Saul Williams: A Photographic Review

Originally published by Exeunt Magazine

Honourably dubbed ‘the poet’s poet’, Saul Williams performed from his latest publication CHORUS – A Literary Mixtape at the Southbank Centre on the 29th of November 2012. He was supported by spoken word artists Warsan Shire, Inua Ellams and Yomi ‘GREEdS’ Sode. CHORUS is a sort of anthology, a collection of 100 poems “MCed” by Saul into a book, showcasing 100 new poets. Williams creates a thread through them; he eliminates the names of the poets and the titles of the poems from the text (credited at the back of course) so the book reads as though it could have been written by one voice – that of the people.

Jemima is a photographer exploring new roles for image capture in the reviewing and dramaturgy-ing of live performance. Her main questions: Is this possible? How is this process different from documentation (currently a photographer’s primary role in the industry)? And how can we enhance visual literacy through live culture? Jemima and Saul first met in Swaziland (Southern Africa) at an arts festival called MTN BUSHFIRE – which she was producing and he was headlining. 

"I picture a Ganesh-like mirage – Saul with multiple extremities, a central glowing guru, imparting his wisdoms." 

I think about what else the photographic image could capture of a spoken word event – where undoubtedly, the strongest images will be captured with words, and developed in our minds. What is an image beyond the archival document – typically, this would be a close up 1/3 landscape portrait of a passionate face, a microphone and perhaps a couple of fingers, clenched, tensed, empowered in acute rhetoric. How can the practice of photography review a live event that is led by kinesis, words, sound, and the communal movement of an audience’s imagination? 

My housemate Alan tells me about a certain kind of music photography that’s quite common; traces of the artist’s physical trajectory on a stage, the ghostly long exposure in dark light. Yeah, that could do. An aesthetic born from necessity. I picture a Ganesh like mirage – Saul with multiple extremities, a central glowing guru, imparting his wisdoms. 

I had a dream last night that I was so blown away by the whole event that I forgot to take any pictures. I ran back to Saul and asked if he would do it all again. 

"What I do think is possible is to review – to draw attention to the performance through capturing something in between my experience of it, and what is physically there."

In a book of writer to writer conversations The Believer publishes every couple of years, John Banville makes a distinction between the critic and the reviewer – a “reviewer reviews new books that the public has not seen yet. My job is to introduce people to the book and say, “Look, this is worth your attention.” There are enough critics around, enough book reviewers around, who are tearing the guts out of books. What I try to do is get people enthusiastic about books.” This got me thinking – to what extent can a photographer be a critic? I’m doubtful. What I do think is possible is to review – to draw attention to the performance through capturing something in between my experience of it, and what is physically there. 

Given the ever growing number of people with access to a camera, roughly 6 billion at present, it is unsurprising that the foreseeable future will be inhabited by more individuals who can take a photo than read or write. 

Now in the foreground: if photography is morphing into a common language, we need to start learning to read it. The performance begins; Cartier Bresson’s thought comes to mind – colour photography “was too realistic, seriously compromising the element of abstraction (i.e. the distancing effect) that black and white permitted.” Tasked with capturing living metaphors, I decide to shoot in monochrome and see for myself. 

Here is my review of Saul Williams’ event CHORUS – A Literary Mixtape, taken at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre.

“Time is money. Money is time. 
So, I keep seven o’clock in the 
Bank and gain interest in the 
hour of God. I’m saving to buy
my freedom. God grant me wings. 
I’m too fly not to fly. Eye sore
To look at humans without wings.
So, I soar. And find tickle in the 
feather of my wings.”

- Saul Williams

“My friend in tears as this big, tall, dressed in white being, lugs him away on his big, tall, shoulder. Bags covering the heads of these children as if they were slaves taken from their homes.” 

– Yomi ‘GREEdS’ Sode

“But more than seeds are sown here. You
can tell by his tender pat on tended patch;
the soft cuff to a boy’s head - first day to
school, by how they rest with parental pride
against stone walls, huff into winter’s cold,
press faces together as though tulips might
stem from two lips, gather spades, forks,
weeds and go.” 

– Inua Ellams

“you can't make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave then let him leave
you are terrifying and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.” 

–Warsan Shire

“The greatest americans
have not been born yet
they are waiting patiently
for the past to die
please give blood”

 – Saul Williams

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