“Welcome, O life! I got to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” James Joyce
A portray of an artist as a young man is perhaps one of the most accessible books written by the colossus of literature James Joyce. The book starts with a generic phrase, “once upon a time” which makes us believe that we are in front of a novel or a tale like any other. We could not be more wrong for as the narrative plot develops, so do the language and the physiological insight of the hero, Stephen Dedalus. The book is a wonderful journey in a young man’s life, a constant quest where Stephen tries to find truth and beauty in the world. Torn between flesh and spirit, between reason and religion, Dedalus battles to build himself an identity according to his spiritual and scientific education. Towards the end of the book, Stephen emancipates from the paternal figure in order to create his own personal vision of the world he inhabits.
What then have in common Stephen Dedalus, a fictional character, and Toumani Camara, a young half Mexican half Senegalese photographer? Even if Dedalus comes straight from Joyce’s pen, he embodies his author concerns and thoughts during his childhood and adolescence. Stephen craves for knowledge and understanding, and so does Toumani Camara. This young man’s photography is an inspiring journey through his personal life, his deepest concerns, joys and grievances, just as Joyce’s book.
The fist subject that we encounter in Toumani’s photography is himself. Following the pictorial tradition, Toumani’s work is abundant in self-portraits; like painters such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Otto Dix or Francis Bacon, Toumani follows their lead and he photographs himself creating different plots to do so. Nevertheless, unlike some of his predecessors, the young photographer builds thoroughly a scenario behind him, giving hints to the observer about the meaning of his self-portraits. For instance, in one of his works, Toumani appears lying in a bed and playing with a camera. On the background we see a carpet with what we could define as African motives. Is this a meaningless aesthetical choice? It is unlikely for we see the same motives several times. Self-portraiture becomes more than a mere narcissist exercise, the camera lens is a sort of scalpel helping him to shape and discover is own identity. In her acclaimed book, On photography, Susan Sontag wrote: “Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation”; we can ask ourselves, is self-portraiture and at a larger scale, are “selfies” a way of corroborating our existence, of intervening in the world? In Toumani’s work we could say so, photography working as a witness of our passage in this ephemeral life. Moreover, self-portraiture is seemingly a practical way of working, the camera being perceived sometimes as intruding, invasive and putting some people ill at ease.
After self-portraiture comes portraiture. The second subject recurrent in Toumani’s work is other’s people face and body. Toumani’s self-portraits seem to help him understand himself and the people surrounding him. According to Emmanuel Lévinas, “the face talks”, through it we create empathy with others as we recognize or see us in them. Furthermore, French philosopher Merleau-Ponty believed that the body had a specific function, helping us to build a strong bond with others by way of experiencing our own body. “Let go” is an example and an overwhelming project where the young man took pictures of his dying grand-mother. In a short description, he defines what “dementia” is and meditates about euthanasia, the freedom to choose when to die. The whole series is profoundly painful and at times unbearable: the gaze of the old woman’s eyes, the expressions of her face as well as the condition of her skin show us a tormented human being. It is extremely touching to see these photographs, Toumani is denuding in front of us, letting us be part of the process of grievance. Despite this sorrowful perspective, Toumani’s photographs often depict more joyful situations where his family and friends seem to be a central part in his work. It is appropriate to say that photography has become for this young man a way of facing the world and participating in other’s people lives, he shares with them his vulnerability and his strength. Quoting again Sontag: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability”.
Finally, sky scrappers, houses, train rails, streets and churches populate the third part of his work. Architecture seems to get Toumani’s attention constantly, and it easy to understand why, for they both obey a similar law: they try to give shape to landscape. Not content with aesthetical purposes, Toumani modifies it using Photoshop and other technical tricks. Aphorisms such as “You think too Much” or “C’est pas compliqué” appear as hidden messages in some of his “architectural photographs”. He appropriates urban landscape by including these words, giving us again, a hint of what he’s thinking about, a key to understand him and his work. Joyce chose the stream of consciousness to get us inside Dedalus mind; Toumani chooses to modify explicitly his photographs.
So again, what do Stephen Dedalus and Toumani Camara have in common? They both try to understand and define by different means the world and people surrounding them. They both share a certain sensibility inherent to a young soul, they both are seeking beauty and knowledge to decipher the riddle of the existence.