Following the opening of Darrin Zammit Lupi’s photography exhibition Isle Landers and book launch at St James Cavalier last week, I woke up the next day and immediately browsed through the publication over my morning coffee.

As I reached the end of the book and reflected on the style, National Geographic kept popping in my head and the magazine’s identifiable tropes and genres which, besides being an iconic publication, also brought to the surface public dissent regarding the magazine’s imperial romance.

This well-produced book portrays the relentless human tragedy of refugees, where the ‘luck of the draw’ is the only determining factor permitting the passage of human beings, mostly from the African continent across to Europe via what is now being called the ‘Black Mediterranean Sea’, end up as protagonists in the lens of Zammit Lupi; a seasoned professional and master of the art of photography.

I shall not continue to eulogise Zammit Lupi’s capabilities of technique and artistry but reflect on the nature of the photo­graphs themselves which commonly talk about the pain of others.Looking at photographs is not like watching a movie, a stream of under­selected images, each of which cancels the previous one. Each photograph is a privileged moment. As I sip my coffee, I look at a photograph which I can keep on seeing for an indefinite period of time.

“Photographs are more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time...”, remarked Susan Sontag in her monumental literary work On Photography. Photographs like paintings are silent and still and as I connect to them through a sort of time tunnel, this uninterrupted silence and stillness of a photograph can be very striking; it becomes a corridor, connecting the moment it represents, throwing into question our way of measuring time itself.

As I immerse myself deeper into the photographs I become increasingly aware that I am looking at images of suffering, even though the immediate visual rendering on the surface of the photo­graphs do not show atro­cities of any kind. However, the faces of these ‘boat people’ echo their long suffering (pg. 75). And this is what Zammit Lupi so proficiently brings out in this collection; the misfortunes and pains of others.

This well-produced book portrays the relentless human tragedy of refugees, where the ‘luck of the draw’ is the only determining factor

Suffering or death itself are not manifest in these pictures; they are implied. John Berger goes on to say in his book Understanding Photography, that “a photograph is effective when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as about what is present in it”.

The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. From the innumerable versions of the Passion of Christ and the fiendish executions of the Christian martyrs on canvas to the ghoulish cruelties in the Disasters of War, by Goya who’s images remove the spectacular so that the viewer is brought closer to the horror.

Goya’s print series is not a narrative: each image is accompanied by a caption or a brief phrase describing the wickedness of the invaders and stands independently of the other images. With Goya, a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art. The voice of the artist now hammers the viewer. One caption shouts: This is too much! (Fuerte cosa es!). What madness! (Que locura), cries another. In The Disasters of War, Goya is offering assurances of the image’s veracity: I saw this (Yo lo vi), this is the truth (Esto es lo verdadero).

In contrast, a photograph claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. Photographs are a stencil of the real and this is why photographs can count as evidence. So the caption of a photograph normally yields neutral information: a date, a place, names, etc.

This is also the case with the captions supporting the photographs in Isle Landers. However,we also find quotes and maxims by the survivors themselves which extend the photograph’s realm of veracity and the first-hand descriptions of the survivor’s ordeal now sets into the mind of the viewer a multi-sensory experience: “It was cold. Everybody was afraid. After some time, people started suffering hallucinations...” (pg. 83).

It occurs to me now the difference that lies between the photographs I saw in the gallery and the photographs reproduced in the publication. A museum or gallery visit is a social situation full of distractions and heavily depends on good curatorship and exhibition layout. Up to a point, the weight and seriousness of such photographs survive better in the book.

The project has been made possible with the assistance of the Malta Arts Fund, UNHCR and other sponsors.

We all know that compassion is an unstable emotion, it needs to be translated into action, or it withers. Photography is a great ambassador in this respect as it records and makes the pain of others more visible.

Patrick J. Fenech is an artist, photo­grapher and educator.