By Ben Taub
Alex Majoli doesn’t create the world around him, but he does decide how it is lit. Holding the camera to his eye, he uses his left hand to direct his assistants, who hold up huge strobe lights that flash brighter than the equatorial sunlight in the middle of the day. At a funeral in the Republic of Congo, mourners thrust their arms toward the coffin, wailing—embodying grief. Majoli, a member of the Magnum photo agency and one of the world’s great documentary photographers, has been shooting the scene for two hours; now the enduring image is made. No one doubts the subjects’ anguish, but would they have expressed it so theatrically if Majoli and his lights had not been there?
This is the arresting concept behind “SKĒNĒ,” Majoli’s New York gallery première, named for the backdrop in an ancient Greek theatre—the dividing structure between preparation and performance, behind which actors change masks and costumes. Majoli is a student of art, and, for more than a decade, he has been enthralled by the philosophical fixations of the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello, who advocated that the blurry line between theatre and reality is erased more often than we might like to admit. In every interaction, Majoli told me, “We have a mask. We live in a theatre. We perform. We play.”
For the works in “SKĒNĒ,” which span seven countries and seven years, Majoli cast aside the photojournalistic aspiration to depict unadulterated reality, an ideal so often betrayed by the unavoidable fact of the photographer’s presence. (No photographer is invisible, but few find the act of blending into a market crowd in Pointe-Noire as impossible as Majoli, a hulking Italian with a blond man-bun.) Instead, Majoli has liberated himself to embrace the artifice in his productions, seeking authenticity in inviting both his subjects and his audience to concede that “they are playing a role, without me telling them.”
In a Congolese market, on the shores of Greece, at a protest in Cairo, in the bedroom of a naked Brazilian named Maria, Majoli assembles his lights slowly. By the time he has finished, those who don’t want to participate in the show have scurried out of the frame. (This unspoken casting period has the accidental effect of protecting those who, living under an autocratic regime, might not want their likeness to show up in print.) Then he starts taking pictures. In the opening minutes of the production, the subjects are often nervous, overacting. “I don’t talk to them, but they see these strobe lights,” he said. “Pom! Pom!” They soon settle into their roles, however, performing amplified versions of their existing lives and emotions, and they stop breaking the fourth wall. Majoli adjusts his camera to expose for the light he casts on the scene: what the strobes illuminate appears natural; what they don’t hit, even in sunlight, fades to striking black.
“SKĒNĒ” will be on display at the Howard Greenberg Gallery through April 1st. Most of the prints are nearly four feet wide and on sale for more than ten thousand dollars. But there is another display, what Majoli calls “the wall of drafts,” modelled after his own workspace in Sicily. Hanging on that wall is a scrap-board of images examining the symmetry between staged emotions and real ones. Prints of a Greek actor portraying Hamlet in the nineteen-seventies show the same physical vocabulary as people in real scenes Majoli captured in Afghanistan, Brazil, Italy, France, Japan. Hamlet grips his chest like a raging bald man at a night club in Rimini. Hamlet cries with his elbows near his face; so does a Parisian woman outside Le Carillon.
At the gallery, there are no captions on Majoli’s images. There is no need for them, he says—not if the photos succeed in capturing something universal. Images taken in different years and on different continents interact on the same wall; a woman in China stares at the funeral in the Congo from within her own frame. At the gallery opening, one guest mistook the photo of a man in a rice field in India, set between two photos of migrants in Greece, for a refugee surreptitiously approaching the border into Serbia. Unperturbed by the mixup, Majoli recited the title of a play by Pirandello: “It is so if you think so.”