‘How serene he was in his treatment of power’ – Baptiste Giroudon’s ‘Afghan Portraits’

In Max Kozloff’s book ‘The Theatre of the Face’ Chapter Four is entitled ‘The Sander Effect’ and its content refers to the impact that August Sander’s portraits of individuals in post World War I German society have had on the development of portrait photography since their production. I remember feeling genuinely cold when viewing Sander’s images while I was studying photography, and their effect on my understanding of portraiture at the time was really significant; they crucially changed my thought process towards and comprehension of the power and possible function of portrait photography; visually, sociologically and anthropologically.

At the end of last month I went along to the Foto8 Summer Launch Party at HOST Gallery in London, a vibrant event at which I was really excited to be viewing the floor-to-ceiling display of photography, a large portion of it being new to me. When I first saw the work of Baptiste Giroudon that was displayed there, my mind immediately jumped to Kozloff’s writing, and the fraction of Sander’s work that seemed embedded in Giroudon’s.

Giroudon’s series ‘Afghan Portraits’ evidences life in the Afghan capital, Kabul, during the current election campaign and the ongoing conflict that persists in the city.

Like Sander’s portraits, Giroudon’s images are drenched in politics from an individual and holistic perspective. Of Sander, Kozloff remarks,

Sander was simultaneously a collaborator and a detached social transgressor. A viewer is surprised to discover the aggressive force of his impassivity.

This ability to be concurrently attached to and detached from his subject is a skill that Giroudon displays voluminously in his work, but interestingly the chill that this evokes in me through Sander’s work is not evident through Giroudon’s series. I can assign this to only one facet of Giroudon’s portraits, and that is colour, an element that obviously can’t be studied through the work of Sander.

I want to explain this by first of all referring to a conversation that I attended between Jean Wainwright and Dinu Li when Li was exhibiting ‘Family Village’ at the Text + Work Gallery at the then Arts Institute at Bournemouth. Within the discussion Li talked about Vermeer’s ‘Woman with a Lute’ and specifically the triangle made up of the lute, the woman’s arm and the map on the wall, that was essential to the compositional success of the painting.

In hearing this I thought immediately of Alec Soth’s portrait, ‘Alex, Nicaslo, California’. I’ve always felt that there are three primary points of colour in this portrait, (the red clothing in the wash basket, the red leaves in the bush on the right of the picture, and the small hint of peach in the leaves above the subject’s head) which contribute to its success in directing the eye around the image and to the subject, and significantly constructing and uniting the various elements of the portrait. Despite this, both the triangular shape in Vermeer’s painting and the points of colour forming a triangle in Soth’s portrait are not the most noticeable aspects of the works, although for me they are the most memorable, perhaps for this reason.

From this I realised that the use of colour in photographic portraiture, particularly of Giroudon’s nature, is often sought after so desperately, sometimes resulting in an imposing effect upon the viewer. It seems particularly challenging to achieve outstanding colour balance and compatibility of colour between subject and environment within a portrait. I’ve also realised, as with Soth’s work, that if the impact of colour within a portrait punches me as an afterthought, that’s when I enjoy it the most.

The success of this in Giroudon’s portraits is pretty remarkable. Through the compatibility of tone and colour between subject and environment, we gain a much greater sense of the individual and their place within their landscape. I think this is because as much as the subjects are distinct and individualistic, through this emphasised affinity that they have with their environment we understand to a greater extent how emotionally and politically embedded they are within it. The viewer can almost feel their history and heritage because it is visually rooted within them and in their surroundings, heightening our levels of emotion and empathy. Where the landscape is, for example, simultaneously resilient and vulnerable, so too is the subject. Their social situation is therefore not just reflected in their eyes, but in the pigments of their eyes and through the pigment of their skin, which seems to instinctively match such pigments in the environment surrounding them. Look at the effect that Giroudon’s use of the colour green has on unification within individual images and the series as a whole. For me the beauty of Giroudon’s series then is that his subjects become his and their landscapes.

This ability to embed the subject in their surroundings can also be said of the subject matter, where objects are used as metaphors for conflict or as a desire for peace. Subtle references to weapons and bloodshed can be found, for example in a local leader’s walkie talkie or the splatters of paint behind his head, yet there is an equal abundance of natural beauty in the landscape and flowers throughout the series, although I’m not sure whether this conjures remembrance as much as vitality. This question is also raised where the viewer is confronted by human trace as much as human existence.

Sander and Giroudon’s portraits have compelled me to think about what it means to emphasise individual and societal vulnerability through portraiture. There is almost a child in each face, and Giroudon seems to bring out what the loss of childhood means to each individual. I’m inclined to say that the child’s look in the final picture in the series is the most adult of all, but I can’t put my finger on whether it’s too childlike to be adult, or too knowing to be childlike. Perhaps this ambiguity is the key.

Kozloff highlights the fact that Sander ‘wanted to show everyone as lively cogs in a complex mechanism, to acknowledge that the times were lawless.’ This is achieved by both Sander and Giroudon partly through the dehumanisation of their subjects in the titles of their portraits. There are no names, and we see the people of Germany and Kabul identified only by their occupation or social position, in this way becoming primarily a component of their society.

However it’s not only about viewing people within a society as a constituent part, but actually being able to successfully depict them in this way and to genuinely see people equally despite their social status. Both their individuality and social standing become simultaneously irrelevant and essential in understanding that in each case what we are actually viewing is succinctly the human being.

We must recognise, however, that when Kozloff remarked of Sander, ‘How serene he was in his treatment of power’ which we can also apply to Giroudon, he must also have recognised that the effects of such serenity are not just achieved by normalising and almost equalising social status and power, but by recognising the power that lies with the photographer himself. In releasing the shutter the implications or purpose of the product may be far more far reaching than the shutter speed might imply at that moment.

At 27 years old, however, Giroudon has produced a mature and anthropologically relevant piece of photography, which says as much about the mechanism of a society saturated by war and political uncertainty as it does about the experiences of the individuals within it. He has recognised the responsibility afforded to himself through the power of control, but treated such responsibility with sensitivity in presumably understanding that it is the power of control in itself that is the epitome of war.