Muzaffar Salman held his first photography exhibition titled Punctum at the Goethe Institute in Damascus last month. I sat down with the young photographer to find out what inspires his work.
Why have you called your exhibition Punctum?
Punctum is a term used by French literary critic Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. Barthes uses the term to refer to the element in a photograph that ‘pierces’ the viewer. Punctum has a purely personal meaning which depends on the individual’s prior experiences. I chose this title because I wanted my photos to have an impact on viewers. Through the title I also wanted to reinforce the message that photography is an independent and important art form.
Until recently photography was not considered an art form by many in the country’s arts community and photography exhibitions were rare. Do you think people value photography more today?
Syria is one of the few countries where photography is still not considered a fine art. Instead, it is still taught as a form of applied arts. Digital cameras have helped to create a better understanding of the art of photography. After all, what distinguishes a photographer is not only how expertly he can control the shutter speed, develop a film or make a print, but what he sees and how he sees it. This is what has the deepest impact on viewers. Being an expert in the developing process makes you a good lab worker, but not necessarily an artist. A photographer is someone who can see the meaning in things and transmit that meaning through photographs.
So you think digital cameras have raised the profile of photography?
Photography has become a part of everyday life since the invention of digital cameras. Many people now have their own cameras and they have realised that it takes more than a simple click to create a good photograph. However, I don’t actually think photography has become easier now that we have digital cameras.
Before, photographers only needed to worry about the lens aperture, shutter speed and focal length, but today there are many other settings such as the ISO rating, white balance and so on. For a good photograph, you need to have all the right settings. Working in a dark room is also much easier than working with Photoshop Lightroom [software for managing digital photos].
I have four photographs in this exhibition which were taken with a Zenit camera, all of which I developed and printed manually. Working in a dark room is thrilling. At the end of the day, however, it’s not the techniques used to create a photograph, but the feelings it inspires which moves the viewer the most. Viewers relate to photos that stir up their emotions or recall a distant memory, ones that are visually entertaining or carry a meaning or an idea.
What inspires you as an artist?
Photography is the art of seizing the moment. Plato said that human beings think in images. Indeed, we see the world through photos but it took us thousands of years to invent a camera to capture what we see. Different scenes produce different emotions in people. Taking a photo is actually an attempt to capture the feeling a specific scene creates so that when you see that image you can recall the feeling and share it with your close ones. As such, photography is about feelings, rather than images.
Many of your photos look like watercolour paintings, while others are closer to graphics. How do you achieve this?
There’s an unwritten law in Syria that says all photos should be printed on Kodak colour photo paper. I simply overturned this law and printed my photos on Canson cardboard, using black ink. There are one hundred different types of paper out there – why should I limit my work to only one? Syrian intellectuals keep imposing rules on photographers. They say: ‘Don’t use Photoshop. Don’t crop your images. Don’t mess with the colours. Don’t change the contrast level.’ Why not? If a painter can use 100 different techniques, why can’t a photographer do the same?
You have been working for years as a photojournalist and you are the head of photography at Al-Watan daily newspaper. This is your first solo exhibition as an art photographer. How different is photojournalism from fine art photography?
I don’t believe in terms such as photojournalism and fine art photography. There are good photos and bad photos. Publishing a photo in a magazine doesn’t make it less artistic. I don’t see why I can’t exhibit a good photo that was taken for journalistic purposes. There are, of course, photos which complement news stories. These photos, just like news in a daily newspaper, are short lived. They live for one day and that’s it. But who said a photo should be immortal?
A number of art galleries in recent years have signed young artists like you up on contracts. Would you join a gallery under this arrangement?
I seriously considered joining one such gallery, but I didn’t in the end. As an independent photographer I can save enough money to carry out my own art projects, but if I work for a gallery I will not be working on my own projects anymore. Instead, I will be working for the gallery. That’s not healthy. An art project should be personal, not a work duty.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine