The portrait you see was taken by Hoda Afshar. When she sent it to me, she said, “This is you, Behrouz, with your passion, your fire, and your writer’s hands. It symbolises your resistance.” When I heard this, I paused. “You are right,” I told her. “But I do not see myself in this picture. I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him. Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”
I told her the image scares me.
In my book No Friend But the Mountains, I describe the experience of refugees being exiled to Manus Island and our experience with the professional photographers assigned to photograph us at the airport as we arrived. I explain this situation from the perspective of a defenceless subject – a completely passive agent lacking any semblance of power. By contrast, the photographers have the capacity to totally dominate our bodies – targeting us with their cameras, claiming ownership by taking photos of us. A kind of relationship exists between photographer and subject; in fact, a one-sided power dynamic between them.
On Manus, during the years that followed, I have had the opportunity to work closely with some of the most successful and most well-known photographers and journalists in the world. However, in some cases, the oppressive power dynamic still conditions our interactions and has given me a strong sense of grievance. Within these relationships, the camera is weaponised and aimed at the subject in an attempt to capture an image of a refugee that evokes the most heightened sense of compassion possible.
In these cases, the refugee is a kind of subject that represents passivity: a being without agency, a being without personhood, a being without the nuances and complexities that constitute the human condition, a being without power, a being without a free and independent identity. In this relationship, the gaze of the camera or the journalist is a weapon that eliminates the personhood of subjects – they “de-identify” the refugees.
However, the portrait of me by Hoda Afshar stands in opposition to a fixed and static image. It is a critique of the hackneyed impression of a refugee that has become idealised around the world. In this work, the subject is not passive; rather, he is fully aware of the image-making process and active in the production. In fact, he is a co-creator. One might say that the subject is also the creative source behind this work. In this portrait, one can see fire, one can see smoke – clearly, the context of the image is not unlike a comprehensive mise en scène produced by an artist.
Another point worth considering is that it represents a unique and profound form of trust between the photographer and subject. But this trust must not be interpreted in merely ethical terms – it is a trust that the subject has towards the artistic vision and perspective of the photographer. In this image, the camera is not a weapon, it is an instrument that evokes a space where the subject can manifest his identity, personhood and individual personality. This is exactly what has been missing during all these years from representations by superficial forms of journalism. It is also what has been absent from the creations of many artists working on the topic of refugeehood. There are, of course, a small number of people in this field who have produced creative work from a viewpoint that challenges simplistic representations. But I think that what has been created in this work is the emergence of a new language and a fresh point of view regarding refugees, one that foregrounds their humanity.
Why, then, does it scare me?
This image frightens me because, from my perspective, it reveals the modern human being stripped bare. This is an image of a human being that has been stripped of his identity, personhood and humanity. This is an image of a human being degraded by other human beings, tortured and deprived of all his human rights. This image is frightening because it is a symbol of a human being who has been banished from society in the most merciless and most barbaric way. It is the image of a human being who has been incarcerated on a remote and forlorn island. This is the image of a human being who has been striving to tell the world that he exists, that he is a human being, he is a person. He has been trying to tell the world that he is not a number.
I explained to Hoda that I do not see Behrouz Boochani in this image. When I look at this image over and over again, I do not see myself. Instead, I see a human being who is standing behind the borders, a human being standing in the space between human and animal. He is not a human being because he has been expelled from human society, and he is also not an animal. He is precisely on the threshold of law and violation of law; he has been positioned on the threshold of civilisation and barbarism. This is significant – both Hoda and the spectator view the image from this perspective, they see this as the portrait of Behrouz Boochani, but I see it from quite a different perspective and see different aspects.
From my viewpoint, this is not Behrouz Boochani. This is the image of a human being who with his own way of knowing and with his flesh and bones – with his protruding ribs – is gazing back at a society of human beings and wants to assert: “This is me, this is a human being.” He wants to say: “This is me, someone who has been exiled to this island. This is me, with all the peculiarities and complexities of a human being.”
This image shows exactly all the affliction that this human being has endured, all the pain that has forever marked his body. This is an image that opens theoretical spaces for aesthetic readings because it can speak a sophisticated language of art. And this is the very definition of art: the creation of a work that has been produced in order to be beautiful and also to act as a foundation for theorising and a profound way of knowing. And in this way, it can communicate the deepest human emotions with immediacy.
One of the most significant aspects of this image is its afterlife. What I mean is that this photo is extremely powerful when interpreted from an aesthetic perspective and in terms of art-photography techniques, and in future its method will be considered with high regard. But again, I wish to emphasise that what I mean is not that this is an image of “Behrouz Boochani”. It is not the photo of a particular historical personality. Rather, this is an image that represents a dark phase in the contemporary history of Australia. It depicts a dark phase in the contemporary history of the Western world.
This image is the mirror image of history, a historical period during which Australia has exiled more than a thousand innocent human beings to Manus Island and Nauru to suit its own political agenda and power struggles. These people have been detained for years and subjected to systematic torture. Over time, this image will acquire greater importance – but it is only a small part of a larger whole, an artistic project that I have been working on with Hoda. This work will be exhibited for the first time at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
The project involves a video installation entitled Remain, in which we aim to free interpretations and analyses regarding the situation of refugees imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru from the superficial clutches of the media and to reposition them within intellectual and artistic spaces. We have been collaborating with translator and academic Omid Tofighian to establish and develop this project in the context of literature and scholarship.
Our video installation is both a theoretical and artistic project that is the product of months of research, investigation and collaborative thinking. It brings together performance art, song, historical artefacts, deep human emotions, the concept of death, the experience of being neglected and forgotten and the relationship one has with nature.
What is important for me and Hoda is the creation of a new artistic language that is not beholden to the framework of colonialism, the history of colonial violence and colonial ways of knowing. This work has been created in accordance with the discourse and within the intellectual space that we call Manus Prison Theory. In future we plan to write more about this artistic and theoretical project.
Translated by Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/University of Sydney.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 24, 2018 as "This human being".
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