It Begins and Ends with an Image

Reflections on Life/Death across Autobiography and Visual Culture

in Anthropological Journal of European Cultures
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Abstract

A three-act session of storytelling, this visual essay explores the connection between photographs (and images at large) and death. A piece of authobiography, it follows the intimate journey of the author accompanying his father's departure first and his own grief later. The article positions photographs as objects that are more than mere representations. They are living things that accompany us during our lives. And photography, the author suggests by looking at photographs taken by himself, is a way for opening up time and acknowledging the present. Photographs are capable of bridging the gap between life and death.

‘When I open my wallet; to show my papers; pay money;

or check the time of a train I look at your face … 

and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’.

John Berger (2011 [1984]: 1)

We are born to an image, often a photograph. And we die to one as well. We fill our homes, our books and our wallets with them. We even used to wear them around our neck in precious pendants. Today, we carry them in our smartphones. They are always in contact with our bodies. We live our lives in the presence and company of images. But what role do they play in our lives?

Pick up a photograph of yourself as a baby; try to find the oldest one. Just look at it for a few minutes. Give it a superficial look first. Caress its surface; do not look for meaning. Ask yourself: who is the person portrayed? Look deeper: how much of that creature is you? And, simultaneously, how much is not-yet-you, a you in potency, in becoming? You are there but not quite. Then look at a picture from an ancestor. And do the same. Who is the person? And can you see yourself in that image? After all, this is where you come from. Like fire in a matchbox, something is still missing. So move closer, pick up a photograph of a deceased person you really loved – one of your parents, a grandparent. Now look at it. Ask yourself again the same questions. Then put it next to a burning candle; let the flame slowly skim at your photograph. Let it burn. Can you do that? What feelings does this gesture evoke? Can you really burn it? I do this exercise often with my students and have never seen anyone be able to do it.

A long time ago, Bruno Latour (1993) observed that ‘we have never been modern’. According to him, Western societies have never truly become rational, they have not overcome their own sense of magic. Photographs are indeed a window into this. They are our connection to magic. As in the example above, with the photograph and the fire, photographs are obviously more than representations. They function as emanations of the thing represented. They are living things, presences capable of exercising their agency upon us.

This article explores the many things that a photographic image can be, and their meaning in our lives. Focussing specifically on the connection between photography and death, it builds on my own journey of grief and bereavement that followed the sudden death of my father. Despite being already in his early 80s, my father was a very healthy man. He passed away unexpectedly in the summer of 2015, causing an inevitable ‘detour’ (Stoller 1989) in my life. An autobiographic piece, this article builds simultaneously on my practice as an ethnographer/anthropologist and as an image-maker/artist. An auto-ethnography of mourning, this article is perhaps an exercise in what John Dewey (in Stoller 1989: 152) called ‘negative capability’. It is a form of ‘immediate, sensuous, and poetic’ (1989: 152) reasoning, whose primary nature is responsive, spontaneous and instinctive.

This text is a readaptation of various talks, texts and notes that I have written in the past years on the subject. Responding to the exigencies of my personal life rather than of my career, it is the result of a slow, reflective, calm process. I have progressively explored the notes that I wrote in my diaries, integrating them with the photos and sounds that I collected during the time of my father's illness and after his death. I then started writing my thoughts down on paper, transferring them into my computer, slowly, patiently, adding one tile after the other, as if I was composing a jig-saw puzzle. For every passage, I pondered on every word I used as if it was a matter of life and death. This is perhaps really the exercise of a fool ignited, to paraphrase William Blake (1994 [1794]: 31), by the hope that if he persists in his folly he may eventually become wise.

