Archive for February, 2011
“I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.” These words uttered by Muammar Gaddafi late in the night on Libyan state television will be remembered as a key moment in the downfall of an autocratic and ruthless regime. Western media pundits were quick to point to the bizarreness of the TV footage, referring to Gaddafi’s ‘eccentricity’, implying that few elements in this artifact of visual culture made any sense. Some have even compared Gaddafi’s appearance with the surrealist art of the spanish painter Salvador Dali. At the same time, conspiracy theories emerged almost immediately. Gaddafi is holding a large umbrella, but did it actually rain that evening? Rain is so rare in that part of the world that it is a valid question.
Yet a more careful reading of Gaddafi’s short but memorable TV appearance shows that a number of elements are likely very deliberately planned and executed. Ever since the footage was screened, there has been a huge amount of curiosity regarding the vehicle that Gaddafi is sitting in. Here, it is important to point out that Gaddafi is sitting in the driving seat, clearly signifying that he is in charge of determining the direction his country is heading towards. Gaddafi’s TV appearance is reminscient of propaganda billboards erected throughout the country, which depict the dictator driving a Volkswagen Beetle.
The message is clear: he is the ‘driving’ force in running the country. Unlike the Volkswagen Beetle however, the vehicle depicted in the TV footage is, importantly, a car with only one seat. While the propaganda billboard shows Gaddafi driving without passengers, the single seated vehicle even negates the possibility of any passengers. In other words, Gaddafi is depicted running the country, without any interference, all by himself. The single-seated vehicle in the TV footage signifies precisely the type of state Gaddafi is leading: autocracy is defined as a system government by one person with absolute power.
The most important aspect of the footage is the location where it was made. Gaddafi says, “I am in Tripoli”. More precisely, Gaddafi is located in front of his compound in Bab Al Azizia which was heavily bombed by the Reagan administration in 1986. Instead of rebuilding the shattered compound, Gaddafi chose to leave it as it is. The skeletal structure of the building acts as a powerful message of defiance and resilience. In 2003, just as Libya’s relationship with the West was thawing, Gaddafi even held a beauty pageant with international contestants, including British and American women, at this historically important site. The British photographer Muir Vidler produced a strikingly surreal series of photographs that depict the proceedings. The Bab Al Azizia compound would also become the backdrop to Nicolas Sarkozy’s state visit to Libya in 2007. The photograph clearly depicts Sarkozy’s discomfort for being turned into a strategically placed pawn by Gaddafi’s propaganda apparatus.
Gaddafi’s late night TV appearance thus sets up a fairly complex web of signifiers that might not be immediately determinable. By depicting himself in a single-seated car, Gaddafi wishes to communicate that it is still him, who is leading the country. The location is carefully chosen as a site of historical importance, signifying Gaddafi’s assumed resilience and defiance vis a vis the most powerful nation on earth. Gaddafi portrays himself as David standing up against Goliath. But the message is also directed at Britain, as it was the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who initially speculated that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela. A photograph of Hugo Chavez and Gaddafi in a luxury car is an ironic symbol for Venezuela’s close ties with Libya. Unlike the TV footage however, it showed Chavez in the driving seat. In his very brief TV appearance, Gaddafi thus sets up a geopolitical web of international relations that spans the whole globe. Similar to my blog post on the final speech by the former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, the signs and symbols used in Gaddafi’s TV appearance are a desperate attempt to cling on to the steering wheel.
How to represent trauma? This appears to be the overriding question in the movie Nobody Knows, or Daremo Shiranai, by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Nobody Knows depicts the lives of four children who were left abandoned by their mother. The oldest child is the 12-year old boy Akira who is given the task of looking after his younger siblings. Used to the frequent absence of their mother, the beginning of the movie shows the children coping well with daily tasks of running the household.
However, as the absence of the mother turns into weeks and months, the movie also depicts that the life of the abandoned children is in a state of transition. The movie effectively represents the passing of time by focusing on small and detailed observations. In one scene, the eldest daughter holds up her hand to look at the nail polish her mom applied before she left. The same hand can be seen later when all but a tiny segment of the nail polish is visible. In other words, the vanishing of nail polish signifies the mother’s abondement of her children, but also, it signifies the child giving up hope that she will return. The nail polish reappears later in the film, when the mother returns one last time to pack her belongings. Instead of applying the bright red polish to her nails, the daughter paints her hand to make it look as if she is injured. Here, the polish signifies blood and the pain of alienation.
