My point of entry into ‘Poppy — Trails of Afghan Heroin’ was a city in southern Kyrgyzstan called Osh. Spread across four projected video channels was footage shot out of a car window into a slate-colored street at evening, overlaid with a line of text on Osh’s sex worker trafficking. Then two photos were imposed over the street scene—the shoulder of a woman in a mauve slip, a mirror, in a yellow-lit room; then enters a sound clip as the street footage fades out: it is the young woman originally from Uzbek speaking in Kyrgyz or Russian, and dubbed over into English, “she wants to do a flower shop back in her village, and live with her kids, and be a decent citizen.” One of the project’s photographers, Antoinette de Jong, says that their meeting was continuously interrupted by the next client. The scene fades into a visual static, and a new line of text announced we were in Afghanistan.
Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong’s work has mainly circulated as documentary and photojournalism. For ‘Poppy’, they have shaped material from over 20 years of traveling the Silk Road and heroin trade routes into a shifting mesh of photography, video, and audio content. The relentless variation I experienced in the first minute or two of watching (or listening to, or reading) the installation is its mode, and the result is dizzying. But so should be any attempt to comprehend this business on a human scale. Although the exhibition includes a massive bar graph rating Afghanistan’s heroin production in the past decades, as well as a world map tracing routes of drug, weapon, and sex worker trafficking, ‘POPPY’’s real content is the faces, voices, and landscapes. Some of the media was produced by the artists, some is appropriated: there is no stable author or authority, and while de Jong’s voice provides most of the narration, the stage is shared with clips and samples, fuzzy Arabic pop radio singers, a New York City newscaster, and so on. No attempt is made to conjure a comprehensive image of the heroin trade, the damage or riches left in its wake.
The multimedia installation at C/O Berlin only samples de Jong and Knoth’s whole body of documentation, a diverse range of photographic work contained in the show’s accompanying catalog. ‘Poppy’ as a book might allow the reader or viewer to consolidate statistics and chronology (it includes much more text; explicit context of each image is given), or study the composition of each individual photograph, but the installation can act out the kinetics of capital. Formally, the 45-minute loop imitates the gyre of globalization, taking heroin as the subject of its composite portrait. Fragmentary overlap and super-impression are some of its running tactics. For much of ‘POPPY’, even the edges of the four video frames cross over and into each other. A drought in Afghanistan during the UN’s post-9/11 sanctions: all video channels show a man leading a donkey down a steep incline of loose dirt, his coaxes and a dry wind comprise the sound clip; we’re jump cut to various scenes of a Kiev nightclub in 2007, pulsing red, blue, flesh, four-on-the-floor. From a field of mauve poppy flowers to powder and syringes in the Ukrainian capital: the drug follows a long route of causality, which, at one and the same time, binds and alienates from each other farmer and clubber, drug mule and border guard, president and inmate.
‘Poppy’ places in front of its viewer a kaleidoscopic degree of work and workers affected by the heroin trade, but also serves as an experimental approach to how one presents a work of photography. The artists’ pacing, sequencing, and transition of images, always in conjunction with other media, pushes beyond the photograph as a still frame merely showing something. In documenting the physical paths along which heroin travels (shots of a highway in Dubai, a courtyard in London, the Adriatic), de Jong and Knoth also reiterate the medium of photography as one of traces, the photographic image always trailing just a moment behind its subject, existing in and of its wake. As Susan Sontag writes, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
What gives me pause here is the relation of de Jong and Knoth to their human content. No doubt, the two artists have participated in their subjects’ mortality by merely being present in regions embroiled in violence or crime. But the conditions of their participation are necessarily different than the sex worker in Osh, or the man in Karachi nodding off to sleep while standing on the sidewalk. The ambivalent relation of ethics to aesthetics is a continuously debated element of photojournalism, and in no way does ‘POPPY’ seem like a disaster- or poverty-porn compilation. But I expected a greater degree of reflexivity from de Jong and Knoth. Both photographers have worked for decades in “crisis-torn regions” or “conflict zones” (as phrased by their respective artist bios), supplying to Western news outlets visual documentation of disaster or poverty that otherwise would pass unseen: a necessary practice, some would even say inherently moral. But once assembled into a “work” of visual media and exhibited in a gallery, the subjectivity (or, “positionality”) of the person behind the lens assumes a glaring presence.
What seems lacking in ‘Poppy’ is not some kind of apologia from the artists as Europeans taking photographs of a blind girl in Shikhan, Afghanistan. Nor do I think, based on its content, an installation such as ‘POPPY’ must have some kind of proceeds-to-charity setup. More simply, the show would be stronger if de Jong and Knoth had acknowledged their presence, as well as the highly intentional (and very deft) shaping of content for the installation. ‘POPPY’ is affecting because it resists abstraction—a form of violence in itself—to present the heroin trade. Its portrait or report pushes past a death count in a “conflict zone,” or even an image; we experience the cadence of someone’s speech or gait, cracks in their voice. To avoid the “neutral” and authoritative lens and instead establish a more lateral relation to the girl in Shikhan, the junkie or stock trader in Karachi, I was waiting for a tenable signal from de Jong and Knoth, one that addressed the participation of their own mortality in their photographs.