Richard Ansett

Camels, Tunisia desert © Richard Ansett 1992

The Colonial Gaze

‘..the vast territory her gaze had discovered…on the dry earth of this measureless land scraped to the bone, a few men ceaselessly made their way, possessing nothing but serving no one, the destitute and free lords of a strange kingdom.’

Reading Albert Camus’ The Adulterous Wife transports me back to the Tunisian desert as a younger version of me when photography was merely a gateway to seeing and understanding the world. Perhaps the sharpness of the light in North Africa encourages the focus on existential detail or perhaps there is something in the cultural meme that Camus personifies. I am seeing the camel train approaching, the slow effortlessness of the movement of the dromedaries belies the speed at which they approach. I had a youthful beauty then, as the camels approached I had to run at full speed in the fine desert sand to keep up just to capture a cliche silhouette. Eventually I stopped and watched this paradox slowly swiftly move away. A man, the owner I assumed, with a dark leather face gestured to me to come with them and in that moment I had to decide to leave the life I knew or stay on this side of the camera. I still feel the disappointment at my choice. I remain, observing the world relative to my own instead of participating in it; the cowardice in that moment and an opportunity lost. It was an early marker. My photographs are a constant arbiter and document of my courage and cowardice and a reminder that risk is always rewarded.

I am now in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges , I walk past a homeless beggar and safely past him I watch him. He is so weak that a dog growls and snarls at him sensing his weakness, it moves closer with each breath, the beggar can barely muster the strength to raise his stick to keep it at bay. I stayed and watched hopelessly as the delicate and terrifying balance was maintained and I did nothing, to photograph it felt like the worst betrayal, to capitalise on this suffering without any tangible concern for my subject. Even knowing that at some point the man would loose the battle I walked away. My hopelessness and guilt in that moment seemed to define my relationship to travelling the world and observing the daily terrors of my fellow humans played out for my colonial gaze. India is so all consuming in its beauty and ugliness one learns quickly to compartmentalise the daily normalised acts of depravity.

To feel helpless in the face of existential suffering has to be addressed, I feel that perhaps only I have seen these things because I have had to act to address the guilt in my life now. I seek to address my past failures through redemption (proof positive that there is no such things as a selfless act), I find it difficult to imagine life without this balance and to live life without this correction is ultimately self harming. There is a consequence to ignoring the suffering of others it is an infection of character each time we do it and it is part of the attrition that forms the adult personality for better or worse. We are not conscious of the monsters we are becoming, we only think the best of ourselves.

At the top of my list of many of the greatest photographs I never took was in a circus tent in Kerala, I recall the site as being beyond what was possible to capture in a mere photograph or perhaps not worthy of the medium. In truth and in hyndesight, the latter but it was and remains a perfect metaphor for my thoughts of India at the time. I had walked into the circus area in the early morning whilst the performers were waking, documenting their routines on a rare b/w positive film. On entering the main tent as my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness I photographed a boy in charge of the elephants and glanced up at the old worn out canvas. It had become so rotten that thousands of holes allowed the light to break through creating a constellation, it was perfectly beautiful and taught me in that moment that great beauty and understanding can come from even the most impoverished landscapes. I did not even try to photograph it, I wanted it just for myself perhaps but also mere two dimensional documentation was not worthy. Somethings are only for the mind’s eye

There are often sections of literature that accidentally reflect my view of photography and Camus inevitably captures it’s existential significance in ‘The Adulterous Wife”

“She only knew that this kingdom has been promised to her from time immemorial and that it would ever be hers, never again, except perhaps in that fleeting moment when she opened her eyes once more on the suddenly still sky and its streams of fixed light, as the voices rising from the Arab town fell suddenly quiet. It seemed to her that the turning earth had simply stopped and that from now on would ever grow old or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended, except in her, where at that very moment someone was weeping with pain and wonder.’

#AlbertCamus #colonialGaze #travelphotography