I do not know how to make a distinction between tears and music.Friedrich Nietzsche
For the Saudi Arabian artist Saleh AlDaghari, picture-making sits on the cusp between surrealism and allegory. In juxtaposing disparate, apparently contradictory elements, the Surrealists sought to free the unconscious mind to express itself, bringing the dream world and reality into a single manifestation or super-reality. It was a quest to somehow unite the conscious mind with deeper workings of the brain that psychologists were beginning to explore at the time. It was, in suitably paradoxical terms, an attempt to find a kind of harmony through discord. Allegory, on the other hand, involves a conscious, if poetic, substitution of one thing for another in such a way as to reveal more clearly the underlying intention of a story. It derives from a form of rhetoric in which complex ideas are rendered more easily understood, or a challenging moral message is made more approachable, by translating it into a new, frequently fantastical, context.
When describing his artmaking, Saleh AlDaghari often comes back to the simile of music: of the interplay of sound and silence, of harmony and dissonance, of cycles and return. Music is sometimes overtly referenced in the form of a violin, in other images it is hinted at by the appearance of a key, suggesting the tonality that binds some pitches agreeably while clashing discordantly with others. But perhaps, most significantly, it is for him the manner in which (of all the arts) music stimulates the imagination in ways that can transcend cultural difference and yet remain deeply personal.
When the work of the eighteenth-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi was re-discovered in the 1950s, it was a set of four concerti describing the seasons that rapidly became his best known. It formed part of a larger set of twelve concerti that extended the traditional, more abstract musical forms of his day to suggest sound pictures: the buzz of insects, the crash of a storm, the thrill of the hunt, the romp of drunken dancers… Provocatively, Vivaldi called these dozen concerti ‘The Trial Between Harmony and Invention’.
Perhaps it is this internally competing urge – on the one hand, to harmonise the conscious and unconscious mind and, on the other, to invent narratives describing subjective experience – that gives the work of Saleh AlDaghari its idiosyncratic voice. His image world is a counterpoint of dreams half remembered and concepts cocooned within the filaments of allegory.
What motivates you to make photographs?
I can say very simply: because photography is an artform that expresses an idea. It is a means by which I found I could think creatively. The biggest motivator is simply that I love making photographs – the practice of making art. While I have a deep belief in what I present, I do not seek to tell people what to see in these images, though I do get great pleasure from sharing my images with others. They are but humble attempts that I leave the viewer and the art critic to read as they wish.
Do you have a favourite image?
My works are assembled from my self, and I have just one self. I cannot feel bias for one image over another, for each of my artworks has its own circumstances and criteria on which it is based. This is not narcissism or vanity, but simply my truth in all humility.
[Left] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘Plagiarism’ 2017
[Centre] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘Alternative Energy’ 2016
[Right] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘Twin’ 2017
Almost all of your images feature an anonymous man in a hat and coat. Who or what does he represent?
While I perform the role, these are not self-portraits. The figure is a witness to the picture, an ‘every man’. He may be the protagonist in the scene, or he might simply be a passer-by, someone of no great significance in the story.
For me, your images seem to find their affinities with the surrealism of Magritte, the metaphysical art of de Chirico, and the expressionism of Murnau in films such as ‘Nosferatu’. Have such approaches to artmaking been a strong influence on you?
There is no doubt that the previous generation of artists and filmmakers have had an impact on me, especially those who communicated their ideas through a particular stylistic approach – the style and the idea being bound together. Before I began making photographs myself, I had always been drawn to black-and-white images and early cinema films.
In the field of art today, we find those who tend to reformulate the styles of the past. They draw on the eternal nature of art seen through the artist’s individual point of view. In this way, their ideas are expressed using recognisable forms that the viewer is better able to read and consequently to understand the intention of the image. That is all fine, but this is not how I work. Rather, for me, artmaking is a visual nourishment. I want to expand – to stretch – my artistic practice in order to make images that first and foremost are acceptable to me and only subsequently the viewers, who may make of them what they will.
[Left] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘A Little Further Back’ 2018
[Right] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘Without a Note’ 2017
A number of objects recur in your images: for example keys, violins. What is the significance of these visual leitmotifs?
Every problem has a key to its solution. In this case, the metaphorical keys become the symbolic objects. Yet, even though we search for a key – a solution to our problem – we may simply overlook it, even when it is close by.
The violin, which I include in a number of my images, is a universal. Different cultures may have different forms of musical instrument and, if one is not familiar with that culture, such an instrument may look strange – one may not even know what sound it makes. But when one sees a violin, one will hear the sound in one’s imagination. It is an instrument recognisable in all cultures. I included it in my photographic works as a fixed icon symbolising music with all its associated forms, ideas and emotions. The viewer is then free to interpret what they see through this symbolism in whatever way is personally and culturally appropriate for them.
You use smoke in interesting ways. What does it symbolise for you?
Smoke is the beginning and the end. A fire begins with smoke and dies with it. We come from nothing and to nothing we return, a journey that arcs in a circle. In the image above, a man sits with a violin above his head. Smoke issues from his hand – releasing and returning. He seeks to dominate the music, to control it, yet it is the music that influences him. Ebb and flow… Music is one of the fundamental systems of the universe, the interplay of sound and silence, of presence and absence. Everything in motion and stillness is a form of music. Our feet on the earth make music.
