This Week In Photography Books – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, I like to watch the grass grow. It’s pointless, I know. Impossible. Still, I enjoy it. Sitting still. Listening to the quiet. Learning patience.

Perhaps some are born with more patience than others. If that’s the case, I was at the back of the line. It’s been a slow process, (not ironically,) but I’m finally getting the hang of things. Like a good Zen koan, it’s not a lesson to be learned quickly.

Earlier today, I found myself picking through the remnants of my book pile. Yes, it’s time for a re-up at photo-eye. I’m headed there tomorrow, but that doesn’t help me today. So I decided to take another look at a few books that I’d previously dismissed. Maybe if I just take a bit more time, my opinion might change?

The first couple were still boring, so no dice. Then I came to Viviane Sassen’s “Parasomnia,” recently published by Prestel in Germany. I’d already picked this one up, (and put it down) twice, so I was not optimistic. But hey, you never know. (Plus, I think she was included in MOMA’s “New Photography 2011,” and those guys are never wrong, right?)

The first couple of passes were hard for me, because this is one more project where someone from the First world goes to visit the poverty of the Third. Been there. Done that. And the narrative is non-linear, if one could call it a narrative at all.

This time, though, I slowed down, and realized that the book opens with a short story by Moses Isegawa. Normally, I breeze right past stuff like that. (Don’t you?) But today, practicing my patience, I started to read. It’s about eleven pages or so, nothing too time-consuming, but thoroughly engrossing, and 100% necessary. The story follows a teen-aged boy as he wakes up to another morning of hardship in Uganda, 2011. Dreamy and poignant, it sets the tone for the pictures to follow.

But I’m not sure that “sets the tone” is the right way to put it. This book needs the story. It gives us a time, a place, a backstory, and a vibe. The photos to follow need to be seen in the context of a desperately poor place, racked with violence and natural disasters. The streets smell like urine, kids sit on the side of the dirt roads with their willies hanging out, beer halls rage music all night, jerry cans filled with water must be carried long distances, and opportunities are tragically scarce. People die. People disappear. Heat waves radiate up off the asphalt, such as there is.

You have to read the story to understand Ms. Sassen’s vision. That makes the book a collaboration. Which is interesting. Most essays are throwaways, added to help the publisher feel more comfortable about the possibility of some ROI. Honestly, I’ve heard enough about the importance of bagging a big name to write an essay that no one will read.

And what of the pictures? Are they less good for needing Mr. Isegawa’s context? Not sure I can answer that question. I need to think on that a while. But I’m not here to judge her artistic cannon, fortunately, just a book. And I’m glad Ms. Sassen was wise enough to begin her book as she did. (And that I was forced to be patient enough to appreciate it.)

The photographs range from portraits to still lives to obviously staged situations. Each type of image repeats, thereby moving solidly into the symbolic. Young African men and women, staring at the camera, intently. Caucasian people, hiding from the stark sun with towels and leaves over their eyes. Flowering trees to prove that life goes on, and burnt stumps to remind us that it doesn’t.

Vegetables left to rot on the ground. Tomatoes and corn. Why would that happen in a place with hungry people? Too many pesticides? Was the owner taken away by government agents, his/her possessions dropped behind? We see a freshly-dug grave, several shrines, and a red plastic bag hovering above a concrete tomb.

There are no guns, no machetes, no blood. But we do see a young man in a red shirt sitting in a blue chair that has been tipped onto the ground. And another photo, this one from the cover, of a body floating in the river, face down. Dead? You can’t tell.

I’ve said the in past that I don’t Google to get a better understanding of a book. If I’m supposed to know something, I expect it to be there for me to parse. But in this case, I did look up the word “Parasomnia,” just to be sure. It describes certain sleep disorders, from night terrors to sleep-walking, that afflict people who don’t sleep well enough. It leads to delirium, I suppose. But it also fits perfectly with the surreal but familiar feeling of this book. Not a bad title, given what lies within.

Bottom line: Cool book, reading required

To purchase “Parasomnia” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. Donnor Party

    I saw this book and really liked it, without reading the short story. After looking at all of the photos I certainly felt something, and I wasn’t inclined to force a narative over it. Its almost an abstraction, or at least that is the feeling I had after looking at the book. Like seeing a Rothko. I certainly feel the power of a Rothko but I don’t bring it down to reason. The feeling is good enough.

    Thanks for the review. I’ll read the story now and then come back to it.

  2. My pleasure, DP.
    I imagine I’d be more impressed by the images themselves, had I seen them large and well-printed on a white wall. Scale can obviously increase intensity. Small, in book form, I didn’t find them to be emotionally evocative or innovative enough to wow me, before I read the story. It’s good to hear another opinion.

    jb

    • Donnor Party

      You are also, I imagine, looking at a lot of stuff in a concentrated period of time, which lessens the intensity of a single book if it isn’t really eye catching. Like editing thousands of images, you get overwhelmed. At least I do.

      I’ve come to really enjoy your reviews. I’ve had a difference of opinion but you are not shrill or cacooned in the hype machine. Your opinions are honest, which is refreshing.