Saturday, December 10, 2005

Installment 2: The Dead People in my Paper: Obit to Self: April 10, 2005

What follows here is the second of two installments which, when complete, will be the entirety of the thesis I wrote for an MFA in Photo and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University. The title of the thesis (think of it instead as a hefty magazine article and it could possibly be tolerable) is Posthumous- which was also the title of the exhibit that I had at the end of grad school- it is pages and pages long and was required in order to complete the degree. Fear not, an exhaustive description of Posthumous is down the road, but first, there has to be some background. This installment is titled "The Dead People in My paper: Obit to Self: April 10, 2005 and it relates... well you'll see what it relates...

Disclaimer: Remember that this is the result of two years of grad school (there is a perverse thrill to "publishing" my thesis as a blog). Images will be posted asap.

The Dead People in my Paper: Obit to Self: April 10, 2005

Only that which narrates can make us understand.
-Susan Sontag

Two months ago I watched the film Hotel Rwanda and was infuriated. I wasn’t angered
by the film itself, but by the idea that the lives of 800,000 people, and the history of three
months of genocide, had been compressed into a one hour and fifty minute movie. That
Hotel Rwanda could potentially be viewed as a sort of definitive representation of the
Rwandan crisis during 1994 is problematic. If I accept that media such as movies,
television and newspapers are (in part) eligible to relay to me the social history of the
world, I feel I must ask these questions: What did the director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry
George, leave out? What parts of the “story” of Rwanda did he augment in order to make
a dynamic film? What, specifically, did Terry George want me to remember about what
happened in Rwanda? What kinds of decisions were made to appease the financial
supporters of the film? What am I “left with” –in terms of understanding the situation after
watching this movie? Unfortunately, what I was “left with” was an impotent message of Hope. Not to deride the many works of art whose message is similar, but, is Hope enough to ask for in the face of 800,000 murdered people? And, are the conventions of the motion picture –its filmic clichés- like sweeping, gestural camera movements, professional actors, use of archetypical myths (Don Cheadle as Luke Skywalker?), a string section, a conventional, linear narrative structure, mega million dollar production and marketing- the best way to address the horror of the genocide in Rwanda? After watching the movie, I left the theatre despondent and thinking that in the near future there could be a section in video stores titled: “Human Atrocities”. On the
shelves in this section could be the slim cases holding pale evidence of what negligently gets passed as history: The Killing Fields; Cry Freedom; Romero; In the Name of the Father; The Magdalene Sisters; Schindler’s List; Johnny Got His Gun; Land and Freedom; Missing…

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.
–Susan Sontag

Similar to movies about atrocities, photographs that depict the “human condition” (war, disease, death, famine…) rely on the concept of simplifying (compressing) information in order to deliver efficient, palatable, and ultimately marketable stories. These stories allow the viewer the illusion of feeling informed and empathetic, while remaining free of being implicated in the events they depict. Photography, a medium whose ubiquity we are forever subject to, is plagued by problems. One problem is the weight of photography as a representational medium. As Roland Barthes wrote, photographs are an “emanation of the referent”. This emanation gives the photograph the power to convince its viewer that its ability to represent its subject- in a convincing likeness- implies an understanding of its subject. This ability to represent with the camera- to bear witness, to document, to show- has carried with it a sense of responsibility that has left the history of the medium peopled with liberal photographers. These photographers hope that their images not only attest to what it is “happening” outside of our homes- they strive for their images to affect positive change in the situations they depict. This sense of responsibility to the referent is photography’s weight. Although these aspirations may be asking a lot of the medium, the seeming naiveté of these photographers should not be derided. Larry Burrows’ photographs from Vietnam, and more recently, the images from the Abu Ghraib prison, taken by soldiers participating in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, became catalysts for action
against the situations they documented. In the case of Vietnam, Burrows’ images are credited, in part, for fueling the anti-war protests in the United States during the Vietnam War (Sontag, 1989). Images from Abu Ghraib, though not intended as such, have forced the United States to be more transparent in their treatment of Iraqi prisoners during the ongoing war in Iraq.

While the camera functions to document, it is also a device whose parameters act to edit its subject. This edited view the camera provides is determined by a number of factors: the format of the camera; the focal length of the lens; the type of film used; and the subjective choices involved in the composing, and outputting of the final image. Just as Hotel Rwanda was ultimately a movie affected by the forces governing the creation and distribution inherent to the conventions of movie making, the war photograph is ultimately nothing more a piece of paper, or a series of zeros and ones that represent a slim, trace of the world that has been transformed by the camera, and its operator. And, like a major motion picture, the dissemination of photojournalistic images is determined by the amount of capital they solicit.

Not only in the case of atrocities however, do photographs act as evidence. Snapshots in family albums, images from the Hubble telescope, high school yearbooks, surveillance, and satellite images, all function as proof. These images are permitted to do this because as a lens based culture (Coleman, 1989) we have learned to believe that a photograph represents something true. Regardless of the developments in imaging technology that allow an image to be manipulated easier than ever before, we still believe most of what we see and read.

