Features Books Published 10 December 2012

Saul Williams: A Photographic Review

Jemima Yong uses photography to review Saul Williams' CHORUS
Jemima Yong

The man dubbed ‘the poet’s poet’, Saul Williams, is performing from his latest publication CHORUS – A Literary Mixtape at the Southbank Centre. For this particular performance he was supported by spoken word artists Warsan Shire, Inua Ellams and Yomi ‘GREEdS’ Sode. His new work CHORUS is a sort of anthology, a collection of 100 poems  by 100 new poets, “MCed” by Williams into a single text. Williams creates a thread through all of them; he eliminates the names of the poets and the titles of the poems from the text (though they are credited at the back of course) so the book reads as though it could have been written by one voice – that of the people.

I first met Williams in Swaziland at an arts festival called MTN BUSHFIRE, which I was producing and he was headlining. I am a photographer, exploring new roles for image capture in the reviewing and dramaturgy of live performance. My main question is: Is this possible? How is this process different from documentation (currently a photographer’s primary role in the industry)? And how can we enhance visual literacy through live culture?

“I picture a Ganesh-like mirage – Saul with multiple extremities, a central glowing guru, imparting his wisdoms.”

What can the photographic image capture of a spoken word event – where undoubtedly, the strongest images will be drawn with words, and developed in our minds? What image lies beyond the archival document – typically, a close up 1/3 landscape portrait of a passionate face, a microphone and perhaps a couple of fingers, clenched, empowered in acute rhetoric? How can the practice of photography review a live event that is led by kinesis, words, sound, and the communal movement of an audience’s imagination?

My housemate Alan tells me about a certain kind of music photography that’s quite common; traces of the artist’s physical trajectory on a stage, the ghostly long exposure in dark light. Yeah, that could do. An aesthetic born from necessity. I picture a Ganesh like mirage – Saul with multiple extremities, a central glowing guru, imparting his wisdoms.

“What I think is possible, is to review by drawing attention to the performance through capturing something in between my experience of it, and what is physically there.”

In a book of writer-to-writer conversations that The Believer publishes every couple of years, John Banville makes a distinction between the critic and the reviewer – a “reviewer reviews new books that the public has not seen yet. My job is to introduce people to the book and say, “Look, this is worth your attention.” There are enough critics around, enough book reviewers around, who are tearing the guts out of books. What I try to do is get people enthusiastic about books.” This got me thinking – to what extent can a photographer be a critic? I’m doubtful. What I do think is possible is to review – to draw attention to the performance through capturing something in between my experience of it, and what is physically there.

Given the ever growing number of people with access to a camera, roughly 6 billion at present, it is unsurprising that the foreseeable future will be inhabited by more individuals who can take a photo than those who read or write. If photography is morphing into a common language, we need to start learning to read it.

The performance begins; Cartier Bresson’s thought comes to mind – colour photography “was too realistic, seriously compromising the element of abstraction (i.e. the distancing effect) that black and white permitted.” Tasked with capturing living metaphors, I decide to shoot in monochrome and see for myself. Here is my review of Saul Williams’ event CHORUS – A Literary Mixtape, taken at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre:

My friend in tears as this big, tall, dressed in white being, lugs him away on his big, tall, shoulder. Bags covering the heads of these children as if they were slaves taken from their homes.”

Yomi ‘GREEdS’ Sode

But more than seeds are sown here. You

can tell by his tender pat on tended patch;

the soft cuff to a boy’s head – first day to

school, by how they rest with parental pride

against stone walls, huff into winter’s cold,

press faces together as though tulips might

stem from two lips, gather spades, forks,

weeds and go.” – Inua Ellams

“You can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.” – Warsan Shire

The greatest americans
have not been born yet
they are waiting patiently
for the past to die
please give blood”

– Saul Williams


Time is money. Money is time.

So, I keep seven o’clock in the

Bank and gain interest in the

hour of God. I’m saving to buy

my freedom. God grant me wings.

I’m too fly not to fly. Eye sore

To look at humans without wings.

So, I soar. And find tickle in the

feather of my wings.”

– Saul Williams

For more information about about Saul Williams click  here and for more of Jemima Yong’s work visit her website here.


Jemima Yong

Jemima Yong is an interdisciplinary artist of Malaysian heritage, born and raised in Singapore. She is currently based in southeast London working as a photographer and performance maker. Jemima’s images have been published on London Theatre Blog and used by The Times newspaper, Time Out London, The New Paper, Yorkshire Evening Post and the Swazi Observer.



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