« WE SHALL VANISH! »
In the early 90s, I was travelling in the Indian state of Kashmir, the region disputed by Pakistan. The tension was high between both countries, and this was particularly felt here. The clashes were numerous. The fate of the Hindu minority in Kashmir was little known. This respected community was mainly composed of intellectuals called Kashmiri Pandits. “Pandit” means “scholar”, or “wise man”. It is a title of respect given to Brahman priests and to someone well versed in traditional Indian literature, Hindu religion or classical Indian music. People as famous as the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, came from the Kashmiri Pandit community. They lived in Kashmir for over 5000 years, and are seen as a brilliant part of the India soul.1
After suffering rapes and murders by Muslim terrorists, nearly all of the Kashmiri Pandits had to flee their ancestral territory to avoid being exterminated. It was an ethnic cleansing that remains almost unknown. Due to my love of India and I wanted to meet these Pandits, so I went to Jammu to the refugee camps where they were trying to survive. My wish was to help them, to speak with them with information as best as I could.
But they were utterly helpless - living without hope. They were not even recognised as refugees by international organizations so could therefore not receive any help. Indeed, they were refugees "from the inside". Refugees in their own country! This community had always lived peacefully. Their traditions taught them to be non-violent, so there was no question for them attempting any "terrorist" action to draw attention to their plight. Arising from this tangle of countless tents, a strong young man of great stature came towards me with a terrible face and a look of cold rage. "We no longer need the press here. We no longer need politicians here. We no longer need anything or anyone. We’re going to disappear... WE SHALL VANISH!” Tears filled the eyes of this giant, despair and anger choking his voice. I felt the tragedy of their plight. Whatever I could say or do to them would be useless and vain. Their sadness was so intense. I left the camps completely devastated.
The same year, I made another reportage but this time in Mexico, among the Tarahumaras (Raramuri). They were among the last free Native North America, and were trying to live and maintain their own civilization, as far away as possible from White Men and Ladinos2 who despised them. The Tarahumaras were righteous, courteous, courageous, and very polite. They spoke very little, just when it was essential. They never struck their children, or never shouted at them. They lived in very difficult conditions, but although the adults were extremely resistant, four children out of five were dying in infancy. A few years later, I learnt that a disastrous famine threatened their very existence.
I spoke on television - an important French news channel to draw awareness to their predicament. The editor-in-chief issued an appeal for donations. But with no response. We already have so many problems at home in our own country. So many issues already in the public eye. Without doubt, the Tarahumaras would vanish. They could disappear like polar bears and many other species threatened by climate change but also by our predation system dominating for too long.
Before becoming a photographer, I studied at the university historian-geographer’s training. Today, nobody is supposed to ignore the Holocaust where not only millions of Jews, but also Tziganes, homosexuals, and dissidents were murdered. But who remembers the Battle of Kleidion? It was the culmination of the nearly half-century struggle between the Bulgarian Emperor Samuel and the Byzantine Emperor Basil II in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The result was a decisive Byzantine victory. Basil completely crushed the Bulgarian army and took 15,000 prisoners. He divided the prisoners into groups of 100 men, blinded 99 men in each group and left one man in each with one eye so that he could lead the others home. Basil II proclaimed himself a Christian ... As Gandhi said ironically: « I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. »
However, today, a thousand years later, who remembers the battle of Kleidion and its 15,000 blind prisoners?
Let us consider the disappeared and the refugees from everywhere, who will shout although often there is not even the echo to answer them. "Who will remember us? Shall we remain forgotten, given up on under tents, trapped behind walls?” Who will remember the missing people of the Argentine dictatorship or in ex-Yugoslavia? The Chileans, the Guatemalans, the Iraqis? Who will remember the forgotten victims of today and of all times? Who and what will be remembered in a hundred years, in a thousand years?
Last year, in 2011, at the “Rencontres de la Photographie” in Arles, I found a very moving book published by Blume, remembering missing people from around the world, represented by family members holding portraits of their loved ones who they will probably never meet again. A book of portraits by Gervasio Sanchez, which was called “victimas del olvido - forgotten victims” (victims of forgetfulness). But then a strange thing happened. The books were presented as part of a competition to select the best book of the year. There were hundreds of books, and tens of thousands of visitors - the books were secured onto large tables in order to keep them at their best but primarily so people could not to steal them. Spotlights hung vertically overhead casting a strong directional light. In some books, Blume’s included, the pages became very difficult to see because of the bright reflection of light, causing the faces of the missing to disappear a second time, paradoxically by the glow of the light which was supposed to allow us to rediscover them. The result was quite disturbing and moving: The powerful light which was there to allow us to rediscover the missing people better were also strangely hiding them from us. It was like a magic hour when the day is resting in the embrace of the night… as if the day was not going to stand up. "It is midnight in the century," wrote Victor Serge, and for us it is now the twilight hour.
I went to cemeteries and discovered beautiful women's faces on porcelain photographic medallions. They were intended to prolong people’s memory of them. These faces perished a second time on graves as they were gradually erased, slowly eroded under attack from frost, rain, cold, snow, wind, and by passing time. I found humble and proud faces of monks who crumbled to dust in a forgotten monastery. These visual inspired me to attack my own photographic negatives with a hammer, in a sense I tortured them to succeed in evoking this tear that is at the heart of any existence. I subjected my slides to smoke and fire. I then saw the tired and exhausted faces of disillusioned travelers in the subway, dimmed by scratched glass, torn by millions of passages and pushed doors.
As artists, we believe that we create and work for our contemporaries, but many also hope to work for posterity. We are increasingly led to share the assertion of Louis Ferdinand Céline for whom "To evoke one's posterity is to make a speech to maggots. " Because of the Holocaust... a thousand years later... but who will remember the millions of prisoners humiliated, trampled, gassed, burned, exterminated? With all that we are still able to implement in terms of destruction, how many lines will be written in the History books for the Holocaust in a thousand years? If there is still a History to be told, to be written...
What is memory? What is disappearance? Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? These are questions that have tormented us for a long time. Much of my work is the result of this question on the fragility of human beings, species extinction, the death of art, the collapse of civilizations, even the end of the sun. We were apparently born from a primitive explosion, we all were engendered from the stars. And we return to the nothingness. But from now on, we understood that by trying to dominate nature, in which we are actively involved, everything could fall over for us too. We may be the last, or penultimate.
Actually, we do not know exactly where we are going... We got a bit lost in space... In time... What I show is the whole of life. And therefore I show death, too.
Yes, we shall disappear. But for now, we live… If there is a solution to this fatal destiny it could only be found in wonder at what remains, this miracle of life, love, happiness and joie de vivre, right here and in the Power of Now. Living by breathing greedily, lovingly, religiously, living every second to the fullest. A poetic way of being in the world with open eyes and a happy heart, without hate, fear nor regret. In the marriage of the deepest shade with the brightest light. In the acceptance of sovereign mystery.
Xavier Zimbardo – November 25, 2012