Filmed over the course of one year, the 2 hour 20 minute movie depicts the children not only growing older with regard to narrative of the movie, but also, growing older in a bodily sense. Thus, Nobody Knows not only focuses on the psychological, but also the physical transformation of the child. This transformation is most apparent in Akira, played by Yuya Yagira, who, in the process of the movie, turns from a boy into a young man. For depicting this transformation so realistically, Yagira won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2004. In the movie, his hair is getting longer, he adopts a defiant teenager attitude, but also, he is getting physically bigger and his voice is breaking up. The representation of time in Nobody Knows has the eery effect that the movie appears to be like a documentary film, depicting the lives of real children in their struggle to survive.
The filmmakers have adapted various cinematographic techniques to represent life from the subjective position of the child. The height of the camera rarely exceeds more than one meter, which, in the history of Japanese cinema and visual culture refers to Yasujiro Ozu’s signature tatami perspective. In Nobody Knows, the low height of the camera is used to stress the subjective vision of a child. Similarly, by using a long lens with a wide open aperture, the narrow depth of field emphasis an almost dreamlike perception of everyday minutiae.
In above example, the cinematography of Nobody Knows appears to borrow from the work of the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Not only did Kawauchi work on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer, but her photographic methodology of focusing on detailed observations from a child’s perspective appears to be the visual strategy applied in the film itself. In psychoanalytical terms, this photographically fragmented view of the world also refers to a psychologically fragmented memory of childhood. In other words, the photographic technique of tight framing and soft focus underlines the very process of remembering childhood.
As the director Hirokazu Kore-eda points out at the beginning of the movie, the plot is loosely based on a real life event that took place in 1988. The ‘affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo’, was, in reality, far more horrific than it is depicted in the movie. While in 1988, the youngest child was brutally beaten and eventually killed by two friends of the oldest son, in the movie the youngest child tragically dies in an accident. A fifth child, never referred to in the movie, died shortly after birth and was wrapped in blankets and stored in the flat by the mother. While the cinematographic techniques of soft-focus and close-ups evoke a romanticized version of childhood, the actual trauma inflicted and experienced by the children of Sugamo is completely sidelined in the movie.
In psychoanalysis, trauma is not necessarily referring to a horrific event, but rather, it describes the subject’s failure to place an experience in the symbolic realm. In his Seminar I, Jacques Lacan describes trauma as following:
“Trauma, insofar as it has a repressing action, intervenes after the fact (apres coup, nachtraglich). At this specific moment, something of the subject becomes detached from the symbolic world that he is engaged in integrating. From then on, it will no longer be something belonging to the subject. The subject will no longer speak of it, will no longer integrate it. Nevertheless, it will remain there, somewhere, spoken, if one can put it this way, by something the subject does not control.”
Trauma is therefore characterized by not being able to articulate, nor being able to represent the experience retroactively. The complete disavowal of any physical or psychological violence in Nobody Knows is therefore a conscious act of recognizing that trauma is unrepresentable. Hirokazu Kore-eda thus comments on a deeply felt human fear: the dread of loss of the mother is commonly thought of as the very first trauma experienced by the subject. This unrepresentability of trauma is even recognized in the very title of the movie: because trauma cannot be situated into the symbolic realm, ‘nobody knows’ about the actual experience of the child.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
In this classic example of post-mortem photography, a mother and a father are sitting next to their deceased daughter. The long exposure of the camera has the eery effect that the daughter is completely in focus, while the parents, the live subjects in the frame, are blurry. The photographer might have even moved the daughter’s mouth so that it appears that she is smiling, while the parents facial expression is strained by their recent loss. The daughter is remembered via the photographic image, or, in other words, the photograph stands in for the missing subject. Here, the successful representation of a deceased family member hinges on the subject appearing alive.
