Pointing | Naming
Photographs convey a kind of literal meaning. At least on the surface, they feel real and factual.
Machine-mediated, lens-derived, photography can only record signals from the material world, its images are inherently data-driven. This makes the medium a favored partner in any discourse in need of evidence and corroboration; journalism, for instance, or court proceedings.
Poetry is another matter.
If photography revels in precision, detail, and the real, poetry speaks to us with an inflection that is often ambiguous, merely suggestive. Poetic images – whether they are linguistic or visual – are necessarily incomplete, calling on the reader (or viewer, if you prefer) to interpret, infer, flesh out, finish the gesture. If the journalistic reader is a receiver of facts, the poet’s audience is asked to serve as a collaborator in meaning. Photographers whose intent is journalistic have a stringent and often unforgiving set of challenges, but photographers with poetic ambitions face an even steeper incline.
Cameras are unwieldy metaphor-making machines.
This is what makes Ekkachai Khemkum’s photographs so arresting and deeply appealing. His visual vocabulary is deceptively simple: the interplay of light and shadow, lyrical gesture, and a strong and precise sense of controlled, formally sophisticated composition. Although his images bear many attributes of traditional street photography, his real subject is first and always people – some more subtle than others, and typically a single isolated figure in a suggestive environment or landscape. And these are never portraits – typically the identity of the figure is impossible to determine and clearly not the point. Instead, Khemkum’s images appear as psychological landscapes, metaphorical haikus, and quite possibly fragments of the artist’s own autobiography.
Khemkum, who lives in Thailand, has no training in photography and apparently little familiarity with the last century’s worth of work forming the documentary canon, but it is hard not to see these iconic voices, such as André Kertész, at play in his images. In this light, it is tempting to present Khemkum’s work as evidence supporting Carl Jung’s theory of a universal collective unconscious.
In the beginning there were no names. It was necessary to point. – Susanne Langer
Photography is a language that speaks to us directly through the eye. It conveys ideas with an immediacy that can transcend geography, nationality, and speech. The visual is more than an alternative to words (albeit one that is, significantly, a primary driver behind contemporary global culture).
It is an older, earlier native tongue.
Underneath our alphabets resides a more ancient internal compass, one that runs deeper than utterance or inscription. It is, for lack of a better way to say it, gestural. The 20th Century American philosopher Susanne Langer, writes about this with eloquence and brilliance in Philosophy in a New Key. Although first published in 1942, Langer’s ideas have become more relevant as our collective cultural landscape becomes more media and image saturated.
I was reminded of this during my interactions with Khemkum as we each struggled to communicate over email. Me, trying to formulate complicated questions into simple english. Him, trying to convey complex ideas and understanding through neither a language nor an alphabet that is really his own. But the heart of what he had to say can be summarized through just these four sentences, lightly edited by me for readability:
Most of my photos are responses to the purely visual, but some feel more close to my real life. In my view, living in a big city makes us feel isolated from one another. My images of shadows and hands give me a deep feeling inside my heart. And fear might also be part of it.
This is what I saw and felt in his photographs right from the start. And really, he doesn’t need to say or write any more about it. These pictures don’t need the help of words. Because everything is right there, visible, in the image. He’s pointing to it. And that’s enough.
images: © copyright 2016 Ekkachai Khemkum. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: email@example.com