"Between me and my footsteps/ an instinctive separation"*
"Between me and my footsteps/an instinctive separation", I tell myself with the help of a line by Fernando Pessoa. The line is eminently suited to a discussion of the extraordinary photographs by Anna Yam.
The source and beginning of this essay lies in a feeling translated into motion, dictated by the photograph in front of me; an urge to turn away and to part from it; as if something is egging me on and pushing me forward. On the other hand, a pressing need beckons me back to the photograph, to the first sight, the first elusive impression it made. That was the way I felt each time I backed away a bit from a photograph by Anna Yam. I felt myself standing there, squinting with uncertainty, afraid of stopping.
I try to translate this offside distancing into words and come up with one sentence that rushes into another, slightly more polished sentence. The new sentence sends out yet another shoot, similar, yet different from its predecessor. Each time I believe I have settled on a definition I think I understand, it's pushed aside by another, corrected, more updated version; once again changing the photograph and my memory of it.
The photographs immediately evoke a sense of separation. Though undoubtedly an oxymoron, I insist on defining it as a renewed separation. A separation that grows richer and more intense. So I, like other viewers, tend to stand away; to go away and to come back once again.
Someone sure of what he sees will naturally be sure of what he photographs, just as someone who believes in what he remembers, will believe in the truth and validity of documentation and photography, as a reliable witness. Such a photographer will experience the click of the camera as a verdict that has decided in favor of frozen paralysis; an act of forging identity between what is seen and its photographed result. Someone so sure of these certainties will not even begin to question the elusive nature of what he has seen. He will merely join the ranks of those who slake the world's thirst for photographs that greedily document a lack of doubt. This common ambition to freeze reality is nothing but a death wish. Its results contrast starkly with the vital, hope-filled innocence given abundantly to those whose hand is light on the trigger. Freezing is the revenge of reality on those who trust in it. Freezing tries to revitalize reality by using a technique of embalming – it’s the end result of observation, with no ongoing hints at continuation.
Anna Yam has neither reserves of hope, nor a surplus of conclusions. Her photography is inconclusive. It is not embalmed; not frozen. It creates a dynamic, living reality that follows its text, which is also incessant. Her photographs are content to live with the knowledge of the expected failures of documentation. Her greatest achievement is that her photographs have the qualities of a living creature, qualities of change; qualities of reaction.
Anna Yam takes each photograph with a slight, despairing delay – as if she and the photographed object have just managed to elude each other. This is no tourist photo in real-time, if such a time exists. Neither is it a nostalgic documentation of the past. Maybe it's an authentic photograph in tourist-time. Maybe it's a photograph preparing to photograph. It's inevitably a photograph that has just missed the point. When its beauty is discovered; its lack goes into hiding. When its lack is discovered, the facts blur; when its facts are discovered, they seem like an illusion.
This is photography that begins after forgetfulness has begun to wage its war on memory.
With this in mind, when Yam clicks the button on her camera; the click epitomizes the sound of delay; the sound of missing out; the sound of erasing. This erasure does not just blot out what is; it erases one meaning by replacing it with its successor. The difficulty to remember, hence the difficulty to document, gives birth to a dynamic, ever-changing sense of yearning; not in the sentimental sense, but with reference to movement, the lack of ability to sink an anchor. Each photograph by Yam is the result of aesthetic vagrancy. The picture taken by a wavering, delayed click will be different in time, visibility and meaning, from what the eye has seen. Hence a picture that could have been biographical will become post-biographical. The most cohesive family is no more than a puzzle.
The delayed picture will not be completely other. It will not buy merit by a wild, well developed imagination, creative and dynamic design; neither with the help of gut-wrenching expressivity. It will be just a smidgen different – the bit that hurts; the bit that is nearly imperceptible. At times it can almost appear to meet the usual standards. The nearly organic change is like the difference between absolute identity and mere resemblance.
The picture, if I may use the poetic license of personification, is slightly older than what the eye can grasp…. It is postponed, it comes after seeing. Our sorrow, which intensifies with the photographs, starts from the seemingly simple feeling that if Anna had taken the photograph just slightly earlier, the inanimate object would truly be as is; that which was broken off, would remain whole; the unrealized could have healed; what was photographed on a journey would be loaded with the joys of traveling and the family would be graced by harmonious documentation. Foreignness would turn into intimacy and the intentions of the night would come clear as daylight.
Anna Yam, lacking the hope of stopping, succeeds in making us feel about her photographs as she feels about her photographed objects, in particular the question – has she chosen the right, necessary object? She manages to convey her attempt to absorb, understand, accept, reconcile and interpret; always with a sense of delay. After all, the photograph will never be able to restore anything to the photographer. It can only remind her of its inability to do so. The fact that there is no return from the photograph to the object does not optimistically imply that there is, in fact, a way forward.
