Review: "Disquiet" by Amani Willett

Amani Willett's Disquiet was recently published by Damiani and is available for purchase at photo-eye Bookstore. The book spread images presented here are used with permission from photo-eye.

This review is written by Adam Bell, a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, and will also be published on his excellent photo book review site.

Parenthood has a tendency to disrupt lives in more ways than expected. The joys and excitement are intricately entwined with a host of new worries for your child’s future and the world they will inhabit. Each event has new ramifications not only for your life, but your child. As a recent father, Amani Willet saw his own son born into a turbulent atmosphere of economic collapse and societal unrest. From the global economic crisis to Occupy Wall Street and the ongoing wars abroad, Willet saw the world his son was to inhabit profoundly shift over the few short years of his young life. Like all unexpected events, they raised new questions and put priorities in new, often stark, relief. Disquiet, Willet’s new book, explores this uneasy tension weaving together the personal and political in ways that are rich and rewarding.

The book opens, and is punctuated throughout, with smoky images of the street. Figures lurk in the background, barricades block off exits, fires rage and police move in from the edges, circling the crowds. Although not immediately apparent, it soon becomes clear that the images are from Occupy Wall Street and record the clashes between protestors and police beginning in September 2011 in Downtown Manhattan. There are four such interludes, or chapters, in the book that punctuate the landscapes, urban details and images of Willet’s family that make up the rest of the book. The ethereal smoke and blurred figures provide a chaotic backdrop and build a palpable anxiety throughout the book.

What is especially refreshing about the work is the careful balance of personal and political. Even in the most skilled hands, overtly political art generally devolves into propaganda or forgettable clich√©. While there is no stated political agenda within the work, Willet’s work illuminates the ways in which the outside world infiltrates and colors the events of our lives – shaping and molding our moods, actions, hopes and fears, as well as the future. As Marvin Heiferman notes in his eloquent essay at the end of the book, Willet takes a decidedly sentimental approach to his subject – openly acknowledging the love, affection and worries he feels for the multiple generations of his family depicted in his images. Whereas many photographers eschew emotionality for fear of being mawkish, the intimacy of the work enhances its political and emotional impact.

Throughout Disquiet, there is a sense of being on the threshold of change, wary about what is to come and what lies ahead, yet still hopefully moving forward. As the title suggests, there is an overall darkness that permeates the book. Houses hide behind dark branches at night. A lone dog stares down at us from atop a dark stairwell. A pregnant woman looks through a parted bedroom curtain. The same woman sleeps restlessly in a dark room. Her subtle movements at night blurred. A small boy wanders off into the mottled shadows of the woods – the darkness obscuring his face, gaze and ultimate destination. President Obama lectures from a solitary TV in an empty office lobby – speaking to us all, but no one in particular. One of the earliest images in the book is a photographed scrap of paper with a quote by the novelist Julian Barnes, who writes about how something new can emerge from collapse and sets the tone for the book.

Art is not the most reactive medium. In responding to the events around us, it often takes time before truly meaningful work can emerge. Given this delay, it is often easy to dismiss art for not being engaged enough with the world, or for accomplishing so little. The reality is it just responds on its own time and often in unexpected ways. The continuing tragedy of the global economic collapse, the US’s ongoing wars and political gridlock, are far from over, but we are beginning to see engaged work that grapples with these issues in a variety of ways. Rather than turn away from the world, Disquiet captures the palpable anxiety, malaise, confusion and hesitation of a world seemingly out of wack – a world riddled with social inequality, comfortably safe from the endless wars abroad yet under the watchful eye of a globalized surveillance state and anxious of what is to come. Despite all this, there is the desire that family, friends and loved ones surround us, helping us move forward and giving us hope and something new amidst the chaos and smoke.