Photographing Simone Felice

What we witnessed on the night, embodied in Simone Felice’s performance, was as Guibert (1981) and Arnaux and Marie (2005) wrote: ‘something beautiful, too beautiful’; ‘if the image had been taken, it would probably be framed – untrue – unreal’; ‘this text is the despair of the image, and worse than a blurred and hazy image: a ghost image’; ‘where aesthetics are sought, meaning is lost’. What I saw, listened to, felt, and photographed on the night cannot be easily pieced together with images, and in fact, with words either: Fragile and passionate vocals, precise musical arrangements, lean yet sensuous arms, banter and wit, laughter and tears…

Felice wore his heart on his sleeve. He reached inside his sutured chest to give us humility, passion and reflection on his childhood stories. He was sipping single malt (remnants of his recent Scottish dates) after nearly every song. The gaze, the absorbed gaze, I had seen it before – never under auspicious circumstances.

I took less than 250 photographs, which for me, is not many. Every time I’d put the camera down, I’d reach for it soon after to take a couple more pictures. I wanted to capture the ‘happy’ Felice singing about the birth of his daughter; the ‘nostalgic’ Felice talking about his friend’s dad who had fought in Vietnam and hung himself and the hardship his wife and children endured as a consequence; the ‘angry’ Felice singing about injustices forced onto fellow Native people… Maybe I managed to capture some of these facets but I might have photographed the ‘troubled’ Felice too as the audience was comfortably sitting in this intimate venue, watching a young artist fight his demons and ghosts, and descend into a darker place as the bottle of Laphroaig was being emptied.

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I was tempted to put my camera down, and instead fully enjoy the spectacle; celebration of life but also remembrance of the dead. How do you capture discomfort, enchantment, vulnerability and mania anyway? Faced with this impossible task I found in my camera a welcome distraction from the overwhelming theatre unfolding onstage. Putting down my camera was impossible. Recording what was unfolding before my eyes was upsetting in parts.

I was looking around the room and all I could see was middle-aged people happily clapping to the music of Simone Felice. There was a sense of unconscious voyeurism which I found upsetting to watch. One man at some point threw a ‘Marvellous Simone! Marvellous!’ with an obligatory upper-class English accent – the one you easily come across in some parts of Winchester. Simone retorted with a cockney accent. We laughed. But for me, there was a sense of ‘let’s pay to watch someone who has gone to the edge and come back to tell the tale and let’s listen to his story in the comfort of our fully kitted house. I may sound prejudiced and irrational but this is how I felt – the same feeling, the same pain in my chest, when I saw only the day before, large framed photographs of war by Robert Capa, carefully wrapped, and ready to be shipped to the US. What would happen to these images? Are they destined to be stared at with responsible nostalgia, or cautiously stored away from light, for preservation, but unable to arouse awareness about our past?

I think I’ve lost the plot. So many emotions, so many things to say, yet one heart bleeding with my own discomfort and vulnerability. This is what Simone Felice does to me. It brings out feelings to the fore and right in front of my eyes, and when I choose to look at him they stare back at me. What I’m seeing in these photographs are my own emotions and snippets of my life story, and my own ghosts.

When selecting my photos taken on the night, I tried to narrate a balanced story. My favourite photograph is the one showing Felice’s absorbed gaze. Removing its context and isolating it would be tragic. Yet, I have already done so.

‘Looked through the glass and found the morning sky
I said that cloud’s shaped like a burning man
You didn’t have the heart to tell me why
Your belly in my arms
Tomorrow we’ll be through these clouds and gone’

(The Felice Brothers, 2007)

Donc ce texte n’aura pas d’illustration, qu’une amorce de pellicule vierge. Et le texte n’aurait pas été si l’image avait été prise. L’image serait là devant moi, probablement encadrée, parfaite et fausse, irréelle, plus encore qu’une photo de jeunesse : la preuve, le délit d’une pratique presque diabolique. Plus qu’un tour de passe-passe. Car ce texte est le désespoir de l’image, et pire qu’une image floue ou voilée : une image fantôme.’

(Guibert, 1981: 17-18)

‘J’ai dû monter sur le lit pour prendre la photo. Sur le moment c’était très beau. Trop beau. Au final cette image apporte en elle la limite de notre travail: là où prédomine la recherché esthétique, le sens fait défaut.’

(Arnaux and Marie, 2005: 189)

References

Arnaux, A. and Marie, M. (2006), L’usage de la photo. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Capa, R. (June 7 – August 17, 2013 ), Death in the making: photographs of war by Robert Capa. London: Atlas Gallery.

Felice Brothers (2007), Your belly in my arms. London: Loose Music.

Guibert, H. (1981), L’image fantôme. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

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