«CHAPTER ONE Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time But only ...»
HE What museum in Hiroshima?
SHE Four times at the museum in Hiroshima. I saw the people walking around. The people walk around, lost in thought, among the photographs, the reconstructions, for want of something else, among the photographs, the photographs, the reconstructions, for want of something else, the explanations, for want of something else.
— Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour The main character, Riva, in the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, from which this dialogue is taken, has “forgotten” her love affair with a German soldier during the war. Hiroshima Mon Amour explores the slow unveiling of her repressed memories as a trope for the ways in which forgetting becomes endemic and trauma is forgotten (Burnett 1995, 178–182). According to Primo Levi (1988), “Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. This is a threadbare truth known not only to psychologists but also to anyone who has paid attention to the behavior of those who surround him, or even to his own behavior. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even grow, by incorporating extraneous features” (23).
Levi, of course, had to tell the tale of his experiences at Auschwitz over and over again in a variety of stories and through a variety of metaphors, much as Jorge Semprun, the French writer, in order to keep the trauma alive not only for himself but for succeeding generations. For Levi, history had to
be lived everyday to be understood. Semprun (1997) has spent his life exploring and testifying to the experiences of being a prisoner at Buchenwald:
I’d need only to close my eyes, even today. It wouldn’t take any effort—on the contrary, the slightest distraction of a memory brimful of trifles, of petty joys, would be enough to summon that ghost.... It would take only a single instant of distraction from oneself, from others, from the world, an instant of non-desire, of quietude this side of life, an instant when the truth of that longago, primal event would rise to the surface, and the strange smell would drift over the hillside of the Ettersberg, that foreign homeland to which I always return. (Pp. 6–7) In Hiroshima Mon Amour, a seemingly endless series of conversations “produces” a reawakening—history comes to life because the past always exists within the present and because speech, memory, and image cannot be disengaged. (This is one of the central themes of “Burnt Norton,” the poem by T. S. Eliot quoted at the beginning of this chapter.) Yet, this is one of the fundamental ambiguities of images whether moving or still, which “announce” a relationship to time (and to a period) while marginalizing history. The instant of a photograph is in fact only one moment of history and is therefore open to many different interpretations.
The same variability exists in the cinema and other media. A photograph shot in one period of history becomes archival in the next. In fact, some photos are almost instantly archival such as pictures from wars and large-scale human tragedies.
There is an irony here, because traumatic events are more often than not the most difficult experiences to remember, let alone picture. It is by bearing witness to trauma that humans learn how to connect time, subjective experiences, and history. Weaving trauma into art, images, and aesthetic forms is part of bearing witness to occurrences that cannot be understood or experienced in any other manner (Felman and Laub 1992, 57).
Levi and Semprun work with words and stories, and they move easily between fiction and nonfiction. The difficulty with images is that they bear witness in very different ways and make it seem as if events could be pictured or reconstructed when they can only be reimagined. This is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of historical photographs. They are meant to demonstrate Vantage Point and Image-Worlds a relationship to the past that appears to be empirical but, for the most part, their impact is almost entirely contingent upon the imagination of viewers (Baer 2002).
Technology and Vantage Point
Technology seems to elevate photographs beyond these kinds of relative and contingent restrictions. Instruments, tools, and technologies seem to be neutral purveyors of the interests of humans. Unlike literature, the use of technology to bear witness to trauma supposedly elevates pictures, for example, to a level of truth that does not need additional explanation. 23 24 Yet, this is clearly one of the central issues of vantage point. The story of an event is not the event itself. At any given moment, as events are mediated by everything from the medium of expression to the imagination of the individual viewer, a chasm is created that spectators have to bridge. This is one of the sources of visualization. It is as if the bridge between event and depiction needed to be created, but since that is a physical impossibility, it is done mentally and from within carefully constructed and imaginative scenarios, what I would like to call a ‘dynamic daydream.’ Figure 1.3 is therefore as much a reflection of what I know as it is an expression of what I have remembered and repressed. It is a visualization of events that I have not experienced. My desire to “take” the photograph and to witness a scene that cannot be reproduced is what makes this image important. Auschwitz cannot be reproduced not only because of the horror that it represents but also because of the very nature of history as a set of traces open to continual reinvention in the present.
Michel Serres (1995) suggests that “people usually confuse time and the measurement of time” (60–61). Photographs make it seem as if time can be seen and the past is waiting to be “produced” in order to be understood. In reality, photographs and images are traces or signs of what may have been.
There is a constant interplay between events, their recounting, and images.
And, for the most part, all these elements exist in contingent relations with each other. This is a challenging fluidity since it suggests that the ways in which viewers link the traces is far less dependent on what is depicted than might appear to be the case.
What then happens to memories and images of trauma when an even more complex aesthetic and artistic process is introduced?
In figure 1.5 I have taken the original photograph and altered it digitally.
It now seems as if figure 1.3 were the original and figure 1.5 is a transformation.
I have moved (seemingly) from the record of a moment and experience to a more aesthetic and mediated version. Is it valid to ask which is the more mediated of the two? What if the viewer had come upon figure 1.5 before seeing figure 1.3? This is at the heart of the paradox about photographic truth. Photographs are only records if viewers agree by convention that truth is present.
