- Post-Mortem Photography: Gilles Peress and the Taxonomy of Death
You’re like a living tentacle that’s lifting, reaching around all this death, trying to pull it out.—William Haglund,
forensic anthropologist (1998)
The postmortem condition describes a situation where even the uncivilized productions of unscheduled catastrophe become perversely elaborated objects of spectatorship.—Gregory Whitehead (1993)
Photojournalism has traditionally thrived on the representation of human destruction and death. Since 1855 when Roger Fenton was dispatched to the Crimean War by the British government to “take photographs that would reassure the public,” documentary photography has been a booming industry (Price 1963). Throughout the 20th century, governments, research institutes, and print and/or visual media have perfected this visual practice with the hope that it would not simply “reassure the public,” but also, and more importantly, provide both authentic knowledge and an endless source of spectacularity. Through the years, photojournalistic displays have owed their success to visual curiosity as a mode of inquiry or, simply, as a form of voyeuristic enjoyment.
Photographic journalist Gilles Peress has situated his work in this long tradition of visual representation of war and death. His early works on Iran and Northern Ireland were fairly typical photo-journalistic renditions of social life, human struggle, and political conflict in not-so-far-removed lands. Like most documentary photography, Peress’s work (his early reports and his more recent ones) is intended to awaken the curiosity of the Western viewer. For the Western viewer who consumes documentary photography in the safe confines of his/her late-twentieth century domestic comfort, the snapshots of war, drama, and human survival are always about “strangers,” some nameless or otherwise all-too famous “others,” whose reality can be perceived only through the photograph. Not unlike the work of his photojournalistic colleagues in other parts of the world, Peress’s early visions of Iran and Northern Ireland easily found their way to the pages of popular news periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, or Paris-Match where they were treated by the general public as common household items, shocking and yet familiar.
Peress’s recent work in Bosnia and Rwanda marks a crucial change both in his aesthetic approach to photojournalism and in the meaning of this visual medium. Starting with Farewell to Bosnia, a visual travel-log of war and its effects in the early years of the Bosnian conflict, and continuing with his latest photographic narratives of death and forensic archeology in both Rwanda and Bosnia, Peress adds to the realism of his images a moral message and a political positioning on the issue of brutal violence, gratuitous death, and genocide. Peress does not simply bombard the viewer with arresting photos. He now embeds his snapshots in written texts: letters he wrote to friends while in Bosnia; a chronology of events and specific UN documents about Rwanda; a text by human rights scholar Eric Stover in the last volume, The Graves. These texts are not intended to offer a deciphering key to the photos displayed in these three volumes. Rather, the texts and the images can be taken as a whole. The aesthetic product is different from typical photojournalistic collections as we now have a dialogue between two modes of communication, a combination of verbal and visual signification which seeks to exacerbate the feeling of moral outrage and intensifies the power of the political message: namely, something must be done to stop genocide. Peress’s new approach to photography seeks to open up the photo-journalistic medium by rendering it less realistically superficial (a moment frozen in time with no story to tell) and making it more emotionally engaged and humanly engaging. For Peress, photography is not an exercise of visual production and/or consumption anymore. It is not simply a technology that potentially gives rise to sensationalistic visions. It is also an instrument which facilitates the deployment of ethico-political positions for the artist involved with this technical medium. As such, photo-journali sm becomes an invitation to...