Photojournalism as Powerful Visual Drama
In a new book co-published by MACK and Le BAL, Magnum photographer Alex Majoli pushed deeper his decade-long experiments on the human condition and the theatre within our everyday lives.
© Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos. Egypt, Cairo, 2011, Scene #4746. Protesters in Tahrir Square listening to a speech by President Hosni Mubarak.
Alex Majoli’s latest book, published on the occasion of his exhibition at Le BAL, in Paris, puts theatre as its main point of reference – its title, “Scene”, and an excerpt of a 1921 play by Luigi Pirandello in the introduction makes it clear. In the actual context, where the most prolific genre that has arisen in response to a crisis is the documentary play, Majoli’s reference can’t be seen as an impulsive, primarily aesthetical choice. Used as a tool for social and political change, documentary theatre has rocketed internationally, presenting personal narratives in order to affirm the right to protection from persecution as a key human right. It culminated in a few examples of plays in which actors play their own selves, such as refugees narrating on stage their struggle for survival.
Majoli’s concept, based on the Pirandello’s idea of people performing their own lives, builds on the same apparatus. He chose to challenge the usual relationship between the photographer and his subject by making the shooting process obvious – day and night, he installed in the streets extremely bright flashes that forced the passersby to react – or, in this case, to act.
© Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos. République du Congo, 2013, Scene #9546. Pointe Noire. Squatters in an abandoned building.
It’s while working in the Republic of Congo in 2013 that he matured the concept he had been experimenting with for nearly a decade. The results are photographs deprived of context – the flash plunges the surroundings into darkness, narrowing down the scene to a few elements that take on new meanings and turn a busy scene into a minimal stage with rare accessories. And by doing so, the photos emphasise an expression, a body language and a few details that are left to the free interpretation of the viewer.
“We were able to forget the economic rise of Africa, the Congo’s political history, the instability of democracy in this part of the world, trade routes, and whatever else is in the news. It became trees, rocks, people, just scenes”, he said in an interview for American Suburb X when “The Other Congo” was released in 2015. In other words, he created documentary photos that looked like pieces of fiction. And while it can be a bold move for a photographer who is primarily a photojournalist, it’s also a pressing call to reassess what photography can achieve if reproducing the same codes.
© Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos. Greece, Lesbos, 2015, Scene #0302. Northern shores of Lesbos island.
One photograph shot in Lesbos may give the answer. In the picture, a woman falls on herself, grasping her leg with one hand, covering her head with the other. Her two hands, one grasping and the other abandoned, reflecting the light, convey alone her exhaustion and tears. Next to her is a person whose only visible features are a backpack and a bright survival blanket floating in the air, prolonging the shape of the shore’s sea foam. Everything is said. Reality is often intense enough to look like fiction, and presenting it that way only makes it more palpable.
Scene by Alex Majoli
Co-published by MACK and Le BAL in February 2019
Essays by David Campany and Corinne Rondeau
Format: Large-format paperback with jacket // Pages: 110 // 38 x 22.5 cm // €35
Alex Majoli is an Italian photographer known for his documentation of war and conflict. He is a member of Magnum Photos.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.