A White Road and an Ambiguous Narrative

A White Road and an Ambiguous Narrative
Author(s):
JULIE TURKEWITZ

(This post from the New York Times Lens blog reviews a book of photographs taken by Ivan Sigal when he worked for Internews in Afghanistan and Central Asia)

“This project was born out of failure.”

That’s how Ivan Sigal describes “White Road,” which takes viewers on a dizzying trek through Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. He moved to Russia in 1996 with a documentary grant and a goal: to show, through photographs of landscapes and cityscapes, how “we build in a certain way because we believe a certain way.”

But after two years taking pictures of Soviet and post-Soviet urban spaces and leisure facilities, he declared the project a failure: the images were uninspiring and his own narrative struck him as untruthful, contrived and oversimplified. So, he explained recently, he made a vow to himself: “First images, then ideas.” He would “photograph, learn, absorb, then go back to my work and look for patterns.”

The result of that promise is “White Road,” published by Steidl. The book is divided into two parts: one for photographs, the other for a travel diary.

It is, Mr. Sigal said, “an attempt to put the reader into a space of an endless journey in which you step out of your own space and enter another one — kind of take on the role of a character or the narrator.”

Mr. Sigal lived and worked in Central Asia for 10 years, employed by Internews to set up and assist media projects throughout the region. He traveled so often that the differences between “home” and “away” vanished. That was not a bad thing. Mr. Sigal’s life ran parallel to the lives of the millions of people in motion across the region — unsettled by the dismantling of the Soviet structure that had once given them meaning, fleeing wars, adopting new cities and seeking economic opportunity.

Because “White Road” rejects a central narrative, the photographs are uncaptioned and out of focus. They are evocative, and yet frustratingly difficult to contextualize. In one, a boy swings limply in the air from a tiny wire. Who is he? “All you need to know is that this is at a circus,” Mr. Sigal said. “It’s a picture that captures something about the fragility of the human form, the fragility of life — the fragility of this boy, specifically.”

In the book’s afterword, Paul Roth defended Mr. Sigal’s choice to reject the allure of a digestible but false story.

“The romance of narrative is perpetually at odds with reality,” Mr. Roth wrote. Despite this, many photographers “routinely submit the intrinsic factuality of the medium to the shaping and manipulation of storytelling. The ‘road trip,’ the ‘cycle of life,’ the ‘coming-of-age,’ ‘the war story’: all these are staples of photographic constructions.”

These organized narratives help us soothe our anxieties about the world’s senselessness and give order to its complexities. But in Mr. Roth’s view, they “are often tired myths — ones that numb us to more discomfiting ambiguities.”

Mr. Sigal’s project, Mr. Roth said, raises the idea that a complete story can never be told. A cameraman may think witnessing an event gives him some moral authority, “but reality can’t be simplified into news or summed up in storylines,” he said. “It began before the photographer arrived and continues after he leaves.”

See the photographs.
 

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