Hichem Driss

The Tunisian coastline in a poetic photo series, rich in associations, taken with a pinhole camera.
By Helen Adkins | Feb 2007

When questioned about his work "Through the Coasts", Hichem Driss is quite reserved. He will give us technical information and provide an explanation as to why in this case he chose to work with a simple apparatus from the early days of photography. He mentions that this series was realised on the Mediterranean coast of rocks and that, to realise the piece, he built a pinhole camera for Polaroid 4 x 5 inch film. Driss likes to experiment: he first used a pinhole camera in 1999 with the idea that he wanted to exploit the possibility of taking photographs with both his eyes and his mind. The pinhole camera enables him to catch what the human eye would never be able to see. Without lens, the image is softer and presents a distorted perspective. Everything that moves can disappear from the photos for lack of time to impregnate the photosensitive surface; on the coast, only the rocks will be well defined for their stillness within the wilderness of the sky and sea. Driss says that the technical blur enables us to wipe out any spatial or temporal landmarks in order to propose the notion of immortality and timelessness.

Any further interpretation of "Through the Coasts" is up to the viewer; it is up to us to take these beautiful and compelling images for straightforward nature studies or to run a line of associations from their allegorical values to current events.

Due to its geographical situation, Tunisia has always served as a natural passage between Africa and Europe. Already around 800 BC, Phoenicians from Tyre recognized the strategic value of the Mediterranean coastline, founding the city of Carthage (now Tunis) that was rapidly to develop into an important trading seaport. Carthage was destroyed twice but rose again from the ashes and is today one of the world's greatest archaeological and architectural treasures. Its power waned with the Roman Empire, but its ruins still inspire a sense of the magnificence of the past.

In recent years the gloriously mythical coasts of Tunisia that are traditionally highly valued by tourism have made the headlines for quite a different phenomenon, itself however also linked to the geographical situation. Lack of any future prospects, unemployment, poverty, and sheer desperation has been inciting people to leave the African continent with the wish to reach the European Eldorado of their dreams. The Tunisian coastline is the major point of departure for ships taking these clandestine passengers towards the coasts of Europe or specifically to destinations on the Italian shores. Visa restrictions lead to illegal emigration attempts, unscrupulous trafficking of people, and a tragic death toll at sea.

The photos of Hichem Driss show that the imposing beauty of nature is inherent with dramatic danger. The irregular wide-angle images document the strong wind and rough sea and emphasize the spectacular appearance but abysmal threat of nature. The small formats underline a kind of intimacy: even though this nature is void of any trace of human or animal life, the images have obviously been taken by someone who had to face these natural powers. Anyone can make a pinhole camera and the resulting print fits in any pocket. These photos could be read as revealing the emigrants’ feelings before leaving the African continent for a dangerous and illegal voyage.

This is what I see in the series of photos "Through the Coasts". But the images are open to various interpretations. Driss avoids direct provocation or open criticism. He simply shows the ambivalence between a magical atmosphere and brutal reality. It is the choice of subject only that can suggest political involvement. Similarly, Driss has also realised other poetical contributions documenting scenes from Tunisia in which tradition and modern ethics clash.

 

Helen Adkins

Independent art historian and exhibition curator based in Berlin, Germany.

Through the Coasts
À travers les Côtes

1999-2004

Series of 35 black and white photographs taken with a pinhole camera
Original 4 x 5 inch (10,16 x 12,7 cm), complete set of prints in 30 x 40 cm, selection of prints in 18 x 24 cm

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