her lat­est series as a selec­tion of por­traits of American teenagers.” Sarfati called me on this over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, point­ing out that I was adopt­ing a con­tra­po­si­tion to these sub­jects. The term teenager, she sug­gested, is a cat­e­go­riza­tion most often used by adults: and fur­ther, she believes that it is a largely mar­ket-​dri­ven label for a rel­a­tively new but pow­er­ful con­sumer group. It is not, at any rate for Sarfati, a term by which young peo­ple gen­er­ally define them­selves, nor is this idea what drew her to make this body of work. Sarfati’s pho­to­graphic inves­ti­ga­tions into the young peo­ple that she encoun­tered in shop­ping malls and streets and homes in the United States are not intended as pro­jec­tions of an adult onto a remem­bered period of ear­lier life. There is a strange prac­ti­cal­ity in Sarfati’s choice of sub­ject mat­ter: it is remark­able that this diminu­tive but very intense Frenchwoman-so out of place in the American cities where she trav­eled-​found con­nec­tions between her sub­jects’ out-of-place” feel­ings and her own. The age range of those Sarfati pho­tographed may be indica­tive of her recog­ni­tion of their open­ness to requests (to them and their par­ents) to reveal this shared human expe­ri­ence. There’s lit­tle sense here that this series of images is the result of Sarfati’s con­fi­dently chore­o­graph­ing these young peo­ple into the usual pho­to­graphic alle­gories of dis­lo­ca­tion or dis­en­fran­chise­ment, regard­less of the actual sit­u­a­tions or states of minds of these indi­vid­u­als. If any­thing, I sus­pect that what she has unlocked are mutual expe­ri­ences of uncer­tainty-​wrapped up in the mainly non­ver­bal, not-​fully-​deter­mined or explained way in which she con­ducts each of her pho­to­graphic por­tray­als.

In the realm of con­tem­po­rary art pho­tog­ra­phy, the depic­tion of teenagers has lately become a trope of sorts. This is not to sug­gest that prac­ti­tion­ers of great integrity, such as Rineke Dijkstra and Hellen van Meene, haven’t con­tributed bod­ies of work of sub­tlety and mean­ing with their rep­re­sen­ta­tions of youth. But this choice of sub­ject has become a fairly easy sym­bol in much con­tem­po­rary art pho­tog­ra­phy, which per­haps cyn­i­cally aims to invest itself with these val­ues merely by rep­re­sent­ing youth as a frag­ile and fugi­tive moment in life. Sarfati’s sub­tle visu­al­iza­tions of the pas­sions and frus­tra­tions of these young peo­ple-​all on the cusp of adult respon­si­bil­ity-​in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon, and California, might be mis­read as the lat­est addi­tion to photography’s recent near-​obses­sion with this highly pho­to­genic stage of life. Her sub­ject, how­ever, as she her­self asserts, is not youth or teenager­hood” per se, but the pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in that period of life, dur­ing which emo­tions are close to the sur­face, remind­ing us of the indi­vid­u­al­ity, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and also for­ti­tude that we all carry. Sarfati’s American series began (typ­i­cally for her) with intense research and prepa­ra­tion before any pic­tures were made; she is a pre­pos­sessed artist who inter­nally ques­tions and qual­i­fies her rea­son­ing for being drawn to a sub­ject.

She acknowl­edges her attrac­tion to lives that are being shaped by the para­doxes of where we come from and our aspi­ra­tions of where we are head­ing, and she under­stands that the inves­ti­ga­tion of such lives is most likely to be pos­si­ble in sites of mas­sive social shift (such as postin­dus­trial towns in Russia) as well as in the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of self­hood that young peo­ple con­sciously project. I imag­ine that all this allows her to be a rel­a­tively anx­i­ety-​free maker of pho­tographs, attuned not only to her own moti­va­tions but also, in the case of these par­tic­u­lar images, to the sub­tle and unex­pected encoun­ters she is liable to have, once she’s located the peo­ple and places that emit such emo­tive capac­i­ties. It is not entirely sur­pris­ing that this fluid and sub­stan­tial body of work was made over the course of only two jour­neys to America.

It is an exam­ple of one of those uncanny expe­ri­ences for pho­tog­ra­phers, impos­si­ble to fully pre­dict, sim­u­late, or repeat (with any cer­tainty): the pho­tographs, Sarfati says, just hap­pened.” She did not overtly orches­trate or attempt to define her sub­jects, but was car­ried by her own notion that, in the process of cre­at­ing, she was explor­ing and under­stand­ing them. While her pres­ence inevitably acted upon these young peo­ple, she also cre­ated the psy­cho­log­i­cal space for them, in turn, to act upon her. This per­haps accounts for Sarfati’s suc­cess in rep­re­sent­ing these American youths as-​indi­vid­u­ally and uni­ver­sally-​the car­ri­ers of states of mind that cen­ter on will­ful self-​deter­mi­na­tion-​states of mind that are by no means exclu­sive to her cho­sen sub­jects.