The presence of The Photograph - Human and Animal
Mika Hannula: The title of the exhibition is A Kind of You – which is both pointed and intentionally vague. Where does it come from, what does it refer to, and what does it mean to you?
Perttu Saksa: The title refers to human-likeness, but also to our moral character, to the ways we deal with nature and otherness. The title’s hint at friendliness, “how kind of you”, is for the viewer to interpret. The origin of the title is a bit surprizing, but typical of the way I work. I came across it one rainy evening in the notes I made in Jakarta. I was sitting in a restaurant and listening to a troubadour, who was improvising a piece that I knew, in bad English, “What kind of man are you” by Ray Charles, forgetting the “of man” in the chorus. This left me thinking about the new meaning of the words, and the title came from there.
"What kind are you, why do I love you so?
What kind are you, yeah, yeah, when you love me no more?"
MH: So, the pictures in the exhibition were taken in Indonesia. Tell us about the shooting situation, and about their development, their possibilities and their impossibilities?
PS: There has been a tradition in Indonesia of street performers teaching their pet monkeys tricks and dressing them in traditional masks. This custom has subsequently put down roots in the cities, where stressed-out monkeys, harnessed to help beggars, are dragged in chains from one owner to another. The monkeys walk clumsily, but are made to go through the streets ‘disguised’ in heads cut off Barbies and baby dolls.
A couple of years ago, the Indonesian state tightened up the law and made macaque monkey species protected. There were no longer performances in the street, like before. I did a lot of groundwork with the aid of a local journalist before we found a few people known as “monkey masters” in the slums of Jakarta. They trained and rented out monkeys to beggars. I photographed the series over a few weeks in the autumn of 2012. Since the beginning of this year, the legislation has been made even stricter, and owning monkeys is now punishable by a prison sentence.
MH: Let’s take it via an example: What is happening, and where, in the background to and in conjunction with the taking of the picture in which a monkey in a child's dress is standing in a forest, masked? Isn’t that a difficult and unpleasant situation?
PS: The locations, as well as the animals, are in a grey area somewhere between nature and the urban environment. I took the photographs right beside to the places where I found the monkeys in the pictures. Every one of these shooting situations involving mistreatment of an animal was unpleasant. The animals are badly stressed out and sick, carry lots of diseases that can be passed on to humans, too, and often tried to attack or bite during the shooting. We found the owner of the monkey in the dress sitting around at a motorway intersection on the edge of the city. Having got permission to photograph the monkey, I set up the shooting situation on a small piece of wasteland by the intersection and waited for a suitable moment, when the monkey adopted the pose I wanted.
MH: The relationship between human and animals – and this in particular through and by means of photography. Where did this interest come from? How does your previous Echo project (an exhibition and a book, both completed in 2012) relate to this new exhibition?
PS: Apes, monkeys and other primates are our closest relatives, so it is easy to feel an affinity, but it is also hard to relate to their being so very close to us. This is epitomized in the difficulty of communication, in the construction of our own identity, and in the human desire to maintain control – the illusion of domination over nature or of being above it. For the Echo series I photographed in natural-science collections buried in archives from the colonial period (including in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and the Muséum des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels). Through these, I explored the ways we write history and use animals as a projection screen for a contemplation of otherness that both blurs and defines the boundaries between humanity and nature. This piece is clearly a continuation of Echo, I am still dealing with the desire to mould nature to make it more like us, and the unconscious border regions somewhere between human and animal. There is a reflection of humanity in the picture, even if it is done using subordination and with the aid of a macabre game.
It’s a matter of empathy. Carrying it out requires identification, and photography is well suited to doing that. One characteristic of photography is that, via the photograph’s own relationship with reality, it arouses in the objects of the photograph the powerful presence of a subject. At the same time, a photograph has an inherent distance from the photographed space and reality, via which we view the animal and the object of the picture. The set-up that emerges out of this creates a distance between the human and the non-human, and opens up possibilities for investigating the interfaces between animal and humanity that we are unable to explain, while we are made open and receptive to them specifically through the nature of the photograph.
MH: Your series of photographs very effectively touches on and shakes up some fundamental questions related to the photograph with regard to truth and reality, to the shaping of truth, and to the limitations on the depiction of reality. What is your attitude to documentary photography? Or, to put it the other way round: Is this series documentary photography?
PS: I make use of documentarity. I see this more as an attitude and a means of expression than as a power of witness. Reality and documentation of it are multi-layered and tied to the context, to what, how, where and from which viewpoint it is interpreted. I see the documentarism associated with the Third World, particularly the photograph, as worrying because of its inherent overtones of the patriarchal, the colonialist, or of presenting the exoticism of otherness.
I wanted to add to my works the possibility of also interpreting the pictures in relation to the modes of displaying photography, by making these modes a part of the motif of the image. Documentation alone is simply not enough. I have mixed together the presence of fiction and documentary in the pictures by paralleling locations with the studio space, and vice versa. The object of the pictures is more an idea of something presented via documentarism, than documentation of an event.
MH: The works in the exhibition are especially, even extraordinarily intense – and gruelling. They are close-ups of sad, nasty circumstances, portraits of animals that are being treated badly and systematically abused. They are pictures that always and for ever look back at us, bringing about an experiential presence that almost irresistibly scratches deeper than the first contact and the surface. What kinds of reactions have you got to your works?
PS: When the animal is dressed in children’s clothes, our gaze steeped in the cuteness of the animal expects some nice humour, or at least some sort of nature-photo experience, but something else happens here. It comes not so much from the animal’s suffering, but from our visual memory. The viewer knows that the pictures are true, but, at the same time, wants to reject them, to avert their gaze. We start reading the pictures by linking the views via memory images to negative news items, and especially to suffering children. When these are linked to an animal figure and to a situation that is clearly man-made and morally very odd, the situation is surely intriguing, cruel and confusing, all at the same time, just as it was in the shooting situation.
MH: This is surely about movement – or a triangle drama; about the relationship between what is shown, how it is shown, and what remains hidden within and between all these. I.e. about the relationship that in these works never derives for any readymade or definite model, but which continuously challenges us to face both what we are seeing and, above all, what we are looking at, while still not wanting to see or be conscious of it. We are talking about the boundary conditions of any kind of presence, about the danger contained in any relationship and relativity, and about the shadows of humanity, about its catastrophes. How consciously in this series have you sought out this movement between light and shade, accepted and forbidden, beautiful and terrible?
PS: I believe that a precondition for the kind of movement and being moved that you describe is uncertainty. Being aware that you are in a space that exposes you to change and makes you aware of your own place in the world, so as to work on yourself, to call into question and to reflect on your own relationship with the world. In the pictures this is linked specifically with contradictions, which, I suppose, could well be called the shadows of humanity. The shadows take you in the pictures to places that are not finished, but which are full of contradictions; they are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, come close and are anonymous. This situation is what I was aiming for. I see it as making the pictures and the interpretation of the pictures fragile, but, at the same time, as giving the pictures a depth that makes them human.