Storytelling is the glue connecting the elements that make up this article. This is a storytelling act divided into three parts, each part being based on a specific event. And storytelling is for me not a tool for communicating already preconceived knowledge. Rather it is a producer of knowledge. I approach storytelling as a participatory, open-ended process, an opera aperta (Eco 1989). We have learnt from Walter Benjamin (1999) that storytelling is a contextual art. It renews itself by adapting to the terrain in which it is enacted. Differently from a novel, storytelling does not fixate meaning. It looks for meaning. And it produces meaning as it journeys through time and space. This process is at the core of this text. It constitutes yet another attempt for me at exploring the topic, of playing the role of the ‘death's secretary’ (Brogan 2017). Underlying this article is the idea that photographs, as more than mere documents portraying life and death, can be seen as passages between these two realms, tools for connecting the living with the dead, for closing, to use Sigmund Freud's words, a ‘circuitous path to death’ (Taussig 2001: 309). Images, whether analogue or digital, mechanically or manually produced, mental or physical, are tools through which we can learn to make sense of our lives. Just like stories, they actively mediate our experiences of living and dying.

The First Act: The Gaze of the Dead #1

Long before passing away, my father had already chosen the photograph meant to decorate his grave. My sister and I discovered this on the day that the cleaning lady who used to help dad came to visit us for the ritual condolences. We discovered that dad had given her clear instructions about the clothes he wanted to wear for the funeral and the picture for the grave. She took us to a drawer, where we found not only a copy of the photograph but also a ready-made ceramic print, the kind one used for cemeteries, especially in hot sunny climates. That was my father's way of preparing for his death – aesthetics: selecting clothes and a photograph.

Apparently, he did this more than fifteen years earlier, right after our mother had passed away. So dad had spared us the painful duty of selecting the image that would better be able to give a good and truthful image of himself not only to us but also to the other family members, to his friends, and to the local community as a whole.

True to his love for my mother and for her country, the photograph portrays him in front of a Swedish lake. It had been taken by mom during a trip in the late 1980s, and it portrays a smiling dad elegantly dressed and standing almost in full body. Given the size of the ceramic print, you could say that his face is more or less the size of a stamp. So positioned at two metres height at the cemetery this image does not reveal my father's expression (Figure 1). During the visits to the family grave in the first months after his death, many of his friends and many of our relatives complained about this to me: ‘We can't even see his face, Paolo! Couldn't you pick a better photograph?’ And indeed, they were right. Yet, this invisibility is also the most precious mirror into my father's soul. A reserved and elegant gentleman, my father was also known for his disappearing acts. During parties, he would just progressively make himself less and less audible and less and less visible. And then he was suddenly gone. He had reenacted this trick for the last time. So if a cemetery photograph has to be truthful to the character of the deceased, then this one surely does the trick.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Courtesy of P. Favero.

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 1; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310106

Some of the men addressing this complaint to me were his partners in a peculiar ritual that I used to love to attend when I was a young man. On the Day of the Dead (or sometimes of the Saints), my father used to make a walk in the cemetery along with this male gang. This was an informal ritual that offered a unique insight into the life of the community. My father and his friends would in fact take a specific route, stopping at the tombs of common friends or family members or of some locally known people. This tribute to the dead regularly turned into a kind of at times almost carnivalesque storytelling act where gossips, stories of scandals and misdeeds would be incorporated amidst official facts and sometimes also acts of praise. I loved this ritual, the living entraining the dead and the dead staring back at us.

Staring back. This is the beautiful inversion of logic that photographs in most Catholic cemeteries provide us with (Figure 2). It is inevitable when entering a cemetery to notice the extent to which every single photograph is staring at the passers-by. We tend to believe that we are in control of images, that we are the ones gazing at them, but what if that is not the case? The dead may have a thing or two to teach us about this.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Courtesy of P. Favero.

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 1; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310106

It is inevitable to notice the presence of a code, of an agreement amongst communities, and that code puts the dead at the centre, not the other way around. Different societies do this in different ways, but in the cemetery where my father is buried, along with most Catholic cemeteries, the agreement is to allow the dead to stare at you. The deviations from this rule are few, and when they appear they are extremely powerful. My attention was drawn to this aspect by a niece of mine when she was still a child.

