Gilbert Bel-Bachir


In 1976 I travelled overland from Europe to Nepal, crossing numerous countries along the way, including Pakistan.  I had great memories of that trip; twenty years later I decided to go back to Pakistan and photograph.

This time I wanted to discover other regions, like the north-west of the country.  Since the area borders with China, I went across and through the Taklamakan Desert.  This desert is located in Xingjiang, China, an ancient sea and plateau elevated at 1500 metres.  The temperatures are extreme: in summer it can get hotter than 40 degrees Celcius, and in winter as low as minus twenty.  The population of Xingjiang is mostly peopled by an ethnic group called the Uyghurs, and  also Han Chinese.

By the time I arrived in Kashghar from Pakistan, my stock of film was very low, and I still had another length to cover.  Photographic shops in Kashghar sold a Chinese film brand called Lucky; I bought some with the expiry dated (so I thought) at 1997.  The distance between Urumqi, which was my final destination, and Kashghar, is about 2000 kilometres; skirting the length of the desert by bus, it took me around 6 weeks to reach Urumqi.

When I arrived back in Sydney I started to develop all the negatives from the trip, including the Lucky films. They were partly fogged, and I discovered that the information on the backing paper of the 120 film had bled onto the emulsion, including the texture of the paper and the numbers which were used to indicate the frame numbers on old cameras with a red window.  Looking back at the expiry date of the film – 1997 – I had somehow misread the number 7 which was slightly inclined.  In fact it was a 1.

I was very disappointed. I did everything to try to rescue them, I tried an anti fogging agent, but that didn’t work.  After years of taking photographs you establish a kind of routine, you know technically what to expect, and know what works for you visually.  The act of taking a photograph is a pleasurable experience, especially when you take a photograph and know that you have a good image; somehow the pleasure of having taken that photograph is engraved in my memory, until I process the film and the result is confirmed, the pleasure is doubled.

I had an ambivalent feeling about these pictures; on one hand they were “unaccomplished”.  On the other, I was quite attached to them:  they were the only visual record I had of the journey.

My concern was about meaning.  I wasn’t sure if people could read and appreciate what I could, despite all the extra noise.

A friend of mine told me a story of a ceramicist:  she came across some of the artist’s work, which was not meant to be displayed, but that she liked.  The ceramicist told her that in the process of firing there was a technical problem with the kiln and the glaze blistered.  The results for her, were ‘rejects’ – but on the other hand you hear of ceramists who create the same effect on purpose because they like the aesthetic.

In 1998 I was exhibiting different work in a photography festival in Greece.  I came across a Greek photographer who was exhibiting a series of images with the same results as my Lucky film; the difference was that he achieved his pictorial ‘effect’ intentionally.

GILBERT BEL-BACHIR was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1959. He is a photographer and curator based in Sydney who exhibits widely both in Australia and overseas. Gilbert’s work is part of numerous collections including The Art Gallery of Western Australia, The State Library of NSW, the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney and the Michel & Michelle Auer Private Collection in Geneva, Switzerland.