Photography has a unique relationship with loss, and one that has become increasingly visible in our post-digital pandemic present. Images can and do represent for us a “marking” of loss, or rather, of an absence, thatching our lives together through collective and individual moments of grief. They have come to speak for us as image-speak, as ambassadors of solicitude, and, in this moment – of shared vulnerability and loss as a common predicament. Despite the incessant daily proliferation of media before us in the visual economy, visibility itself is the very thing at a loss as we scroll various screens in various states of lockdown due to an invisible virus. Images serve us to both mitigate and proliferate our hyperconnected present, grappling with a viral phenomena that does not adhere to our human borders, nor our local and global hierarchies. Photography, images, loss and these shared commonalities are the basis on and around which I build this essay, drawing on recent and historical theory as I address and muse on the present moment with a nod to the past.
As a global health emergency continues on, the demands of an online digital economy increase our screen time even more so. The lines between labour, private and public have dissolved, while the things we’ve lost are mourned more often than not within a virtual space. With the URL/IRL divide more fluid than ever before, sentiment is manifested in single and multiple images – iconicity distributed widely through social media platforms as we share images as visual obituaries. A series of classic photographic portraits of a recently deceased “public” subject appears. Dying rose emoji. RIP. Vale. Susan Sontag’s claim of photography keeping company with death[i] since its inception remains alive and well. Sontag’s words remain insightfully true even now as images of grief quickly succeed one another, as one obituary of a public (or publicised) figure, acquaintance or even a beloved pet blends into another on the social media timeline. This point was recently reiterated in an interview with philosopher Judith Butler as something particularly felt in our contemporary culture of images. Butler disputes Sontag’s argument in Regarding the Pain of Others that written language and image captions drive our reading of images – as outdated in our new “media world” – a world of image sequences and photomedia as it is today.[ii] Butler sees contemporary lens-based media as modes of interpretation and thinking that uniquely supply ways of meaning. This is best exemplified through discussing grief and mourning. Black Lives Matter was an act of radical public mourning[iii], and it was “viral” photomedia visible online that spoke directly to us at the forefront of our collective outrage and despair. Our unpreparedness for the changes to our individuality of the post-digital era are at the forefront here, muddying the water, but one thing shines through: “Mourning tells us what we value.. what we are connected to.”[iv] To “collectively” see images of innocent Black bodies in 2020 treated the way we may recall from historical black & white photographs of segregationist America became a salient catalyst for street protests, despite restrictions on movement. Photos of crowds, witnessed in private – mobilised physical bodies, into the public, as images “spoke” in a way other forms of language cannot, particularly as the URL/IRL divide dissolves. As Butler speculates: “the question is.. whether an image can produce for us an occasion of reflection, analysis, (of) mobilisation or activism.”[v] What began as a movement in the name of the social inequalities of Black/POC America grew to a sense of wider solidarity, indignation and exposure of global (and local) inequalities, inequities and threats to democracy and human rights. As we sit scrolling our various screens in various states of lockdown, it is a steady stream of photographs representing these injustices and imbalances which precipitate emotions of grief, loss and equally of rage as the pandemic laid bare countless divisions in class, race and gender, and continues to.
