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Capturing Remains / Theaters of (Dis)compassion: an Iconography of Catastrophe

To create an image, do you have to destroy madly?
—Leila Sebbar, Le Fou de Shérazade

Such is the power of the photograph, of the image, that it can give back and take away, 
that it can bind.
—bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life”

I have, as was due, begun gagging on all the COVID-19 related content I have been scarfing down since February 2020. As a result, something strange has begun to happen in the undomesticated part of my mind. Two events are conflated: at the end of March, police shot 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo dead in his Kiamaiko balcony under the guise of enforcing curfew to curb the coronavirus; and the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel (recently embroiled in a series of murky buy-outs) is expected not to re-open even after the restrictions currently in place are lifted in Kenya. 

As with most untenable things in my life lately, I blame this absurd entanglement on studying history at university, and a triad whose inmixing continues to intrigue. What connections can we make between conflict and time; time and photography1; conflict and photography? All three continue to inform debates in photographic theory, but the increasing prominence of photography paired with the prevalence of conflicts in the 20th century, and on into the 21st (protean as it may be, taking on forms like a global pandemic and economic downturns), means parsing the links between photography and conflict has become even more pressing.2 

There are two parts to this question: firstly, how do we decode the violence inherent in the photographic medium3; and secondly, if the photograph is a medium predicated on a form of discursive violence, what insights can we glean when the subject itself is violence? To briefly illustrate the first, let us consider the language of photography: we “load,” “aim” and “shoot” the camera. We “capture” or tame our subjects, and perhaps “take” more from them than just an image when we fix them in time and keep them as trophies—evidence of our conquests.4 The language itself betrays photography’s relation to violence.5  Recall the former Kodak slogan: “You pull the trigger, we’ll do the rest.” The photograph, like the gun and the machete, has been deployed as a weapon in the imperial enterprise6 and with similar intentions in anthropology and ethnography.7 As American cultural critic Susan Sontag notes,“Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.”8 

The second part of my question, however, is especially pertinent to my previous areas of study: post-war Japan, Mughal-era India, 1900s Mexico, colonial Namibia, British East Africa.9 As 2020 crawls forward, the context of our COVID-19 world strikes me as similar, and its visual vocabulary eerily emblematic, except the theater is even more painfully local, while remaining perplexingly global. Most who knew of this virus towards the close of 2019 did not anticipate the scale and speed with which it would alter our varied ways of being. While decidedly a unique strain of violence, Hiroshima and Nagasaki also suffered an unprecedented trauma as the first targets of the atomic bomb. No one could possibly have predicted the extent to which ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ would alter the landscape of war, and certainly not its impact on Japanese lives and memory. Even in Japan itself, the full effects of the ‘new style bomb’ were not fully comprehensible. It is quite telling that apart from the initial photographs of the bombing, it took Japanese photographers nearly a decade to begin working through its impact on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese national identity as a whole. Writing the history of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an exercise in representing the unrepresentable. As Emperor Hirohito urged the Japanese in his radio address to “endure the unendurable,” post-war Japanese photographers attempted to capture the uncapturable—the continued trauma of the atomic bombings. We have our own COVID-19a shorthand now for our distinct moment in time—iconography, certainly. I think of all the images I cannot possibly encounter again, let alone assimilate, from this pandemic (refrigerated corpses in New York, while others rot in the streets of Guayaquil) and the various counter/protests across the world (need I invoke these?). I expect that even in a time such as ours, when we are bombarded with imagery to the point of numbness, we will still find more to read in the visual records of the pandemic’s traumas. Even so, the odd knot I opened with, a double exposure, has become representative of COVID-19’s violences, redemptions; of what it has generated, laid bare and veiled in our worlds.

