Have you ever considered just what it is that a photographer actually is doing when he decides to take a portrait? Although this may sound like a trite and pointless question, it’s certainly not as simple as at first it may sound. Think about it for a moment… What exactly is it that they are trying to depict? Who exactly is being photographed? Is the photographer merely seeking to replicate the outward appearance of the sitter, or is something more subtle and far-reaching taking place – an attempt, perhaps, to represent the inner life and character of the sitter, to reveal something deeper of their being, a hidden aspect of self?
In Metal Workers, Jonathan Prime doesn’t just ask us to look unthinkingly at the people he photographs, but rather his images point us towards the fact that portraiture is one of the most problematic, complex and ambiguous forms of contemporary photographic practice.
In the first instance Metal Workers presents the viewer with a collection of memorable and unusual images in which a group of welders from Marrakech have been photographed in two separate poses, the results of which are then presented as a series of diptychs.
In the first image the welders are depicted wearing pieces of cast off cloth and rags over their faces which, along with a pair of sunglasses, they use to shield themselves from the flying sparks and debris which form a hazardous by-product of the work they do. In the second image we now see the men unmasked and staring out as us, their faces finally revealed.
The effect of this technique is extremely disconcerting, such hooded figures being most commonly associated with various forms of subversion and subterfuge - terrorists, Klansmen, rioters – rather than with the image of an honest hard-working man.
The fact that the men are all Moroccan, and by implication Muslim, adds a further dimension to the photographs, as we most commonly associate a veiled face in Islamic culture with the wearing of a burkha – something practiced exclusively by women. However, in today’s political climate, and given that they are, after all, men, it becomes increasingly difficult not to make the assumption that the figures are a collection of terrorists or Jihadists. The photographs thus play upon reductive Western stereotypes of gender, otherness and Islamaphobia, forcing the viewer to confront a series of media-fuelled prejudices and fears.
However, within the second image these anxieties are put to rest as the men are removed from the realm of a ‘type’, an ‘idea’ or a ‘generalisation’ – whether that may be ‘terrorist’ or ‘worker’ - and are revealed instead in their specific, individual and humanistic aspect. As they gaze out at the viewer it is impossible not to find some sort of emotional affinity with the workers, and despite the various boundaries that seek to differentiate them from us, ultimately we see something in them that we recognise in ourselves. In this way the veil serves as a metaphor for separation – its removal signalling a sense of transcendence - the revelation of a fundamental human bond.
By contrasting the two images - ‘the hidden’ and ‘the revealed’ – not only is a conceptual framework provided within which a variety of points relating to the identities and psychologies of the sitters themselves can be made, but such a device also serves to comment on the efficacy of the photographic process itself – the ability of the camera to show the ‘optical unconscious’, as the theorist Rosalind Kraus has termed it.
While Metal Workers allows us to ponder a series of issues that are both historical, cultural, racial and aesthetic, on a more subtle level it always brings us back to the dilemmas of the photographic portrait and the central question of what and who is being photographed. Their success resides in the clever combination of description and revelation, of the unknown and the familiar, the tender and the cruel.
Like all great photography they allow us to enter into a world that has rarely been seen, while at the same time allowing us to speculate on the lives of those who inhabit it, commenting simultaneously on a particular set of circumstances and on the wider expression of the human condition.