by Mark Roberts
The following text originally appeared as the introductory essay in a book of photographs by Tuukka Kaila
In 2001, my mother sent me a photograph of herself, sitting in a high-backed armchair in the staff-assisted home in Dover that she had moved into a few years previously. I occasionally come across this photograph when searching for something in the top drawer of a cabinet beside my desk, where it usually resides under a pile of cutting boards, plastic cord ties, unused mini-DV tapes, and two old 2Gb memory cards that I no longer need.
This is the only photograph of my mother that I have in the house. There are probably more in a box somewhere in a storage room, but they are undoubtedly located behind piles of junk and detritus accumulated over the years. So, as I’m not a particularly sentimental person, this photograph will have to do as my aide-memoire.
In the photograph, my mother sits behind a table which appears to suggest some kind of celebration is taking place — possibly for her birthday. There are two plastic glasses, one filled with something sparkling, the other with a red, vaguely martini-esque drink. At one side is a paper Coca-Cola cup containing several bread sticks.. A bowl filled with what appear to be mini cinnamon rolls sits in the foreground next to some suspiciously plastic-looking flowers.
The photograph has been cut unevenly with scissors. There are no other people visible — and if there were any present it would appear that they have been consciously excised from the scene.
My mother wears a pale blue dress with white flowers, over which, onto the photograph, she has inexplicably stuck a small, glow-in-the-dark smiley face. Above this somewhat bizarre addition, my mother’s own gaunt and somewhat emaciated face stares out.
My mother is smiling, but the leery grin of the glow-in-the-dark smiley somehow casts her own smile in doubt. Hers is an almost flat line that could easily be read as mild discomfort or displeasure. For some reason, I have always perceived this photograph as a reprimand; as if my mother is saying, “So, now you see me.” It makes me feel guilty for moving abroad and not being there for her as she became increasingly ill.
The smiley face perplexes me. I don’t know why she stuck it on the photo. Was she acknowledging that she doesn’t look that happy in the photo, and trying to let me know that she was “smiling on the inside”? Or was it simply a meaningless afterthought?
My mother died a few months later, in 2002. This is the last photograph I have of her, and it remains, for me, utterly ambiguous and impenetrable. It is an unsettlingly frustrating memory to be left with. I don’t know quite what to make of it.
Now, in the darkness of my drawer, that glow-in-the-dark smiley face still grins from ear to ear, as if it knows some terrifying truth that lies between its glowing, happy, surface and the underlying image.
Years ago, while living in Helsinki, I found a single, discarded 35mm negative in the middle of a street. Being a curious photographer, I naturally picked it up and scanned it in later to see what it held. It was a fairly average photograph of a lake, visible through a clearing in some quite tall spruce and pine trees. The sky is hued pink and pale blue with an approaching sunset, and a few tree-covered islands dot the lake in the distance.
Because cars and other traffic had driven over the negative, the image is pock-marked with white splotches, and a splattering of red dots spread in a band across the center of the image.
As an image it is fairly unremarkable, and yet it raises questions beyond its frame: Who took this? Why? Where was it taken? Why was it discarded? What other images surrounded it on the strip of film from which it was severed.
I can fairly safely assume it was probably taken in central Finland (where lakes are plentiful and trees taller than in the North), and very likely taken by someone visiting a summer house (because it falls very much within the broadly general style of summer house family photography).
This image currently sits framed above my living room sofa (and has done so for several years), in effect, re-situating it without necessarily recontextualizing it. That is, it is still a family photograph, re-situated within the context of another family. Along the base of the photograph I have added the following, intentionally ambiguous text:
“It was only then that they saw it, and the truth of the situation became apparent.”
I often wonder what visitors think when they see this photograph. They probably assume one of two things: that it is art, or that it is one of our own family photos that we think looks interesting enough because of its degradation and decay. I wonder what meaning people attribute to the text that accompanies it, and how it influences their interpretation of the image, and their (re)imagining of my family history.
Rather than presenting a moment above all others to put on display and create an image of an idyllic family life, it presents instead a non-history — more fun-house mirror than vanity — and participates in the creation of a duplicitous timeline. In many ways, this photograph obfuscates truth (or alternatively reveals a tortured attempt to maintain familial privacy). Its truth, if it has any, exists between the lines; between one history and another. It tells two stories simultaneously, and articulates neither particularly well. It is a paradox; an aide-memoir of a falsification, a record of a specific time and place that never existed for me, and can therefore never die. It is both permanent, and ephemeral. Full of meaning, yet utterly empty.
My wife had a bonsai tree. She watered it diligently as it had become a symbol of something (I don’t recall what anymore) and keeping it alive was very important for her, and for us — it was almost as if our relationship depended upon the Bonsai tree staying alive.
On the rare occasions we ever got to go on holiday, we needed to find someone who would come and water it regularly, or alternatively, find someone we could take it to who would care for and nurture it. I vividly recall driving around with that Bonsai tree in the passenger seat footwell of our car, shuttling it between houses, desperately trying to prevent any leaves from falling off.
Whenever a leaf did fall off the tree, I would feel a pang of anxiety, and worry that more leaves would fall off, indicating an impending end to our future or something equally significant. The problem was that neither of us were very good at regularly watering plants; the tree would get dry and, whenever we moved the tree, a leaf would inevitably fall off, and my blood pressure would rise.
