I guess Muammar Gaddafi will not be having a ride in his hot air balloon again anytime soon. The end of his regime must have felt as surreal to him as it felt seeing his UK-made hot air balloon when I was out on a bike ride in Ashton Court in Bristol. I had completely forgotten about this photograph, and it was only while doing one of those random search drifts on my Lightroom picture library that I came across it again.
When I took the photograph of Gaddafi’s very own balloon I didn’t think of it as any more than something purely anecdotal, a good dinner table conversation starter. But recent events in the North African country have made me think very differently about this photograph. Now I look at it and I see a document. A document of what you’ll be wondering? That depends on what you read in the image. I personally see the sad evidence of an unquestionable megalomaniac condition and Gaddafi’s pan-African ambitions, which have been dramatically ended. The huge portrait of the ill-fated leader looking up – to God? – or down on you, depending on how you want to see it… the map of Africa…the text above it reading “Africa Union Man”… Within the new context of a post-Gaddafi era the photograph of a simple hot air balloon acquires a new dimension, a different meaning. Context, a necessary attribute in a documentary photograph, as it is clearly emphasised in a book a recently reviewed for We Are OCA.
But is it really context that makes a document? Or is it time? Because that photograph then, in the spring of 2008, is not the same as that photograph today, in August 2011. Do you think I’m over-stretching the nuances of the image? May be I am. But what will we make of the same image in, let’s say, 70 years time I wonder?
70 years span between the taking of the above photograph and when I saw it for the first time. When my grandfather, pictured on left in his officer uniform, received a copy of this image he must have thought it was just a snapshot of him and the local priest. A photograph for the family album. Now you add some time to the photograph, almost three quarters of a century, and the contextual information that all that time has churned out. Everything that we know about the Spanish Civil War, which finished not long before the photograph was taken. With the benefit of 70 years of hindsight I see in this photograph more than my grandfather Gumersindo and a priest. I see an empty wall in the midday sun which acts as a metaphor for that sterile post-Civil War Spain. I see two symbols of power, those pillars of Franco’s regime, the Army and the Clergy. In other words, I don’t see my grandfather so much but what he represented. Time has made him a document.
That’s unless I put this image back in the family album it belongs to. Unless my father tells me again of how my grandfather avoided summary execution by jumping out of the box of a lorry on his way to where the firing squad was waiting for him. And how he spent three days and three nights in a hole in the wall in a cemetery, fooling the enemy and surviving a certain death. Good man “Gumer” ([goomer]) as we called him; I wouldn’t be here ruminating about what makes a document if it weren’t for him. Back in the family album this photograph becomes again what it was always meant to be: a family photograph.
So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?