- “What is a ghost?” Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. (Ulysses, James Joyce)
In those far away years before Photoshop, that nevertheless are almost two hundred years of photography (around the year 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made the first known attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura by means of a light-sensitive substance), photography was a sign of existence. To eliminate someone from existence, to make that person non-existent, was almost an exercise of sorcery. Famous were the photographs where Nikolai Yezhov, Joseph Stalin’s head of secret police, entered the limbo of never having been there, once not being any more here, really, after his execution in 1940. Trotsky was as well a member of the incredibly disappearing men’s club even prior to his disappearance from the world of the living, as was Lev Kamenev and many others. Even if the photographic print removal was quite virtuously achieved, one cannot say the absence is not felt- there is a grey zone left, where the grain of the picture, very conspicuous, makes one think of death. This must be what death looks like, being removed from the picture, the living quickly regrouping to make the absence less obvious.
Yet everything leaves a trace, nothing can be repaired to be as it was before. My psychoanalyst says that.
My life without me (2003) is the title of a film by Isabel Coixet and even if I must confess I never saw a film by this director, I was always enamored of this title. The story is the following -as I read in the imdb page of the film: “Ann, 23 years old, lives a modest life with her two kids and her husband in a trailer in her mother’s garden. Her life takes a dramatic turn, when her doctor tells her that she has uterine cancer and only two months to live. She compiles a list of things to do before she dies.”
Ann begins to design the empty space that she will leave behind after her removal, visualizing a picture of her life without her. In another association, the film’s plot reminds me as well of one of my favorite short stories (and according to Borges the best short story ever), an archetype of image obliteration: Wakefield, by Hawthorne.
“The man, under pretense of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield.”
Wakefield has some special characteristics that sets him apart from Ann and the disappearing Bolsheviks; he leaves his life willingly, he takes that decision, as he takes the decision of entering it again. 20 years has he been absent from his life, or not quite, since during those years he was always the most passion- ate observer of his life without him.
What is interesting in the Wakefield case is: Where has he been during those 20 years?
“Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.”
Marginality, irrelevance, triviality, peripheral placement, unimportance. This is where we go by absence. “No one will speak about us when we are dead” is another film title, this time a 1995 film by Agustín Díaz-Yanes. One could dream that one’s absence will be as strongly felt as one’s presence. But sadly this is not true- the living, or those present here and now, will quickly group together again so that the empty space is swiftly filled in.
In the photographs of the work “From the Series Untitled”, Mixed media on printed paper, Variable dimensions, 2016, by Fani Zguro, we see nine images where the faces of one, two, three, four subjects, have been not really deleted, but scratched, cut out, severed, grazed, rubbed off. The photographic image has not been manipulated, it is the photographic surface that has been mutilated. There is something very brutal about it, as if the urgency of changing the existing course of events eliminated all politesse. It is a real decapitation: these are beheaded bodies, not disappeared bodies. The fact that the elimination of the face does not leave behind a smooth photographic surface (which translates as a modified event, that person was never there) but on the contrary what is left is the dramatically dismembered surface: a hole. That person was there and I chopped off her head, and by doing this I revealed the inner mechanisms of photographic representation, a photograph is just a thick paper with a light sensitive surface, nothing more than that, not your family, not your friends, but just paper with photographic emulsion, a light-sensitive colloid consisting of silver halide crystals dispersed in gelatin.
“From the Series Untitled” is the equivalent of a passional crime in photography. A crime.
The disappearance of political rivals and dissidents - to incarcerate them is not enough, to kill them is not enough, it has to be as if they never existed- has immediate associations with dictatorships and totalitarism. But also with failed love affairs, broken marriages, betrayed friendships, disinheritances. Life as a torn photograph, identity removed by scratching faces: memory has been lost, and the loss is irreversible. Wakefield cannot go home again.