“These things never happen in histr’y an’ even if they did, histr’y ain’t got the eyes to see everything.”—In the Castle of my Skin, George Lamming (1953)
A deceptively banal photograph extends across the front and back cover of Writing With Light’s inaugural issue that brings together photo essays focused on questions of photography and forensics in three specific contexts—Guatemala, Argentina, and Spain. While each of these contexts has its own specificity, they were similarly afflicted by a mode of state violence that took the form of the forcible disappearance of persons, the denial of the crimes committed, and at times the erasure of the very existence of the victims themselves. The panoramic photograph on the WWL cover shows a large field with trees and sloping hills in the background. Small gatherings of people appear in the extreme right half of the photograph, the magazine’s front cover; at some distance in front of them deep track marks left by a heavy vehicle can be seen. On the left side of the cover a group of five men and women face each other in a close circle. Two women appear engaged in conversation to their right. Another trio of women looks across the field as the one in the middle holds up what could be a map or document with coordinates. A larger more dispersed group stands gazing off into different directions. Without further explanation, the overall effect is one of quietude due to the muted grays of the black and white photograph in print format and the subdued drama of the picture. This effect is enhanced if one opens the magazine to reveal the larger landscape, bereft of further human presence, that continues onto the back cover. Both the stillness of the photograph and the reduced scale of the women and men in the full panorama belie the gravity of the situation the image portrays or, indeed, its outcome: “Ameyuga, Burgos, 2005. victims’ kin and residents during the localization of a mass grave located near kilometer number 306 on the old N-1 Highway. The mass grave was never found.” Photograph by Clemente Bernad.
Writing With Light’s magnificent inaugural issue is a moving tribute to the central role of photography and photographing in the persuasive art of forensics. With an eye not only to photography and ethnography but to the epistemic potential of design and curation, it gathers and arranges photographs, testimonials, captions, juxtapositions of black/white and color images, superimpositions of smaller onto larger photographs, and insistent iterations of the same image. Most poignantly, one of Eduardo Raúl Germano, a young man forcibly disappeared, tortured, and brutally killed in 1976 by Argentina’s Videla regime, holding up two fingers in a V for victory sign that recurs no less than three times in different formats: as an almost full page color image of Germano from 1975 with friends and comrades, a photograph of a sign bearing the same image cropped to reveal only Germano’s face and his Victory sign in black and white that was carried by his family in “Memory, Truth, and Justice” demonstrations, and the reproduction of a page from the daily El Diario showing the same image, cropped even more, in a 2014 article announcing the identification of Germano’s remains. Without doubt, the authenticating, evidentiary power of photography in such circumstances can assume immense value. In the best of cases, a photograph or series of photographs provides indexical indisputability by documenting that in THIS place THAT particular state violence took place and by bringing into view for the victims’ kin but also for a host of others—forensic specialists, anthropologists, human rights activists, judicial and state functionaries and, not the least, the inhabitants of the place—the indelible contours of a crime scene.
Yet, among the many things that spoke to me in this issue was the effort on the part of the WWL collective to elaborate and reflect on the force of photography vis-à-vis justice and politics beyond its evidentiary capacities. For me at least, but I imagine for other viewer-readers as well, much of this reflection took place by thinking with and through the range of photographs collected in the photo essays of this first issue of the magazine. Take, for instance, the Victory series of Eduardo Germano. The image’s iteration across different formats associated with distinct modes of address and publicity, with disparate contexts and circuits of witnessing, and unfolding through time from 1975 until the identification of Germano’s remains in 2014, moves us beyond authentication and the evidentiary into new terrain. Rather than indexicality, there is an insistence here on the political potential and affective intensity of the photograph, on the material presence and testimony it may bear, and on the revelatory capacity of the “work on appearance” or the bringing-into-vision, again and again, of this young forcibly disappeared man signing Victory in the thickness of his life (Spyer 2021). Not just the photograph but also the photo-essay in which it appears is a tenacious, affectively charged Contradesaparacido. Against/counter disappearance/the disappeared is the title given to the photo-essay that was aggregated and precariously assembled by Gustavo Germano and Vanina de Monte from the image shards of Germano’s life—photographs from his early childhood and youth, stray documents and anonymous notes connected to his disappearance, pile-ups of image on image visualizing the crime scenes of his disappearance, torture, and murder, enlarged close-ups of his bones—in which his Victory photograph appears no less than three times. A claim to memory and a stake against disappearance, as well as a capacious understanding of what the connection between photography and forensics might be, this photo-essay is merely one of six provocative contributions, each imagining and exploring different conjunctions of photography, ethnography, and design in this first WWL magazine issue.
I want to conclude by reflecting, briefly, on a claim that animates much of the issue—namely, that “these photo essays do not simply evidence absence. Instead, they undo it.” What potentiality, we might ask, does this undoing of absence yield? What kind of presence does a photo-essay against disappearance, bring into vision and make available? In the case of Germano, but also of others whose lives are recalled and commemorated in WWL’s photo-essays and reflections, the photo-essay renders his life visualizable and narratable in the face of its denial and erasure. Considered more closely, this possibility appears to hinge on a crucial turning point or switch between the absence ensuing from a brutal disappearance and its subsequent undoing. I call this turning point “revelatory,” a term that, I believe, not incidentally, crops up more than once in the magazine, including as “Revelations,” the title of the issue’s concluding text. In considering what kind of coming-into-vision, appearance, and presence the undoing of absence against disappearance inaugurates and, also, what might account for its particular efficacy and power, I was reminded of the writing of Peter Brown, the historian of late antiquity. In his marvelous little book, The Cult of the Saints, Brown writes compellingly of praesentia or the physical presence of the holy in the form of saints’ relics—bits of bone, fragments of torn cloth, or a storied object with which the saint was held to have been in contact—things, in other words, that condensed the presence of an invisible person. In early Christianity, the power of such praesentia lay in the fullness of the person they were felt to contain along with the acute particularity of the place where they were kept, a charged physical identification with THIS and not any other place. But equally important in terms of the relics’ potency and effects was the vast geographical and temporal distance that pilgrims traversed and their intense longing, built up over such distance, to see, touch, and be in the presence of the saint. And this longing only further grew upon their arrival at the site of the relic given that the encounter with praesentia commonly occurred in a significantly mediated, affectively productive fashion.
Notwithstanding the enormous difference in context between late Antiquity and the brutal regimes of Guatemala, Argentina, and Spain, I wonder if for the kin of the disappeared—and, to a lesser degree, other concerned persons and collectivities—the photographs of exhumations, bones, the public exposure of the state’s crime scenes, and the traces of disappeared loved ones do not hail similarly from an immense distance, spanning years of waiting, searching, hoping, grieving, memory work and forensic work, and from laboring, on and on, against disappearance. It is this immense distance and the revelatory power of distance traversed against and in the face of disappearance that, at least in part, makes photography and photographing such an integral aspect of forensics’ persuasive force. Seen in this light, photography, a writing with light that can bring into vision that which eyes could or would not see, illustrates how this particular “work on appearance” powerfully abets absence’s undoing (Spyer 2021).
Brown, Peter. 1980. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lamming, George. 1953. In the Castle of my Skin. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
Spyer, Patricia. 2021. Orphaned Landscapes: Violence, Visuality, and Appearance in Indonesia. New York: Fordham University Press.