Back in 2009, I took a rest from street photography to work on a project dealing with the nature of humanity. I have been wanting to shoot portraits that communicate and define human beings as substance with fixed properties—that there is the real us within that determine who we are. This project almost didn’t see daylight. I’ve been turned down by people who weren’t willing to sit in front of my camera and approached a few writers to collaborate with but, just the same, showed zero interest. Yet I’m grateful I found sympathetic people who were willing to collaborate on this idea.
The tension in Melvin Mapa’s photography is multiple, but how can one expect it to beotherwise? Human nature, the photographer’s subject matter of choice, is on its own rifew/ tension, what more when complicated by photography. The photograph after all stake sits preliminary value not so much in, to use Barthes’ terms, its connotation but its denotation—the seeming absence of mediation between the depiction & the depicted—& this runs a perfect parallel to human nature: what is the nature of humanity if not what humanity denotes, before cultural & social mediation allows it to connote, to mean something else other than the literal? In this sense, Mapa’s act of framing is double-edged the way his imagery is, twin blades emerging from the same horizon: just as every photograph frames its subject, every photograph in turn is also framed by the extra-photographic framework of its subject matter—calling attention not only to the politics in photography (the system of power-relations bound by the frame, the position of objects w/in the mies-en-scene,etc.), but to the politics of photography as well (the very act of framing, the process of othering mediated by the camera, the formal dialectic between active photographer and passive subject, etc.).
Given that every photograph hence is ideologically informed—that each photograph has a politics—how does one depict human nature? The existentialist in Mapa, the explorer-photographer in search of the heart of things, gets overtaken by the more powerful, wiser Sartrean in him. “Existence over essence,” the French philosopher argues—a classic existentialist maxim Mapa believes in—such that what determines one’s identity is not so much what one is but what one does. Pursuing such a trajectory also allows him entry into the territory of the performative, mapped so well by the likes of JL Austin & Judith Butler: where what one is is how one performs—where identity is a construction—is not the attempt to portray human nature by means of photography bound to fail right at the onset? W/c is really to say: one perhaps should not approach each photograph by Mapa as a portrait of human nature that fails, but as a portrait of this very failure to portray human nature by means of a medium that never fulfills its promise of portrayal. In short, these are portraits of the failure of photography, of the failure that is photography. But to say that photography has failed—is this not also to pin an essence to photography, can the camera’s function & role not be performative the way human nature is performative? Come to think of it, the very phrase “human nature” is contradictory in itself, an oxymoron whose preciousness lies in its own contradiction. After all, one learns from Foucault that the very concept of the human has not emerged till of late, such that there is no other way to arrive at the nature of the human other than to construct it, for the object whose nature is sought for is only a Socio-Cultural construct to begin w/.
One may also say the same for photography, characterised by the oxymoron of its goal of objectivity, when objectivity itself—the very aspiration towards it—is ideologically informed. In fact, it is the process Mapa engages in that constructs photography in such a manner. The oxymoronic conceit is stretched by the tool Mapa uses to take these shots: an antique camera. Whilst Mapa (who works as an creative director for an advertising agency in the face of his Marxist tendencies: take that for a contradiction!) characterises the antique camera as a “proletarian tool”—he even goes as far as say the choice to go black-&-white is deliberate, colour being a bourgeois mystification of the photograph’s constructedness—one cannot also help but think it is this antique quality of the camera he uses that makes it even less accessible to the proletarian. Possibly more expensive than the average point-&-shoot camera, it also makes use of film—w/c as everyone knows costs so much more than the freely distributable mode of image production made available by digital technologies. Is it possible that the more one engages w/ Marxist discourse, the more one sympathises w/ it, all the more one becomes complicit w/ the system s/he rages against? Does the very resistance against the system entail subsumption under the system? When one looks at every portrait produced by Mapa’s camera, one’s attention is drawn by the twin faces, the emotional above being a radical departure from the serene below. A commentary perhaps that, as the photographer himself states explicitly, “what appears on the surface may mean something else”?
Possibly, if one is to overlook that the “something else” Mapa speaks of has been rendered into another surface by the simple acts of framing & shooting. But what this strategy so deftly highlights is the horizon of violence that makes such a departure even possible: the almost invisible boundary that separates the above from the below, analogous to the ideological distinction that separates the photographer from the photographed—the former akin to what Zizek calls subjective violence, the latter more in the land of what he calls objective violence. In the end, however, what all should be wary of is systemic violence—the horizon that not only separates the capitalist system from the resistance against it, but sustains the same capitalist system w/c makes even such a distinction possible.
— Angelo Suárez, 2009