I am intrigued by the image of the man lifting his hat…
That image is called ‘Welcome’. The gesture is an expressive greeting that suggests both sincerity and serenity. It does not require any facial expression – the gesture says it all. I selected the image of smoke from among dozens of pictures I had made, choosing a form that suggested the shape and features of the human head. This I then modified and merged into the image of the man lifting his hat using digital post-production. Again, smoke is symbolic of the beginning of everything and also the end of everything. It is a closed circle of life and death that we all pass around.
This work has achieved nearly thirty prizes from photographic competitions around the world.
You have in the past introduced your images with a quote from Nietzsche: “I do not know how to make a distinction between tears and music”? Is there an underlying melancholy in your work?
Yes, there is sadness and, as there is within any of us, a story to tell.
My father gave me everything and taught me what life is like. In 2012, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This marked a major shift in our relationship that, in turn, affected my own view of reality. Things gradually began to appear in my work that fell outside the scope of memory… And, by the way, to every person who inspires others, and I can say that my father inspired me and is still inspiring me even after his death five months ago. I find inspiration in everything, and he is still present with me.
How do you go about making an image?
When an idea arises, I begin to research the topic, explore my ideas, and then I start taking notes and suggestions for shoot. In this way, when I enter the studio, I already have a clear idea of what I am going to make. So, I prepare my lighting and camera accordingly. Sometimes I may reformulate an idea, and then go back to the studio to translate these new ideas into a photograph. After I have shot the image I transfer it to my computer and study it carefully, working in post-production to ensure the idea is realised in the way I visualised it in my imagination. I do not find the process difficult, it’s very smooth and straightforward.
If you are also the actor who performs the role of the man in the hat and coat, how do you achieve this feat of being both subject and photographer?
Conceptually, while these are not self-portraits, I can only represent the things that I can imagine, and I do so in a way that best completes my idea. A person does not understand more than himself.
In practical terms, after I have tested the lighting and camera angle, I take up my position in the image frame and the shutter is operated either by a timer or remote control.
[Left] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘Master Key’ 2017
[Right] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘A Non-Conforming Copy’ 2021
There are a number of different process styles employed in your various images. How do you select the style you plan to use?
I have an affection for the past. In many of my images I employ that nostalgia to meet the longing inside me. Here, I mean nostalgia in its deep sense – and it is important to understand that that nostalgia is viewed in the frame of the present day. I think this lifts it beyond simple nostalgia, giving the artwork a fresh contemporary spirit.
Achieving a given sensibility in contemporary art involves adapting forms that were already available in the past. I always like to have my own mix of old and new in the artwork to achieve the feeling I seek to express. But not all my artworks have this quality. Each image is shaped by an inner conviction particular to the idea I am expressing, yet I do not know quite what those ideas are or where that conviction comes from. Sometimes the process of making leads me to create images in a simple way that has no trace of nostalgia. Which direction the image takes is intuitive, almost involuntary.
Where do you show your work and what kind of response do you receive from audiences?
I have presented my work in many art exhibitions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and abroad, and also online. Many of my artworks have been published in the books, catalogues, and online art galleries created for the international competitions and exhibitions in which I have participated.
It is important to mention here that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provides support to artists, directing unprecedented attention to contemporary art, holding prestigious art exhibitions, as well as many workshops and art forums. I am honoured to say that I have enjoyed support and encouragement within my country. This has enabled me to develop my art practice and go on to win many prizes in competitions all around the world. And I have also had some wonderful responses from viewers who have seen my work in online art galleries and through social media.
[Left] © Saleh AlDaghari ‘A Message That Won’t Arrive’ 2010
[Right] Saleh AlDaghari with his award and the winning image
Not everyone likes my work, of course. I remember back in 2010, I had just finished an artwork called ‘A Message That Won’t Arrive’ and submitted it to an online art gallery. Someone commented: “What is this nonsense?! This work, to say the least, is very ordinary and has nothing to do with art. I advise you to leave this field.” Harsh criticism. But then, four days later, I learned the image had won an award at an international photography competition. So, I came to accept that not everyone will like my artwork, they have their opinions, but I should not lose heart, and should trust in the quality of the photographs I create.
What has photography taught you?
Art, and its practice in general, has brought me back to a positive view of life. Through making photographs I have learned the patience, perseverance, and diligence necessary to achieve my goals.
Saleh Hussein AlDaghari was born in Najran, Saudi Arabia, in 1973. He began his photographic practice in 2008. He has presented his work in seventeen exhibitions across Saudi Arabia and in China, Egypt, Germany, Oman, and Qatar. His photographs have won sixty awards at international competitions around the globe. Saleh AlDaghari is a member of a number of important photographic associations including: the Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique (FIAP – Excellence level), the Photographic Society of America, the Society of Culture and Arts in Najran, and he holds an Aphrodite standard with the Global Photographic Union. He lives and works in Najran.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.