- Hervé Guibert's Thanatological Images:Towards, Against, and Beyond Death
GUIBERT WAS FASCINATED BY DEATH from an early age, certainly from well before his AIDS writings, although his best-known thanatological work is doubtlessly À l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie. This account of his battle with AIDS, a clinical account of his own physical and psychological journey towards an untimely death, is a remarkably honest and detailed narrative which justly dominates discussions of Guibert's contributions to thanatological writing. In this article, however, I plan to discuss Guibert's visual contributions to thanatology, those of his photographs that represent death through a variety of subjects, not just himself, although I will also be examining his self-portraits. All photographs, it has been argued, put their subjects to death;1 Guibert wrote that for Cartier-Bresson, taking a photograph was the equivalent of a "mise à mort."2 For Guibert himself, photography was more of an act of love, as I have shown elsewhere.3
How is death best depicted in a photograph? Photographing a dead animal, person or people is one obvious way forward. Guibert rarely does this, however; in order to represent death, he chooses subjects that embody the relationship between the living and the dead. These subjects belong to three different ontological categories: the lifeless, the old, and the dying. Guibert's approaches to these categories correspond to different approaches to the relationship between life and death, which I will describe through a close examination of his photographs in each category. I will then go on to show how he fictionalizes—or auto-fictionalizes, in the case of his self-portraits—his subject, using particular physical props and effects in his photographs to cast doubt on its ontological status. I will conclude that this is the way in which he represents but also cheats death, both that of others and his own; through setting up a fictional space, sometimes literally, within his photographs, he creates an escape route for his subjects from the finality of death which the viewer is also free to take, thus incorporating a kind of freedom from death into his thanatological images.
From the beginning of his adult life, Guibert was particularly interested in photographing the lifeless. By 'lifeless' I do not mean any object that is not alive, but inanimate objects that have a mimetic relationship to animate creatures, [End Page 95] some of which may be described as 'simulacra.' I will subdivide these into the following categories: simulacra of human beings or parts of human beings, such as mannequins, heads, eyeballs, hands, and the like; simulacra of animals, or creatures from folk or fairy tales; discarded clothes, hats, and the like. I will discuss how each of these can be made to depict death, as well as life, and how this depiction relates to their representation in photographs. Guibert was fascinated by imitations of life, statues so lifelike as to fool some viewers, or parts of the body that are shocking to see because they look so 'real' in spite of the fact that they have seemingly been removed from the body. The photographs in Vice are mostly of such imitations: objects in the Musée Grévin, many of which are eerily like 'the real thing' be they severed limbs or heads in transparent plastic bags, are sufficiently lifelike to evoke a moment of shock and revulsion, even within the context of a book containing images of simulacra.4
What is it that makes these objects, photographed in black and white, so very lifelike yet clearly—on second viewing—not alive? Is it the unreal perfection of the skin, for instance, of the Jeanne d'Arc head, or the hardness of its surface that slowly becomes apparent? In at least one case, the question is complicated by the presence of some 'real' elements in the simulacrum; the female statue of photograph 18, whose entrails are exposed for the purpose, one assumes, of medical studies, appears to have real blond hair attached to her waxen head. In Vice, there are also photographs of real dead bodies: birds, skeletons, and a mummy of a small child...