Sontag considers photography “an elegiac art, a twilight art.”10 As an index of “that-has-been,”11 it is no wonder photographs emerged as a form of memento mori. In line with one of photography’s earliest advertising tags—“Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade, Let Nature imitate what Nature made”—these initially took the form of post-mortem photographs in Victorian England and parts of the United States.12 The range of photography’s uses in representing and perhaps even processing trauma and catastrophe13 broadened with the development of new technologies such as lighter cameras as well as the introduction of more efficient printing processes. Considering that the 20th century was marked by both a rise in conflict14 and advancements in photography, it is no wonder that photographs played such a fundamental role in the construction of what Sontag labeled an “iconography of suffering.”15 2014 marked the centenary of the First World War, and in response, Tate Modern mounted an exhibit titled Conflict, Time, Photography encompassing 160 years of war photography.16 The images included photographs from World War I, the American Civil War, the conflicts in Vietnam, the Crimean War, the contemporary violence in Syria, and the aftermath of the atomic bombings in Japan. Both the exhibition and the centenary raised questions of how society remembers war and how the trauma of those tragedies, whether as victims or aggressors, persists in the national and global consciousness. As Simon Baker, the very first Curator of Photography at Tate Modern, explained: “Conflicts don’t end when we think they end, they have a long-lasting effect.”17 However, instead of a more conventional chronology of the conflicts, the exhibition was organized around the photographs’ temporal distance from the events they capture. For example, ‘Moments After’ featured Don McCullin’s famous shot of a shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam and a photograph of the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima. Then there were photographs taken days, months, and even decades after the conflict. All the exhibited photographs are immensely moving—without being overly mawkish—and technically remarkable. Despite the geographical, chronological and stylistic variations, most of the photographs are uncannily similar; it seems we have developed a visual shorthand for catastrophe. 

I would like us to linger over my double exposure (a type of shorthand, too), but if you will allow it, I’ll acquiesce to the fear for a bit longer (muhogo maweni haushushi mizizi) and begin with the Norfolk Hotel; Yassin Moyo, still, is an unhealable wound (like Solai, Goddam), pulsing unexpectedly, and relentlessly. 

The Norfolk Hotel is one spool around which the varied frayed threads of my memory are wound around. 

=[PE06B1]= Akikuyu types - in war attire - Dated 1905 -  BY: Italian Missions (British East Africa) -1900s - <a href=http://www.oldeastafricapostcards.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/PE06B1v.jpg " target="_blank">Verso</a>
Postcard: “Akikuyu Types – In War Attire” 
Postcard Verso: Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi, B.E.A.

A starting image: the postcard above, which has proven profoundly resistant in my mind. It might be how far removed it is from me in time. It might be the vague familiarity it inspires. The Norfolk Hotel—the former headquarters of the Kenya Photographic Society and the stomping grounds of big game hunters in the early 1900s18is the sender’s location, in ‘British East Africa.’ I look at the postcard half-imagining somewhere in the image there is a hint of this man’s future, his community’s, the whole of British East Africa. Walter Benjamin has also written of “the irresistible urge…to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we looking back may rediscover it.”19  Its power to move might also lie in our contemporary fetishization of sepia-toned and black and white photographs. Or perhaps the man himself. The two stamps side by side with the pair of feathers in his headdress, like antennas. The brightness of the tip of his spear. The beads stretching down from his chin, through the middle of his chest, halving the dark of his shawl. It could be the expression on his face, unsmiling and unfazed, despite the caption “in war attire.” He looks straight at me. Not accusing or mocking, just looking. All I know of him is he is an “Akikuyu type.” It might be his anonymity, then, that counter intuitively makes him so arresting in my mind. Another possibility is the contrast between this image that I find so affecting and the painfully pedestrian message on the back: Happy New Year—like the incongruity between photograph and caption. This uncovers another thing that pricks20: the postcard itself, though it could be seen as emblematic of the aggressive spread of empire, is in itself a melancholy object. It is an object of nostalgia, to commemorate a passing event, to correspond with an absent other. Stacked on a rack in a shop somewhere, this much-replicated multiple must impress us with its ephemerality. Whichever the case, this particular image is a poignant one for me, one infused with pathos. 

