When we look at photographs, even those depicting unknown people and unfamiliar places, we search for a reference to our own life, to life as we know it. It is our own presence in the photograph that we are looking for, and if there is none, for the clues that make sense of our absence.
A photograph is an image of a real thing, we learn early on. Could it be the opposite: what if we were looking not at an image but at the real thing, as if we were inside that image? What if we encounter the real thing of an image, long forgotten after we had seen it in the past?
I was on a small boat going up the river far up north in the Arctic Circle. We were three men on the way to our destination, a remote lodge farther upstream. As the boat was speeding and as we were approaching the mouth of the most beautiful canyon I’d ever been to I was humbled by this magic that only nature can create. Just then I noticed a young woman on the shore. So sudden and unexpected was her appearance that I thought, for an instant, that I was seeing an image and not a real thing. Even if there had been no image I made sure I created one since I was filming the whole thing all along. The young woman was in our sight for a few seconds only before farther into the canyon we went.
For the next few days we stayed at a lodge located at the most magnificent spot in the heart of the canyon; we wondered up and down the river while everything around us was lit by gorgeous Arctic summer light, twenty four hours a day. We were a few men, all with interesting stories to tell. Yet, neither the beauty of the place nor that of the people around me could suppress my memory of the mysterious young woman on the shore; the memory of her standing there, now already an image, kept coming back for the duration of my stay. It occupied me to such a degree that I suspected I must have seen it before.
Two years passed and I revisited the footage I had recorded. From the material I had shot I recreated the experience through simple edit, in chronological order. The scene with the young woman on the river bank stood out from the rest of the footage but I couldn’t part with it.
Another year passed and I finally got a copy of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil which I had first seen many years ago. At the opening of the film a hypnotic, beautiful voice of Alexandra Stewart – curiously, born here in Montreal but moved to France in 1958 – could be heard, as if from another dimension:
“The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.
He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked.
He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film, with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
When the first piece of footage appeared on the screen, lasting seven seconds only, I realized that the young woman I’d encountered on the Arctic river shore was the real thing of an image I had seen long ago when I first watched this incredible film. She was the real thing of an image that had nested somewhere in my subliminal self. It truly is the image of happiness, I now believe. It had buried itself deep inside of me only to come alive in another time, at another place and on another face.