The Power of Visual Narratives
Luca Strano in conversation with Karim El Maktafi, reflecting on the power of visual narrative by focusing on Karim's photograph of Covid-19, as published on the cover of Washington Post Magazine in March 2020.
When Karim’s photograph came out on the cover of the Washington Post Magazine, I felt it was a great representation of the current global health emergency because it evoked the feeling of history and time. Considering that documentary photography has the power to shape our understanding of contemporary affairs by creating visual narratives that perpetuate their meaning in time, I spoke to Karim to try and discover more about his photograph and to see what we can learn from it.
KEM This image comes from a series of fortunate coincidences. During my first month of isolation, I was thinking and accumulating mental images of all the people suffering. One day, my feelings for the current global health emergency linked with the mould face cast in the picture. It had been sitting in my house for a while. The mould was made by my flatmate some time ago - it's actually her face. It was an instinctive process that led me to take this photograph, I felt it was a good representation of the current situation.
LS Photographers know how important it is to create images that communicate effectively. Distancing ideologies, Karim’s photograph contains small denotative elements capable of transcending the specific case that unites a common struggle. The use of the face mould, the black and white, and the almost forensic approach are elements prone to engage the concept of time and history. Rather than promoting the common ideologies and themes of the pandemic including isolation, separation, and danger, the image is silent, the eyes are closed, and the mask covers the expression and any hint of demographic connotation. The image invites the audience to project their feelings. What were the values you had in mind when developing this photograph? Did you intend to create a more inclusive and democratic image of the Covid-19 global pandemic?
KEM Yes, in my head I wanted to try and give an ‘objective’ representation of the strange and difficult period in which we are currently living.
LS In Documentary photography, photographers have great responsibilities in creating images because the outcome of their work can influence people’s opinion and this has often been questioned. Considering a documentary context, where photographs have the power to be perceived as documents that can promote specific ideas to the public, do you feel any weight in representing modern times? Is it something you question when working?
KEM In my case I don’t feel any weight, everyone must communicate what they want and feel as honestly as possible. Obviously there is a big responsibility in telling stories that are assigned by others, but no photographer should feel obligated to tell something just because it’s their job.
LS As suggested by John Berger, meaningful and iconic photographs often persuade the viewer to lend images an appropriate past and future, becoming representative of historically significant events. With your picture, I feel you have captured a piece of history effectively. Do you consider that your photographs may one day become iconic? Have you had any feedback and what was the Washington Post Magazine editor’s response to your submission?
KEM I don’t think this photograph is or will ever be iconic. Iconic images are often captured from the real and not from the metaphorical as is the case with my photograph. The Washington Post feedback was really positive and I was happy the photo editor was able to understand my intentions. They were anticipating what was going to happen to America due to the fact that Italy was a few weeks ahead of them and immediately wanted to use it.
LS Karim’s photograph seems an archaeological find from the future. I believe it has strong qualities that will give it a sense of iconicity going forward. I am genuinely happy to see an image like this published on the cover of a major outlet like the Washington Post. I believe it prompts people to ask questions and feel that it will create the space for further analysis and conversation, similar to this conversation with Karim.
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