Bartolomeo Sala, Lee Xie, Lourdes Dávila
The film Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) is a masterpiece: it is at once an example of skillfully gripping storytelling and a film that works as an echo chamber for a variety of philosophical reflections. Leonard, the main character, is a firm believer in the testimonial power of the image; he worked as an investigator for an insurance company where his job was to assess whether recipients of an insurance policy were faking their conditions, to interrogate possible impostors, and to cross-examine data and medical records in order to discover the truth. He treats his tattoos and Polaroids as infallible evidence, in spite of the fact that he cannot remember how they came to be in his possession. And yet, far from being a bedrock of certitude, images, similar to all other forms of archival records, are exposed to be infinitely manipulable in the finale of the film.
Memento reminds us that in the hands of the right storyteller, images turn to support almost any kind of narrative—which brings us to the current issue of Esferas, dedicated to the Image. The film consciously plays with the tension between the indexical nature of the photographic image and its mythopoetic potential, between its being and its afterlife, between its materiality and its specters, between the past that is and the past that can be, between being and ceasing to be, between appearing and disappearing. The same tension is at the heart of most of the investigations and creations featured in this section of Esferas dedicated to images. As Memento and the contributions to this issue show, the photographic image is not only considered the most apt to be slyly altered, it is also perceived as the most objective and trustworthy; it is within this paradox that the image can best unsettle, debunk, or reshape the stories we tell ourselves on a daily basis. And yet it does so within the larger frame of the film, imposing the tension of the photograph on the moving image.
Velar la imagen/Develop the Image.
Somewhere in their trajectory across time the words velar and develop encounter each other, wrapped under the veil. Velar, from the Latin velum, velo. Velar: to cover/veil (cubrir con un velo); to stay awake (permanecer en vela), to watch over something or someone, perhaps dead; to keep vigil; to watch, intently. But in photography, also, its opposite: to lose in the excess of exposure to light. And develop: from the old 1590 English word disvelop, it takes from desveloper in Old French its unveiling and unfolding. And in the watchfulness of velar, the image has its place to come into being, to grow, to experience, to act.
A New Short History
The works that explore most urgently the ambivalence between veiling and unveiling, the paradoxes of the trace, the specters and alterations that stand at the core of all kinds of images, take photography head on as their point of departure. These are the essays that pair photographs with text, images with literature. In “An Inexplicable Phenomenon: The Relationship between the Image and the Unconscious,” the ontology of the image questions the very being of the subject. While marking how images shaped the postcolonial subject, Katharine Holland shows the very impossibility of the image: “the image cannot be both the ultimate tool of discovery because it is independent of the human mind, and also be a tool of discovery because it consists of the human mind.” Lourdes Dávila, in “Más allá del rumor de la historia, del ver y del leer: La Llegada. Crónica con ficción de José Luis González,” identifies in the encounter of images and texts, of verbal and visual discourses—with their constant gathering of science, history, and art—the space of the non-event of the body of the ex-slave as it posits its being beyond word and image. Lily M. Ryan, in “Pedro Parámo, Photography, and Mexican Modernity,” broods over the photo that Juan Preciado keeps in his pocket when approaching the ghost town of Comala; the photograph’s materiality, its sweating, stands as the extension of a being that never ceases to be and that accuses the very process of modernization toward which photography looks in Juan Rulfo’s text. In this reworking of the first coming into being of the image, these essays undo the “legacy of European New World exoticism, expansion, and colonization” of which Marcy E. Schwartz and Mary Beth Tierney-Tello speak in the introduction to Photography and Writing in Latin America: Double Exposures (2006). Indeed, these three authors, and the authors that follow, demonstrate that it is not in exposure where these texts will place their bets, but rather in the mutual enveloping of image and text that sustains their telling.
