There is, it seems, a difference between verbal and visual, particularly photographic, representation. The Islamic iconoclastic gesture, whereby the image is withdrawn from sight, results in a powerful, almost abstract visual image. Yet the closed black area in the photograph does clearly express itself on all sorts of Internet forums.

- As an author you can enter into dialogue with your model. Whereas you previously regarded the photograph as the clinching of a special moment and the portrait as the registering of the image of a loved one, now you are opening the archive in which you saved all these photographic images. As though bringing into doubt the permanency of what was earlier preserved ‘forever’.

- The veiled woman is not lost for words, either visually or verbally. There’s a snapshot on the personal page of my contact person. Does not such a photograph contravene the second Islamic commandment that forbids the making of images of living beings? Every stigma marking the veiled women is nuanced in my contact with the women.

- You ask yourself whether visual or verbal language enables us to get an unprejudiced grip on what ‘reality’ offers us. It sounds like a utopian desire. We are, I think, incapable of freeing ourselves of a history. The past marks our present speaking and looking, Every gaze harbours a private perspective. Every story has a point of view and is to an extreme degree created. Edward Saïd refers to the persistent image of ‘the oriental woman’, which is based on Flaubert’s descriptions of his meetings with the Egyptian courtesan Kuchiuk Hanem, dating from the nineteenth century. ‘He [Flaubert] spoke for her’, writes Said in Orientalism. Text relies on text, image on image. What started as a written elucidation within a specific context has degenerated more and more into an incorrect characterisation, a category that is hollowed out and lacking in any subtlety. Text institutionalises. The correspondence of the written with the referent is not even called into question, let alone verified.

- It appears to be difficult to think beyond the dichotomy of we/they, here/there. How disconcerting it is to notice the degree to which your Western view determines your contact with the veiled woman!. The principle that a portrait is capable of revealing the identity of the one portrayed is thus frustrated as soon as you make a photograph of a veiled woman. What is a portrait?, you suddenly ask yourself. What does identity mean when the face remains hidden? And yet, the longer you look the more you descry the details, the folds and pleats, the textures, tones and models of the burqas, the stances and the veiled forms of the women. You see more than you think. Nevertheless, what we know or think we know remains our starting point. Like enlightened reasoning, perspectival looking is implicit to the Western gaze: every image has a vanishing point that is located in or outside the image area; we think in terms of progress. Man is programmed.

- Indeed we automatically project Western values, codes, standards and patterns onto a culture that has developed and is organised differently. Values change, just like everyday life and its customs. We barely remember that headscarves were also worn in the West, particularly in Mediterranean countries. While the veil initially expressed the idea that the woman, in contrast to the unveiled prostitute, was the possession of the man and thus remained inaccessible to the gaze and touch of others, the connotation of unapproachability became sanctified within Islam. While Christianity made a sacrament of marriage, Islam did that with the woman’s body. By veiling it, as Sven Lütticken argues in Idols of the Market. Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle.

- The issue of veiling is complex. It is also more finely differentiated than the media would have us believe. The headscarf and the niqab have been transformed into a mystifying, impenetrable screen, one that in earlier centuries was used to dramatise and romanticise contrasts. This can be seen, for example, in paintings by Delacroix. More recently, the veil has helped harden contrasts uncommonly. Not only women, but also social relationships and Islam in general were covered by the ‘black screen’. The veiled women themselves stress in their conversations that for them the headscarf is a sign of modesty. Their explanation does not tally with our interpretation. What’s more, you could just as well argue that the veil reveals the clear distance that the Muslim woman takes vis-à-vis the omnipresent, even sexualised, Western visibility.

- We seem to have returned to what we were talking about before: in our contact with what is generally typified as the East, we - as image makers and representatives of Western culture - are problematicised.

- You abandon the distinction between visual and verbal image makers. The verbal image, it seems, is less forceful and more subtle. Anyway, isn’t ‘verbal image maker’ a contradiction in terms? In my view it is important to provide access and insight into what, through a load of interpretations, has become deformed and purportedly threatening: the veiled woman and how we relate to her. This is the issue that should be addressed, instead of confirming the demands that a culture makes of representations. For me it is a question of the gesture underlying the image, which at the same time can cause an unintended result. My aim is to see things asymmetrically, to see more than we have innocently looked at for so long.

- To return to your first remark: you remember the influential image of the oriental woman as described by Flaubert - language is to a large degree visual. Language has figures of speech and rhetoric, which give a text contrast and space, like the perspective in a Renaissance painting. And language knows time. Narratives and internal and external voices come together in a text. I suspect that we have only recently started to acknowledge that photography possesses this extreme spatiality, liveliness and layeredness, which history also has a share in: much remains ostensibly hidden in a photograph, as we have just concluded. The history of photography is relatively short.

- The camera remains an instrument that enables us to visualise something we are reasonably cognizant of. Or can be made so. The camera is the programme we were just talking about. After all, is not the West’s perspective instrumentalised in the camera? Is every statement political?

- The excess of visibility is a farce, a blind spot in our seeing. We need to re-programme ourselves, as Lütticken suggests. The important thing is to remain up-to-date, to not allow ourselves to be misled by established terms and terminologies, tags, labels and names. Visual and verbal languages differ in the way in which these codes are ascribed, how they take shape, cross each other and are, each to a different degree, to be sure, liberated from a ‘reality’ that is continuously shifting and in motion.

- Lurking in that difference between languages is a powerlessness that can't precisely be determined

- but also a beauty, and a challenge to indeed undertake the attempt, as far as I am concerned.

-Ilse van Rijn

Top