Rosalind Fox Solomon documents those caught in the throes of history

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The American photographer’s new book, The Forgotten, trials a complex hierarchy of power between the sheltered, the remembered, and the forgotten

Rosalind Fox Solomon is reflecting on her sprawling, decades-long career. The American photographer has documented momentous events in our world’s social history, such as postwar Cambodia, apartheid in South Africa, and Northern Ireland during the Troubles. She has captured devastating natural disasters and unfathomable global poverty. “It is crazy when I look back on it now. Because I would just go: jump off the end of the world and go somewhere,” the 91-year-old admits.

Fox Solomon began taking photographs in 1968, while living in the American South. Throughout her vast career, she has photographed people’s resilience; relationships with one another in both joy and pain. Her interest in culture and people underpins the images that we see today. 

Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘Istanbul,Turkey, 1994’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘New Orleans, Louisiana, 1992’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Her new book, The Forgotten, spans six continents and five decades, from 1974 to 2019. Published by Mack, the book, “raises consciousness about events that have been forgotten,” Fox Solomon says. “Most of us don’t think about what happened when the nuclear bomb was dropped, what happened to people; the fact that there are mines still going off in the fields of Cambodia, many years after the end of the war there… That’s what was in the back of my mind: to face some of these questions or situations directly. To confront people with them.”  

Fox Solomon captions many of her black-and-white images with city, country and year. Some image-caption pairings speak for themselves: in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988, a Black housekeeper kneels on the floor next to a smiling white mother and daughter, who are both sitting in an armchair; in Auschwitz, Poland, 2003 dozens of prosthetic legs lie discarded in a pile.

Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘New York, New York, 1987’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘Ancash, Peru, 1981’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Rosalind Fox Solomon

Other times, Fox Solomon’s captions heighten the stakes of her images, reframing them against the backdrop of a moment in history that is not immediately distinguishable. In one image, a boy sits on his father’s shoulders, waving an American flag. The lenses of his father’s sunglasses reflect the flash of Fox Solomon’s camera like two small explosions. The caption – New York, New York, 2001 – suggests an oblique yet charged portrait of nationalism and crisis in the era of 9/11. In another, a young man dotted with skin lesions wears a graphic T-shirt reading, “Nuclear war? There goes my career!”. The caption is New York, New York, 1987. The image, already reckoning with the threat of nuclear war, is reframed by another apocalypse: the Aids crisis. 

Other images capture catastrophes less familiar to western readers: a mangled bus lies toppled over in Ancash, Peru, in 1981 after the region was devastated by earthquakes. The wall of a home in 1993 Yugoslavia is pockmarked with bullet holes, following years of political upheaval that culminated in the country’s collapse. These are histories ‘forgotten’ – or ignored by – western consciousness. Fox Solomon reminds us of them. 

“I can’t imagine doing it right now, but for years I just decided where it might be interesting to go, and I just went.”

Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1990’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘Hiroshima Maiden, Los Angeles, California, 1986’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

The edit of the book does not follow any chronological or geographic logic. Consecutive pages jump from 2016 Cuba to 1990 Tokyo. Still, the narrative is gripping, and gradually unfurls into subjects that are harder to confront and accept. Echoes of similar scenes between decades show us that when history repeats itself, it does so more severely. Images of people missing eyes and fingers in the book’s early pages give way to those with more severe injuries and disfigurements. Many of these belong to survivors of nuclear bombs and mine explosions. An image of Princeton University alumni marching in a reunion parade is followed by one of smartly dressed American veterans with missing limbs. On the following page are two Vietnamese men; one with a mutilated face and one holding himself upright with suspension bands. The sequence of The Forgotten reveals a complicated hierarchy of power between the untouched, the remembered, and the forgotten

For Fox Solomon, crafting this narrative was an iterative process. “It’s just putting things in, and taking them out, and going over and over them,” she says. “Somehow it seems to come together. It took a long time.” In other words, Fox Solomon followed her instincts, just as she has throughout her career. “I can’t imagine doing it right now, but for years I just decided where it might be interesting to go, and I just went,” she says. 

“As a photographer, I find it difficult to talk about my pictures because I don’t really want to. I want people to derive something from them and bring their own experiences to the pictures.”

Rosalind Fox Solomon. ‘Mexico, 1985’ from The Forgotten (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Despite Fox Solomon’s spontaneity, not every place was easy to access – especially areas ravaged by wars or natural disasters. Recounting her trip to Cambodia in the early 1990s, Fox Solomon explains how she had to travel “under false pretences. I had a letter from someone in the embassy in Thailand – he wrote an untrue letter introducing me as a representative of the United Nations.”

Fox Solomon is not interested in retracing history. “I am not a photojournalist,” she declares. She is an artist, attuned to the energies of the people and places she photographs, and to the ephemerality of a shared moment. The greatest challenge of her career has been getting people’s permission to photograph them. “But I’ve always managed to do that. It’s pretty nonverbal. A lot just has to do with looking at people and somehow having something occur between me and the person I want to photograph. Just doing it.”

This unspoken connection between Fox Solomon and her subjects yields stunning results: portraits that radiate the life force and pain of those caught in the throes of history. The people we see in The Forgotten are captured in passing: their stories are not revisited or explored in full. They are encountered. But these glimpses of unimaginable suffering tell a story unto themselves. Each image is as specific as it is symbolic. Those depicted are both the face behind the event and the face of the event. 

“As a photographer, I find it difficult to talk about my pictures because I don’t really want to. I want people to derive something from them and bring their own experiences to the pictures,” says Fox Solomon, who is not prescriptive about how viewers should engage with her work. “I don’t like analysing my own pictures.” This ethos informs her practice more broadly. Fox Solomon does not have a specific agenda. Nevertheless, her subjects bear the scars of histories both global and personal, epic and quotidian. The more staggering the pain, the more likely it is to be forgotten, to be erased by those who inflicted it. The photographer has witnessed the suffering, and asks others to do the same. 

rosalindfoxsolomon.com

The Forgotten, published by MACK, is available here.

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.