The Darko Bavoljak series Focusing Out of Focus was shot in 2018 at a formal assembly that was attended by a large number of highly ranked politicians and military officers. But one can only guess about the importance of this assembly – for instead of the documentary photos one might have expected, Bavoljakʼs photographs reveal just strings of outlines and silhouettes, fuzzy ovals of faces and groups of figures that turn into facets and blotches. Maybe we can gather what was photographed. A group of people standing up straight with their right hands placed on their hearts, unclear faces looking towards the camera, while others pay no attention to the photographer. On some pictures the subjects are clearer and we can almost recognise the politicians photographed – prime minister, president, president of the Parliament, ministers and generals. By use of a macro-telephoto lens Bavoljak has taken unfocused pictures, photographs that are not sharp. “That’s how I perceive them – elusive. You see them in front of you, but when you want to start communication, they evade you.”
Focusing is the process of sharpening up the projection of a motif that is at some distance from the lens of the camera. Depending on the choice and the adjustment of the lens, the image taken is going to be sharp or blurred, regular or distorted. As one of the basic procedures in photography, focusing is in principle used to emphasise individual parts of the photograph, to bring out the details, to achieve a certain impression. In the case of the portrait, it’s usual to photograph the person in such a way that the picture is in sharp focus and the figure shown recognisable. Primarily because, put simply, a portrait photograph is a formal representation of the face and the body of the subject taken. However, what if the whole picture is deliberately made out of focus, and the subjects taken are hard to recognise, turned practically into blotches? Bavoljak notices that since we have been taught to look only at sharp images “we don’t have too much experience in looking at blurred pictures, so subconsciously we expect that they themselves will get sharper. Since this doesn’t happen, and the photos are still unsharp, we start to become aware that we are never going to be able to fully read the scenes”.
Photographs of top politicians are part of our daily visual surroundings. We find them in internet and newspaper articles, they are broadcast on TV, hung up in rooms of state institutions and offices, published on official and private profiles of social media. Representativeness, along with openness and transparency, are given as the most important characteristics of contemporary democratic societies. So pictures of political officials, be they official or informal, are particularly important. At the same time, they are portraits of individuals as well as embodiment of the society as portraits of persons elected to represent the society. Can we agree with the opinion that the collective is shown through the individual? That in every one of the individuals taken we can find traces of our own decisions? That in some figurative sense we are mirrored in them; we and our decisions? Members of the public have to be enabled to see who is representing them, just as they have to know what these representatives are doing so that the democratic processes can function and so as to satisfy the principle of the answerability of politicians for their procedures.
Professional photographers have thus become the inseparable companions of politicians at official assemblies and commemorations, meetings and journeys, sporting events and celebrations (with, let it be said, the depiction today often being more important than the substance). At the speed of a click, the visual material shot floods the media space. The desired or at least expected image is broadcast.
If the capacity of the photograph is to be a trace of what is shown, how are we to read Bavoljak’s photos, particularly in the context of the political portrait and the documentary or reportage photo shot at some public occasion? Their meaning will surely not reside in the framework of the regular habits and conventions of visual representation. The photographed depiction is never identical to that which is photographed. The ambiguity of the photograph is to be seen in our having to read it in relation to a context. The context in which these photos were shot is a social and political situation marked by a high degree of distrust in institutions and democratic representatives. The transparency that democracy requires, the respect for procedures, the trust in political representatives and the availability of the democratic tools for the penalisation of irresponsible political action today unfortunately seem as goals that are hard to achieve. Hence in a society in which politicians are frequently tied to corruption and economic crimes, photographing their classic – in focus – portraits would be further from the truth than a series of blurred outlines.
Ink-jet print Camera Canon EOS 1 DS Mark III Property: Author