Universes in Universe

For an optimal view of our website, please rotate your tablet horizontally.

Whiteness: A Snapshot of Envy

Los Angeles, Beirut, Kabul… what do our cameras capture of these cities?
By Bilal Khbeiz | Nov 2008

When artist Allan Sekula photographs, enlarges and exhibits images of people, animals and things in public places, it is so that before long, these same images can be photographed once more, while they are on display. To photograph an African elephant, or an Afghani porter in one of Kabul’s markets, and place them, respectively, on the façade of the Capitol Hill or at the Los Feliz Fountain in Los Angeles, is without a doubt an act worthy of some scrutiny. Indeed, simply mentioning Sekula’s careful deliberation over architecture, color, vegetation and symmetry at the site where the images are to be displayed seems superfluous in light of what appears to be an evaluation of the image as incomplete before it is supplanted from its familiar context and implanted in a dissonant one.

The viewer also is confronted with a desire to complete the works, asking - what if we were to place the photograph of Capitol Hill with the exhibited elephant image in front of the Kremlin? What if we then placed the image of the Kremlin with the Capitol Hill-elephant sequence at the Obelisk on the Champs-Élysées? What if we displayed the Champs-Élysées with its ensuing image sequences – from elephant to Kremlin – at the Bundestag? The viewer can continue in this manner until the elephant disappears completely, leaving behind only a question as to whether there was any real significance in photographing the elephant in the first place.

The experience is somewhat amusing, yet as I reflected upon the images, I began to wonder about who the elephant might be in such a scenario. Is the disappearance of the elephant necessary in order for the exhibition to move from place to place, or is it rather, that the elephant vanished a few moments after the image was captured? Coming from a place not given to such amusement, I probably began to think of myself as the elephant at that moment. This elephant is always in demand as a model for art, yet as soon as his image is captured by the photographer, he is quickly forgotten and left to his fate. Indeed, the art world seems willing to fight to the death over the rights of a work of art to be exhibited, but not over the fate of its subject. Here we might understand that the imperative is on the war in Afghanistan to pause a little so that photographers can capture images of people, mountains and caves before they are completely devoured by airplane fire and suicide bombers. When the cameras stop filming, Afghanistan is everywhere for all to see and the war can resume once more in its tyrannical luminosity. Once Afghanistan is safely exhibited in a museum, it is not so important that the country Afghanistan remain as it was. It is more likely, that only when it is destroyed completely, will it be once more an object of photographic interest.

This is indeed a bitter realisation with a known origin. The extension of bitterness to geography is germane since even those in the Middle East who providence has blessed, like the Israelis Sarah Palin defends in the belief that her support strengthens their luck, are only relatively auspicious. This vast geography is nothing more than a large studio for the production of art, and they too are the progeny of an acrid bitterness. No sooner are our images captured than we are asked to pose once more, but this time with new wounds and more blood.

In the international news pages of the American press, like international news in any place far from the theatre of events, Beirut only gets a mention when there is bloodshed involved while Baghdad is only discussed in relation to statistical information about the number of victims. We rarely hear about the Iraqi Parliament convening or wage rises in Lebanon. Death is news, and we would do well to remember that we must die in order to capture the attention of the camera.

I do not carry images from my country with me, since when I am there I never see anything worth photographing. To the contrary, it is here in Los Angeles that I have wanted to carry a camera and capture everything that catches my eye. Yet I have been unable to capture anything but a whiteness that means something, and means nothing. This whiteness prepares to welcome the elephant, Capitol Hill, and the markets of Kabul on its pages. On its pages I imagine that I have been able to render Los Angeles, like Beirut, material for photography. What always stops me from perpetrating this crime is that images, all images, continue to adore blood.

Is there anything that our cameras might capture of this city? Perhaps, a snapshot of envy – an image that makes the city’s inhabitants visible but not photographable. This snapshot of envy makes our photos of this place that barely tolerates us, appropriate for cultivating melancholy. What would remain of human emotion if the apprenticeship of melancholy were removed?

In my room here, there are three chairs – one for solitude, and two for company. In solitude I sit until I realise that I live in a blinding whiteness where nothing is visible. This whiteness makes the world appear weightless, like fog, and damp like a bathtub.


Bilal Khbeiz

Poet, essayist, and journalist. Born in 1963 in the Lebanese village of Kfarchouba. Used to live in Beirut. Exiled in Los Angeles, USA, since 2008.

(Translation from Arabic: Nour Dados)
Back to Top