Haunting, Opacity, and the Contra-Forensic Image
From the Series: Review Forum on Writing with Light Magazine's Issue No. 1: Photography & Forensics
From the Series: Review Forum on Writing with Light Magazine's Issue No. 1: Photography & Forensics
The seven bodies were pulled from the well and laid out on display. Photographs were taken. An autopsy report was prepared. Bloodstained clothing riddled with bullet holes and other recovered materials were carefully preserved. Later, the ceremonious funeral and reburial would be broadcast on state television. A memorial and a museum, complete with artifacts, photographs, and dioramas, were built at the site, which became a destination for countless school trips. Blurry reproductions of the exhumation and reburial photos were included in history textbooks. Later, a film was made in the style of a documentary; children were bused to theaters all over the country to see it. Every year, it would play on state television on the anniversary of the murders of the generals.
What are the possibilities for counter-forensic images in a context in which the evidentiary, visual, and rhetorical forms of forensics—including imagery of exhumations and reburials— have been so profoundly imbricated in state practices of terror and the consolidation of authoritarian rule? What alternative visual strategies might be pursued when the bones of the victims of state violence remain as yet unearthed?
As I pored over the first issue of Writing with Light, numerous images from Indonesia—also a site of state-sponsored mass killings, enforced forgetting, and resilience—came to mind. Since the end of the New Order regime in 1998, survivors, family members of the dead, and activists have labored—often in the face of hostility from government officials, police, and local community members—to locate mass graves from the killings that claimed between five hundred thousand and a million lives in 1965-1966. As of 2019, the Foundation for Research into the Victims of the 1965-6 Killings (YPKP 1965-6), an organization founded by former political prisoners in 1999, had identified 346 mass graves scattered across the Indonesian archipelago. But, lacking funding and state support, and in the context of ongoing stigma and fear, only a handful of these graves have been exhumed. In one notorious case, an exhumation was successfully conducted, but an attempted reburial failed when local community groups violently refused the interment of the remains of “communists” in their town.
On YPKP 1965-6’s website, one can find photographs documenting the search for mass graves. In some, someone—often a local witness to the killings—points to a nondescript field or a cluster of dense bushes. Some images on the site resemble Alejandro M. Flores Aguilar’s moving photographs of family members and survivors enacting commemorative rituals in “The Forest Welcomed Our Dead.” But in the Indonesian photographs, the living gather around unopened patches of earth or by rivers, caves, and ravines where bodies were thrown. They scatter petals and offer prayers for the dead, but the land has not divulged its secrets. The bones of the people whose lives they mourn in these rituals of remembrance remain unexcavated, unidentified, unclaimed, and unphotographed.
The images on YPKP 1965-6’s website fail to “bring into view the mechanics of political violence” (Douglas 2022, 4). Neither do these scenes lend themselves to the photo essay form, for the “process of search and recovery” remains foreclosed, truncated, and unfinished (ibid). The dead, and those around them, are poised in a liminal state between oblivion and recognition, between state violence and familial recuperation, between not-knowing and knowing. If a counter-forensic gaze enacts a “performative inversion,” or “undoing,” of bodily absence (Douglas 2022, 5), these images inevitably fall short of that aim.
Given the ongoing absence of the bodily remains of victims of the 1965-1966 killings and of a viable “forum” in which to present them, those working to resist state-imposed forms of invisibility, impunity, and forgetting have had to develop alternative strategies to the counter-forensic. Under current conditions, some Indonesian artist-activists embrace aesthetic gestures we might call “contra-forensic.” Aguilar argues that to challenge “state practices of producing fields of visibility-invisibility regarding its own use of violence,” it is necessary to “comprehensively dispute the field of vision produced and sustained by dominant politics” (Aguilar 2022, 15). To do so we must “see beyond [photography’s] literal, indexical function” (Aguilar 2022, 22) that has remained so vital to human rights activism. If counter-forensics mobilizes human remains as evidence of state violence while also performatively reclaiming the dead in rituals of recovery and memorialization, contra-forensics signals the impossibility of such an avenue for redress. Contra-forensic works may even take a stance of critical or ironic distance from the affective and evidentiary promise of indexicality. Let me offer one example.
