Intimate Distance: The Photography of Thien V

Originally posted at howlarts.net.

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“I’m in the business of translating what cannot be translated: being and its silence.” – Charles Simic

The Student Strike inspired an effervescence of creative works and artistic expression. The ubiquitous nature of the music, the posters, the interventions, the literature suggests that the arts played a central role in galvanizing the movement. But what exactly is the relationship between art and the politics of the moment? It’s easy to say that art is important to politics or to society in general, but how often do we actually explore what that means? Is the role of art to offer abstracted symbols of the movement, such as the carré rouge or the casseroles, around which to rally? Or is its role rhetorical, to convince its audience of the validity of a particular position? Although these two artistic modalities are important parts of a social movement, I believe the role art has to play can potentially be much deeper. Alain Badiou has written that “Art is pedagogical because it produces truths and because education (save in its oppressive or perverted expressions) has never meant anything but this: to arrange the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them.” By this understanding, art is a naturally destabilising force, puncturing the status quo and established modes of thought, and allowing us to see the potential on the other side. And it is through this action, I believe, that art is inherently political, and that it is political in a way that only art can be.

I wish to explore the potential that art has as a political force by examining the work of photographer and Howl! Arts Collective member, Thien V. Thien was heavily involved in the Student Strike and documented it since its inception. His prolific output is maintained on his blog, quelques notes. The images he captures are rich in political imagery, but the politics are never presented ideologically. The focus of his work remains squarely on the human beings involved in the strike, while the politics act as a context to this humanity, permeating it as atmosphere. A key aspect of Thien’s work is that it does not glorify. It does not create heroes or villains. In fact, what is most striking about his work is that his subjects seem to be thrust forth in all their fragile humanity. Even photos of large groups are rarely presented as such. What we see in them, rather, is what one might consider their fundamental truth: the power of our collectivity is built of individuals and their solitudes. His subjects stumble, eat, doodle, chat, get lost in thought while surrounded by red flags and protest signs. And the integrity of Thien’s perspective is even more apparent when it is applied to enemies of the movement, notably the police. While it would be tempting for some to simply revel in the brutality of the police, which to be clear was very present throughout the strike, Thien never quite lets us forget that they are human as well. And through this lens, we see the confrontations between strikers and the state for the tragedy that they truly are.

The fundamental unit of Thien’s work is, I believe, the human solitude. This is most apparent, of course, in images of individuals. These individual subjects can sometimes be seen lost in an inordinate amount of empty space:

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They are often unaware of the camera, lost in thought or distracted:

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Even the framing of images will often accentuate this solitude. By excluding the ground on which his subjects stand, for example, he allows them to seemingly float in space:

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These human solitudes are at the heart of Thien’s work, but if its focus were strictly on individuals, it would remain outside the political. The political, after all, is a collective dynamic, defined by our interactions with one another. And the power of Thien’s work lies in the fact that the political emerges naturally through the composition of these individual solitudes.

The ability of Thien’s work to overlay solitude and collectivity is a result, I believe, of the moments he chooses to capture. What is fascinating about Thien’s choices is that they tend to avoid Moments as such, but rather fall in between them, into a void. A breath being taken, a step, a drawing half-finished, images of the buildup towards something critical or its dénouement, but never quite there. This in-betweenness allows us to see the political imagery and the collective, while at same time exposing the cracks that show the individual humanity that lies underneath:

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One might worry that exposing these cracks in the collective would reduce the political weight of the images, but I would argue that it is, in fact, the opposite that occurs. Taking the last photo as an example, it would likely have been possible to capture an image of two men chanting, yelling or, at the very least, in a more combative stance. Thien chooses, however, to present them to us in a moment of quiet distraction. Furthermore, the red flag, the most visually striking and most explicitly political element of the image, is not the focus of the action. But if the flag had been the focus of the image, say if the two men were looking at it, one would see the flag acting as a centre to which the movement in the image is flowing. It would become a point. Without that focus, the movement from the flag is outward, permeating the scene and moving beyond the frame. It becomes context. Images like this remind us that the political is not a moment or an act; it is a surrounding atmosphere to our lives that envelops us whether we are aware of it or not.

