Review by Steve Harp •
As I looked through Ara Oshagan’s 2021 monograph displaced, for some odd reason I was reminded of James Agee’s 1941 study of tenant farming in the American south, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. There is a surface level of similarity in that both books are, in a sense “documentary” – considerations of the lives of specific groups of people in specific places at specific historical moments. But beyond this, the two books seem almost mirror opposites. Whereas Let Us Now Praise Famous Men considers three families firmly planted – mired, one might argue – in the land they work in the Depression era south (“How was it we were caught?” Agee imagines the tenants wondering), displaced deals not with the rooted, but with the uprooted – the growth of Armenia’s diaspora in Beirut after the genocide of the early 20th century.
So, I was strangely reminded of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in relation to displaced for their differences rather than their similarities. Agee’s book opens with some 60 stark, black and white photographs by Walker Evans (referred to as “Book One”), followed by nearly 500 pages of text as Agee attempts painstakingly to archive the lives, indeed, the very existence of the three tenant families. displaced reverses that, opening with three full-bleed, double page spread photographs followed by an essay, “The Bridge,” by Lebanese-Armenian poet Krikor Beledian (translators, Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis), followed by another 55 photographs by Oshagan.
Whereas Agee’s text grapples with the impossibilities of documentary by aiming to offer – in image and word – an exhaustive depiction of the lives of the three families, Beledian’s text (and Oshagan’s photographs) seems to play with that arrangement. While Agee tries to reveal as much as possible of the lives of his subjects, the figures in displaced remain distant, impenetrable, unknown to the viewer. As the book’s press release states, this book seeks to “straddle the line between documentary and narrative”. Or, put another way, between the concrete and the metaphorical. And this dance between text and image is what recalled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so strongly for me, particularly this sentence from its preface: “[The photographs], and the text, are coequal, mutually independent and fully collaborative.”
Beledian’s text draws the reader-viewer into a liminal world, a place of in-betweens and dislocation. Phrases such as “the beginning of an unreachable country”, “at the very edge” and “Giligia which is not there” and words such as labyrinth, maze, threshold abound in his essay, significantly titled “The Bridge.” After all, a bridge is a link between two obviously separated and demarcated spaces and this book – in words and images – is about these intervening spaces. In liminal space one is inherently between places, displaced.
At one point in his essay Beledian writes, “When your gaze returns to the path opened by the bridge, for a moment you feel as if you are swaying on the waters flowing from above in the sky and below you.” The sense of swaying, of unfixed movement, is strongly suggested by Oshagan’s photographs. Where am I? In my initial viewing of the images, I felt nothing if not displaced visually.
I found the images beautiful and seductive precisely because of their sense of disarrangement. What am I looking at? On the one hand these images suggest documentary (not least based on the conventions we have come to expect – black and white, grainy, a tenuous relationship to focus). But these conventions are pushed to a breaking point and beyond; past documentary to… narrative (to use the language of the press release)? Or, as I suggest above, perhaps we push past documentary to metaphor? Something that suggests or recalls something else.
Consider these three of the 58 images in the book:
pages 6 – 7: The third of the three opening images – before the opening essay and other textual material – is (as mentioned above) a double-page spread, full-bleed depicting a hand in the upper left quadrant, pointing. The hand is in silhouette, out of focus. From the wrist dangles a cross on a bracelet. Below the hand, across the bottom of the frame is a cityscape of buildings and traffic. What are we seeing? “Looking toward Ashrafieh, Norashen, 2018” we are told in the list of photo captions at the back of the book. We see a threshold, a looking across, a gap. The city seen from above seems labyrinthine. “The beginning of an unreachable country”.
pages 42 – 43: Another double-page spread, full-bleed. In the immediate foreground what appears to be a face, out of focus, washed out, suggesting, if you will, a kabuki mask. Both sides of the frame are opaque black and, in the background, in the middle of the frame, a hunched over figure. We see face and shoulders but the top edge of the frame cuts across through the bridge of the nose. No eyes, a mouth open in a rictus of… we cannot read the expression because the gutter cuts directly through the middle of the face. The upper left of the frame suggests another space – a room, a hall, a closet? – another layer of ambiguity. “Debligossian family, Nor Marash, 2018.”
pages 68 – 69: A photograph of what looks to be a café. “Anjar, a rural town established by Armenian refugees from Mousa Ler region of Western Armenia, Beqaa Vallet, 2013.” This, too, is a double-page spread, full-bleed. The image is simultaneously an interior and an exterior – the right side of the frame depicts two men sitting in front of a washed-out window, in front of them a small table with two glasses, next to them a padded bench. The left side of the frame shows a man in hat and gloves sitting outdoors on a concrete bench. Another man seems about to cross the road, looking to his right at an oncoming car. Barren trees and an undeveloped field stretch into the background. Three distinct spaces in one frame. Each occupied by a distinct person (or people) physically close but separate, seemingly displaced into three very different places.
The book itself is approximately 7 ¾” x 10,” image-wrapped hardcover. As mentioned, all of the photographs in the book are double page spreads. Exactly half are full page bleeds, half are bordered, with top and one side even, the bottom and other side variant. Even in the layout, something seems (intentionally) off, not quite uniform, just slightly displaced. The gutter – usually the bane of a photobook artist’s existence – is used strategically by Oshagan (and designer Lisa Dreschel) to cut through the frame to create what, on first consideration, often seems to be two separate images from a single photograph. The gutter itself becomes a liminal space, seemingly dividing the image into two different views, connected but displaced, fragmented.
displaced is not only a document or narrative of diaspora, of a people displaced into a new country, a place that seemingly remains unfamiliar in its familiarity (or familiar in its unfamiliarity?) but it is also an experience of displacement for the reader-viewer, who is never sure what is being seen or how to see it, constantly swaying. Midway through his essay, Beledian describes wandering through the bazaars of Beirut, looking for used textbooks “as alluring as they are intimidating” and I thought of Oshagan’s photographs – “alluring and intimidating,” but also compelling and baffling. And endlessly beguiling.
Ara Oshagan’s photobook Mirror has been previous featured in PhotoBook Journal: Mirror
Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
displaced, Ara Oshagan
Photographer: Ara Oshagan, born Beirut, Lebanon and resides in Glendale California
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag (Heidelberg, Germany, copyright 2021)
Essay: Krikor Beledian (translation: Taline Voskeritchian, Christopher Millis)
Text: Armenian, English
Hardcover image-wrap, sewn binding, duotone illustrations, printed and bound in
Germany, ISBN 978-3-96900-014-4
Photobook designer: Kehrer Design (Lisa Drechsel)
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.