I’m interested, if not an expert, on how we use photography and social media and how it influences our lives and in my case both my experience of (and presentation to the world) of my parenting. Above is a picture I took a few months ago. I kept it on my phone despite feeling very strange and conflicted about how and why it existed and whether I should ever show anyone. I must state, clearly, and right now, that it is the foot of a baby, mine, who is very much alive and happy today. It is bloodied because he had some tests, for which the results were pretty good. I should also perhaps offer a warning that some of the reflections below are partly about death.
When the photo had been on my phone a little while I met a blogger called Violet, just briefly, at a conference called Cybher. I feel I should give a warning here that her work is not, as she puts it, everyone’s cup of tea and many may dislike even the premise of her blogging. I was very touched by her presentation and her blog.
She has an amazing site if highly sensitive site in which she compiles post mortem photography, pictures of the dead, especially, but not exclusively, from the early days of photography at the end of the 19th century.
She says she envies the Victorians and their pragmatic approach to death, and her site seems to pay a tribute both to those whose images feature and to another time and experience. Many of the photographs, given the time, are of children. Both because child mortality was so high, but also because photography was so new and expensive that some images seep out a secondary sadness.
Beyond their thundering blow of bereavement, they suggest that perhaps this photograph was the only one parents could afford of their child. The only one they had. And one taken once their child slept forever. A world away from the cacophony of everyday snapping we take for granted. Often the children and adults are dressed up – if you’ve seen the haunting film ghost story The Others you’ll have seen a riff on these sorts of images.
I was struck by both her simple interest in compiling, restoring, displaying and responding to these pictures and by the notion which becomes apparent in the comments or with any research – that these photos are a commodity which hold so much interest. People collect them.
The site, The Skull Illusion (http://www.theskullillusion.com/) is interesting partly because it offers a prurient insight into a great taboo, the ultimate window into others’ lives: the thrill of their trauma, the sense of their importance and the simultaneous shock that all that was them is mushed in a fadedness into ‘history’. But also because both the blog itself and the fact that it exists poses so many questions.
Do the dead have no privacy? Perhaps not, once their living loved ones have also passed on. Or perhaps they should have? Or is that in and of itself a denial in all of us? An unwillingness to address what is behind the curtain (for all of us)?
Conversely, is it not a honourable thing to display and cherish these pictures, home them and love them somehow, allow more to see their strange beauty? This beauty in itself is intense. It is partly the starkness of the images (like most things which move intensely they are both banal and deeply shocking) but also the love and reverence with which they are taken, and their sense of posterity and simultaneous hope and defeat.
Mostly, ghoulishly, it is fascinating. Is the site’s power as obvious as the thrill for readers of daring ourselves to stare at something we don’t want to see, or shouldn’t? The ultimate keyhole peeping without the fear of a pencil poked through it into our eye? Or is the threat of some nasty surprise for spying part of the appeal – do we have the balls to stare down death and will he jump out of us like a ghost girl in a Japanese movie?
The site’s author told me the most looked at photograph she has is one which has been widely printed the world over – a picture of Kurt Cobain. It isn’t gory, it isn’t detailed, it is of a door partly open with his foot and arm visible. If I remember correctly some detritus of life, a coffee cup for example, visible to the moment snatching paparrazo. Just a foot in a shoe, it could be a rockstar asleep, a teen languishing listening to headphones, but it isn’t. It is the dead limb of a man who has taken his own life in violence.
When people die we understandably struggle with the transition to the world without. There’s a beautiful eulogy written by a rocker to a friend, Terry, who toured and worked with him for years. It says:
They say you can’t take it with you
But I think that they’re wrong
All I know is I woke up this morning and something big had gone*
It most accurately distils every feeling and experience of grief I have ever had. The emptiness, the weirdness, the normalness, the everydayness, the bloody infernal ‘they’ telling us all what we should think and how we should react in good times and in shit ones.
I have never taken a photograph of a dead person. But I can understand the urge, not least as I am still a child in the face of death, coping with it mainly by simply pretending it doesn’t happen, and failing that pretending it doesn’t happen whenever I don’t have to address other people grieving and needing my support and sympathy, or sympathising with me in my grief when I have experienced it. Behind closed doors I pretend we’re all immortal.
I’m struck by the idea of Kurt Cobain’s foot (I saw the image when it was printed immediately after he died, I can’t look again, it would be too close to home). And curious about the many people finding it through google. Are they pleased or disappointed there’s no blood? I’ve seen dead bodies online and in films, I know the sensation of craning your neck, tilting your head to check if there is more to the picture, any grisly detail left unseen at first glance.
I’m mainly struck by the foot though, because of pale feet I too have seen. Once when my son really was very sick I found myself photographing him. I was appalled by the vagabond version of himself he was. Panting, stretched and strangled by wires, ribs pulling out of his chest, eyelids see-through, throat hoarse with trying, lying in a monstrous high raised infant hospital bed. It was the most frightened I have ever been as an adult, and all I wanted to do was take photographs. Endless snaps on my phone of his face, his feet, his nose, a profile and lips and teeth. Even though the very act was so intrusive on him, and unfair – he is beautiful when sick, but like all of us perhaps deserves the best of him, and his prettiest, to be on show.
I didn’t think at the time about why I was doing it, though I felt embarrassed later, ashamed even that people would think I had done something trivial at his time of need. I thought ‘they’ would think I had abdicated the proper mum’s role of ‘worrier warrior’ merely to live up to the incessant over-sharing of the social media networking age.
Perhaps there was a touch of that (I wonder if I believed the situation was real more or less before I updated people online about his progress?) Mainly though I was torn between wanting to show people the images of him really sick, or edit them like holiday snaps and only show the ones where he looked beautiful or not upsetting, if occasionally covered in wires.
Now time has passed I think I know why I did it: because I felt like if I kept recording it I would keep hold of the moment/my son/my autonomy/my authorship of my life and hold the image of him somewhere somehow in time. And the moment wouldn’t end. And he would stay alive.
Violet, the author of The Skull Illustion cites becoming a parent as one of the reasons she developed her morbid curiosity. A desire to woman up to the big D in an attempt to cope with the horror that parenting brings, a clear and present sense of all the time danger of something going wrong with time and a child being lost. I think that is what I was doing too, and thankfully with a child who is now recovered, fat and well.
* from Terry’s Song, by Bruce Springsteen