August 10, 2009

Jessica Dimmock: The Human Stain




You know that you shouldn’t like it, that it shouldn’t be pleasurable to look, but of course it is, peering into the darkest corners, trying to get under the surface. We see a group of people create a living hell for themselves, from which they may never escape, its boundaries intangible: pain is their medium and the relief from pain – you don’t leave this life behind, it becomes you, becomes who you are. But to see the pictures, suffering brings it own aesthetic thrill – and why deny it, the pleasure of this looking, even if you know its cost? These are secular icons, wearing their hearts outside their chests, weeping blood and this life, these people, are sacrificed by their own will, martyrs to a hunger that is ours collectively.

Addiction is naked humanity; there is no other possible economy than that of the addiction in its ever-present demand for fulfilment, without restraint, without apology, a terrible momentum that gradually obscures everything else. So while I can’t help but wonder, as many do, when or if photo-journalists – especially those working with an obviously aesthetic intent – will ever cast a wider net on life, in the end these issues do not undermine, in any fundamental way, the integrity of this work as a whole, which stands as an incisive, challenging account of addiction, both fact and metaphor, not least in the way that this haunting vision is unafraid to articulate a deep truth in such visually seductive terms. Dimmock combines the acid dispassion of a committed observer with the ability to move through these lives like a trusted confidant, the camera is understood not to be a weapon, thought it does see, at times, with an unflinching candour.

What stands out in these pictures is a particularly abject sensuality, their charged half-light, evoking the actual presence of her subjects and the atmosphere of the place they have made home, a refuge. It is what illuminates the pictures, this nearness of an obvious humanity, without concealment, without the veneer of respectability – addiction strips all that away, and Dimmock uses that exposure to show us how close we all are to the blank hunger she portrays in these pictures.

Though photographers have long had a prurient fascination with the dispossessed, with the spectacle of poverty – which is, after all, the territory that “concerned” photography has made its own, how the other half live, their gutter amusements, these pictures have a kind of immediacy that more obviously belongs to the sphere of private reflection than to the realm of journalism proper and if we can’t forget (or rather should not) that Dimmock is the one telling the story of her time on the ninth floor, it seems clear her presence was as much a part of the place as anything else, she is a performer in this drama too, their Greek chorus – and is the standard of tragedy not, in some essential way, a disaster arising from one’s own choices, either in a moment of weakness or by increments?

There is tragedy here: these pictures are parables of human isolation, from inside the ever-deepening, entropic spirals of addiction, with no release from whatever hell they have made, cages of their own design. But one gets the sense that for Dimmock the drugs are not really the point, that they are not addressed only as a social issue, but as a way of exploring some other, altogether more profound, concern, where addiction itself becomes a metaphor for a particular kind of emotional vulnerability, a need or a desire that cannot be satisfied, that allows no denial, but opens like a void, a wound, in the pattern of a life…

It was a chance encounter that led Jessica Dimmock into this world, Alice through the looking glass, where she found a place for herself, for her camera, as a witness and yes, as a thief. It could not have been otherwise, not really, and what she takes must have been offered, in so much as it can be, as much as the person in front of the camera can understand what is being seen. Looking at these pictures then is to share the same complicity. The story of how she arrived here is arguably no more serendipitous (or prosaic) than might be expected under the circumstances – on the street, still a student, while trying out a new camera she is approached by a man who asks if he would like to photograph him, making it clear at the same time that he was a drug dealer. So it was in the course of photographing this man and his life that she was introduced to the eponymous ninth floor. It is here, however, that her work actually began and Dimmock eventually became a frequent visitor to the sprawling warren of rooms, a narcotic cocoon, pushing oblivion to the point of disappearance.

She never saw the man again, but he led her to the entrance of a maze and once inside she finds that it is a microcosm of the larger society from which it is hidden, heir to all the same vanities and tragedies, the same minor triumphs – a shadow world, the fractured double of our own, where everything and nothing are the same. Getting there is to stumble, perhaps willingly, into one of many traps – the ground opens up, you took a wrong turn. Or maybe it’s not as simple as that; our falls accumulate, until finally it’s better to stay down. Yet the frailties with which we must live, personally and all together, are here on a scale hard to imagine, appetites never satisfied in the barbed shelter of their addiction, they must live our nightmares and very little separates the people that Dimmock photographed from any one of the lives that must flow past them every day, uncomprehending, on the street under the high-up windows. Dying everyday and re-born in their addiction, this shadow world she entered must live the worst of other lives – their society is ours, each braided together, each alone inside their lives.