I remember well the first time I saw Anna Boyiazis' photos from Africa -- I was reviewing portfolios at an event here in Los Angeles, and I was fortunate enough to have Anna come show me her work. Her project was still very new at the time, but nonetheless, she had one photo that had all the reviewers talking: a lyrical black-and-white image of three children playing with string, their hands engaged in various moments of play at an ages-old game of cat's cradle. The image is quietly breath-taking, the gestures of hands, heads and bodies perfectly composed in a tight frame -- a beautifully seen and felt moment of what at first glance is pure whimsy.
But there is a shadowing in this lovely photo; you catch it, on second look, in the face of the girl on the left, a flash of sorrow. And it is there again in the gesture of the smaller girl on the right, her hands drawn up towards her throat, fingers wrapped in string, her head turning away from the camera -- that same fleeting sense of sadness.
And then you understand -- these are AIDS orphans, and their world, of course, is not as innocent or simple or carefree as Boyiazis' photos first lead you to think. These are children, yes, and Boyiazis has committed herself to deliberately documenting their world from a child's-eye point of view -- never the adult looking down, but rather a co-conspirator engaging in their games, their discoveries, and their cares.
Thanks to the sensitivity of Boyiazis' own eye, we sense the shadows here -- the memories, the loss, the absence of adults. She never hits us over the head with it, never portrays these children as suffering victims, in the way that so much black-and-white photography made by Westerners of Africans so often does. No, Boyiazis is interested in life, in all its complexity, and that is also what allows her to capture the absence of life, the absence of adults, so subtly, yet so powerfully.
Her most direct image about the loss of a parent is also one of her most magical -- a child, lying with his head gazing up to the sky, surrounded by foliage, in what appears to be a kind of secret garden, the hidden place free from adult supervision that all children seem to seek at one time or another. But it's a second look at the photo that reveals the shadow here, the loss -- the angular object in the foreground, seen carefully, is a cross, engraved with a name and draped with beads and small, roughly hewn crosses. It marks a gravestone. It is the very place where the boy is lying and looking up to the heavens -- a place indeed free from adult supervision. The boy is lying on his mother's grave.
The image anchors everything else in the series, an unsentimental -- yet deeply emotional -- juxtaposition of all that is childhood, with all that is not. Because what childhood is truly that, without a parent to provide structure and safe haven? Boyiazis deftly explores this universe, as she follows the children at play, at rest and at work -- child-like, yet bereft of childhood.
It is a colossal testament to her skill as a photographer and her own complexity of observation that she does not let us wallow in pity as we look at these photos. That would be the easy way out. Write a check, help the AIDS orphans, move on with our own comfortable lives, thinking we've done something to make the world a better place. Boyiazis is having none of that. Her work insists that we deal with ambiguity -- with the presence of life in the face of death, with the creation of new relationships in the vacuum of lost relationships, with the role of a child in a world without adults.
Boyiazis wants us to think, and then think some more. There are no easy answers here.
And that's unsettling, because it doesn't let us tie anything up with neat conclusions. And that's also why the work is so powerful, because we can't leave it behind. It's been two years since I first saw the image of the children playing cat's cradle. I've never forgotten it. Now that I've seen Boyiazis' newer work, the images presented here, I know I'll never forget them as well.
I doubt you will, either.