These issues of accuracy, fallacy, and the camera’s image provoked by Hotel Rwanda, are similar to those Alfredo Jarr addressed with his series of work from the latter half of the nineties called Rwanda Projects. In his book Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, David Levi Strauss details Jarr’s dealing with the limitations of photojournalism, while trying to convey the slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsi people. Strauss cites Jarr’s frustration with the inability for the photograph to show what he had experienced shortly after April 1994:

But the camera never manages to record what your eyes see, or what you feel at the moment. The camera always creates a new reality. I have always been concerned with the disjunction between experience and what can be recorded photographically. In the case of Rwanda, the disjunction was enormous and the tragedy unrepresentable. This is why it was so important for me to speak with people, to record their words, their ideas, their feelings. I discovered that the truth of the tragedy was in the feelings, words, and ideas of those people, and not in the pictures.

Jarr’s frustrations led him to create works that relied more on the text he gathered, than it did the 3000 pictures he took during a visit to the country four months after the massacre. The histories that Jarr’s work tells (such as the piece The Eyes of Gutete Emerita) are complex, interactive, and unlike anything that would have been read in newspapers or seen on television in 1996. By pairing grueling, descriptive text with little or no photographic imagery, Jarr’s work forces the viewer to access their own data bank of "human atrocity-as-it-is-represented-by-photojournalism” in order to “see” what the people of Rwanda, and Jarr experienced.

How many of the images we see in the mass media, in textbooks, and in other vehicles, are such spurious, falsified “factoids”? Does anyone in the field consider the consequences to the subjects of such images generated by such misuse? And, on a larger scale, the consequences to the citizenry when its informational network is thus compromised and corrupted?
-AD Coleman.

My frustrations over Hotel Rwanda led me to think about the relationship between the
photograph and the media, history, editing, and the compression of experience. I began to
ask where in the newspaper, and where in life, is the active compression of history frequent, and commonly accepted as fact? This questioning led me to the obituary. Reading the obituaries is a hobby of mine; on Sunday mornings I scan the “obits” looking not for someone I know, but for someone who looks (or feels) like someone I may know. Basically, I scan the obituaries looking for myself.

With Hotel Rwanda, and the work of Alfredo Jarr in mind, I became interested in writing my own obituary- what history could I tell of my 32 years by writing it pre-mortem? A cursory search on Google for obituaries yielded sites suggesting that business professionals write their own obituaries at the start of their careers. It’s thought that by focusing on their legacy, these professionals could have a clear idea of what their longterm goals were, and work accordingly to attain them. I thought that by adopting this corporate model to assert my motivations as an image-maker, I could put to use the gravity, and severity of the obituary to make a proclamation of love and honor, toward my community of friends and family. Could I channel the negativity that my concerns with compression were fueling into something positive? Could something good come out of my frustration?

The activity of an artist staging their own death is not new: the Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich designed and painted his own coffin before his death in 1935; in his book Autobiographies, published in 1981, the writer and artist Richard Kostelanetz included the obituaries he had written for himself since he was an undergraduate at Brown University; in his video Vajtojca (2002), Albanian artist Adrian Paci staged his own death, and filmed professional Albanian funeral wailers performing at his ceremony. Although these artists had different reasons for using their death as a point of focus in their work, each used an extreme measure to convey a radical idea: Malevich’s coffin, represented his conviction of “the supremacy of pure feeling over art’s objectivity” (Boguslawski, 1998-2000); Kostelanetz’s assertion that only through multiple points of view can a person be conveyed through an author’s words; Paci’s emphasis on the obvious- pointing out that there are important situations in everyday life that we are never able to experience (Curlit, 2003).

I deduced that I could use the obituary to employ a sanctioned form of communication to aid in asserting my motives within an environment that had previously frowned on my exclamations of love and community. With the obituary I felt I could use a cold, sterile device to say something warm. My original plan to write an obituary of only 100 words proved impossible- my first draft totaled 981 words. I thought that if I wrote the obituary well enough, the voyeuristic thrill of reading such a macabre, hubristic document would sustain my readers. This version proved too long. For the piece Obit to Self: April 10, 2005, I decided that I would have the obituary and an image of myself printed in The Washington Post. In order to afford the cost of the printing I had to edit the text significantly. This caused me to remove all complexity from my life in order to facilitate a quick, easy read. The text was edited down to 28 words. I chose these words as I thought they best encapsulated the projected function that I want my work to serve. I felt that these words alluded to my history while stating my desired trajectory. The text of the obituary reads:

“In memory of an artist, teacher, friend, colleague and lover who through his photographs of friends and family, worked to honor, celebrate and strengthen the community he loved”.

For the accompanying self-portrait that was printed above the text of the obituary, I was conscious of trying to look as alive as possible. Knowing that the community I was addressing would be reading these words, I wanted to have my image staring directly at them after their having read the text. The intensity of my stare is meant to mirror the sincerity of my intentions. For the presentation of the piece, I included of all three pages of the Washington Post’s obituary section in a single frame. The inclusion of all the other people’s photographs and obituaries was intended to highlight the role that the newspaper, and the obituary, plays in compressing history within our culture. Among the three pages of the newspaper and all the other people being memorialized on that day, I present myself as one of many, and, nothing more than a trace of what I may, or may not be.

Writing my own obituary, and having it printed, enabled me to use photography, and the newspaper- two vernacular devices- to write a portion of my own history, while (hopefully) facilitating the realization of my intentions. It is my intention to use these devices to appeal to the viewer’s predisposition to believe what is presented to them in a newspaper, and declare what my work does. These devices create the condition/illusion of the projected action whether or not this is actually the case. By saying that my work celebrates and honors my community, this idea is planted into the minds of people who do and do not know me. The conventions of the devices utilized, coupled with the resultant assumptions these devices facilitate, allow my assertions to become a form of truth.

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