Text by Sean O'Hagan on The Guardian
The short afterword to photographer Nicoló Degiorgis’s new book reads: “On the 15th of July 2014 writer and critic Sean O’Hagan wrote an article for theguardian.com entitled ‘Arles 2014: Nicoló Degiorgis lifts the veil on Italy’s Islamophobia’. For five days it was possible to leave comments. The article received 479 posts. It can be read at: http://gu.com/p/4vvjk.”
Degiorgis describes himself as “a photographer trained in documentary traditions”. Yet Hidden Islam – 479 Comments contains no photographs. It is a conceptual followup to his acclaimed photobook Hidden Islam, a thought-provoking study chronicling the makeshift places where Italy’s 1.45 million Muslims worship, the country having only eight official mosques. The new work simply reprints, in book form, the comments posted in response to my review (these are punctuated with fold-out maps showing the sites of worship).
Back in July, I described Hidden Islam as “an evocative, multilayered book that contrasts the reverent peacefulness of these makeshift places with the often tense politics that surround them”. The review generated a lively, combative, occasionally offensive online response: the first post was removed by the moderator, the second stated simply that “Italy is a catholic country”. As online debates go, though, it was relatively restrained with only glimpses of the abusive or outraged responses that a piece touching on immigration or radical Islam can often provoke.
My first reaction to the publication of Hidden Islam – 479 Comments, was: “What’s the point?” My second was mild bemusement: did the comments, however provocative or informed, really warrant being bound up in book form and given the kind of solidity and permanence a published book bestows?
I put the question to Degiorgis. “I always saw Hidden Islam as a starting point for extending the discussion,” he told me. “Even though the second book does not contain photographs as such, it is still conceptually a photograph, a snapshot of what people think about immigration – and Islamic immigration in particular. If the primary reason for doing the first book was to reveal something, the reason for this is to show what was actually revealed – by documenting the reaction it aroused.”
Degiorgis sees Hidden Islam – 479 Comments as “an appendix to the original book, but complementary to it”, adding that “it provides material for sociologists, anthropologist, journalists and everyone else interested in the matter”. Although he admits to being surprised by the initial online reaction, he decided to keep his distance “to avoid personal emotions interfering in the work”.
The second book is, as one of my editors noted, “a bit meta”, given that it references the original work as well as the review. And if that’s a tad too postmodern and pretentious for many readers, it also changes the nature of the original online response – just by making it into a book. “That was another reason for publishing the responses,” says Degiorgis. “People not only tend to discuss very openly on the web, they also read in a different way, often giving less weight to the use of the language. I wanted to hold that language still for a moment, in order to have a physical document of the discussion in the far future.”
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. It has made solid something that would have been ephemeral, lost or soon forgotten in the deluge of opinion and debate engendered by digital media. It may not be a photography book, but Hidden Islam – 479 Comments is an interesting argument for the old-fashioned act of publishing on paper rather than online. Conceptually it works, too, both as an addendum to the original and as a strange, almost contradictory object that asks the reader to reflect rather than instantly respond. You have to be patient, though, and be prepared to fast-forward when the pedants or bigots hijack the debates, which range from secularism to fundamentalism and all points in-between, from the lasting influence of the Moors to the shadow of Mussolini.
But Hidden Islam – 479 Comments is interesting in another way. Neither Degiorgis nor indeed myself are present in the book except as ghosts. Soon after the publication of the original Hidden Islam, Degiorgis “came to understand that an author cannot have control over the life of a book”. Hidden Islam – 479 Comments is a mischievous acknowledgment of that realisation. Already steeling myself for all the accusations of self-indulgence and pretentiousness that this followup article about the followup book will no doubt provoke, I want to make it clear I will not be making a book out of the online responses. Then again ...