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After the wave

Within the massive ongoing clean-up operation in the tsunami devastated regions of Japan, a team of volunteers are painstakingly piecing together the memories of thousands of survivors. This team, drawn from a broad cross section of Japanese society, spent the first full month of their task just sifting through and categorising, into some semblance of the beginning of an order the hundreds of thousands of photographs which have been sent to them from across the battered seaboard.
That these photographs have been found, shipwrecked amongst the carnage and, in more cases than not, half eaten away by the ordeal, and then rescued, afforded a flight of sanctuary by those who found them, illustrates the almost bizarre relationship we share with our photographs.
A photo is, for all intents and purposes, a piece of paper onto which the markings of certain shades of light and shadow fixed onto it by the use of chemicals (I won’t get into digitisation here, that’s a whole different kettle of trousers, metaphysically speaking). However it is what these shapes and shadows evoke in our minds our senses and memories and the solid, unfleeting endurance with which we invest them which, with apologies to Roland Barthes ‘pricks the consciousness’.
Of course, if we look at photographs from our own yesteryears we will feel this stab of melancholy, that comfortable sadness that the past is gone forever mixed with the warmth that it was, fall our reasoning at the time, a happy one. But to feel this when viewing the images of people we have never met, to invest in ourselves a sense of memory about that person, a feeling that only a trace of them here remains, is a curiously human trait.
One image, the rotting mud long eaten through the faces of its subjects, is inscribed at the back ‘ August 19th, 1954, at the Yasuken Shrine, with my brother’. The image of a memory belonging to someone else, whom we will never meet a memory that may or may not have disappeared forever, but which still, makes you shiver slightly.
As we carry to live with our ‘better living through technology’ mantra we begin to see our lives become more ephemeral, leaving only glances upon a landscape which itself becomes increasingly abstract, we begin to see the image as a consciousness apparent. The piles upon piles of mudded, half destroyed photographs in a Japanese warehouse call into question our relationship with the printed image as a material entity, a fabric rendering capable of bearing its own document not just to the moment it originally was intended to survive, but of its own journey through time afterward, and perhaps that of those whose image it bears.
As the piles of shoes in Auschwitz were transformed from something functional, merely a throwaway banality of the human endeavour, into something infinitely more melancholic, a stoic reminder of and testament to the absence of so much life, of that physicality, which once solidly occupied them; so these photographs begin to point to another direction. Gone is there mere document of times passage, a memory track of human happiness, transmogrified into a sudden and urgent document of destruction and terror, of the erosive nature of physical life, the immutable certainty of death and times’ rotting away of our bodies. The scars these photographs now bear are the scars on the memories of those left behind as well on the pictorial, hard copy record of visual existence of their subjects.
It is fitting, in a country so stereotypically linked with the camera, a culture so intrinsically linked with the nature of moment (the Zen cherry blossom, the lingering tea ceremony…) and the formalities of life, that those pictures that cannot be returned to their owners are to be given there own funeral service. A damaged photograph is a damaged past, a forced admission of the mortality of the moment, of the fact that all we thought were set in stone, is merely cast in light.

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2011 by .
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