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By Colin Finlay
ZUMA Press Books: 2006
Reviewed by Marianne Fulton
Colin Finlay's biography identifies him as "one of the foremost documentary photographers in the world." If you have any doubts about that, open his new book, Testify. Here are more than 100 black-and-white images of dignity and devastation selected from 17 years of photographs and essays.
This powerful retrospective presentation was picture-edited by Antonin Kratochvil, with the final book design by Scott Mc Kiernan, ZUMA Press chief executive and founder. The introduction is by Karen Sinsheimer, curator of photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Mc Kiernan, Kratochvil and Finlay have created a beautiful, concise, adamant statement about the world of which we are a part but ignorant about – or perhaps we just feign ignorance. To take a career's worth of images and produce one sustained shout of recognition – the soul of a man's work – is a remarkable feat.
The reproductions are presented without captions or titles. The information on the "Plates" page reveals only the country and year. However, a second section called "Dispatches" presents Finlay's writing with more photographs. In seven sections, each in a different place, he eloquently describes a situation, his work, his reaction, and his emotions.
He graphically describes what he found in the "apocalyptic landscape" of Kilgaly, Rwanda, after the 100-day massacre. His words picture the scenes very much the way photographs documented the Holocaust. At a church where 10,000 people were murdered: "Even before I'd reached its doors, the smell took hold of me. … Decomposing bodies, some with flesh, some without, lay everywhere, in positions of tortured agony." In smaller rooms, "bodies were stacked like cord wood, packed to the top of the doorways, spilling out of the window frames. Hands, arms, feet, skulls, all piled one on top of the other." At the end of this experience he found that his childhood in Scotland seemed far away and imaginary. "I left everything that I thought I was and knew behind. Rwanda created a scar, like the puncture marks a vaccination leaves on a child. It is now my past."
Early in his career Colin Finlay asked a seasoned photojournalist with him in Haiti if it ever becomes easier to confront death and human suffering. No, he replied, "it gets harder and harder. It means my work isn't getting out there enough. I'm not doing enough. I'm not working hard enough."
Finlay has been in hard and brutal places and finds that he feels tremendous guilt when he can't place his work. He has been to, for instance, the "end of the world" in Romania where children go to die alone and horribly as a result of AIDS-tainted blood provided by the same government that now rejects them. Also to the "City of the Dead" in Cairo where children suffer, working six to seven days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day. They labor to make bricks or roofing tiles for their own fathers and uncles who did exactly the same as children in a cycle that has persisted for generations – no one family raising itself out of poverty. As Finlay writes, "It's not about me; it's about the people who've entrusted their lives to me." For a passionate photographer who wants to enable people to speak through his pictures this is a moral dilemma.
The images themselves are varied but are often of children holding each other, fighting, working with mud-caked bodies, and waiting. The child pressing close to the car window in "Rwanda, 1994," is an example of an in-your-face event: the arm out, the palm of the hand turned towards the troubled face, almost against the window with an obscured sticker that reads, "Give and … God will send." God will send what and when? The gesture could mean, "Give me help, food, money – save me." It could represent a question, "Why is this happening?" or "Do you see the butchered bodies?" Whatever the moment's specific meaning, the car window of someone passing through frames a cry from the heart.
Testify is also a cry from the heart of the photographer for us to look at what is specifically happening and to do something to alleviate the suffering and hopelessness.
Fulton is the former chief curator of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film; senior editor, The Digital Journalist; and author of the book "Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America."
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