While this pandemic has revealed underlying structures of prejudice, so too has it forced renewed contemplation of a variety of concepts surrounding loss, as statues of dead white men whose arguable status in history afforded them such immortalisation came tumbling down around the world. A life threatening virus has pushed to our consciousness the radical interdependency of modern life (and lives) as we know it, yet also brought us closer to what binds us – our reliance on images, for one, but also our collective need to remember, to recall those departed (or forgotten), and to grieve that which is absent. Photographs of the anthropocene are ones of loss, absence and grief, and, dually, of our “progress” as a species. Habitat loss, human-animal overlaps, not just conceptually but representational, highlight the destructiveness of human-centrism. A polar bear surrounded by water or rummaging through the detritus of settlement speaks to us of a changing climate, while pictures of a cleared forest didactically evoke our tangible human impact on this fragile planet. All are indexical documents of “ecological grief”, as Butler terms it.[vi] These visual documents operate to affirm the living natural world through that which we are losing, do not have – did once have, what we lack and therefore reflect on, lament. Unlike the rise of, or rather, visibility of photo-evidence of environmental impact and human rights abuses thanks in part to the algorithm, images of the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic remain largely behind closed doors. Aside from reiterating the predilection of the West to hide the dead from view, a lack of images has severely hindered our ability to adequately grieve and thus, to process this ongoing aspect of our immediate history in both literal and cultural terms. More urgently, the severity and truth of the virus itself is threatened among sections of the population. Words, written and voiced, do not possess the language necessary against the growing mistruths of the post-truth era. Art Historian Brigitte Kölle recently wrote of the need for images of grief and mourning in relation to the invisibility of the victims of the pandemic.[vii] Photography, despite having a fraught relationship with truth from its inception, still possesses a certain ability to command visibility amongst even the alienated and ignorant, especially in processing and comprehending loss, as is arguably its essence. Our beloved photography remains life’s shadow – belonging to the core of human life in which absence and death are always imminent.[viii]
Of death, Roland Barthes was grieving his mother while writing the eponymous Camera Lucida, his grief weaving through and intersecting with his musings on photography, and he himself died in a car accident shortly after its first publication in 1980. Of accidents, I learned recently that the production of ultrasound images are just as prevalent prior to emergency abortions as they are during a normal term of pregnancy. My association suddenly and dramatically shifted with these already strange black & white photographic representations of sonographic blobs and dots – away from one previously regarded on jubilant social media posts of acquaintances as a celebration of life – toward one of loss, absence and to grief. At the time I was reading philosopher Hagi Kenaan’s new publication Photography and its Shadow (Stanford University Press, 2020), in which he emphasises the “age old understanding (that) images are a mode of memorialization that originates in the human need to to negotiate the presence of death.”[ix] Our memorials to life we may overshare can just as easily reflect the presence of death, of mortality, of loss. Such is our extreme individual subjectivity when faced with a record of the object to be regarded as such – the depicted object, and just how often they may take on opposing meanings. Sonntag noted this continual opposing duality in Regarding the Pain of Others as something intrinsic to “photographic information”.[x]
Of information, we have become increasingly visually literate – advertisers know this, as does the big data economy. The literacy of the present day acts when we both sensitively and radically react to images in shaping our own and others’ perceptions and attitudes. The quiet, immediate space in a photograph can be one in which memories, gestures, feelings, however subjective to the viewer, are immortalised. This terminology, simultaneously evocative of a space between finitude and infinitude, has persisted in discourse of visual culture, having tricked itself into the general vernacular when talking of-and-to photographs and images. As Ariel Goldberg and Yazan Khalili proclaim in a recent article, “The image lives a long life of being forgotten and remembered.”[xi] Such is the nature of photography, according to theorist Natasha Chuk, and its complication of the line between presence and absence, folding them into a unified dimension of collapsed space and time.[xii] This conflation of time and space has not gone unnoticed in recent history of visual culture, and draws us closer to the essence of image capture and our nostalgic yearning for the immediate past, particularly when faced with a benign present.
Of the present, not unlike the phone conversations I barely have today, parents or grandparents still cherish the printed photograph, memorialised in the way images operate to visualise sentiments, or rather, sentimentality. As Chuk elaborates while writing on the work of Dina Kantor and Alec Soth: “photography is always nostalgic, always grasped in the present as it looks back on the immediate and distant past.”[xiii]. With Sontag’s memento mori[xiv] mentioned here as a nostalgic keepsake, theorist Nathan Jurgenson writes positively of the “nostalgic gaze” of social photography in his recent book The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (Verso, 2020). Jurgenson uses the example of the faux-vintage filter of Instagram which has now all but vanished, as synonymous with the rise of our ubiquitous medium of digital online imagery. Years after these filters precipitated the proliferation of image sharing (smartphone) apps and media on the premise of hipster aesthetics and/or a valorisation of analogue handcraft, ephemeral images on social media now command an urgency through their inherent fallibility, their chronological mortality. As Jurgenson explains, our photographable present contains an implied finitude, sometimes literal (think Snapchat and Instagram stories) and other times pushed under the narrative of our “timelines” – to be rarely unearthed again.[xv] “Stories” come and go, as we grasp at the moments of others – and only for a moment. Whether we could call these Kodak moments based on its historical context is a musing for another time, but what and how these snapshots do serve us is through a camera-phone-enabled document, fleeting markers of time and place, and, importantly, experience. As Jurgenson argues, photographs as “social photos” cease to be objects in so much as they become experiences, not just for ourselves but those to be seen and regarded (liked) by our ever expanding network of “friends”.[xvi] This infiltration is the key to just how reliant we are on visual images, particularly in our recollection of things, places, people, and feelings. Our URL “timelines” serve as living virtual obituaries to our online avatars, hinting at our offline IRL selves like latent impressions, shadows. The reflective temporal state we find ourselves in may precipitate a traumatic separation between our virtual and real bodies – bodies capable of physical protest, of celebrating life, mourning death and more positively – of enacting real and lasting change for our planet and our-selves.
