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Reduced to evidenece?

June 15, 2012

In an undergraduate seminar in Tehran, late Bahman Jalali recounted his experience of photographing the Zoroastrian Dakhmas, “towers or silence,” where the practitioners of the faith laid their dead on atop of these towers, exposed to the sun and birds of prey. Jalali managed to document these facilities while still in operation, as this tradition has since been abandoned and now Zoroastrians bury their dead in cemeteries. Without permission, the photographer climbs one of these towers in the black of night and stays there until the break of dusk. Suddenly he finds himself surrounded by human remains, from skulls and bones to carcasses mutilated by vultures, horrified to death, Jajali manages to pick up his camera and starts photographing the scenery. He mentioned that gradually he even started arranging the human remains to meet his compositional demands. It was the lens that turned the mutilated bodies into objects and established an optical distance that overcome fear. Ernst Jünger refers to this as a “second cold consciousness,” that humans developed through the camera, which “shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object . . . the second consciousness is focused on the person who stands outside the sphere of pain.” One can say that by looking through the camera, Jalali stood outside of the sphere of death, as he no longer anthropomorphized the dead and did not conceive of them as the final state of the self, while the reverse also could be true and the photographer ceased to looked at the carcasses from the point of view of a human being. Kevin Carter observed the scene of the child being approached by a vulture through a similar optical divide that maintains the practice of photojournalism.

Dakhma in Yazd, Iran

It could be argued that the same divide is in operation when citizen journalists photograph unfolding events in the face of authoritarian onslaught, shelling of houses and massacres, slaughter of friends and families. The same cold consciousness enables citizens to stand by the rubble of what used to be their home and photograph it. But on the other hand, maybe it is this optical divide that postpones the traumatic experience, and it is in fact through this act of documentation that the event is suspended due to “photography’s ability to confront the viewer with a moment that had the potential to be experienced but perhaps was not,” in the words of Ulrich Baer and in “viewing such photographs we are witnessing a mechanically recorded instant that was not necessarily registered by the subject’s own consciousness.” Thus, in taping what remains of his house, the child is registering that which escaped his memory at the moment of traumatic experience, in an attempt to bridge the “rift between [himself] and the experience.” Therefore unlike video advocacy tutorials that offer how to record the human rights violations guides (one wonders if the producers of such tutorial in front of the Atlantic tower in Brooklyn can really take themselves seriously), the citizen journalists’ documentation of the event is not responding to a mere desire to be reduced to evidence as WITNESS seems to suggest.

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