Archive for the ‘Photography and Death’ tag
The exhibition Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography is, in collaboration with Paradise Row, currently on display at the David Roberts Foundation on Great Titchfield Street in London. By connecting photography with the manifold meanings of loss, the curators Louisa Adams and David Birkin dig into an intellectually and philosophically dense subject matter. The photographs, produced by ten different artists, were intelligently chosen for representing various notions of loss invoked by conflict, crime, disaster, war and ultimately death. That the scope and scale of this exhibition could easily be expanded is testament to a timely and well-conceptualized curatorial approach.
In stark contrast to the potentially invasive, even pornographic visual language of photojournalism, the artists chosen for this exhibition approach their subject matter with subtlety and care. Taryn Simon’s contribution, a rather banal photograph of a rundown house in Ayer, Massachusetts for instance, predominantly hinges on reading the caption to the photograph: serving 18 years of a life sentence for murder and robbery, the occupant of the house died from an accident six months after his exoneration. Jane and Louise Wilson’s super large and detailed photograph of a gym in Pripyat, located within the 30km wide Exclusion Zone to Tchernobyl, functions as an eerie architectural post-mortem of a manmade disaster. The paint crumbling off the wall signifies the physical and indeed psychological wounds incurred by those who survived. A photograph of books on a library bookshelf is slightly more ambiguous: rather than the aging books themselves, it is the dust they have collected that underlines the trauma of loss – the loss of an entire community and all the infrastructure associated with it.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s dramatically titled piece Day Nobody Died III consists of a 6-meter long strip of colour photographic paper, haphazardly exposed to the Afghan sunshine. While being embedded with British troops in Helmand province, the artist duo exposed the paper to represent a short reprieve from constant news of death and fatal injuries amongst soldiers and civilians. David Birkin’s own contribution to the exhibition, displayed directly opposite to Broomberg and Chanarin’s piece, is a small AP wire photograph from 1992 depicting mourning Afghan women. The artist covered the photograph with the ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli – a pigment more valuable than gold. The manipulated image can be read as an allegory for one of the many paradoxes of war: beyond any ethical concerns for those who suffer, the camera (e.g. the media) also has an economic interest in the representation of loss.
For some artists, the notion of loss is rather more personal. Indre Serpytyte’s monochromatic photographs depict tightly folded shirts or three neat stacks of paper – the photographs are strongly reminiscent of photography’s capability to document artifacts. Consistently photographed on a black background, the images inadvertently also glorify the banality of these subjects. The viewer wonders, why am I being presented with these shirts or these papers? A visit to Serpytyte’s homepage reveals that this series of photographs, titled A State of Silence, is a response to the sudden and unexplained death of her father who died in a ‘car accident’ in 2001. At the time, Albinas Serpytyte was the Head of Government Security of Lithuania.
Idris Khan’s piece, in which he individually photographed and superimposed every single page from Roland Barthes’ classic book Camera Lucida, alludes to the historically, culturally and socially complex relationship between photography and death. Writing about a photograph of his deceased mother a few months before his very own death, in the book Barthes’ came to the conclusion that death is the ‘eidos’ of photography. In other words, photography operates on the commonly perceived notion that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. While analysing various different photographs reprinted in the book, Barthes’ cherished photograph of his mother, ironically, was not reproduced. As Khan photographed and superimposed the pages from the book, the subjects in the photographs turn into faintly visible ghosts, hovering in between the pages and coming to the surface of the print.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
Widely referred to as ‘The Situation Room Photograph’, the image of Barack Obama and his most trusted advisors as they watch the events unfold in Pakistan is rapidly becoming the most viewed photograph on Flickr. The photograph is based on a simple, yet a very powerful dynamic characterized by an exchange of gazes: the viewer looks at the photograph, while the subjects in the photograph look at the ‘situation’ in Pakistan. Tapping into the viewer’s imagination, part of the allure of the photograph thus hinges on, not necessarily in what it depicts, but what it does not depict.
A number of important details in the image clearly stand out. Barack Obama’s leans forward in such a way that his body appears crouched, almost humbled by what he is looking at. In stark contrast to the strength and power projected by a ‘Commander in Chief’, Obama’s figure appears far smaller than most of those around him. His dark jacket has the effect that his upper body appears even slimmer. This sense of scale is photographically and optically further emphasized by the his body falling out of focus. The camera did not focus on him. Most importantly however, in the photograph Obama is surrounded by a large empty space above and behind him. Despite sitting in a small room packed with people, Obama appears alienated, withdrawn even marginalized. This reading is not necessarily counter productive to Obama’s interests. The empty space above Obama in fact emphasis an important assumption: even though he is surrounded by advisors, the final decision rests alone with him. In a sense, Obama’s crouched body signifies humility in recognition of the historical impact of his decision. Here, I am not only referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also, all the legal, ethical and moral ramifications that come with it.
Obama is flanked by Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb, Assistant Commanding General of Joint Special Operations. Webb holds, in the true sense of the word, an exceptional position in the photograph: he is the only person whose full military uniform is visible, he is sitting at the top end of the table further underlining his elevated position within the room, but most importantly, he is, unlike everyone else, not looking at the screen but at a laptop in front of him. He appears to be typing on the keyboard evoking the impression that, to an extent, he is controlling the very events that the others are looking at on the screen.
