Copyright Jim Goldberg 2009 courtesy Steidl
Reviewing Jim Goldberg’s photobook Open See, published this year by Steidl, it may be initially a stretch to think of this body of work coming from the Magnum photographic agency as a photojournalist project. In more than one way it is difficult to think of this body of work as a derivative of the other renowned members of this storied cooperative photographic agency, including such photographic luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour, Dennis Stock, Burk Uzzle, Sebastiao Salgado, Marc Riboud, Elliot Erwit, Bruce Davidson and Steve McCurry.
On the other hand it is necessary to understand how ground breaking these earlier photographers were in executing their photo journalistic projects. They experimented with new cameras, lens, compositions and other means to interpret their stories. That desire to experiment and attempt new processes to create a narrative between his viewer and the subject is perhaps more of where Goldberg is aligned with of the history of Magnum and the now current Magnum photographers Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr and Alec Soth.
This collective book is composed of four independently bound softcover books that are assembled together with paperboard band. Three of the books are photo essays of the people from three different global regions who are seeking hope and a better place in Western Europe. Their hope is to reside in a safe, economic, religious and political promised land. The fourth books is the culmination of what they expected and what their reality became. The photographs often have text, marks, drawings, symbols and paintings created by Goldberg’s subjects.
Book one opens with a blurred road, soft focus, low contrast, which provides the feeling that we are on the move to some unknown and mysterious destination. This is the story of those who are residing in Eastern Europe, Russian and ex-soviet block nations and dream of the possibilities that are to the West. Likewise, book two is about those who reside in India, Bangladesh, Far East with similar dreams and hopes. Book three documents those in Africa who reside in refugee camps and living in sordid conditions by Western standards, again dreaming and thinking of Europe as the place of renewal and hope. The people are documented in transit, on the move, attempting to obtain their dreams that they have painted on their walls as a constant reminder. In book four they have obtained their dream of living in Europe, and now face the reality of their situation, which is not always what they had expected.
The book is a wondering and jumbled narrative without captions and pagation. The photographs are not always sharply focused or “properly” exposed with a full tonal range, creating a sense of discomfort, as these could well be the photographs of someone new to the photographic process. The subjects who have been photographed have been given the opportunity to work on the surface and verso of the photographic print to divulge something personal about themselves.
The interior photographs appear to be affixed to the pages as though it is a picture album in the making, a raw record of thoughts, emotions and memories. The photographs are not created in a consistent manner, as there are some with sharp focus, soft focus & blurry, shallow depth of field, large depth of field, tight framing, wide framing, low contrast, high contrast, Polaroids, decorated photos, straight photos, spread across pages, wrapped around the same sheet, continuation as you turn the page, in either black & white or color.
The photographs are not always well composed, properly exposed & focused or laid out within the book in an orderly way. Many are in some way flawed and not perfect. A wonderful analogy is created for the flaws of mankind. Mistakes and difficult decisions are made which results in errors, sadness, misery, anguish, trouble, and sadness to occur. Life is never perfect, thus Goldberg is asserting that the photographs of life should not be perfect either.
The chaotic page lay-outs portray a sense of chaos, variability and randomness of mankind’s existence. Sometimes people try to do the right thing for themselves and the greater society and still fail. Sometimes people are concerned about the right thing for only oneself and just screw the others.
Goldberg invites his subjects to become part of the dialog. He and his assistants must carry a bundle of various pens and markers capable of writing on his photographic prints that he offers up.Goldberg’s empathy with his subjects and their social situation is such that they open themselves to him and his photographic interactive process.
His subjects reveal their bruises, scars, situations, hurts, problems, desires, regrets, disappointments, appreciations, hopes, despairs and dreams for the future. Sometime his subjects identify themselves by name, age, country of origin, and sometime they attempt to conceal their faces and for what ever reason do not want to be identifiable. There are testimonials of hope, pleas, outpouring of despair, statements of where they are now in life, or other relevant personal facts and information. I sense that Goldberg intends to create a visual connection with a real person who is not a statistic number, but a human being.
Goldberg attempts to capture their decisions to improve themselves by exiling to Western Europe. Some of his subjects lament how they maybe worse off for making the decision to leave their native home. They are illegal, without papers, in poverty, needing to choose or perhaps pushed into an unlawful life to survive. This speaks to their inaccessibility to complete and accurate information and making decisions on sub marginal and untrue facts. Goldberg documents that for a great many, there is an underlying sense of hope and desire for something better.
The text of Armara Lakhouse’s essay is in both English and French and the book design was completed by Jim Goldberg.
By Douglas Stockdale