Ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.
A photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see.
I wanted to post some quotes by Hannah Arendt, then realized that in fact it wasn’t her words alone I wanted to share, but something else, something more than her words – something about the way she looks at us.
This may be presumption on my part, but I need to stay with this thought a little longer. There is a passage in the Gospel of Saint Luke which says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light”. I do not presume to understand what is meant by this gnostic-sounding text, but if I may appropriate it for a little while, remove it from whatever it’s original context intended, it may help me explain what I want to say about the photograph.
Many writers have explored the subject of the gaze – and the uncanny feeling of “being looked at” by a person in a photograph – John Berger, Susan Sontag, Edward Said, Roland Barthes to name but a few.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes wrote, “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”
When my gaze rests on this picture it is the “delayed rays of a star”, the emanation of the referent, the light from the lamp of the body, which effects me so viscerally.
Arendt, a Jewish intellectual who escaped Nazi Germany to the US, wrote on totalitarianism, violence and the human condition. She is famous for her controversial writings on the convicted Nazi Adolf Eichman, and in her book about his trial she developed the idea of the Banality of Evil.
If goodness, evil, suffering and the human condition are themes she wrestled with, are the star rays perhaps still present here in the photograph, a trace frozen as it were when the shutter opened and closed?
But there is something else: what is it I feel as I look at her looking at me? (Of course, this is all a kind of magical play with words, afterall I am looking at an LCD screen, a digital reconstruction of a photograph, an image – light- captured on film, an image printed on paper then scanned and converted into code). Hannah Arendt died in 1975, but herein lies the uncanny power of photography: she looks at me as she looked at the camera when this photograph was taken.)
What is it in her look that captivates? Is there a note of reproach? Suffering? The weight of knowing? Understanding? Does she pity us? Is she asking something of us? Perhaps it is not knowing which keeps one guessing. I am captivated by this gaze from the past.
Barthes wrote, “As Spectator I wanted to explore photography not as a question (a theme) but as a wound.”
I read today a few critiques of Roland Barthes by, among others, Christian Lotz. Bordering on the scathing, it makes out that Camera Lucida was inadequate and passé, regarding his work as “non-philosophical and non-scientific”. Such is the nature of post-modernism: everything is Deconstructed. Nothing is sacred. One is no longer certain of anything.
“Art critic, Victor Burgin, in his essay,Photography, Fantasy, Function, offers a compelling model for understanding the empowerment strategy engaged in by the ego, as the viewer endeavours to engage the image. He speaks of the way the viewer is sutured into a photograph. The metaphor is meant to suggest how the viewer becomes attached, gaining entrance into the photograph, not through a spot freely chosen, but “forced” (this violent reference alluding to the metaphor of “suturing,” no doubt) to follow the camera’s eye to the central point of the image. Psychoanalytically, this strategy is intended to avoid a metaphorical annihilation of ourselves in the face of the potency of the unresolvable connection to the gaze embedded in the photograph. The primary way the individual is “sutured” into the photograph, Burgin continues, is through the necessary identification between the viewer and the assumed camera position, a look which can “shift between the poles of voyeurism and narcissism: in the former…subjecting the other-as-object to an inquisitive and controlling surveillance in which seeing is dissociated from being seen; and in the latter, effecting a dual identification with both the camera (photographer) and the individual being depicted.”
“Capturing the direct look into the camera with the click of the shutter (she calls this moment, “a record of their interaction.”) suggests the acknowledgement by the photographer that his/her subject no longer occupies the realm of object, but projects a conscious ego—an other with delimited boundaries arising from self awareness. This look has the effect of short-circuiting the voyeurism normally associated with the posing ritual—there can be no peeping when the subject meets the other’s gaze. Additional, the subject is reaffirming the confrontational moment by visually communicating the message, “I see you seeing me, so you cannot steal this look (Self).” From this position of the subject’s empowerment, the gaze does not contest the right of the viewer (photographer, viewer) to look, and may in fact be ‘read’ as the subject’s assent to being surveyed.”
-The Power of Gaze in the Photography of Rineke Dijkstra. September 11, 2013
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations