Saturday, 2 February 2013

Photog 1: The Gaze of the Dead

I've been taking a class called Photography and Public History. The class appeals to me both as a photographer and an academic, given the visual slant to my own work on advertising films. Our last class addressed the concept of gaze. It was something I had considered to some extent previously, but our readings for this week, as they always seem to do in this class, left everything I'd thought standing on its head or tied in knots. The most extensive discussion of gazes was in Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins "The Photograph as an Intersection of the Gazes" as part of their book Reading National Geographic.

Lutz and Collins contend that all photographs are about looking. In the case of the National Geographic photos that are their focus, they contend that "[t]he photograph and the non-western person share two fundamental attributes in the culturally tutored experience of most Americans; they are objects at which we look." However, the gaze is nothing so simple as that. There are a multitude of gazes: the photographer's gaze, the magazine's gaze, the magazine reader's gaze, the non-Western subject's gaze, a direct Western Gaze, the reflected gaze of the Other, and the gaze of the academic spectator to name only a few. Furthermore, each of these gazes intersects in a photograph.

When I began wracking my brain for a photograph and a topic for my post, my mind kept coming back to the idea of the gaze. Perhaps I was influenced by having just read Lauren's post. Because my mind works in mysterious ways, I also couldn't shake the discussions we've had over the past months about the analogies of death tied to the camera. The photograph as a type of death, photographs of people before their deaths viewed afterward, the act of taking a photograph as an act of violence, Weegee's photographs of crimes and death; all of these ideas kept playing through my mind until I had a strange thought. Does death have a gaze?

I blame listening to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone while doing homework. Regardless, that thought is what what led me to a website called Without Santuary. It's named after a book of the same title and houses about 80 photographs and postcards of lynchings from the American south. Photographs like these.


As I've said, there are dozens of these photographs on this site as well as a flash slide with commentary that I'm considering analyzing for my final project. There are a number of different things that could be analyzed in these photos. The fact that they were made into post cards, the fact that the lynch mobs tend to either be looking at the camera or the victim, the fact that the viewer is typcially made a part of the mob by the photographer's gaze, and the fact that many of the photos, including the one above on the left, show signs of being staged. One could also examine the captions on the website or the text written on the post cards.

What struck me most though was the fact that in many of these photographs the victim is looking at the camera. In some instances it's clear that it was arranged, like this one.

Why are they looking at the camera? Why did people try to make them look at the camera?
In some cases the eyes of the victim are still open. They are for all intents and purposes, on the most basic of levels, looking at the camera. Yet, they are dead. Do they still have a gaze? And if so, is it the gaze of the person they were or is it the gaze of death/the dead?
If it is the gaze of the dead, what does that gaze say?

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