“would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you.
– a question of appropriation”
― Nayyirah Waheed, salt.
The photograph allows us to possess space and time, compress it into a quadrilateral and submit this slice of Event to ravenously well-fed gaze.
While Didi-Huberman expresses the heroism of taking an image in spite of all, Sontag provides a disillusioned panorama of photography as a form of voyeurism that cannot supplant genuine emotion, experience, engagement. The photograph serves as proof—that we have captured reality, significance, profundity. We can mass produce an experience and memorialize it, protect it from forced obliteration, force ourselves to accept that this is not “beyond comprehension” or “unimaginable.” Sontag says something was irredeemably lost when she saw photos of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.
Do these sanctified scenes of memento mori bring us nearer to Montaigne’s process of self-rationalization and self-comfort, or Didion’s liminal space of “magical thinking”? In “facing death open-eyedly,” are we privy to any “negative epiphanies,” moved to action, moved to pity, to gaze in strange fascination? To become anesthetized?
Can we say that we have been closer to that country, have stood at the edge of the sterile promontory? Or is this Event beyond our comprehension?
Can we call this beautiful?
“On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. “He is much better off without me. . . . I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody,” she wrote. Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale’s death Wiles got this picture of death’s violence and its composure.”
“The goal was to create two equal portraits of the subject; they wanted to preserve a sense of dignity after death.”
“I hoped to lose my fear (of death) by doing this project where I had to confront myself with death,” Schels wrote. “I am old enough to think about my own death so it was obvious for me to close the circle between birth and death by doing this project.”
“They also hoped the project, called “About Dying,” would break the taboo about death by viewing it up close. After all, there is nothing so scary as what happens behind closed doors. But by opening up the morgue, a place where few of the living have been, the mystery lifts. Death, although harsh and sad, is a natural state.”