The Second Act: When the Dead Cannot Stare Back

It was a sunny chilly November day a few months after my father's death. I attended the mass that the priest of a small cemetery located near my father's town gives every year on All Saints’ Day. Hosting the tomb of my Italian ancestors, this cemetery is an important symbolic site for my family. This year, the mass was particularly felt, given the recent death of my father and of his first cousin. I found myself sharing the space of our family chapel with two of my cousins and their kids, all of us seeking some protection from the early winter wind. As the mass ended, the daughter of one of my cousins, a 12-year-old that I shall call ‘Matilde’, grabbed my hand, pulling me away: ‘I have to show you a really scary picture Paolo, please come!’

She took me to the tomb of a young boy by the name of Savio, who had died in 1926 at the age of 3 months (Figure 3). ‘Look at this boy – Matilde said – he gives me the creeps’. At first, I found Matilde's comment banal, yet as we stood in front of the stone interrogating ourselves about who that boy was, why he died, etc., she said something that drew my attention: ‘He looks at me in a strange way’. Matilde had intuitively noticed something fundamental about this photograph. This was the only picture in this cemetery that portrayed a dead human being, not a living one. While cemetery portraits conventionally display pictures of human beings at the peak of their power and beauty proudly staring at the passer-by, photos such as this one, of premature deaths, represented creatures who were unable to exchange gazes. Indeed, this absence of life can be noticed by the fact that the gaze was not active, that the posture was that of a stiff body often held up in a half-erect position in front of the camera; you can tell that at some point the background was retouched probably in order to remove elements revealing the construction of the image.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Courtesy of P. Favero.

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 1; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310106

Matilde had indeed interpreted these differences in her own way. Differently from all other cemetery portraits, this one photo, of the boy, did look at her in a creepy way. Instead of addressing the photo as a depiction of someone who had earlier been alive, a document of a past moment, Matilde nourished the idea of reciprocal gazing, of an act of give and take as it happened with most other photographs. Matilde addressed it as a living thing, something that should have been capable of looking at her, wanting to exchange the gaze, yet failing to do so. Hence the ambiguous look, and hence her discomfort in front of it.

So images actually do more than just represent and narrate, they also perform and exercise their will upon us. They exercise their own agency upon us. Images of the dead teach us a precious lesson on the performativity of images at large. The inversion of the subject and object of the gaze proposed, or rather experienced, by Matilde is far from uncommon, especially if we dare look sideways in space and time. This is what we find in the context of Hindu devotional practices. As implied by the notion of darsan (see Babb 1981; Eck 1998; and Pinney 2001) the act of looking is also an act of being looked at, an on-going tactile interpenetration leading to a full immersion of the viewer in the image. As Diana Eck expresses it, it is ‘because the image is a form of the supreme lord, it is precisely the image that facilitates and enhances the close relationship of the worshipper and God’ (1998: 46). Literally replacing the divinity, the image transcends itself, foregrounding instead the act of seeing as the core of the spiritual activity.

The centrality (and reciprocality) of the act of looking can be found in a number of South Asian practices, such as that of marking the eyes of small children with kajal (hence protecting them from ‘evil’ eyes) or the South Indian Keralite Festival of Vishu (see Eck 1998). Literally meaning ‘the first thing seen on the day after waking up’, this festival marks the beginning of the new year. On the morning of the festival, a family elder will wake children up and take them to the shrine, which has been adorned with fruits, nuts, lamps and images of divinities. Telling the children not to open their eyes, the elder will make sure that the children kneel in front of the shrine. Suddenly, the elder will tell the children to open their eyes and contemplate God. To my great surprise, the first time I took part in this ritual, I saw, upon opening my eyes, my face reflected in a mirror. Celebrating the fusion of viewer and viewed, of the human and the godly, the divine and the mundane, Vishu materialises in a significant way an indigenous understanding of viewing as a spiritual act.