The frame of the photograph is filled with lush green vegetation. The image offers the viewer no vantage point or perspective, little sense of depth, no focal point, no object of interest, no horizon. As they appear online, the images are low resolution, pixelated. Nothing grabs the eye, there is nothing to read, no secret revealed or even hinted at. The accompanying text reads, “…Taking a few steps into this vegetation, my camera suddenly died. My body was weak, and my view darkened and I saw stars. But I didn’t pay much attention. I stopped for a moment, I changed the battery on my camera, and then I photographed more. Not long after, my camera once again suddenly died.”
In another image, a patch of bare, muddy earth is visible surrounded by long grasses, weeds, and a few wildflowers in a meadow. The accompanying text reads: “Among the mass graves there was one grave on which no grass grew. According to the story, there was a communist party member who had spiritual power and had to be buried alive there because they were unable to kill him by shooting or stabbing him.”
These two photographs of mass grave sites by Indonesian photographer Agan Harahap are part of a series he posted on the Instagram page Living1965/1965setiaphari, an experimental social media-based project devoted to building a collective memory of the events of 1965-1966. These images may point to the presence of the dead. They may point to the traces of state violence. They also might just show an unremarkable tangle of leaves and grasses. The non-appearance of the remains, the lack of figures on the scene looking and pointing who might allow us to identify as re-witnesses, the stasis both within and across the images, and their flat, low-res, anti-aesthetic quality—all of these militate against the evidentiary and affective force achieved in the counter-forensic photo essays that appear in the inaugural issue of Writing with Light.
For Allan Sekula, as interpreted by Thomas Keenan, the photograph as indexical trace determines nothing; rather, it sets the stage for a political battle over what that trace will say (Keenan 2014). But these contra-forensic images visualize the absence of both the trace and the “presentational conditions” that would allow such a battle to take place (Sekula, cited in Keenan 2014, 66). Instead, we are faced with stubbornly unyielding images and the uncanny presences conjured in ghost stories. Instead of rituals to provide closure for the dead and the living, we have the unresolved residues of “bad deaths,” spirits stuck in their transit from the world of the living to the world of the dead. As the historian Annie Polhman has written, “These places are unmarked, and their dead cannot be mentioned…Yet the dead are not quiet: each of these mass graves is an open secret to nearby locals, and most of these places are haunted” (Pohlman 2020, 61). Because Indonesians cannot yet “climb into the grave with the dead,” they cannot use victims’ bones “to transform their silence and disappearance into names, stories, and claims” (Keenan 2014, 73). The camera suddenly dies. We are left with the unseen, a scene of haunting.
 YPKP 65, “54 Tahun Genosida 1965: Mana Tanggung Jawab Negara?” Press Release, October 3, 2019. Accessed 11/19/2022. https://ypkp1965.org/blog/2019/10/03/3183/
 On this incident see Lexy Rambadeta’s documentary, Mass Grave (2001); and Katherine McGregor. 2012. “Mass Graves and Memory.” In The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia 1965-8, edited by Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor, 234–262. Singapore: Singapore University Press, University of Hawaii Press, and KITLV.
 Another example of contra-forensic work would be Tintin Wulia’s experimental film One Thousand and One Martian Nights (2017), which offers an uneasy coupling of the indexical realist conventions of documentary with the obvious artifice of science fiction. For Indonesian art that does deploy counter-forensic strategies (significantly, however, not in relation to the killings of 1965), see Karen Strassler. 2018. “Zones of Refuge: Fugitive Memories of Violence in the Work of FX Harsono,” History of the Present 8, no. 2, 177–208.
 On Living1965/1965setiaphari see my “Fragments of Memory: On Revisiting Fieldnotes and Sensing Traumatic Pasts.” Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 38 (1), pp. 86–112.
Douglas, Lee. 2022. Introduction to “Photographing Forensics: The Poetics and Politics of Spanish Exhumations,” by Clemente Bernad and Álvaro Minguito. Writing with Light 1: 24–39.
Flores Aguilar, Alejandro M. 2022. “Photography in the Space of Death,” by Lee Douglas and Craig Campbell. Writing with Light 1: 12–23.
Keenan, Thomas. 2014. “Counter-Forensics and Photography.” Grey Room 55: 58–77.
Pohlman, Annie. 2020. “No Place to Remember: Haunting and the Search for Mass Graves in Indonesia.” In Places of Traumatic Memory: a Global Context, edited by Amy L. Hubbell, Natsuko Akagawa, Sol Rojas-Lizana, and Annie Pohlman, 61–82. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.