The scenes in these photographs, made over 8 years on four continents by Magnum photographer Alex Majoli and his crew, mark in-between moments at political protests, desperate humanitarian crises, the day after a terrorist attack, refugee camps, public gatherings and everyday life.

Not much is happening, but the images are brimming with portent. They are multilayered, intentional, and overwhelmingly dark (both visually and emotionally). The moments are mostly tense, but quiet at the same time, as if we’re seeing people in the lull after a big push of action, or in the quiet times before something momentous is about to begin.

Republic of Congo, 2013, [Scene #9992]. Brazzaville stadium, with Red devils supporters. © Alex Majoli

The locations range from the Republic of Congo to China, Egypt, Greece, France, Hungary, Brazil, India and beyond — so that speaks to the universality of these kinds of situations. People are gathered loosely together in public groups, temporarily, for reasons that are not clear at first.

These are enigmatic pictures, highly stylized, and we are meant to puzzle out what is going on. Interactions are in motion, but we don’t know at all what has happened before, or what will happen after. Why do all the pictures look like moonlit scenes from a staged movie?

Scene is a big, dark, somber, beautiful and serious body of work. It is cinematic and brooding — and more than a little unsettling and puzzling. What is it about, and why?

We see people who are gathered for social political action, or with a sense of moral purpose, one presumes. And then there are the camera men and support crew, apparently present on the scene, who change the scene by their presence, but then try to become invisible as they wait. These moments in the photos are captured with powerful bursts of strobe light, but the resulting pictures appear as if we are in the middle of the night, barely illuminated by a distant moon.

Republic of Congo, 2013 [SCENE #0525]. Pointe Noire, Funeral of a 13-year-old girl. © Alex Majoli

Is this project about the people and the activities shown in the photos? Or is it about photographic technique and aesthetics? Is it a philosophical exploration of roles of photography in the 21st century?

Majoli explains: “I began pursuing the idea of we human beings as actors playing our own roles in society, and I set out to discover the best way to photographically and aesthetically represent this. I thought to myself:

“What if I take lights, bright strobe flashes, and set them up around something happening in reality – a guy having a coffee, a market, a funeral? What will happen if I create a space, a lit stage on which they can perform their own lives?”

The photographs in Scene feature real people in real situations, but they feel uncanny. Is this documentary work, or staged art, or some kind of hybrid street photography? These real people are not actors on a stage set, but there are powerful strobe stage lights in place around them, and a large camera on a tripod, and they are aware of the gear and the crew.

By nature of his very deliberate, very visible set-up, with strobe lights and camera on a tripod, Majoli signals to the people around him that he is there to make pictures and that they will be in them. Some ignore him, some may adjust their behavior to play to the camera, some may forget his presence and go about their business. The presence of a camera and photographer changes the scene — it is part of the scene. But today, with the ever presence of smartphones, surveillance cameras, and the daily deluge of images, maybe it doesn’t feel strange or obtrusive to anyone on the scene. It’s almost expected.

As viewers of the photos, we don’t see the direct results of the big strobe flash. What the eyes see at the moment on the scene is not what the camera sees with the big flash. And it’s not what we see in the final photographs.

The resulting images capture layers of emotion and temperament: disquiet, disbelief, anger, confusion, despair, sorrow, exhaustion, unease, waiting, eyes closed, fists clenched, trying to steal a moment’s sleep at a time when sleep is so necessary. And the “look” of the photos is extra dramatic.

France, Calais, 2016 [SCENE #0957]. The ‘Calais Jungle’ refugee camp. © Alex Majoli

In his essay for the book, David Campany writes: “What holds all these disparate images together, at first glance at least, is the quality of light and the sense of human theatre. A sense that we are all actors attempting, failing and resisting the playing of parts that history and circumstance demand; and a sense that we are all interconnected. Somehow.”

But why this mood? Why this visual strategy? Is it a statement about the uncertain and tense dark political days we are living through? The lack of brightness and contrast brings a heaviness to the work, and actually makes it difficult to see and appreciate the rich abundance of details and interactions at play in each image – you have to turn up your own lights and look closely to appreciate and understand, and when you do that, these pictures jolt you with their clarity, their mundane moments, the uncanny feeling that they are real moments yet staged and directed at the same time.

In her philosophical text included at the end of the book, Corinne Rondeau speculates:

“Take away day and colour, de-hierarchize the visible elements, subtract anecdote from detail, place the world outside of itself for it to cease being consumed by its cumbersome exteriority, coming and going along with its plethora of opinions — all this happens when the day we live in is questioned by night.”

It’s an artful, intentional visual strategy. The photos are presented in the book without captions, but an index at the back provides some context set apart from the main presentation. The two erudite essays in the book tease out philosophical premises, reflect on history, and become mind games.

So these are by no means ordinary photographs. The clarity is there, but it requires careful looking. The messages? Impossible to say, except that there is plenty of information on which to reflect and contemplate.

— Jim Casper

by Alex Majoli
Publisher: MACK
ISBN: 978-1-912339-29-7

Scene (2019) by Alex Majoli is published by MACK, and currently shown as an exhibition at Le Bal in Paris. All images courtesy the artist and MACK.