From the Series: Images
There comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photographs on the table.
The image is a photograph—a middle-school graduation portrait of a girl, chin down, head tilted, wide smile, hair freshly straightened, crimson cap and gown. A gold tassel more yellow than the gilded frame that holds the photograph brushes her cheek. The photograph sits atop a large television, surrounded by tea candles, potpourri, plastic flowers on either side. The portrait is a nothing that has become a something in the wake of an event. The portrait cannot melt back into the chorus of cousins and other relatives lining the walls and shelves of Beverly’s living room, to rejoin them, insignificant and unbroken. The girl’s mother, Beverly’s cousin, placed the photograph on the television after the girl had run away or was taken.
That was what I was told, and all I would be told. There was just enough conveyed over the telephone to get me in my car and to the house, presumably to help in whatever way I could. Little splinters of the scene had been pulled off and pressed together to make an image of the event, not unlike Stephanie Spray’s description of editing to her Nepalese interlocutor, but here toward a different end and without much of a lesson.
The portrait was of a child at a moment that marked a future, a child’s accomplishment surrounded with pride. When her mother placed the image on the television, it was dropped like an anchor in time, moored to a point before the disappearance of this girl. Upon her eventual return, this was an image that could no longer be tolerated because it trespassed on her real presence in the living room after nearly two weeks of absence. Now she sat cross-legged on the couch, hair teased out clumsily to one side, body odor hanging in the air, sucking her thumb, her face void. She was there and far off.
“There’s nothing to do,” Beverly tells me. Her words feel as defeated as mine had several days before, when I pleaded with her to call the police, to file a missing persons report, to do something, anything. She barked: “Tell them what? Tell them what? What will you tell them?” That was then. This, after Beverly’s son and I lifted his mother’s cousin out of the second-floor bathtub, fully clothed and sopping wet, begging for her daughter’s return. I had entered the scene, joined it, and found my limit. I trespassed and the portrait would soon trespass too. It remained on the television until the girl returned, and when she did, her mother shattered the frame and threw it in the garbage. The photograph remained under shards of glass in a small wastebasket in the living room.
I met Beverly and her family in 2002. My concerns, at the beginning, now appear crude and narrow; I aimed to better understand illness and its management between members of a household in a situation of profound insecurity. Beverly and I plodded the same ground again and again, slowly pushing its borders in conversation after conversation at her row house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Baltimore. It was not always pleasant, but this was the first time I had been told to leave. I had asked, insisted on, too much.
Beverly and I worked through images. We formed and deformed a mosaic of images (of illness and care, and other things as well), moments and words that imprinted themselves as images, tiny pieces that fit together unevenly. The portrait, her disappearance, her return, the recriminations by the family, and my growing suspicion about the circumstances surrounding her disappearance were together a new, unmanageable image. This new image was not uncertain but incurable, to borrow a word from Tarek Elhaik (2016): heavy and opaque, an image filled with other images.
Some images assert themselves, while others are pulled through a scene. When Marcel Proust considered the relationship of memory to the image, he treated photography as a disagreeable container, devoted to the false real of a moment from the past. Susan Sontag (2001, 164) writes that when Proust discussed photographs, he only did so “disparagingly,” regarding them as having “a shallow, too exclusively visual, merely voluntary relation to the past.” Strictly speaking, she’s right, but she also misses the point. I prefer the critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s (1997, 15) view that Proust’s relation to photography “is the product of complete alienation.” Photography can be estranging, and it often estranges us from its visual form. For Proust, the question is simultaneously one of inventory (the reserve of images from which to draw) and distance (the movement toward or away from the image, to be caught by it or released from it). In the living room I describe above, there is clearly a conversion of the image, a departure from its status as exclusively visual. Yet this conversion does not abandon the visual content of the image in favor of its thingness; there are elements of the image that place it at the fulcrum of return, between the repossession of the child and her obliteration.
As Brassaï (2001, 23) writes: “Photographs, once they cease to be a reproduction of reality and show us things that no longer exist, acquire a certain dignity.” I am not convinced that the image of the girl ever fully ceased to be a reproduction of reality. More likely, it remained stuck between a fiction of innocence and something wholly unbearable. Here, I see a correspondence with Anand Pandian’s contribution to this Correspondences session: the photograph of the girl is an image that “is neither here nor there.” It is in the liminal there-here, “a space of unsettling yet creative indeterminacy.” There-here is how I witnessed a graduation portrait discarded but not yet emptied from a living-room wastebasket: a creative indeterminacy and the product of a necessary estrangement. This image was selected from its surroundings. A young person (or at least a version of her) was pulled through the photograph, and then, when it was time to let her return to the table, the garbage was chosen instead.
Richard Baxstrom and I (Baxstrom and Meyers, forthcoming) have attempted to think through images together, including the ways that anthropologists and filmmakers go about securing evidence in images and how images are made to give evidence to things, often things known, felt, but unseen. Here, though, I present a different problem of evidence through my uselessness, my suspicions, the terms of my eventual trespass. I tried and failed to find a word that was not so charged as trespass. Departure came to mind. The girl departed and then returned, and the portrait was no longer welcomed. She, her presence, forced a choice about who would remain and who would not.
Baxstrom, Richard, and Todd Meyers. Forthcoming. Violence’s Fabled Experiment. Berlin: August Verlag.
Brassaï. 2001. Proust in the Power of Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 1997.
Elhaik, Tarek. 2016. The Incurable-Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts.Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Kracauer, Siegfried. 1997. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Originally published in 1960.
Sontag, Susan. 2001. “The Image World.” In On Photography, 153–80. New York: Picador. Originally published in 1977.