At times, I imagine that Anna Yam does not choose what to photograph. Rather, she chooses from what she has photographed. From what she chooses, she asks, in retrospect – what have I photographed? And perhaps, also – why?
Facing one of her photographs, I feel like a man who is walking along the street and suddenly understands that less than a minute ago, he saw something. That something is still there, within eye's reach. He merely needs to turn his head around to see it, but it will never again be what he saw.
If we adhere to concepts from the world of photography, we must imagine that each time Anna chooses a frame to print the machine seems to print the next frame. Though it was filmed in succession and it may be hard to differentiate one frame from its predecessor, it is merely an echo of the first frame. A slight turn of the head immediately creates a new photograph. All her photographs are, like the nature of photography, a copy – the original destroys itself. When the copy becomes the original, it too will vacate its position.
In other words: observing Anna Yam's photographs is like looking in the side-mirrors of a car – what you see there has passed before you are able to identify it. Sometimes this is the seeing after the seeing. A side mirror is not an interesting angle; it’s a perspective that allows for mistakes and blunders. When we see a car alongside us through the side mirror, it has usually disappeared and we only see its reflection. Anna knows how to create a photograph that looks like a delayed identification of the car. She has the uncanny ability not to take possession of reality; not even to take possession of her family. She merely acquires the echo of reality and the shadow of her family. She reveals a non-acquisitive attitude towards her photographed objects, thus allowing them to pass or to change.
There is something so beautiful about her photographs that they can almost turn forgetting into a pleasure; at the very least because this forgetting is so productive. Yam gives the observer an active role. The observer's eye becomes the spotlight. The observer activates this spotlight, but does not control it. It is an instinctive, physical reaction that pulls in opposite directions. The observer goes in one direction and the photographs the other way; like electric poles that seem to be going backwards when we look at them from the window of a train.
Anna's work with slide projectors, in which she has created a presentation where changing slides create random juxtapositions, gives proof of her astute awareness of the nature of her photographs and their results. This is also the impression I get from a singular photograph by Anna – changing.
This would also explain the way she uses existing photographs from her family album. The photographs that lived frozen between the pages of the family album, as "non-art", are imbued with information and loyal to the task of preservation. For years on end they were clear and reliable. Suddenly, they were caught in Anna's side mirror, lost their factual validity and began to threaten our glance.
The photographs were rejuvenated; a complete contrast to eternal life. They are no longer just pictures from another era; they have become pictures of time itself. They are no longer a séance from the past; they have been given a fuse and a ticking clock. What returned to life will no longer be merely documentation. What doesn't belong to the album's owner will certainly not belong to us either. What is foreign to her will certainly be foreign to spectators. In Anna's photographs, a place becomes the path to a place.
Even when Anna is filming an ordinary, frontal, precise portrait or a picture with family members, the relatives in it look like they've been captured by the picture, on their way to another picture. Even the most harmonious family picture seems to assume a polygamous nature and nomadic character. Sometimes the people become objects, just as inanimate nature seems at times personified.
Memory is the enemy of yearning; yearning is the enemy of the present. Truth competes with changing interpretations; what is alive and changing is suspicious of the inanimate and vice versa. Random and planned, central and marginal, large and small – all are interchangeable and dependent on context.
Anna Yam photographs and then goes on to check and see if she has managed, once again, to shoot the wrong frame, the next frame, the other frame. Each frame has another frame tagging along. From her unique position and stance, Anna lets herself photograph any subject that comes along, with the certainty that the subject will not succumb. When she photographs a picture that is potentially satisfying, the result seems to say that satisfaction was just here, but has dissolved and left a train of deception in its wake. The train is beautiful on its own, but remains neither a train, nor beautiful.
* The title of the essay is taken from a poem by Fernando Pessoa "What I Made out of Life" ("Que fiz eu da vida"), published in Hebrew by Carmel Publications. I would like to end with a poem that caught my eye, while looking for something else; a poem from the same book.
The horror and the mystery of existence
the existence of life; the existence of life besides me
the existence of houses and things around me –
the table on which I lean, the light of the sun
on the book that I don't read because it is a stranger –
these are the illusions of existence…an absurd entity,
a whole mystery of each and every thing.
past existence and the people in it, their experience
other, and the imagined future –
it weighs on me in its mystery
stalking me in terror.
What sees all this in me, is this itself!
Out of the corner of my eye, on the next page, I glimpsed another line from the end of a poem "in light of our ignorance about the way all this can be". As the view from the corner of the eye is the core of this essay, I copied down the line… though it's not the line I saw…. and yet…
** (Translators note: the translation of the poem makes no pretense at being an artistic rendition)