An open-air exhibition titled Guinea: Waiting for Justice is currently taking place in Geneva in the park next to the Paquis ferry stop. The exhibition of photos by Tommy Trenchard shows people who were caught up in various atrocities committed by the government of Guinea with a special focus on the massacre on 28 September 2009 at Conakry Stadium which led to the death of at least 157 people.
The photos are colour, large (approx 2m on the long edge) and typically show the subject centre frame and located in a context which is meaningful to them. This might be the stadium itself where the violence happened or in one case, the subject is standing on a bridge where her father was hanged as the alleged instigator of a coup.
Each photo is presented in a structured way: the title (usually the subject’s name) appears to the left under the photo. Central is a short description of the location and a short caption. To the right is a longer text, usually a few sentences which give the story in the subject’s own words – usually a story of torture, rape, being shot and how this has affected them.
From the point of view of Context & Narrative, this exhibition could be said to be classic documentary in style. There is no attempt to glamourise the situation – the point is to tell the stories of individuals rather then allowing us to hide behind anonymous numbers. The expressions are deadpan. The stories are told principally via the text which functions largely as anchor-text. The fact that the stories are told in the subject’s own words lends credibility. The text supports the image because it provides a subjective view of what the person went through, rather than the more objective view (facts and numbers) that we might expect from the mainstream press.
Following is an example of the supporting text associated with the photo of Hadja Rabi Diallo above:
“‘My husband was Ousmane Baldé, the finance minister. Sékou Touré accused him of wanting to take power. One day soldiers came to our house and said he had been arrested. Then one of our children heard at school that he had been hung from the bridge. When we heard it we cried. They kicked us out of our home and stole whatever they found.” (from the FIDH site)
All the photos are very dark – most of them taken at night or late twilight. The effect is foreboding and supports the narrative of suffering. The principle feeling I took away is that the suffering is not over because justice has not been done and there is little or nothing stopping these atrocities from recurring. The dark therefore represents lingering threat.
The external context of the photos is in extreme opposition to the internal context. The exhibition is placed right next to Lac Léman with an astounding view of the Jet d’Eau and (on a good day) Mont Blanc. A perfect representation of how the photos are displayed has a big effect on the interpretation. The effect is not to mislead, but to tone down what might otherwise be a heavy tale of suffering. The (probably unintended) message is: “don’t worry, it’ll be alright”.
The use of the long text to tell the story of the subjects is powerful. Without the text, we would be left with a much shorter caption, which while it captures the situation, doesn’t explain what happened from the subject’s point of view and in their words. This is a powerful approach for certain situations and demonstrates clearly how text can work very well with an image, not to distract, but to reinforce.