At some point, while we were away on a residency and the plant was being looked after by a friend who was completely unaware of the significance we paced in it, all the leaves fell off and it died. It had no effect on our relationship, and to my knowledge did not precipitate any further catastrophe beyond its own demise.
To this day, however, the sight of a Bonsai tree fills me with sadness and elicits a faint, nagging anxiety.
For a purely visual medium, photographs are surprisingly reluctant to communicate. They often rely on accompanying text to do the talking. It is common that one can look at a photograph and not really understand what it depicts until one reads the title or accompanying text.
The problem with text, however, is that it is prone to misinformation and factual error. Its authority is abused to mask the intentional misrepresentation of truth in order to prioritise one point of view or another. Thus, text cannot be trusted — one has to approach it with an air of suspicion.
To make things doubly complicated, a photograph is a text, like any other; it may describe its contents visually, but we interpret it verbally or textually. That is, we put words (in)to it, and in so doing, we render it impotent, and ultimately irrelevant.
As an example of textual misdirection, there is, at the time of writing, an ongoing scandal into the amount of ███████████ being carried out ██████████████ by the █████████████ ██████████████████████. What is fascinating about the whole situation is the careful choice of language used to not specifically deny that various ███████████ have been █████████ — or more precisely, have been subject to ████████████. When one reads press releases from ████████████, present and future tenses are cunningly deployed in order to distract attention away from ████████████████████████ by implicitly (but not explicitly) denying them. For example: “We do not and will not listen to ████████████ phone calls” appears at first glance to be a firmly positive statement until the realisation sinks in that no reference is made to actions taking place in the past.
The end result of this ██████████ is a series of ███████████████ that build one █████████ upon another, until the text becomes so thick with █████████ that the whole concept of “█████” becomes irrelevant, and we are left in a dumbfounded silence, pondering whether or not anything we read, hear, or see can be trusted anymore. We have to read between the lines of everything we see and do, afraid to speak out unless we inadvertently implicate ourselves or our friends in a █████████████, because if we are all subject to ██████████, if follows that we are all ██████████████.
Of course, the argument for a base position of global ██████████, is, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” The beauty of that argument, especially for the ███, is that everyone has something to hide.
We would do well to regard photographs with similar suspicion. So much lies outside the frame, and so many lies exist within it, yet we wilfully suspend disbelief and look for “truth” in photographs. This is both the problem and triumph of photography; the appearance of a clear truth veils the fabrication of conceit. If we really want to locate the truth of an image, just as with a text, we must read between the lines, or peer through the veil.
The irony, of course, is that we are all guilty of duplicity and illusion. (Everyone has something to hide.) We collaborate in creating falsified images of our lives: smiling portraits that hide underlying doubts and fears; happy family gatherings that deny familial conflict; the photographs we appropriate and present as our own; the carefully presented images on a gallery wall. Every image contains a potential lie.
But if the photograph is a text we can no longer trust, then why do we continue to enjoy photography? Perhaps we simply enjoy lying to ourselves. Or perhaps it is seeking out the lie that makes photographs endlessly fascinating.
Most photographers, I imagine, share a secret double life. There is the public life, in which photographs are carefully taken, then whittled down to a selection of passable shots that are subsequently processed to excellence, printed, and presented either in a gallery or in a publication.
Then, beyond that, and largely unseen, is the photographer’s inevitable second life as an ongoing documentarist of their family history: the mundane photos of everyday existence that might be shared only amongst family members, or occasionally spewed out chaotically onto social media. There is something pleasing in the thought that the Jeff Walls and Andreas Gurskys of the world have hard drives full of holiday snaps from Ibiza, and their children’s amusing Lego constructions arranged neatly between some potted plants.
I’m sure, also, that most photographers share the experience of being asked by friends or family to take photographs at weddings — a request I personally always dread whenever I hear a friend announce their marital intentions.
I was surprised, once, to be asked in Finland to photograph at a family funeral. The idea of a photographer snapping away wedding-style during a funeral seemed highly inappropriate to me, but apparently it’s quite normal. I agreed to do it, mostly out of curiosity, but also because I thought it would allow me to disengage from the funeral proceedings themselves, and watch as a kind of dispassionate observer of death and how different societies deal with it through photography.
As an aside, I should add that this brush with death was not my first. I remember, as a teenager, taking a photo of an elderly family member who then died a week or two later. It wasn’t a great photograph — just another family snapshot — but the significance of the photograph was elevated when I was told at the funeral that I had taken the last photograph. This left an indelible impression on me as a young man, resulting in me becoming hesitant to photograph old people for fear that the shutter was not the only button my finger was resting upon.
In many societies it is common to have a photograph of the deceased present at the post-funeral gathering: an image that in some way sums up the life (or at least a desirable image of that life) of the deceased. It strikes me often — perhaps as a result of that disconcerting experience as a teenager — that when photographing people, every image holds within it the potential to become that photograph: the one that becomes representative of a life lived, and displayed as such post-mortem. I realise this is a particularly morbid way of thinking about photography, but I suspect I am not alone in experiencing it.
It is, paradoxically, often the images of people (or pets) at their happiest or most relaxed that encompass for me a simultaneous sense of foreboding; of an approaching end — as if the image itself is attempting to ward off inevitable entropy.
To one degree or another, all images are memento mori; they record a fleeting moment that becomes ever more distant as time continually passes. And yet they live beyond their subjects and their creators, taking on a life of their own.