To see and respect

By Deirdre Good

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) here in New York City is currently exhibiting photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) until June 28, 2010. There are rooms full of 300 black and white photographs of ordinary and famous people at significant events or doing everyday things somewhere in the world between 1929 and 1969. Many have never been seen before. Cartier-Bresson has been called one of the great portraitists of the 20th Century. His photographs record every important event of the 20th Century: liberation of the Nazi camps, the Communist revolution in China, Gandhi’s funeral. If you can’t visit New York, the exhibit moves on to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 24 to October 3); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 30 to January 30); and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 19 to May 15). It’s also online here

From the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson began to travel. He became a photojournalist in 1937 when he went to London and photographed not the ceremony or the king but people at the Coronation of King George VI. The French weekly magazine that paid for his work was displeased that he did not take any pictures of the Coronation. Instead, he turned the camera onto the public most of whom had been up all night to get a good view. They’d also survived the abdication crisis of Edward VIII the previous year. For Cartier-Bresson, the significance of the event lay not with the carriage or the king but with the people who were there. In one photo a sea of people stand or sit on a monument in Trafalgar Square looking beyond the camera. Below them a man sleeps on the ground. Now he will miss the event he’s stayed up all night to see. But the picture shows he was there. In another photograph, an elderly man in a top hat peers between two ladies. One of the women is lost in a reverie with a hand to her open mouth while the other gestures with a gloved hand as she speaks to the man. In Cartier-Bresson’s photographs ordinary people look just as good as famous people.

After his visit to London and for several decades, Cartier-Bresson was everywhere. His images of people are arresting. He understood that sensitivity and geometry make a great photograph. Women on a hilltop in Srinagar, Kashmir hold their hands out in prayer. Their feet conform to the line of the distant mountains while their outstretched hands match the flow of the river. In the photograph of a bicyclist, symmetry of curvature matches the bicyclist’s turn to the curve of a staircase. Listening to DeGaulle in Aubernas, France a row of women on descending steps fold their arms in shadow wearing almost identical dresses and headscarves. Only on the dog’s head does the sunlight shine down. He is looking the other way.

The moment of taking the photograph, Cartier-Bresson says, is when the subject takes me. “I’m receptive and I shoot.” You don’t so much prepare to take a photograph as concentrate in the silence, and be receptive. “Don’t think,” he says, “the brain’s a bit dangerous. You have to give satisfaction to your eye.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil has a similar sense of waiting only she puts it into a spiritual perspective by stressing the importance of attentive, receptive waiting. She wrote in her journal: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” In her short life and in her writings she explores how attentiveness could enable spiritual growth. Not by means of willpower but only by means of receptivity and openness would someone discover truth.

Simone Weil believed that we need this discipline of attention if we are to know God. But she also believed that it was necessary if we are to know, and to help, other persons. Thus, expectant attention combines contemplation with action. In her book, Waiting for God, she says, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

Witnessing someone’s distress leaves us uncomfortable. It is hard for me to look the homeless person I pass on the street in the eye, to watch someone cry or be in pain, or to listen attentively to a story of suffering. I want instead to be anywhere else. Simone Weil reminds us that the first principle of helping another is not action. It is to see and respect the other. She repeatedly notes that the greater the suffering of the other person, the harder it is truly to see and hear that person. We have to work at this kind of discipline so as to be fully present to the other. For only by attending to someone else first will we be able to consider what to do next. Yesterday on the street, I looked closely at a homeless person who inhabits our neighborhood. I saw that he was shredding tiny pieces of paper from a newspaper and as he shredded them he said, “She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not.”

I wish I could see a photograph of Simone Weil if Cartier-Bresson had ever photographed her. They lived in the same country at the same time. Perhaps he would have caught on camera her concentration. She would have liked his photographs of factory workers and peasants in ordinary life and at moments of great transition. Perhaps they would have seen in each other a similar self-effacing desire to observe. Might they even have spoken candidly of the preparation and effort such an attitude demands? And would they have discussed the politics of socialism and anarchy for which each showed such sympathy? After all, an exhibit of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs only shows what the artist and the museum choose to let us see. Why not imagine what we might want to see as well?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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