While Webb’s facial expression appears controlled and emotionless, Hilary Clinton’s expression, on the other hand, displays a far more emotional response to the events unfolding. As she covers her mouth with her hand, Clinton’s hand and face signifies tension, shock, maybe even fear. Following the rule of thirds, the composition of the photograph in fact hinges on Clinton’s gesture and facial expression. A close reading of the photograph thus also points to an overdetermined and problematic gender stereotype: in a room full of men (apart from Audrey Tomason in the very back), Clinton, as woman, shows the strongest emotions. Fully aware of a patriarchal order which holds no place for emotions in politics, Clinton meanwhile quickly denied that her facial expression had anything to do with what she was looking at on the screen as she later said: “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever”. Clinton’s statement suggests that in a male-dominated order, emotional responses are far less associated with compassion, care or concern, then they are with lack of will or weakness. It explains why Clinton swiftly sought to distance herself from any emotions, blaming the hands over her mouth on ‘allergic coughs’.
As a sign how quickly the photograph has gained an iconic status in visual culture, a whole number of situation room spoofs have emerged from the internet. At the forefront of a wave of creativity (and mockery) have been users of the rapidly growing micro-blogging website Tumblr. The instantaneity of ‘tumbleblogging’ has the effect that spoof images are distributed at a vast speed with a global reach. There is for example a situation room spoof photograph which shows everyone with Princess Beatrice’s ridiculous hat she wore for Kate and WIlliams wedding only a few days before Osama bin Laden was killed. In an apparent reference to Aphex Twin’s classic music video for Windowlicker, another spoof shows Barack Obama’s face superimposed on everyone else in the room.
Another spoof photograph displays an uncanny similarity with Sir Peter Blake’s cover art for The Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper. It is perhaps Brigadier General Webb’s uniform that triggered an association with the exaggerated and clicheed depiction of Sergeant Pepper in Blake’s version. The numerous spoofs emerging from the internet however point to a more serious dynamic emerging from the killing of Osama bin Laden. The White House has so far resisted releasing photographs or visual ‘evidence’ of Osama bin Laden’s death. In search for a visual representation of one of the biggest news stories of the year, the press therefore had to refer to the ‘Situation Room Photographs’ as a matter of course. Yet the lack of a visual representation of Osama bin Laden is also the ideological breathing ground for conspiracy theories. I would suggest that the spurt of creativity in response to ‘The Situation Room Photograph’ hinges precisely on the very lack of visual information on Osama bin Laden’s death. As the viewer of ‘The Situation Room Photograph’ reverts to imagining what those in the room are looking at, a small army of tumblebloggers rely on their imagination in creating spoofs which fill the visual vacuum left by the unrepresentability of Osama bin Laden’s death.
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It is a simple, yet a strikingly powerful image: a woman looks at family photographs found in the rubble of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The photographs have been meticulously cleaned and left to dry on clothing pegs in a school gymnasium in the town of Natori, Miyagi prefecture. Survivors are given the opportunity to look at the photographs on display in the hope of identifying friends and family members. In some cases, the photograph will be the only thing that is left behind.
Another photograph by the Russian press photographer Sergey Ponomarev depicts the sheer scale of the collection of photographs, and, by extension, the sheer scale of the disaster. A man is looking at an old family album, so enthralled in the images that he appears to be unaware of the very camera depicting him in the process of looking. In the background, several people can be seen doing exactly the same, sometimes in groups or as individual, trying to come to terms with the images laid out in front of them.
Ponomarev’s photographs are indicative of the complex and troubled relationship between photography and death. In his classic book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes sought to overcome the death of his mother as he analyzes, over and over again, a photograph of her. In one of his most famous quotes, he writes ‘death is the eidos of photography’. In other words, photography operates on the idea that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. It is this tragic and perverse dichotomy between an inanimate and dead object (the photograph) and the sense of a person liveliness in a photograph – a liveliness particularly apparent in family photographs.
Apart from referring to an universally applicable attribute of photography, the hope to find photographs from deceased friends and family members in the school gymnasium of Natori also displays a culturally specific phenomenon. Similar to other Asian cultures such as China and Korea, funerals are usually accompanied by a formal portrait with black rope on the top corners of the image. These photographs of the deceased constitute a crucial aspect in the process of mourning: they are later displayed on or above small Bhuddist shrines (butsudan) kept in most traditional Japanese households. In the school gymnasium of Natori, the survivors’ search for a photograph of family and friends is partially motivated by a spiritual process that subscribes great value to the photographic likeliness of a person.
In contrast to the sterile and composed black and white portraits associated with the funeral procession and the butsudan, the photographs on display in the school gymnasium represent moments of vivacity and liveliness – moments traditionally perceived as worthy of photographic representation. An image by Hong Kong born photographer Vincent Yu can be read as a collage representing significant life stages: amongst several photographs of new-born babies, there are photographs of weddings, sports days, school groups and holidays. In sum, they are the kind of photographs that represent a lived experience, that situate the subject within a community, that communicate what it means to be human.
As the family photographs in the school gymnasium continue to dry on clothing pegs, those who survived are coming to terms with the discrepancy between the tragic loss of human life and the happiness encountered in the image. The press photographs depicting family photographs are thus deeply self-referential: they are photographs about the very materiality of photography, the collective memories produced by photographs and the photograph, perhaps, constituting a source of comfort.
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.