Sarah on the Bridge / Reviewed by Dorothy Hunter / 30.09.12
Exhibited as a part of PhotoIreland’s ‘Migrations’ theme, Sarah on the Bridge shows one woman’s journey on indefinite hold. The series follows Sarah, a Ghanaian woman who wished to create a better life for herself in Europe. Having entered Italy successfully, she was forced into prostitution by the mafia who aided her entry, to pay an insurmountable debt. Jean Revillard captures her existence working along the country roads just outside Turin, where her own journey has halted.
The images of Sarah on the Bridge are not so much documental as somewhere between action and still life. Her faceless, neon-clad body is an incongruous element of the Italian countryside; focus is concentrated by her body subtly but unexpectedly lit in the dull landscape. In various shots she stands or sits in perpetual wait. In others, she walks through the overgrowth in pristine white boots, runs from the unseen, or changes into or out of her signatory clothes. We do not know what is staged for the camera and how much is derivative of a documental process, forming semi-narratives of Sarah’s life. Chronology is unstated except for the seasons that surround her, and her environment and few things she has occasionally change with unknown and symbolic importance. In one image she carries her chair, burnt through at the seat, on a bleak winter day. Whether this is an act of defiance, self-sabotage, or an arbitrary occurrence, cannot be visually determined.
Sarah is a lone presence, yet the implied constructs of power are jarring and many. She stands with an affected confidence, yet the long roads and deep forests are unsettling with the implied presence of pimps and future clients. In the firelight at night, she becomes a paradoxical beacon of warmth and hospitality, a seemingly powerful woman to be rendered subservient by her next client.
In turning a personal reality into photographic images, Revillard’s series looks toward the nature of the gaze upon Sarah, where reality and its representation collide. Clues of this are represented in her setting: a floral mattress lies amongst foliage, covered in dead leaves and clods of dirt; whilst her fluorescent impractical clothing disengages her as a person, becoming instead a hyper-saturated, short-term fantasy. At times she, or the whole image, blurs. She is an unreal woman, catering to primal desires in an uncomfortably apt setting.
We as viewers are, if not implicit in this objectification, then seeing her from the visual perspective of a potential client. With her identity hidden behind her hair, often shots of this faceless woman are taken from a distance on the road, and whilst there are written details of her journey toward the end of this exhibition, visually we see no more than someone about to approach. What Revillard chooses not to portray shows our impressions and knowledge of Sarah to be as superficial as those who seek to use her.
Beside the details of her journey to Italy and her drawn-out escape is a final image of Sarah, dressed in black and overlooking a city. It is presumably Turin and taken in the wake of her escape. Nonetheless, the sky and city is grey: the dream of a better life has broken. It’s an unhopeful conclusion to the cycle of modern-day slavery, and a journey that is reflected in countless others.
St Kevin's Cottages, Synge Street, Dublin 8