Phantasms and other uncanny presences are at the center of “Ciencia Espectral. Literatura, fotografía y otros dispositivos” and “Musa mecánica: fotografía y cine en la escritura de Enrique Lihn” by Paola Cortés Rocca and Valeria de los Ríos, respectively. All of us, we think, are more or less acquainted with the genre of “Spirit Photography;” all of us sooner or later have encountered one of those images which depict ghosts or other eerie presences hovering over sternly bourgeois human figures. These images are, of course, illusions: tricks achieved by playing with the camera exposure. And yet they cannot but strike us as profoundly veridical. In their different analyses of literary texts, these two authors move away from the notion that images are a tool of discovery and illuminate what Lourdes Dávila in her essay calls “la verdad de la fotografía,” in this case its capacity for creating specters and hallucinations, which, though illusions they might be, nevertheless have a tremendous bearing on the material essence of our reality. Paola Cortés Rocca’s essay about Informe sobre ectoplasma animal (Roque Larraquy/Diego Ontivero 2014) unveils the use of ectography—the capturing of images of non-physical or trans-physical objects, items or entities—to undo the spectral evidence that establishes the limits between humans and animals: “But in Informe, the animal does not collaborate with the anthropological machine, does not rise as the limit and counterweight of the human; it is rather, precisely, that which interrupts the mechanism of their differentiation.” Thus interrupted, the animals and their spectral evidence command a relationship between their being and politics based, not in biopolitics, but, as Cortés Rocca establishes, in necropolitics. Valeria de los Ríos, in her article, brings to light Rancière’s “narrative chain” in her reading of Enrique Lihn’s syntactical phrasing of words and images; as spectral evidence, the language of photography and film, woven with and through words, “fluctuates between affirmation and uncertainty, leaving in the field of the unsayable photography [and filmic] referents, thereby becoming the contagion of the present of the poetic subject.”
The storytelling power of photography is also explored, through different lenses, in both the essayistic pieces which tackle the photographic medium directly and the ones we can term photo-essays. If there is an element that ties together Antonio Pantoja’s historical essay “Piedras sobre el estanque” about the current crisis of photojournalism, Laura Rubio’s “The Catch-22 of Photography” about the empathy-eliciting power of photographs, Jordana Mendelson’s “Archival Excursions” about the writer’s own experience as a curator of many photo exhibits over the years, and Michel Otayek’s equally autobiographical essay “Contando a Kati Horna,” it is what Magdalena Perkowska, in her article “Para que todos lo sepan,” calls “el poder performativo” of photographs: that is, their power to act, to touch us and affect us, or, as she describes it in her essay, their power of “emoción, moción, y movilización.”
Perkowska’s article talks specifically about an art installation by Guatemalan artist Daniel Hernández Salazar titled “Ángel Callejero” (1999). Contrary to the other angels of the polyptych who, interpreting the saying “No ver, no oír, no hablar,” are each covering either their eyes, ears or mouth––incarnating a surplus of negation, self-censure, and oblivion in the context of the internecine civil war that ravaged Guatemala for more than forty years––this angel, who joins his hands as if they were a horn and shouts “so that everybody will know,” invites us to break the silence and acknowledge that, “Sí hubo genocidio.” Like the other three, this fourth angel is a young man whose superimposed wings are the shoulder blades of a deceased person. The proximity between the strong shoulders of the young indio and the bones of a war victim pierces us, while the gesture of the angel prompts us to remember and demand justice against institutionalized violence, impunity, and oblivion. Perhaps our introduction, initially carried away by Memento, puts too much stress on the delusional, incantatory power of images as well as on the pliability inherent in them; “Para que todos lo sepan” articulates an example of the way in which images can be mobilized to counteract not only deceptive narratives, but the tide of history itself. Over and against the ebb and flow of historical memorializing and forgetting, “Ángel Callejero” is a powerful intervention which demands of us a new kind of ethical engagement with the past, “a body in action” that elicits useful, and much needed, historical revisionism. In this light, “The Catch-22 of Photography” underscores the relevancy of the photograph in current events. Rubio summarizes the well-known photo of Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, focusing on details such as his left eye that is “weakly open about a quarter of the way, slightly swollen underneath” and his right cheek where “a faded splotch of dark brown parallels the blood from the other side.” Her description is a reflection of the essay’s main idea—that conflict photography should aim to create a personal connection between the viewer and the subject of the photograph in order to provoke the viewer, perhaps into action. It is also a provocation which directs the relationship between Michel Otayek and Kati Horna, the photographer of whom he writes, an intimate provocation which for Otayek becomes the desire to uncover a secret that wishes to remain hidden.
