Ecce Homo: Behold Us
Evelyn Bencicova, a Slovakian photographer, wanted to make a project “about humanity and the behavior of mankind in this world.” Her provocatively named Ecce Homo betrays a grim outlook.
The series features white bodies in compositions as precise as those of Caravaggio. Nude forms are twisted and posed sometimes as confused as The Battle of Cascina, others as orderly as The School of Athens. But whether you call them sublime or merely beautiful, Bencicova’s photographs are strikingly eerie in their too-real dystopian feel.
Growing up on the other side of the old Iron Curtain has obviously had its impact in Bencicova, but to Western viewers the point is still pertinent. “Ecce homo” (“behold the man”) is, after all, what Pontius Pilate said as he presented Jesus to the Jewish crowd that refused to save him.
Pilate has become, in Christian literature, the poster politician of cowardice, betraying his own conscience to obey the irrationality of his constituents. This classic dilemma makes him an archetypal politician, compromising his values for whatever will ensure his political future.
In that way, Ecce Homo is perfectly relevant to western life. Because every body in these photographs is Pilate — the bystander, the crowd that chooses what is comfortable over what is conscientious, or as Dumbledore would say, what is easy over what is right.
The fact that every body in the series is white is no intentional statement by Bencicova, since Slovakia is not exactly racially diverse; it would have been near impossible to find a fuller range of skin tones. Yet to the far western eye, their uniform whiteness is perhaps more poignant in light of a long history of whites turning their backs on the abuses of people of color.
Starkly washed in the silk pallor of artificial lighting, the bodies — their faces always turned away, heads often ducked so far they look decapitated — contort in the neutral color palettes of hospitals, offices, bathrooms, old ruins, and other public spaces devoid of personality.
“The choice of the location was and always is very important for me,” says Bencicova. “I’m trying to look for public, impersonal spaces where people usually don’t act like individuals anymore and they are also not seen that way.”
The bodies are crowded uncomfortably together — it’s hard to imagine any group of people not in a sexual relationship standing that close to one another, even if they were clothed. The discomforting abutment of bodies paradoxically implies a lack of humanity, bringing to mind, if anything, images of mass graves.
But all this time I’ve been referring to them as bodies when really they are living beings. Humans, when de-facialized and stripped of the pretenses of clothing — which Bencicova calls methods of “classification” — become like animals, like objects. Human dignity is made obvious by its absence. Factory farms are not far from mind.
But these are simply public spaces.
What could be more germane in modern democracy? Each of us is ultimately responsible for the incompetent and corrupt politicians we elect (or allow to be elected) into office. Every one of us is also responsible for the money we hand over to lobbyists and corporations who use it to bully and corrupt those politicians. Our vote — both the democratic and the dollar — has never been so derogated. This lack of a sense of individual responsibility makes us just as inhuman as a body so crowded, so conformed.