This agreement often comes in an instant, as recognition. It can also be validated by a variety of social and cultural processes.
If photographs are always a medium for reimagining the scenes that they depict then the differences between figures 1.3 and 1.5 are not that important. This may explain why the content of a photograph is always open to challenge. It is as if reinvention were as important to viewing as the image itVantage Point and Image-Worlds FIGURE 1.5 Smokestack against a night sky with moon (Ron Burnett)
28 analogue and digital pictures can be mixed or when digital pictures increasingly become the norm? Digital images fundamentally alter not only meaning but also materiality; images become defined by the layers of artifice that have been placed in them. Reference then becomes a function of the interior organization and architecture of the photograph, the traces of what has been done to it and the manner in which those traces are interpreted. This has always been recognized with respect to painting, and the move to digital technology will make it clearer in photography as well. It may be that it is of no value to speak of “taking” a photo; rather, value must be extracted from what is visualized or recreated by both creators and viewers.
Up until now, I have used “photograph” and “image” interchangeably. To me, photographs become images the minute they are seen. The moment that photographs enter into relationships with subjects they shift from one level of reality to another. It could, of course, be argued that photographs never work in isolation of creators or viewers. That is precisely why photographs only exist in the instant they are shot. That is also why Barthes was so perplexed by meaning in photographs, because he tried to link the instant creation of images with postmortem analyses. The shift to the digital has shown that photographs are simply raw material for an endless series of digressions. They lie tethered to moments that have long since disappeared. As images, photographs encourage viewers to move beyond the physical world even as they assert the value of memory, place, and original moments. In that sense, the flow of references does not end with the photograph as an object. Rather, every photograph that becomes an image pivots on a variety of contingent directions.
The beauty is that images are so malleable; they encourage processes of sculpting, change, and transformation. They invite the addition of words and texts. Photographs permit and encourage an eruption of fantasy as if they had become subjects. I return to this argument in chapter 4 when I discuss virtual reality experimentation in greater detail, but it should now be clear that my concerns for the many ways in which images contribute to the creation of meaning requires a redefinition of the subject-object distinction as it has been applied to visualization.
Figure 1.6 is a further transformation of the original Polaroid.
In the lefthand corner there is a cropped picture of a train leaving Vienna before the war.
The people you see leaning out of the train are leaving their families for an unknown future. One of those people is my mother.
The train, of course, brings other memories to bear, including the ways in which the Germans transported Jews and many other nationalities to the concentration camps. The transformation of figure 1.3 now means that it is more of a collage than a photograph. There is an increasingly tenuous connection to the original, and intention is more visible, or so it seems. The image began as an innocent “snapshot” and has become a rhetorical device in the development of an argument. In a sense, I am beginning to “write” on the picture, recasting the original impulses or perhaps more fully understanding them. I am also trying to bring more evidence of the original motivations for taking the photograph into its actual makeup.
Increasingly, the distinctions that might allow for some consistency in the original photograph are being disrupted. This is not so much a matter of tinkering with the original as it is bringing the power of discourse into the actual construction of the photograph itself and therefore moving beyond the “instant” of its taking. Clearly, time is being altered to fit the orientation that I am choosing. For example, was the time spent working in Photoshop more important and more significant than the historical elements of the image and when it was shot? What has scanning done to the original photograph of the train, and has the fact that the photograph has become a data file changed its meaning? Am I violating the poignancy of the original photo of my mother by cropping it?
In figure 1.7 the image has a third element to it, a photograph of my paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. The former, Elly, survived the war, and the latter, Helene, died in Auschwitz.
The image, including its mixtures of color and shape, is becoming more and more stylized. Although elements are being added to it, the language that I am using to describe the photo tends to naturalize the relationship between what I am saying and what I want the photo to mean. There is also an inevitable tension between what I am saying and creating and another viewer’s own relationship to the image. Even more important, I am identifying the faces Vantage Point and Image-Worlds in the image(s) and claiming that there is a relationship between “their” time and my own.
In fact, by personalizing this image, I am diluting the flexibility that viewers may need to produce their own interpretation. I not only made the original “historical,” but I added elements to reinforce my initial premise about the photo and used archival images to validate my interpretation. Keep in mind that I have introduced a series of “effects” into the Polaroid to accentuate the photograph’s ability to “speak” in the full knowledge that it is my own voice that I want viewers to hear. However, this is a site of struggle rather than a place where my needs will be fulfilled. As any creative person discovers, the gap between intention and communication is vast and requires a variety of 29 FIGURE 1.7 Smokestack against a night sky, mother, grandmother, and greatgrandmother (Ron Burnett) compromises that often seem to have nothing to do with the images themselves. Of course, I am arguing that the compromises are part of a negotiation that is at the core of how image-worlds operate (Weiss 1989).
Voice is an ongoing problem for photographs. The fact that technology has to be used to “take” the photo implies that the role of the photographer is actually less important in the creative act. The photograph seems to be disengaged from its creator. James Elkins (1999) suggests, as does Roland Barthes, the following: “Fundamentally, I think we wish pictures could sometimes be pure, devoid of codes, signs, letters, numbers, or any other structured sources of meaning. At the same time, we hope that the pictures we are interested in will always have enough structure to yield meanings—to be, in the inevitable metaphor, legible” (57).