Kamel Moussa - 'Equilibre instable'

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14/11/2018 - 13/01/2019

Kamel Moussa - 'Equilibre instable'

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Since 1789, revolutions have always created a mass of images, often because they have failed to produce the results hoped for by their protagonists, and to such an extent that revolutionary images, be they nineteenth-century engravings or historical paintings or later photos or films, have ended up creating, in the same way as images of the great upheavals of history, a recognisable iconographic model, that of the heroic gesture that promises a better tomorrow.

So we find, to a greater or lesser extent, the ingredients that give an epic sense to “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix: an allegorical figure connecting us to the legend, a flag to identify the cause and some more prosaic details to give a sort of grounding in real life. This recipe was used so often in the twentieth-century press that, even today, it is difficult for photo-reporters to ignore it. The editors and sub-editors who lay out the newspapers demand the shots they know the readers expect. Often, even before the events have occurred, they already have an idea in their minds of how they should be illustrated. The end of an reign, the fall of a regime, the overthrow of a despot all mean we expect, every time, a selection of images that include the toppling of a statue, the triumphal entry of the liberators cheered by locals or heaving crowds brandishing banners and placards.

The Tunisian revolution of December 2010 and January 2011 did not escape this visual formatting, as you can see from the most cursory internet search for images, which, unsurprisingly, brings up the red national flag and gigantic, heaving crowds. What is worrying is that doing the same search for the Egyptian revolution brings up almost identical results, as does a search for images of the Libyan civil war, although the national flags there are green. Thus, in the era of globalisation, the images broadcast by the media reduce to a few clichés complex and unique realities, and further reinforce these clichés for the future.

As time passes, the Tunisian revolution is preserved in our collective image bank as an amazing triumph of the hopes of popular protesters. A stilted cliché that has increasingly less and less relevance to the lives of those people today.

To avoid falling into the trap of a monolithic stereotype, Kamel Moussa’s portfolio of photos evokes the complexities of the revolution, and the doubts that have arisen from them. Through real-life portraits, taken with the active co-operation of the sitters, he introduces us to the intimate, nuanced geography of his native land, which runs contrary to the formatted certainties of emblematic images. This is not to say that he has tried to evade the inherent symbolic nature of the images — how could he? — but, rather, that he wanted to reinvent it by giving it a form other than the deep-rooted Western religious imagery viewed through the lens of half a century of humanist photo-journalism.

So don’t waste your time looking for some sort of “mater dolorosa” (in the style of Hocine Zaourar) in his images, nor attempting to decipher the usual devout Christian syntax inherited from the Council of Nicea, nor transfering to them the tired (historical) allegories used by painters, because the language he has chosen is that of photography. Or at least that photography that promotes meetings with people in the places where they live. That photography that takes into account how they want to present themselves, to the point that their portraits almost become self-portraits. That photography open to the fortuitous, to chance, even to accidents, to avoid the expected clichés. In short, a documentary photography that is open to the poetry of life.

Kamel Moussa is a member of the generation of photographers who have understood that, in this period of a tsunami of images, the difficult thing is not to produce them, but rather to avoid the ready-made clichés that come to mind when looking through the viewfinder. For him, as for them, authenticity has less to do with an illusory conformity with real life than with a determination to keep the clichés of globalisation at a distance. So he mistrusts as much the scalpel of objectivity as navel-gazing aestheticism, and has chosen a path between documentary description and artistic vision to express the difficulties experienced by his country as it attempts to maintain its balance through an unstable situation where its inhabitants have to remain constantly alert. With him, we are able to understand that looking, really looking, is in itself an act of resistance.

Jean-Marc Bodson.

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