Post-mortem photography tends to be a genre associated with the Victorian era (1837-1901), when photography was a technological novelty unaffordable to the working classes. The implication is that those commissioning a post-mortem photographic portrait of a family member also had the economic means to do so. Yet as much photography might have been celebrated as a novelty in the late 19th century, post-mortem photography is treated like a novelty from todays point of view. The strict association with the Victorian era tends to overlook a number of points: post-mortem photography is a global phenomena popularized in parallel to the inception and reception of the photographic medium all over the world. Post-mortem photography is not exclusive to subjects of the British Empire. Secondly, the association between the Victorian era and post-mortem photography underestimates to what extent a similar variety of this genre continues to be an integral part of contemporary visual culture.
From the very beginning, photographers explored death as a significant trope via the new medium photography. In ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’, Hippolyte Bayard for instance theatrically staged his own death as early as 1840. Bayard’s fascination with his own death reflects a fetishistic attitude towards death photographers have explored ever since. Enrique Metinides’ strangely beautiful photographs of accident victims in Mexico depicts a morbid desire to capture the border between life and death. As I have explored in a previous post, the American photographer Weegee displayed an equally voyeuristic attitude in his photographs of car crash victims.
A far more personal interpretation of death can be found on a contact sheet by the Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya. Married to an Austrian woman and living in a flat in East Berlin, Furuya appears to have been taking pictures shortly before and after his wife committed suicide by jumping of the balcony on the 9th floor. The violence that Furuya’s wife would inflict on herself is foreshadowed by two photographs of tanks taken from a television screen. A photograph of the balcony is followed by the morbid image of Furuya’s wife lying on the ground below. In the presence of the East German police, Furuya appears to photograph through his open jacket to avoid being stopped by the authorities. He photographed his wife’s dead body until the very last instance. As Roland Barthes famously wrote in his book Camera Lucida: ‘Death is the Eidos of Photography’. As Barthes exhaustively argues in his book, the desire to photograph is inextricably linked to the desire of capturing subjects that the photograph will outlive. In Barthes’ case, it’s a photograph of his late mother which prompts his nostalgia through the photographic image.
The controversial photographer Andres Serrano photographed dead bodies not in the place where the death occurred, but where it is investigated: the morgue. The titles of the photographs usually inform the viewer about the type of death the victims experienced (‘Jane Doe, Killed by Police’, ‘Knifed to Death’, ‘Burnt to Death’ etc.). The caption thus fulfills an important function with regard to the reading of the image. Here, the viewer becomes an unwitting participant in the evalution of bodily features and anomalies. In above photograph for instance, two distinct aspects stand out: the subjects arms are stiffened while her body hair is, similar to goose-bumps, pointing straight up. Foreshadowing the huge popularity of American TV shows such as CSI, Serrano provokes the viewer into his own crime scene investigation.
Yet the most common encounter of photography and death can be seen in photojournalism. From Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ in the Spanish civil war, to more recent conflicts, death is an integral part of representing the horrors of war. The French photographer Luc Delahaye applies the aesthetic of the tableau to his photograph of a deceased Taliban soldier in Afghanistan. The soldier is doubly captured: by his enemies and by Delahaye’s interrogative camera. The soldier’s body position is strongly reminiscent of Christian iconography and more specifically the Pieta. In Delahaye’s photography, Mary morning the death of Jesus is replaced by rubble and dirt. The photograph depicts the loneliness of the soldier in the moment of death. The dirt and rubble, but also the reference to the Pieta, underline the initial perception that the soldier has died.
From Bayard’s staged death, to Victorian era post-mortem photography, Delahaye’s photograph represents the fascination with death, the macabre, the morbid. The main difference between Victorian era post-mortem photography and more recent examples of this type of photography can be found in the way these images are consumed. In the Victorian era the post-mortem photograph was usually a unique object commissioned for purely personal consumption. Contemporary art photographers or photojournalists on the other hand depend on the photograph entering a cycle of consumption. In addition to that, Victorian era post-mortem photography aspired to depict the subject as still alive. The photograph was seen as the medium which would momentarily enliven the deceased subject. More recent examples of post-mortem photography are far less ambiguous in its depiction of death.
I would argue that the way the photograph is consumed and to what extent the subject is enlivened in the image is deeply related to each other. As soon as the image enters a highly complex image economy via the mass media, contemporary post-mortem photography becomes the antidote to Victorian era photographs of the dead. Rather than depicting subjects that look alive, the dead are represented precisely as such.