Also concerned with the relationship between photography and history are the photo-project “NN” by photographer Luisa Fernanda Lindo and the photo-narrative “Dibujos” by Puerto Rican writer and artist Eduardo Lalo; the latter is a creative re-writing of the history of Puerto Rico, the former, an exploration of the process that makes certain subjects invisible within society. Both these projects explore the tension between memory and oblivion, and question the mechanisms by which certain people or events are treasured while others are excluded or purposefully erased to fit a national narrative or self-image.
Much more inward-looking, though no less compelling and thoughtful, are the photo-essays “The Act of Intimacy and The Agentic Self” by Tris Bucaro and “Transformarse, disimular, exponer” by Sophie Hsu. The first series of photos by NYU graduate Bucaro is the documentation of a performance in which Bucaro placed himself in intimate situations—such as sitting in the bathtub of his apartment for extended periods of time—with willing participants. In this sense, it stands as both an exploration of the possibility of intimacy in a hyperconnected, ultra-narcissistic young generation and a reflection on the freedom which being nude can afford. “Transformarse, disimular, exponer,” for its part, showcases a series of photos which, perhaps by documenting a quotidian set of actions rather than an artificial situation, results in an equally dangerous intimacy: in her photo-essay, Hsu takes on the temporal becoming of the pose, that is, the moment before petrification, as the place of danger between “estar” and “ser.”
In the pieces we can name “creations,” whose point of departure is, yet again, photography, you will find sardines which turn into skeletons in Sergio Chejfec’s “Sardinas;” poems which simulate the photographic process in Cristina Elena Pardo’s “La retratada;” faltering Cuban wifi zones in Osdany Morales’ “Zona Wifi”; and an unsettling tale of domestic violence in Cristina Colmena’s “Los pies de foto.” And, without words, photographs name a narrative in “Ausencia de la fotógrafa” by Claire Dorfman and “Camino” by David Israeli. Both of these photographic creations unspeak their journeys and invite us to question the meaning of the photography of travel. Is photography the cane that sustains the traveler in her journey? The stop along the way that quenches an unnamable thirst?
For a journal dedicated to image, Velar la imagen/Develop the Image has surprisingly few articles that discuss film. If Valeria de los Ríos gives us the need to look at Enrique Lihn’s writing as a site where photography meets the moving image in a new syntactical phrasing, we see, in our essays dedicated to film, movement as the very desire of the image that wishes to speak. “Nueve reinas,” by NYU Abu Dhabi student Stjepan Klinar, examines Argentine neo-noir film Nueve reinas as an allegory of Argentine society under neoliberalism; in “El antídoto femenino,” Katerina Voegtle analyzes Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno through genre studies; and finally, Pablo de la Parra, in “Mirar otra vez. Apuntes sobre el archivo del cine militante,” presents a new hypothesis to interpret the radical cinema that sprung up around the world not only in the wake of ‘68, but as part of a much larger movement of social revolution which engulfed much of the Global South. De la Parra reviews these films and how they communicated a political message that included turning film production into a more collective enterprise. To conclude his essay, he talks about the CIA’s process of reevaluating images taken from aircrafts during World War II in order to find evidence of the existence of concentration camps. Harun Farocki’s words: “Although [Auschwitz] was in the photographs, it was not seen,” which the author quotes, guide him to the imperative that underscores his title, and the work we desire for this issue: debemos mirar otra vez.