As a final note, I wish to explore how Thien’s work handles a more difficult subject: the state and in particular, its police force. It is in dealing with this subject, I believe, that the way Thien’s work functions as political art is most strikingly apparent. I’ll start with a powerful image that strays somewhat from the humanizing approach underlying most of his work:

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One key element of this image, in light of the previous discussion, is that it does not show any solitudes. The group is presented as a homogeneous mass. The only truly discernible elements are the vests and helmets: the uniforms. And I would argue that, oddly enough, this is how the police force itself wishes us to see them: as a solid, impenetrable force acting in the name of order and the public good. But there is another aspect of the image through which it speaks to a deeper truth. Note the ghostly quality of the officers in their glowing uniforms; one might almost expect them to fade into the night from one moment to the next. They seem unreal, ephemeral. The truth being spoken here is that the police force is an illusion. The power of those uniforms that separate the police from average citizens is inscribed by the state and accepted by its people, but it does not exist outside human convention.

So if the police force is not the homogeneous mass it tries to claim to be, then what is it? It is, like us, a collection of solitudes that have come together. And again, by capturing the police in between Moments, showing us the cracks in that collectivity, Thien’s work allows us to see this:

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Note the awkwardness of their positions. They seem imbalanced, unstable, clumsy. The image of a homogeneous force that the police attempt to portray breaks down in these images. The attempted signification of the uniforms almost seems laughable in these moments. But this awkward humanity cannot overshadow the brutality of the police, and Thien does not let us forget this:

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The police in this image may be human: we see their faces, their confusion. But the humanity of these men does not make the outcome of their actions any less brutal. Nothing in this image outweighs the terror on the face of the young man they are arresting. The illusion of the police force has caused these men to, as a collective, forget their humanity. Whatever humanity we see through the cracks of that collectivity, the fact remains that as a collective, it is something profoundly inhuman.

This clash of humanities is even more striking in what I consider one of Thien’s most powerful images:

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Here we are allowed to see directly into the eyes of an officer, and there seems to be a certain sadness there. But again, as human as that presence might be, we cannot escape its effect, which in this case is the terror seen in the eyes of the girl reflected off his helmet. We see here an interplay of many of the elements previously discussed. The officer is humanized by the intimate framing. But the uniform acts as a dehumanizing force. It hides part of his face, erasing his identity. The faceguard reflecting the girl’s face acts as a barrier between his humanity and hers. And finally, the end result is the terror we see in her face.

So we can’t deny the humanity of the police, nor can we deny their brutal presence. Where does that leave us? I believe the central truth being expressed by these works is that although we must fight against the brutality of the police, although they are our enemies, we are not fighting against them, but rather for them. This movement is not a hockey match, where the goal is to win and make the other team lose. When we fight to make a more just society, we are fighting to make it so for every single person in it. Even if our enemies don’t realize it, we fight for them too. We fight so that they and their children can, for example, have access to education and live free of discrimination. We’re fighting for everyone, even those who don’t realize it yet.

Thien’s work presents us with powerful truths about the Student Strike, and more generally about ourselves, and it does so by avoiding the stock narratives that are available. It can be tempting, and perhaps even useful, to glorify ourselves, to demonize the other side, but these perspectives hide the truth, dilute it in order to make it easier for all sides to swallow. We say we are fighting for justice against a brutal state, they say they’re protecting order from forces of chaos. The danger of stopping at this superficial level is clear. Neither of these statements is false, but they are completely incompatible. We must puncture through these superficial interpretations of the situation if we are to strike at its more fundamental truth: that each of us, every single one of us, remains in the end a fragile human being. This applies to us, as well as to our enemies. And it is fundamentally this truth that Thien’s work never lets us forget. The beautiful collective story of the Student Strike is built up of thousands of delicate individual stories. It is those stories that gave the movement its humanity, and that humanity must be protected at all costs.

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