Welcome to Belgium

Luc Tuymans, 2003

This work is rather like a testimony, beginning at the beginning and covering a research period lasting nine years. The result is both theoretically and conceptually, and even physically, inseparably linked to its creator. Charif shows us in four sections a specific situation which is immobilised within the black and white of his images with a well-defined question: to what is the creator or the onlooker witness?

In the first section homeless children in an alien environment are first recorded in side view, with motifs capturing a movement. These pictures evolve into a timid frontality. Children as a first confrontation with the not yet acquired possibilities of birth and origin. This is all embedded within the anonymity of the urban, the so-called fanciful and harmless, and finally individualised into portraits which open themselves out to the observer, but at the same time give the impression of having been taken years earlier. This is the age-old idiom of the image of migratory man. The figures respond nervously to the lens. The subject is felt to be exotic, something far removed from us. This is where the first misunderstanding arises, manifesting itself as speechlessness; you look, but do not want to look for too long.

In the second section, on Petit Chateau, the environment is conceived as a transit zone, which means that each momentary picture cannot show anything other than one facet of a given situation. What you see is a lack of freedom of movement, space and privacy. Everything is levelled out. The group of people portrayed is almost equally important to the tiled floor; every capacity for choice is ruled out. What remains is the waiting, which here culminates in a photograph of someone seen lying on his back, looking out of a barred window at an empty courtyard, which in turn is surrounded by walls. The entire image is duplicated and reflected. It seems as if the sequence of pictures chosen is beginning to implode. A man on a chair with his trousers pulled down is showing his genitals as a last form of protest. On the double page that concludes this cycle as a substitute for everything that has not been shown I think I can spot the photographer himself, on the left at the bottom of the photograph, as part of a group of four of the people portrayed.

The third section – San Damiano – is even more gruesome, almost graphic within the heightened contrast of the black and white. Starting with a picture of keys with their purpose in only one national language, via a portrait of an African man, to images, disguising themselves, of bodies wrapped in blankets and congealed into objects, in an extremely stylised manner the final destination of the journey is formulated. The photographs occupying double pages in this book, within their diagonal, almost panoramic view, denote an insubstantial state of being and being no longer.

In the fourth and last section – Héléna Benjouira – we see a document, a letter, a personal history and the first colour photographs, probably originating from the subject of the portrait herself, a mother with a child. The nameless is named, or rather, names itself as someone living in illegality. The portrait takes over. The image explains itself within its obvious naturalness and shows something that in principle should not be alien to us. Then the final picture, probably the photographer’s mother, and a last statement.

Charif’s book, as said before, is like a testimony, a diary or the screenplay of a film, ending with a catharsis in which the personal story is interwoven with the detached, documentary image and in this sense becomes part of a larger history. All this is done without pathos, however. This hybrid form, being involved and not being involved, curiously enough results in a kind of parallel world, a vacuum in which it is possible only to look. The real and the fictional are brought to an almost pictorial standstill, resulting in a blown-up image which takes on a virtual life of its own.

This book is so strong that I do not think these words of mine are capable of providing a reply, since within the duality sketched above the sovereignty of the image prevails. Furthermore, recent developments in the world and the consequences they will have, especially for the western hemisphere, make this book more topical than ever. Immigration policies will become even stricter, borders will close and despair will only increase.