This approach to images is visible in the tactile exchange between a little girl and the photograph of her deceased father made by photographer Liza Van der stock among waste pickers in Bombay (Figure 4). And indeed, we find the same principle expressed also in the West. Byzantine religious icons were meant to generate dialogues between the viewer and the viewed, substituting, with the help of metal and golden surfaces, the landscape surrounding the object portrayed with that of the lived world of the worshipper. And indeed, such principles can also be found in popular Catholic imagery as well as in a number of contemporary immersive digital image-making practices, such as 360-degree cameras, photogrammetry procedures, and light filter cameras that also seem to foreground a sense of tactility, mutuality, and reciprocality. It is hence true that images are more than representations. They are presences that accompany us during our lives.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Courtesy of Liza Van der Stock.

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 1; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310106

Theologian, mathematician and art historian Pavel Florensky explored the notion of reciprocality (albeit not using this word) in his work on the icon. In his book Iconostasis probably written around year 1920, Florensky suggests that icons are windows allowing the light (read God) to reach the viewer. Having the duty of lifting ‘the conscience to the spiritual world’ (Florensky 1977: 61), such objects of art are two things at once. In the absence of light, they are nothing but a piece of wood and glass, but in the presence of light they are doors to ‘revelation’: ‘With the blooming of the prayers of the greatest ascetics it is not strange to notice how icons become not only a window through which the visages depicted on them appear, but also a door through which these enter the sensible world’ (Florensky 1977: 69). A ‘sustained dream’ (Florensky 1977: 34), art offers, in Florensky's view, access to what he defines as a ‘world upside-down’ (1977: 31). It lifts the soul up from earthly matters, bringing it in touch with another dimension (the ‘celestial’ one). Through artefacts such as icons, art offers a junction between the visible and the invisible world. Just like Hindu devotional images, icons are therefore not a mere representation of something out there, but an entry into that something. According to Florensky, the icon is a ‘propagating wave of the very same reality that has given it its shape’ (1977: 66). It lifts up the veil that protects humans from the light that would allow them to see this dimension. Unlike Western perspectival painting, which through its claims of fidelity to the reality depicted produced ‘falsity’ (1977: 64), the painting of icons is ‘the cliff of celestial figures … Icons materially sign these penetrating and immemorial gazes, these supersensual ideas, making inaccessible visions almost public’ (1977: 64).

In the context in which I am examining them in this article (i.e. photography and death), photographs seem to resonate with Florensky's understanding of the ontology of icons. They act in a similar way on their viewers. More than documents of a bygone time, they are tools for acting on the space (the iconostasis) that delimits the icon from the world (and hence the visible world from the invisible one). Like the icon, the photograph opens ‘up windows, and through these we see, or at least can see, through the glasses the living testimonies of God’ (Florensky 1977: 58). Following this logic, we could state, as Georges Didi-Huberman suggested, that probably ‘we ask too little of images … by immediately relegating them to the sphere of the document … we sever them from their phenomenology, from their specificity and from their very substance’ (2003: 33).

The Third Act: The Gaze of the Living

So let me use this passage as a cliffhanger into another experience I had. We are still in Italy. Right after having buried my father, I found myself alone in the house surrounded by things dead. I sought refuge in the warehouse. This is the place of the house (along with the garden) that I have loved the most ever since I was a child. So I just spent time there amidst tools with no function, shelves with no items for sale, old humid books that no one would ever read, chopped wood that would never get burnt. I picked up my camera and started photographing the warehouse. I took pictures of empty wooden shelves; of handles and shafts; and of old books lying around. I photographed the light coming in from the windows and the blossoming yet abandoned garden as it looked from behind bars and dirty glass. Suddenly, I put down the camera on one of the shelves and threw myself into this landscape (Figure 5).

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Selfie. Courtesy of P. Favero.

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 1; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310106

The use of a timer gave me the privilege of being at once both photographer and photographed, subject and object. Long exposure allowed me to feel the present moment, to stick to it, to live it. The experience was so different from that act of slicing or freezing time that characterises conventional narrations on the mission of photography. I am going here against what Susan Sontag, who says that there is no ‘breathlessness’, no ‘catering’, not even an act of ‘taking’: ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt’ (Sontag 1977: 15).