The quality of pathos, as Roland Barthes might argue, is characteristic of all photographs. The strange temporality of the photograph underpins its melancholy nature. By extracting a moment from the flow of time, photography stills the past, consigning it to an endless repetition in the present, even while denying it a future. This is Barthes’ “that-has-been,” or “the Intractable.” We must confront the ache caused by an awareness that though visible and present before us, the captured moment is irretrievably lost. The photograph, then, embodies “that terrible thing… the return of the dead.”21 I, too, believe where the wound lies in this picture postcard, and others like it, is the fact of the man’s death. That, necessarily, he is dead. He was dead the moment the image was taken, in the instant his moment was finished. And his remembrance was sold cheaply, scribbled upon, passed around, and eventually forgotten. Referring specifically to portrait photography, Susan Sontag wrote: 

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.22

The pathos of this postcard is not limited to our encounter with it in the present time. The man’s petrification in the past is not merely due to his being photographed, but by how the crude binaries of colonial discourse constructed him as ‘backward’ in need of ‘improvement’—a ‘type’ who could not belong in the present time. Constructed as the “living ancestors” of civilized Europeans, Africans were simultaneously considered at risk of extinction, on the verge of disappearance, and in need of preservation. Photography was used to capture Africans and keep them hostage as evidence for posterity, which might be interpreted as a perverse eulogizing of the native as an innocent predecessor of Western civilization. And yet as Rey Chow reminds us: “The native is not the defiled image, and not not the defiled image. And she stares indifferently, mocking our imprisonment within imagistic resemblance…”23

The image below the surface of this one, now, un/defiled: my father and I sitting on the steps of the National Theater on Harry Thuku Road, right next to the University of Nairobi where both parents taught, across from the Norfolk Hotel. 

Source: Author’s own

Very little remains of that day, or the man with his arm around the shoulders of that child. My father cannot know that, quite inconveniently, he would die soon after this photo was made. That child certainly could not predict where they would drag them off to. Those steps couldn’t say that the National Theater’s future would become even more fraught. Where are the performers in this photo today? What of cargo shorts man in the foreground, turned away from the camera? And here, I find I cannot cling any further to the intellectualism I often hide behind. I see now, in retrospect, that working with historical objects and subjects upon which time had performed the first round of crystallization offered a sanctuary I too easily retreat/ed to. I do not want others analysing the expression on my father’s face, or mine. I don’t want a clean, historicized review of what this moment meant in time. A howl would be a more eloquent expression of this uncapturable, unendurable snapshot.

The thing is though, my father’s death, the decline of the national theater, this wretched pandemic, are as much a catastrophe to me as an injured bird, a lost work of art, a poorly seasoned dish, all inelegant code. What to make of this? I’d rather take refuge in a poem. This level of exposure seems a gift no one alive today has earned. 

I’ll try again:

Photos weep, too.
People can be flattened, blurred, faded and be better for it.
Some places are better off stilled, and stolen.
Infinity is only possible in the image, and so is oblivion.
It now seems frivolous to succumb to nostalgia in this way, when all employees of this same Norfolk are at risk of losing their livelihoods, when Yassin has already lost his life—what remains?

What remains?

I want to remember Yassin in his slip-ons, and arafat, looking up at me with his mouth slightly turned up. I want to remember him in his school uniform, arms crossed, looking—as he should—like a cool kid without a care in the world. 

Source: via ICJ Kenya

Photo courtesy Yussef Moyo via CitizenTV

Instead, the photo below is the sequence on loop in my mind, the stage upon which our grief is unleashed—to mixed reviews from the critics. I’ll stick to the facts then: relatives carry the body of 13-year-old Yassin Moyo for burial, at the Kariakor cemetery in Nairobi, Kenya, March 31, 2020. 

via VOA News

(Yassin alikuwa analola rieng ya curfew kwa balcony yao ndio akawaiwa na rithe)24

I have said before: historians owe the dead their respect, the living their dignity, and the unborn the truth. And as a poet? Dam broke; undone, un-worlded, in-valid. What remains?

