As part of his Athens show, French photographer Didier Ben Loulou zooms inon human faces of Jerusalem's Old City to tell stories of woe and suffering
Ben Loulou's closeups can be disturbing but not without a cause
THE CITY of Jerusalem, its mythical past and current woes have cast their spell on Didier Ben Loulou, a photographer-in-residence there since 1993. With his focus centred on the 9km2 area of the Old City, Ben Loulou is preoccupied with the multicultural identity of the celestial city's residents, whose faces - or rather fleeting glimpses of them - reflect human suffering within a context of violence and destruction.
Ben Loulou's colour portraits - currently displayed at the Cats&Marbles gallery under the title Cities of Yesterday, Faces of Today - zoom in on details: a bruise, a scar, an unshaved cheek, a dirty fingernail. There is an uncomfortable intimacy in this fragmentary vision that intentionally leaves out the whole, centring instead on the skin's very pores. "Details often define the subject. By restricting your angle and focusing on a fragment, you approach the inner side of what meets the eye," Ben Loulou told the Athens News. "This personal perspective is not the result of a stylised method but a way to go deeper into your theme," he added.
Just a chapter from the photographer's lengthy stay in Jerusalem, Ben Loulou's portraits do not directly point to their provenance, but rather operate on a symbolic level. In effect, his depiction of the face works on a double level - as a projection of the absurdity of war and as an allegoric representation of religious history.
Of French-Algerian origin, Ben Loulou - who remains faithful to the camera he had bought with a student grant - spent the 1980s taking photos of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. His meeting with Jerusalem in the early 1990s was decisive.
"Jerusalem is a centre where people of different religious backgrounds - Christians, Muslims and Jews - meet and part," said Ben Loulou. "I am very interested in this ongoing battle and on the big question - who is the heir to the city?" Although working on such a theme is not possible without a political angle, this was not Ben Loulou's priority.
He puts down his influences to multiple sources - mainly from the realm of literature and the world of images, and much less to his photography and painting studies. He believes that his wanderings in the artistic centre of St Germain de Pres in Paris and his frequent visits to museums from an early age helped to shape his vision more than his studies did. In the early 1980s, when documentary (mainly black-and-white) photography was all the hype, Ben Loulou opted for a personal perspective. His use of colour film and a square format was at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of the prevalent Magnum school of photography.
Buildings are a rare sight in Ben Loulou's portrait-packed Athens showBen Loulou's pictures do not classify as reportage or as artistic photography. They are somewhere in between. "Reportage cannot capture reality in its absolute, nor can it depict the invisible," he pointed out. "But I am interested in it out of the need to come to terms with reality. And though I need art, an entirely aesthetic approach would be synonymous with isolation and disengagement."
The issue of photography's ethics does not trouble him. "You cannot make art driven by a moral approach. This, however, is not to be misinterpreted for a lack of respect towards the human subject. It is up to the photographer's gaze to try to make sense of violence, hatred, frustration and entrapment."
Ben Loulou's images are not the result of a persistent hunt but mainly of chance meetings that take place in the course of his Old City wanderings. Speed is not his goal. "Cartier Bresson's 'decisive moment' is of no interest to me. I'm more concerned with a slow dimension that allows images to emerge," he said.
And though technique does not take precedence over content, he noted, when it comes to developing his prints it makes a difference. Ben Loulou makes use of the colour adaptation of Theodore-Henri Fresson's end-of-19th-century technique according to which photographic prints drawn on paper with coal are developed without transfer. "The Fresson technique, which evolved as a craft from one generation to the next within the Fresson family, is one of the most beautiful development techniques," said Ben Loulou. "It combines a perfect image and the use of natural materials such as minerals and pigments."
Ben Loulou's future plans include the publication of his Jerusalem photos in a single, text-free volume. Following a quarter of a century's affair with Israel, next year will see him in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. "I will look into diaspora issues. The encounter with a city that has lost half its population in World War II is fascinating. 'What is a city when half its population is no more?' is the question I wilI try to address," Ben Loulou said. He drew a parallel to French-Jewish novelist/essayist Georges Perec's lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (the English title being A Void) about the disappearance of a man and with him the vanishing of the letter 'E' from the world.
* Didier Ben Loulou's photography exhibition Cities of Yesterday, Faces of Today is on at the Cats & Marbles gallery (12 Fokylidou St, tel 210-361-3942). Part of the 14th International Month of Photography, the exhibition is organised in collaboration with the French Institute. Open: Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10.30am-3.30pm and 5.30-8.30pm; Wednesday 10.30am -3.30pm; Saturday 11am-4pm