And I also go against the classical take on photography by Weegee, who said:

People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film … and when that split second of time is gone, it's dead and can never be brought back. (Weegee quoted in Mirzoeff 1999: 78)

In my self-portraits, there is no slicing, no freezing. Time opens up in an act of becoming and ‘presencing’. This experience confirmed my habit to prohibit the use of words such as ‘shooting’ and ‘framing’ and ‘capturing’ in my seminars and courses around photography. It foregrounded instead a sense of choreography, of openness and oneness with the world surrounding me. And as I slowly started inhabiting these images, entering their body with mine, I allowed the house where I was raised with its (now painful) memories to penetrate me. The memory of my deceased father and mother; of my grandfather who had built this warehouse the same year my father was born; of my own childhood.

Portrait after portrait, I became one with that particular moment. Portrait after portrait, I merged with the things that surrounded me. Providing me with a passage to the dead, these photos were sanctioning my own death, or at least my death as part of this particular story, this particular life. But they also sanctioned my entry into a new role, a new life. In that standstill, that moment of pure presence caught in-between the two clicks of my camera, past and future ceased to bear meaning for me. I died and I was born.

I want to go further in depth with the series of photographs I made in and of the warehouse in order to unpack another aspect that belongs to them. As I mentioned above, all these photos share the characteristic of being realised with long exposure times. Some of them have an exposure of twenty-five seconds, others less. I avoided using added lighting and adapted time to the conditions in which I was photographing (aperture priority), opening it up as a way to allow life to enter the frame. The moment I threw myself into the photographs, I was offered an opportunity to penetrate the instant I found myself in. I entered the present, sticking to that particular moment where past and future met, where my parents’ death dialogued with my own future death. In a way, I rehearsed my own death, or at least my death within this context, within a family and a story that was no longer there. Mimesis here foregrounded a different kind of fusion from the one I experienced facing my father's body. I used photography, quoting Taussig, to ‘yield into and become Other’ (1993: xiii) by becoming myself a photograph. ‘The wonder of mimesis’, Taussig says, ‘lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power’ (1993: xiii).

Such long-exposure portraits force us to rethink the conventional metaphors through which we address photography. These photos are not a matter of ‘reflex’ but rather of ‘ritual’. They are not about ‘stealing’, ‘slicing’, ‘freezing’, or ‘capturing’ time but about opening it up, about letting oneself into it. They are about letting the objects enter the time of the frame (or perhaps the rhythm of the frame, as Adelman [1998] once put it). I suggest that in such images time unfolds in ways that defamiliarise the world we live in, making us rethink its borders and textures. After these events, I kept photographing in this way for quite some time. I liked watching the shapes of objects change in front of the camera, witnessing the reactions of people and things exposed to the procedure. Benjamin (1972) pointed out that we prefer early photographic portraits to modern ones. Paraphrasing Emil Orlik, he wrote:

The synthesis of expression brought about by the length of time that a model has to stand still … is the reason why these pictures, apart from their simplicity, resemble well-drawn or painted portraits and have a more penetrating and lasting effect on the spectator than more recent photography. (Benjamin 1972: 8–17)

The procedure itself taught the models to live inside rather that outside the moment. Inserting myself into this photographic ritual stitched together two different mimetic practices. Allowing my body to merge with the body of the house mirrored the act of merging with my father's body through the sharing of symptoms and images in the hospital. In a way, the act of taking these photographs became a prolongation of the act of contemplating my father's body that I cultivated for hours (on end) until his coffin was sealed. Unaware of my own acting, I engaged in an activity mirroring the act of contemplation of the corpse amongst Buddhist monks. Alan Klima says that, just like photographs, ‘corpses are of the greatest worth for impressing upon the mind an eidetic reminder of mortality, almost as though one's mind were light-sensitive paper’ (2008: 63). Following the practices indicated by sacred Buddhist texts, Thai monks and nuns nourish the corpse ‘in its gory, abject and repulsive state’ as the ‘most desirable aesthetic’ (2008: 64). Taking the ‘abject object inward’, they bring (by means of what Klima calls ‘inner seeing’, translating from Thai) the physical image in touch with the mental one, hence preparing themselves for their own deaths. I must admit that I was totally unaware of this practice the moment my father passed away and was surprised, to say the least, to notice how I engaged simultaneously with the act of making images and that of sticking to a decaying body as a way to make sense of the present while preparing myself for my own death, hence blurring the distinction between life and death.