I’ll begin here, with some last hellos:

mourning yoga/ the yogi’s praise song

and, surely, everything is permissible, now. sasa, hamna ya haramu. haram ni kutomkaribisha mgeni. good morning, old friendsdhiki, tatizo, faraja, rehema, lawama, tarabu, n.k.ahlan wasahlan. ahlan wasahlan, nasema, it’s that month again; nothing is proscribed, hata huba!

there is a place i cannot go. thank you for clearing the path. samahani, it was written that we should not walk it together. the path is gentle, now, and i thank you. this place that i cannot go i trust it keeps you well. i could not hold you, here. forgive these gripless palms, these weeping feet, these knees, these narrow shoulders. i bless the earth, i kiss it with the soles of my feet. i soften my neck, i release the weight in my face. i let my arms run to you. i forgive these gripless palms. i forgive these knees, i forgive their dampening, their misfiring. i follow the pills of tightness down my spine, i let the beads coalesce round my waist, and i roll them down the back of my thighs along the lanes of these stretch marks. i feel them drop to my ankles, i massage them through the veins atop my feet. i let them do as they will. i say, thank you for visiting, for reminding this body that it is a body among other bodies. thank you for waking that nerve here, and this muscle there. i salute you. salute my sister if you encounter her along that seam. say, it is safe to go, we will follow; do not discount this glorious thread that joins us in our procession. tunaandamana.

to that place i cannot go, i say, forgive my agitation, my aching; this body is learning to remain, to linger. hold me back. i am not as hungry as i was for the bodies in your family of things, those bodies mine strains for, wolfish, solitary. not all the goodness is gone with you, my stark mbilia bel-dancing bird. not all the goodness is gone with you, little thorns i could not kiss. not all the goodness is gone with you, little thorns i did kiss. not all the goodness is gone with you, mouth of all our music. not all the goodness is gone with you, throat for all our wailing. not all the goodness is gone with you, heart of mine.

i bless the earth, i kiss it with the palms of my hands.

i bless the air, naked and dazzling. i bless the sun on my back. i bless the rain on my scalp. i bless the concrete, the dust, the roaring. i bless the sapling. i bless the grass, the jacaranda, the cabbage patch. i bless the leaf in me, the weed in me. i bless all the weeds in all the hearts of all people.

i bless these knuckles, sore from knocking at the doors of the place i cannot go. i forgive you. i bless these toes, raw from kicking at the doors of the place i cannot go. i forgive you. i bless these elbows, this forehead, these hips for banging at the doors of the place i cannot go. i forgive you.

my mbilia bel-dancing bird, forgive me. there is no fight i would not have lost for you, no pooltable beating i wouldn’t have taken for you. this is a battleground i cannot follow you to, but there are no cannons, no volcanoes there. don’t fight the rest, don’t fight the good, don’t fight the gentle. when i come, i will leave this hair you tousled with, these large hands, this grotesque burning you left me with.

heart of mine, forgive me. this body is learning to remain. i fold these arms above my head. i salute this day you will not see. i touch the left foot to my back. i release the mountains. i touch my forehead to my feet. i exhale the sea, the rivers that are your legacy. i push this body off the ground. i am held. i hold. i ask where shall i put this face that looks like yours, and the air says, here and here and here, everything is possible. even you. this body is learning to sing, to soar. even when it burns it is mine. remember me when i am reborn. then, i will have reservoirs of sun in my bones. i will have secret lodes at the back of my head, a cache of sun, pools and pools of sun deposited in all the tender points. i will remember you. you are the ground on which i was founded, my first city, my rest, my roar, my gentle.

not all the goodness is gone with you, heart of mine.

i bless the earth, the warm ground, the broken, frozen ground.

i bless the earth, i kiss it with all my mouths.

surely, i am possible. i bless this body. i bow into its keening. i curve into its collapse, its disappearing. i kneel in this body, i twist. i stretch my arms before me. i uncoil. you are the place i stand. i am the place you stand. in this place we stand when we are sore, nothing is prohibited. everything is possible. you are the place i stand when i am sore.

my mbilia bel-dancing bird,

heart of mine–

i’m singing like a geyser: that place i cannot follow will keep you well.

the goodness is not all gone with you.

i bless the ground that bore you, i bless the ground that stole you, that holds you. i bless the ground we won in the war, i bless the ground we didn’t know to surrender. i’m flying like a bird with you now.

the goodness is not all gone with you.

savasana.