The nostalgic time in which Sontag claimed she was present when writing On Photography is perhaps no less present when we consider how similar a state of flux the decade from 1973 was in relation to ours today. Peace. War. Hope. Loss. [xvii] Historical comparisons aside, one thing is certain; we remain more fallible than the images we produce and circulate – unprecedented times or otherwise. Photography is as democratising a tool as it was since its inception in allowing our likeness, our absence, and everything this represents – to be traced, recorded and memorialised, from Box Brownie to Phone-Camera. If we are to take Barthes’ sentimental line that “Photography has a role not to represent, but to memorialize”[xviii], then this medium captures the debris they said would never settle[xix], like a present day fossil, an embodied impression of our disembodied digital selves. (Our) grief is like a sediment that sets in, accompanying a person in varying intensity[xx], and we grieve in this age through “mediated residue..expressed through silence and noise, presence and absence, and shadows and light constructed by an apparatus indifferent to its subject.”[xxi] Photographs, as material traces of their subjects[xxii], preserve and perpetuate us into and through the immaterial digital ether; immortalising our mortality, and lie momentarily still as solemn shadows in the noisily flowing stream of images.
[i] “Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003), 24.
[ii] Judith Butler, interviewed by Mikkel Krause Frantzen, in, “The Culture of Grief – Philosophy, Ecology and Politics of Loss in the Twenty-First Century”. Aalborg University, Faculty of Humanities, The Culture of Grief Research Centre, 3 Dec. 2020, 2pm. https://youtu.be/0JBPQik2-x8. Accessed 03.12.20
[iii] Butler, The Culture of Grief, 3 Dec. 2020.
[vii] “We need more nuanced and diverse narratives and images that address (the) various aspects of loss and grief.” Saskia Trebing, Interview with Brigitte Kölle. Gedenken an Corona-Tote: “Wir brauchen mehr Bilder der Trauer”. Monopol Magazin online. 15.01.21. https://www.monopol-magazin.de/interview-brigitte-koelle-corona-tote-trauer?fbclid=IwAR1Lex–xkrC-WlRzSBm-er13qxVPRUkbRKpqmsJZ0sYS15CCoorXy4002w Translated from German. (Accessed 25.01.21).
[viii] Hagi Kenaan, Photography and its Shadow. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020). 106.
[ix] Kenaan, Photography and its Shadow, 8.
[x] Sontag elaborates: “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge..” Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 13.
[xi] Ariel Goldberg and Yazan Khalil, We Stopped Taking Photos, e-flux Journal #115 – February 2021, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/115/374500/we-stopped-taking-photos/ Accessed 10.2.21.
[xii] Natasha Chuk, “Traces of Absence in Photography: Dina Kantor and Alec Soth”, in, Vanishing Points: Articulations of Death, Fragmentation, and the Unexperienced Experience of Created Objects. (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2015), 138.
[xiii] Chuk, “Traces of Absence in Photography: Dina Kantor and Alec Soth”, 117.
[xiv] “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Susan Sontag, On Photography. (New York :Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 11.
[xv] Jurgenson explains: “With always-connected devices and the audience that social media provides, photography’s scope reaches increasingly into the everyday, past the special scenes and into the spaces between.” Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media. (New York: Verso, 2020), 14.
[xvi] Jurgenson, The Social Photo, 15.
[xvii] Susan Sontag’s On Photography, beginning in 1973 as a series of published essays, was the year of the landmark U.S abortion ruling Roe vs. Wade, the Watergate scandal, the first mobile phone call, birth of hip hop, death of Picasso and end of the American war with Vietnam. It was also the year US-backed Pinochet seized power in Chile, whose subsequent economic policy permeated the term Neoliberalism into the english-speaking vernacular. For a new examination of Neoliberalism’s relationship to photography see Jörg Colberg’s Photography’s Neoliberal Realism (London: Mack Books, 2020).
[xviii] Roland Barthes. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 194.
[xix] Homage to artist Nora Turato. 2019.
[xx] Trebing, Interview with Brigitte Kölle. Gedenken an Corona-Tote: “Wir brauchen mehr Bilder der Trauer”.
[xxi] Chuk, “Traces of Absence in Photography: Dina Kantor and Alec Soth”, 127.
[xxii] Ibid., 127.