The Missing Corpus
BY RAMEE DEEB
Over a hundred million years ago, resin would drip down trees and down to earth, where it would trap insects and bugs going on with their daily lives. Live or dead, it did not matter much, for they were frozen in time (and place). I have always found extraordinary how, after all these years, amber is still capable of ‘encapsulating’ those insects, floating eternally in their amber prison. Though, does a bug in amber really tell us much about the life it lived, the other insects that it has known throughout the course of its life, or even what life even looked like back then?
And just like that, photography becomes the man-made equivalent of nature’s amber, trapping within its boundaries the subjects it aims to expose and preserve for long time to come. Upon being asked whether he knew that he was capturing fleeting moments, world-known American photographer Ansel Adams challenges the notion of ‘fleeting’ saying that ‘in the ideological sense, a year could be a fleeting moment and at times it could be the 25th of a second’. There have been long debates about the temporal as much as the indexical nature of ‘the photograph’, specifically on what a photograph reflects and under what logic of representation it lives.
In Okwui Enwezor’s essay “Archive Fever” he examines the relationship between photography and the archival practice, calling the camera an archiving machine and ‘every film is a priori an archival object’. “The capacity for mechanical inscription and the order of direct reference that links the photograph with the indisputable fact of its subject’s existence are the bedrock of photography and film.”
I have recently come across a photography project made by the Italian photographer Dario Mitidieri, where he went to a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and invited families to pose for ‘formal’ photographs, only for these families — because of war — some of its members are missing.
The aim of his project, as he said to Joanna Moorhead in an interview to The Guardian, is to make war photography ‘real’ again by telling the stories of the individuals affected most by it: the refugees. By showing the family in the context of a formal portrait, we presume a utopian representation of that family: best clothes, shiniest smile, a happy memory, though in this case it is completely the opposite. Dystopia qua utopia. It is the wreckage of a family portrait that we see, the elements are there, but they just do not add up.
During the past few years, there have been innumerable photographs portraying the lives of Syrian refugees across Europe, Lebanon, and Turkey; none was able to capture those who were not there, who did not even make it to seek refuge, those who were absent, and those who are missing.
By leaving an empty chair among the rest of the family members, the void that the absence of one member leaves becomes visible to us the viewers, even though he/she is not present in the photograph: letting the viewer’s imagination visualize what is unseen as it asks “who should be there?” and “where are they now?”
Mitidiori purposefully posits his subjects in front of a black drop to give gravitas to the suspended and ongoing sadness that this family is experiencing. These families know nothing about the fate of their loved ones, they cannot grieve neither can they hope for their return. On the other hand, the black drop might serve an aesthetic purpose other than that of exposing the subjects in the already vulnerable position in front of the camera, and that is: removing them from the context where they belong to, it takes away the viewer’s right of genuine subjectivity that serves reality raw (the eye cannot wander to visit the background, thanks to the backdrop) — I find it quaint to adhere the fact that the only purpose for the black drop, in the first place, is give the notion of a ‘formal’ family portrait.
“So behind them you can see the mountains and that is Syria. Alongside them, you can see the tents and that is where they are living.”
If one would want to show the living conditions of these refugees, one could do so without a black drop: it is yet another taxidermist representation that resembles Daguerre’s attempts to define the ‘other’ physiologically and Galton’s pursuit of identifying the villains among society.
In Susan Sontag’s seminal collection of essays ‘On Photography’ she says: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies[…]photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”
In the process, the black drop allows me to manipulate the photograph, by cropping it and thus rendering the whole project trivial, even when it does succeed in showing the broken state that these families are present in: displaced and stranded in the middle of nowhere, it does not fulfill the epistemological boundaries of a ‘formal’ portrait photograph.
Within the intimately connected elements that create the photograph, it’s hard to see anything, but the foreground: what about some background? It is as if their wounds were left open for a tourist to capture its photo.
In WJT Mitchell’s ‘What Do Pictures Want?’ he talks about the surplus value of the image where it can “continue to live on, haunting, tempting, and perhaps frightening or inspiring us.”Images suddenly become strangely familiar to us, we attune to their needs, resonate with their vibrancies, thus we become of one realm. Though, looking at these pictures, I cannot but remain silent while attending to them, I cannot form that kind of relationship where I would enter into conversation with the image, which brings me to my next contemplation: On what side of the spectrum do these images belong to, do they act as evidence to these refugees’ living conditions or merely document them for archival purposes? Do they aim to cause a seismic shift in the public memory or remain latent within the folds of those families’ private histories?
The reason why I pose these questions is not necessarily to find answers to them, but instead to show that these images are in a suspended state of always already, constantly shifting between the binaries of contemporary amnesia and remembrance, document and monument, past and present. You cannot preserve a reality or a moment in time by the assumption that a photograph is a memory (memories belong to the past), because it is not: it is a violation to your visual and cognitive space, it forces you to see what is there and what isn’t.
Taking a closer look at that piece of amber, you realize that it has always been empty. A clear piece of amber, where there was no beetle trapped inside of it, it managed to escape that drop of resin. All you end up with is a totem of that creature’s existence yet its presence, is missing.
Ramee Deeb is a filmmaker, photographer, and an art enthusiast. MA in Media Studies from the American University of Beirut.
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1. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
2. Enwezor, Okwui. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Photography. Göttingen: Steidl, 2008.
3. Mitchell, W. J. T. What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
4. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
5. Moorhead, Joanna. “Portraits of Syrian Refugee Families — and an Empty Place for the Missing.” The Guardian. January 30, 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/30/portraits-of-syrian-refugee-families-and-an-empty-place-for-the-missing.