  1. Debates about the semiotics of photography are generally structured around photography as technology or medium. On the photograph as sign, see Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography’,” In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1927-1934, edited by Michael William Jennings and Howard Eiland. Vol. 2. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999); For a broader set of perspectives, see the general collection, Jan, Baetens, Alexander Streitberger, and Hilde Van Gelder, eds., Time and Photography. (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2010).  
  2. Susan Sontag is one of a few theorists who have begun this work. See Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).  
  3. Sontag writes, “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” Sontag, Susan., On Photography. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 8  
  4. Philippe Dubois compares photography to thanatography in  L’acte Photographique Et Autres Essais, (Bruxelles: Éditions Labor, 1990)   
  5. Perhaps it is not only the language of war, but also of eroticism: capturing, ravishing, the aim of Cupid’s arrow, etc. See Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 188.  
  6. Terence Ranger, “Colonialism, Consciousness And The Camera,” Past & Present, no. 171 (2001): 203-15. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600818.; See also, Eleanor M. Hight, Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place.( London: Routledge, 2002).  
  7. Elizabeth Edwards, Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920. (New Haven: Yale University Press in Association with the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, 1992.)   
  8. Sontag, On Photography, 21.  
  9. Several analyses here are adapted from my thesis, 2016.  
  10. Ibid., 15.  
  11. Barthes is also deeply invested in photography’s relation to death. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).  
  12. Jay Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).  
  13. Baer applies psychoanalytic theory to photographic criticism and suggests comparisons between the notion of the photograph’s “arrested moment” and how the human psyche processes trauma. See Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002).  
  14. Deaths are estimated at 187 million in Eric Hobsbawm, “War and Peace,” The Guardian, February 22, 2002, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/feb/23/artsandhumanities.highereducation  
  15. Susan Sontag, “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death,” The New Yorker, December 9, 2002, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war  
  16. Tate Modern, Conflict, Time, Photography exh.cat., text by Simon Baker, ( London: 2014)   
  17.  Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern sets Timestamp on Tragedy,” The Guardian. November 25, 2014. Accessed November 29, 2014.  
  18. Bensusan, Silver Images, 83. The Norfolk Hotel and Bar was also dubbed “the House of Lords” where white colonists engaged in “extra-legal land transactions.” Errol Trzebinski, The Kenya Pioneers (London: Heinemann, 1985), 102 quoted in Allen, “Missionaries and the Mediation of Modernity in Colonial Kenya”: 15.  
  19. Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” in One-Way Street, ed. Michael Jennings (London: Verso, 1979) 243.  
  20. This is Roland Barthes’ punctum: “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 26.  
  21. Ibid.  
  22. Sontag, On Photography, 15.  
  23. Chow, Rey ‘Where Have All the Natives Gone?’  
  24. July 8 tweet from Riba na Rieng  
Alexis Teyie

Alexis Teyie is a Kenyan writer and feminist. She is a co-founder and poetry editor with Enkare Review, and co-founder of publishing lab, Magic Door.
Alex co-authored a children’s book, Short Cut (2015). She has also published a poetry chapbook, Clay Plates: Broken Records of Kiswahili Proverbs (2016), through the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books (see on LitHub). Her poetry, short fiction or non-fiction have appeared in collections like Routledge’s Handbook of Queer Studies (2019); Queer Africa II (GALA); ID (SSDA); Jalada Africa, among others. She also works as a data nerd and sings for a secret choir in Nairobi.