Photographs and photographing were in a way a prolongation of my contemplation of the corpse. This was a form of acknowledgement of the thin membrane that separates the body (first living and then dead) from the image, and life from death. Foregrounding Florensky's idea of the world as a continuum made accessible to us through the image, I engaged with the photograph as ‘not only a window through which the faces depicted appear, but also a gate from which these enter in the sensible world’ (1977: 69). Like stories and rumors, these images ‘anchor conscious and unconscious feelings’ (Chaudhary 2012: 60), bringing them to dialogue with each other and suspending their role as carriers of truth.

Conclusion

‘And begin; Being to Begin; Begin to End; For it is time; But it was always time’. With these words, the poet Kartika Nair (2015) describes the endless struggle for narrating life, the struggle between the point of view of the hunter and that of the lion, of man and woman, of the living and the dead. Nair's words portray a circle, where beginning and end meet and merge, where it makes probably little sense to speak of life and death as opposite entities. She probably brings us into that ‘being-towards-death’ as Martin Heidegger famously called it, into a space where the meaning of these words (‘life’ and ‘death’) needs to be rethought.

This is what photographs do too. More than portraying something out there, more than freezing a moment, they open up that moment and they open up time, providing us with a passage, a connection between life and death. In the experiences I described above, photographs as objects and photography as a practice come in as powerful mediators in the experience of death and mourning. They bring the dead back into our lives, allowing them to look at us, to touch us, to exchange gazes and stories with us. And they allow us to reckon with our destiny, that of living in the present while also preparing ourselves, at the same time, for dying.

Just like poetry and painting, photography possesses the capacity to put together within the same space the past and the future, glued together by that thin membrane we call the present. Like a human body, like a ghost, the image is ambiguous. As Siegfried Kracauer said, photographs conjure up a new disintegrated unity: the ‘ghost-like reality is unredeemed … the photograph gathers fragments around a nothing’ (1995: 56). Photographs create a meaningful relationship between the sensible and the non-sensible. Like mirrors, they are, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, instruments of universal magic that ‘convert things into spectacle, spectacle into things, myself into another, and another into myself’ (1964:130). More than about documenting life, photographs are about living, about living and dying, about blurring that distinction and entering the world. They are about being in the present. On my pad, a few nights before my father passed away, I wrote: ‘I am in the right place with the right person’. And, sadly, that was also the right time.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the members of my research team at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Centre (ViDi), U Antwerpen, who have supported me all along during this journey.

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Contributor Notes

Paolo S. H. Favero, Dept, of Communication Studies, Univ. of Antwerp. Currently Paolo is Vice-Head of Department and his recent books are entitled: Image-Making-India (Routledge, 2020) and The Present Image (Palgrave, 2018). E-mail: paolosh.favero@uantwerpen.be ORCID: 0000-0002-9851-3474

Anthropological Journal of European Cultures

(formerly: Anthropological Yearbook of European Cultures)

  • Adelman, C. (1998), ‘Photocontext’, in Prosser, J. (ed) Image-Based Research (London: Falmer Press), 148161.

  • Babb, L. A. (1981), ‘Glancing: Visual Interaction in Hinduism’, Journal of Anthropological Research 37, no. 4: 387401. doi:10.1086/jar.37.4.3629835.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Benjamin, W. (1972), ‘A Short History of Photography’, Screen 13, no. 1: 526. doi:10.1093/screen/13.1.5.

  • Benjamin, W. (1999), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (London: Pimlico).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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