French photographer Bruno Serralongue (b. 1968) goes to the same places that photojournalists do, but the images with which he returns are not the same as theirs, nor does he publish his pictures in journalistic contexts. He made the extensive “South Sudan Series (8-12 July 2011)” during a week of celebrations, just as the new state achieved its independence. Under dull blue skies in the capital city, Juba, we see ceremonies, speeches, dances, concerts and a football match marking the formal completion of a process that began in 2005. In comparison with some of the artist’s previous work, like the “Calais” series (2006-08), which found beauty in a no-man’s-land where would-be immigrants to Britain gather, these images offer little esthetic enjoyment.
The two dozen or so Ilfochromes and pigment prints from the “South Sudan” series shown here—most of them large, around 50 by 60 inches—are shot from ground level, not from the high pens into which members of the press have been corralled to record events (and which appear in several of Serralongue’s images). From his more immersive perspective, Serralongue presents a poor country still requiring a significant military presence. Basic urban settlements are gray but for the advertisements for telecommunication networks or photography studios that offer a brighter reality. If colorful “native” costumes and rudimentary infrastructure (dirt side-walks and plastic chairs) confirm a familiar stereotype of Africa, other elements would look equally at home during a Western event, like the passes and ID tags wreathed around the necks of official-looking figures. Despite the provisional nature of the sites at which the events are taking place, hopes are high: slogans formed by hundreds of participants holding up cards in formation read, “Brothers and sisters come back home,” “Yes to peace, no more war” and “Free health care for all.”
Serralongue, who studied art history before photography, makes his intent clear. He is particularly critical—as accompanying text explains—of how powerful external states exercise what Alain Badiou in Le reÌveil de l’histoire (The Rebirth of History, 2011) calls their insidious “right to interfere” with new nations.
The typical photojournalistic effort to capture events in a single, expressive shot—an approach encouraged by mainstream media—does not engage too deeply in the specifics of a given place. Serralongue wants to reframe the accepted story wherever he works, and to ensure that his version is not absorbed and nullified by its display. His many views—shot at the edges of crowds, or in the midst of the hubbub without an overview, or from behind a podium—generate no clarity. To borrow Roland Barthes’s terminology, Serralongue’s images are all “studium” and no “punctum.” The images supply content, description and information, but rarely a piercing moment; the viewer is not “grabbed” by the image, nor seduced by one captivating element. Rather than feed us answers, the images make us do the work of analysis. Serralongue understands that the notion of a cohesive and unified nation may always be far-fetched, and therefore manifests South Sudan in all its complexity and vulnerability.
PHOTO: Bruno Serralongue: Three Days of Dances and Concerts at the Nyakoron Cultural Center (Jonglei State, Women Association), Juba, South Sudan, July 11, 2011, Ilfochrome on aluminum under Plexiglas, 495⁄8 by 617⁄8 inches; at Francesca Pia.