Words Faces Pictures: beauty, photography and death from the Balkans to Paris

In the 1994 film Before the Rain the war photographer Aleksandr returns to Macedonia. Guilt-ridden at his complicity in death – a militant shot a prisoner in Bosnia to ensure Aleks could get an exciting photo, something to show for the tedium of wartime journalism – Aleks retreats to his now-divided home village.

Told in three sections (Words,  Faces, Pictures), the film’s impossible chronology ties together the Balkans and Western Europe and, conversely, shows relationship after relationship fall apart.

In London Aleks’ lover, photo editor Anne, tries to break up with her husband Nick in an upmarket restaurant. He, too excited at the concurrent news of her pregnancy, does not pick up on her cues and begins to celebrate. She tries to get through to him, he orders champagne. The tension in their mismatched conversation mounts in tandem with an argument taking place in the background: a Balkan waiter and his associate have a disagreement, money is thrown around, they fight and finally the associate leaves in anger. The argument is unsubtitled, leaving the audience as unable to understand the source of tension as poor Nick is to understand the gaps in his marriage. When the maitre d’ apologises for the disturbance Nick jokes that ‘at least they weren’t from Ulster’ – at least we don’t understand this conflict well enough to have to feel guilty about it.

The waiter’s associate suddenly returns, and opens fire on the clientele. Nick, among others, dies. So used to inspecting images of death Anne now cradles her husband’s bloodied remains: “Your face, Nick… your face…”

This scene cuts to the heart of the film: there is no Balkan conflict that is not also a European conflict, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, civil wars don’t ‘get more civil once they get here’, the distance between death and prime time images of death – seen, consumed but never understood – does not exist.

A few hours ago The Guardian posted photos by Adrián Švec, a Slovakian photographer first on scene at the La Belle Equipe restaurant in Paris after the shooting that left nineteen people inside dead.

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It is a surreal feeling, reading a metaphor in real life.

In the the sober report vignettes about the event and the people affected connect the black-and-white photographs. The article goes to some effort to highlight the ethnic diversity of the area and names some of the victims and survivors. Here was unity, here the ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been successfully blurred.

The first thing the report names, though – after the photographer and his girlfriend – is the camera:

He took these images using a Leica M6 camera.

For all the issues around the ethics of photography, of representing victims, of our well-established collective appetite for torture porn and the aestheticisation of suffering I don’t feel uneasy about the photos having been taken, and I certainly don’t intend any slight on Švec or the Guardian journalist Luke Harding. Who wouldn’t record what they can when history opens up underneath them?

However, I do feel uneasy about the fact that the camera has an identity comparable to those it is pointed at. I am uneasy about the fact that the photos are beautiful. Shouldn’t the photos, at the very least, be ugly?

Most of all I am uneasy about the fact that I find them beautiful.

Is it the black and white that does it? Time detaches from monochrome images in a way it doesn’t with colour, it strips away reality and leaves behind an idea. Ask Quentin Tarantino: people don’t have problems with blood; they have problems with red. Ask my wedding photographer: the room won’t look messy in the photo; it’ll be candid. Natural.

Before the Rain begins where it ends: in a tomato patch outside an Orthodox monastery. An old monk surveys the world and explains to his silent companion, the novice Kiril, that unlike his young friend he could never take the vow of silence, as “such heavenly beauty merits words.”

I don’t know what the black-and-white equivalent of words is, although I do know there are simpler, uglier ways of saying “history opens up underneath them” and “time detaches from monochrome”. But I do not understand the world on its current crooked axis, and I am having difficulty processing  my thoughts about mediated death and global crisis without fetishising those same thoughts.

I am stuck, and I don’t know what to do with words and pictures.

 I saw one man lying over a table, his face was full of blood. It’s beyond words.

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