Ulrich Loock, 2005
There is one specific feature which distinguishes Ahlam Shibli's photographs of Refuge in the Frost from the pictures of Goter (2002-2003) and other thematic, earlier series like Unrecognized (1999-2000) or Self Portrait (2000): the issue of aiming and focusing. Aiming and focusing relate to a practice of cutting and separating one part from the other, and of excluding what escapes the center of vision. Arguably, this type of action is part of the nature of photography, and therefore Walter Benjamin compared the photographer to a surgeon. Looking from one image of Refuge to the other, they appear as though snatched from a given situation, wilfully and at random – their diversity in terms of the subject matter, the organization of the image and the relation between photographer/spectator, and the things depicted being a form to make explicitly manifest the pointed action informing any photographic practice. Or, inversely, the separation which is performed by the act of taking a picture is reflected and pushed to an extraordinary emphasis by the incoherence of the images of Refuge in the Frost.
The issues of aiming and focusing, of cutting and excluding, are what unites these images. The picture of a man wearing sunglasses, rising from a small crowd of blurred figures and pointing his camera at an invisible object, appears like a displaced mirror image of the photographer herself. Two further images metaphorize the place and the tool of her doing: a shooting range and rifles. If these pictures refer to transitive action, however, they are informed at the same time by a lack of accomplishment: the guns are unused, and the photographer holding up his camera has his eyes covered by black glasses like a blind man. Regarding the 'other side,' the side of things or people being aimed at, the boy between the buffers or the long-haired young man on the bed – not being successfully targeted despite ample proclamation of a forceful approach – do not really return the photographer's gaze, even though looking in her direction. What she will rather encounter in place of their gazes is the Medusa's head of the immoveable figure of a mannequin in a crowded street in Japan. This is the photographer's risk: she may be petrified by the gaze from the face at which she is looking.
People who commit suicide by jumping off a bridge usually do not really want to die. Looking ahead of them, they rather see that any passage at the end of the road is impenetrable and choose sideways the only opening available to escape. Pictures of a street in Akka (Acre) or in Marseille or the picture of a hallway in Yokohama represent what they might see: lines that recede to close off the space in some distance. There is also the picture of a window – Alberti might have extended to the photographic image his metaphor of the window for the panel painting which employed the perspectival method of rendering spatial depth to lead the gaze to another reality beyond – and the view from this window is blocked by a cinder block wall not more than a few feet away. Finally, the perspective of receding lines forming a closure in the distance can undergo inversion (Chinese perspective) to generate an image of the corner of a building pointing at the spectator, adorned with street signs announcing 'wrong way' and 'no staying.' This inversion turns focusing into unfocusing: the five people in the picture have been photographed in a moment of utter disparity in their relations to one another. And finally, as if the pictorial reality were retroacting, a flash of light backfires at the optical machine, exceding the latter's power of registration.
From Unrecognized to Self Portrait to Goter (Go there!) to Refuge in the Frost: this is the consequence of a journey to exile. Refuge in the Frost is marked by a distance that is not measured like the distance of the photographer from the situation she is dealing with in Goter. It can be attempted to be bridged only by the flight of the bodyless gaze … breaking up the coherence of a series of photographs … emphasizing the punctuating action of photography and in return being confronted by things, people turning against being turned into pictures … to the point of obliterating, annihilating the image and blinding the viewer.