What is lost when a photograph is ruined? And what is to be found?
These photographs, some of the 750,000 snapshots gathered by Self-Defense forces from the wreckage left behind by the earthquake and tsunami that swept over eastern Japan in March 2011, offer an opportunity to reflect on such questions.
First and foremost, the photographs presented here are a testimony to a disaster, a natural disaster that was in this case exacerbated by short-sighted human decisions (not just by failures of government, but also by our modern society's voracious appetite for housing and electricity). They come to us weathered and scoured, many of them with their images almost completely obliterated. Occasionally faces or portions of bodies peep through the wreckage, offering glimpses of ordinariness made all the more heartrending by their banality. We see people smiling at someone whose place we have usurped. In accepting that smile, we intrude on their privacy, yet further evidence of the catastrophe that has overtaken these people.
But the greater metaphor for this catastrophe is conjured by the look of the photographs themselves, with the image on each piece of paper seemingly eaten away, as if by a fungus or disease. One can't help but feel that the flesh of photography itself is under attack here, as though these few damaged remnants are all that survive of a mode of representation that once bestrode the world like a behemoth. Kodak's recent decision to declare itself bankrupt only adds to the sense that photography as we once knew it is no more, swept away by a digital, rather than an oceanic, tsunami. A Japanese disaster has become a surrogate for another, American, one.
But if this is the end of photography, then never has that death looked quite so beautiful. This beauty, a kind of imposed painterly abstraction, making otherwise unexceptional snapshot images seem ghostly and mysterious, ameliorates the otherwise painful meanings of these particular photographs. But the guilty pleasure we feel before such beauty is only possible when we look at these images en masse, when we can repress the individual pictures and see only the installation. In that situation, photographs become “photography,” with the inverted commas a rhetorical invitation to forget the specifics of events in Japan (forget why these photographs are here, forget the 19,000 deaths and the millions who are still struggling to recover) and consider other possible ways to regard this ensemble of pictures.
We could choose to see them, for example, as valiant declarations of a familiar desire, the desire to photograph and be photographed. Like every photograph, the snapshot is an indexical trace of the presence of its subject, a trace that both confirms the reality of existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence even after its subject has passed on. This is as true for the photographer as for the photographed. In other words, it could be said that photographers take snapshots, not just to record the appearance of loved ones, but also to allay their own fears about forgetting and being forgotten. It is the need to provide witness to existence in general-to declare “I was here!” in visual terms-that surely drives us to keep on photographing, rather than the intrinsic qualities of the picture that results.
This is also why we look at such pictures, always with fascination, and even when, as here, there is nothing much to see, nothing but a residue of the desires of others. Like them, we too take photographs in order to deny the possibility of death, to stop time in its tracks and us with it. But that very same photograph, by placing us indisputably in the past, is itself a kind of mini-death sentence, a prediction of our ultimate demise at some future time. Photographing, like looking at photographs, certifies times past but also time's inevitable passing. Every snapshot, no matter what its subject matter, no matter if the subject matter is now illegible, embodies this same paradoxical message, speaking simultaneously of life and death even while suspending us somewhere in between.
No wonder, then, that these Japanese photographs induce such mixed emotions. On the one hand, they speak of death and suffering, of loss and destruction. But on the other, they offer us an affirmation of life, even the possibility of a transcendence of the very fate they themselves embody. They remind us that photography, whatever its quality, place of origin or mode of production, is, before all else, a declaration of faith. By looking at these photographs, we bear witness to that faith. In sharing it, for this brief moment, we declare our common humanity and are moved to murmur, even if only to ourselves: “there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.”