In the presence of the (living) dead


Photography is often linked with death. One case in point is the analysis of Roland Barthes in his groundbreaking book on photography, Camera Lucida. In trying to describe the specific effect of the photographic image on the viewer, he coined the term “ça-a-été” (‘that-has-been’) to define the essential affect of photography. According to Barthes, every photograph would confront us with something that belongs to an irretrievable past. Confronting the viewer with such a radical caesura between two points in time that cannot be reconciliated, the photographic image would therefore evoke in us a heightened sense of our own mortality. Photography is not as much about death of others, so Barthes’ seems to suggest, as it is announcing our own passing away: presenting us with a relic from the past, a remnant that we can clearly see and that even looks quite real, but from which we are painfully excluded, a photograph points towards our own future absence. Ultimately this idea of the “ça-a-été” led him to claim that photography is the only place in current society were death is still made visible, not in the sense that photographs show the agony of dying or the atrocities of what people are capable of, but in a sense that, as a cultural practice in and of itself, the act of taking photographs can be understood as a contemporary death cult. To photograph: an exercise in dying.


But this reading of Barthes’ book is only partially correct. Besides this mournful aspect, there is also a counterforce active in photography. The dead in photography are not really dead, they are the living dead: they look so real, so present, that we almost mistake them as a stand-in for the real thing.  But, of course, they are not: at most they are a spectral presence, a haunting figure taunting us to believe in their existence. What appears in a photograph is not really absent, but also not quite present either. Every photographic image opens up into an intermediary space where ghosts roam. According to Barthes, this is the (horrifying) parlor trick of photography: although it gives us the impression we are in front of the real thing, that we are so close to what has been photographed that we can almost touch it (and thus acknowledge once and for all that what we see is really there), from the moment we let our  fingers glide over the image the magic spell is over. A photograph, so it appears to the touching hand, is nothing more than a worthless piece of paper.


Stated in this way, the question is not how photography can show absence, but how it can instill in the viewer the feeling of presence. This seems also the question that underlies Tsimtsum of Bart Hendrickx. In a series of photographs that deal with the suicide of his grandfather, he tries to conjure up the elusive presence of his inscrutable forefather. Some images are taken from the family album, but they never show him fully (in one image he is blindfolded, in another one he blends into an anonymous mass of men). His presence/absence in these images already point towards his final disappearing act. In other images of a mountainous landscape, a blue dot is pinched onto the images, referring to the water into with he will finally thrust himself. At the same time these blue dots can also be read as holes punched into the image, hiding something (a person, the man in question?) from our view, stressing the incompleteness of any photographical image. These images circle around an enigma: they aim not to understand the final act of this man, but state the impossibility of such an endeavor. There is no better medium imaginable than photography to deal with these issues: as a medium that hides as much as it shows, it is already riddled with uncertainty and doubt.