Photo Essay: Life Writing Inspired By Familial Images

Organized around a series of photographs taken in Louisiana, Greig Roselli writes a photographic essay evoking themes of home, childhood, desire, and loss.
  1. Landscape
 Figure 1. "Schwinn" 2005
Landscape Shot With Schwinn Bike
I took this particular landscape shot in front of an old slaughterhouse; now it serves as a greenhouse-cum-chicken coop about ¾ miles from the Abbey church where I live. I call this shot a “landscape” using a very simple definition: there are no people. One can have a landscape with people but I think their backs would have to be turned away from the camera, more like mounds than actual people. In this photograph, there is only the sense that “a person has been here” — the already noted bicycle and circular garden hose coiled like a snake and the potted plant point to this. The bicycle sits there as a kind of emblem — or at least that is how I envisioned it when I took this photo — to stand in for someone who was there but has left the frame of the photograph. Maybe there could be a part two for this photo with a figure standing in the place of the bicycle. I show people this photograph and they seem to gravitate toward the bicycle intuiting its connection to an individual person.
True Story (Sorta)
“Whose bicycle, they say?” and I say it was mine and I make up a story about how this was the bicycle I used to ride to work on and my friends would laugh at me because it was a woman’s bicycle. I would shrug it off and say that it made no difference as long as it got me to where I wanted to go. I parked my bike across the street from the restaurant where I worked, behind an air conditioning unit. I used to work at a seafood restaurant and my job was to prepare the crayfish and crabs for boiling. We would pour the creatures, their claws like thousands of pleading arms, into the seasoned water, get the heat going, and once they were boiled, we would serve up portions to the customers. After the shift was over — around midnight or one o’clock — I would drive back home on my bike even though there weren’t any streetlights; I would just pray a “Hail Mary” or just sing really loud to scare away the ghosts. This is a true story; I mix up the details in the telling. It was true that I would ride a bicycle to work, but it was not necessarily the same bicycle in the photograph. The story seemed true enough; it was not as if I were fabricating a story; the bicycle was an emblem for me; the bicycle told many stories. Considering myself a storyteller, I would tell variations of stories from this one photograph, taking elements of different aspects of life and bring it back to the bicycle: for example, my bike was a green Schwinn and it had been stolen one year when I was thirteen and I didn’t get it back until I serendipitously won a brand new bike at the county fair. It never did feel the same; or the time I rode my bike in heavy traffic without glasses; that was a tad bit dangerous; All of this was true, but they were superfluous to the artifact of the photograph of the bike taken above for that particular bike in the picture had no particular emotion for me. It was an old bike lying around the abbey that I had used that day to ride to the greenhouse. I took the picture with the bike in mind, though, and when I developed the photo I scanned it into my computer and applied a kind of matte effect that you might have noticed. I wanted to give the picture a painterly effect. I wanted to squeeze out the realistic parts of the photo — and yes I know this sounds excessively Romantic — but I wanted the picture to stand for something ontological: whether it be innocence or the journey or even experience. I think the Romantics did try to do this in the paintings attributed to Romanticism. But, they did it with Greek mythology. For example, the story of Daphne turned into a tree or a nature scene with dryads and nymphs at a still pool; the scene was too perfect; it was a landscape in a Platonic sense of the word. For, me, perhaps, that is what I was trying to get at in my “bike” photograph and which is why I made so many variations on the story without much moral dilemma. I wanted an image to stand for some kind of eidos that included my experience but somehow rose above self-absorption. For who cares about the story of someone’s bike unless it mimics something about life. The mimetic of the bike suggests the desire for freedom — the stories I told were certainly about freedom or the loss of freedom — so it was kind of a reification of desire I was looking for (which is only a dead desire according to Adorno) — a packaged photo that I could pull out to re-tell the story of an experience (my experience) but in the way of an artist.
  • Mothers
Figure 2. "Mosaic" 1998.
This problem of reification troubles me for I realize, in the realm of personal photographs, those images we collect to define ourselves, those images that we stash in family albums or hang on our walls or pull out to tell a life narrative are reifications of experience that are mass-produced by the production of the image. The photograph above is a portrait of my Nanan, my godmother. But, I will use her as a model for “mother” and the image of primary identification. She is the image of mother that I found in my private photos that seemed to say to me “mother” so I insert her as a reification of the maternal figure. The image is a paean to mother but in a way that does not reduce mother solely to the imaginary order. For should not the mother be given the status of fertility goddess and agency of the letter? I am using mother in the strictest of structural terms. This is mother placed in the comfort of quotation marks. Did not Jesus say, “Who is my Mother …”? So I reify the mother in a photograph. Does this mean the image of the mother is a dead image? For how can I capture life, that which my mother gave without turning her into an object? How can I rise above the image of the mother as anything but the object and I don’t mean here the demeaning sense of the word used to describe patriarchal society’s use of women as objects? I rather mean, for all of us, how can our mother be anything but an image of interminable life-flow? She is “the object of mother”; the image that the child first identifies as its own; it is too much to bear, so we attempt to form our own image apart from her; and this, I suspect is the formation of the ego; we are tempted to be pulled, as Mulvey says, into the half-life of the imaginary, so the only way out is to castrate the mother for the sake of our own identity. So do we take a picture of her and reify her to make the insistence of her presence more bearable? To assuage guilt? The image becomes a way to balance the distinction that is implicit in the word: smother/mother? In this way I am drawing on the patriarchal image here for that is what the patriarchy has attempted to consign the mother as a life-bearing agent who both gives life and the life she gives has to move away. She hopes, as Freud and Lacan say, that the child will be the phallus for her — in other words — give her a taste of symbolic control granted hegemonically to the Father — but she is denied agency in the end and the child has to make a decision. This is the politics of the Oedipal Complex. The social symbolic, again, as Mulvey has spoken about, does not give the woman the privilege of her own agency. She can bear life into the world; yes, the patriarchy grants her that bearing, but there isn’t a politics offered to mothering; it is a service; it is something given. It is demanded as a gift. Isn’t this the rhetoric of the pro-life movement? And isn’t this what the Pro-Choice movement is saying is not granted to the woman: a choice in the matter; her own ability to define her motherhood as she thinks befits her the best? So, the conservatives fight this for they do not want that kind of law (or power) ceded to the mother. The Father wants the mother consigned to the family: in the family, she is castrated of her agency. For the social conservative, the image of the woman is to bear life gladly and abundantly but not to have a say in life-matters. My Nanan, my godmother, took care of other people’s children (who were mostly social conservatives); for women who had careers; and the women would come to my Nanan and ask her if they were good mothers because they did not have time to take care of their own children; my Nanan would shrug her shoulders (at the exact time this photograph was taken): and she would read from her Paris Match magazine and say something in French, and then say in English about how she took care of children for forty years, evading the question.  In the photograph are pictures of the children she took care of posted to her refrigerator wall like reminders. She was the surrogate mother. She had about twenty photo albums of the children she had taken care of so other women could pursue their careers. She bathed, fed, played and took care of us (I was one of them) which is why I have her photograph here. She chose to be a mother. It was a profession for her. She only had one biological son; his name was Martin, and he died of a heart attack last year; and she was married to a Coast Guardsman but he had died twenty years ago; She had come to the United States to marry him after the Second World War and the liberation of France. She had been slapped by a Gestapo guard and raped (I only assumed this; she did not say) for not having her “papers.” She came to this country without speaking English, and her husband only knew how to speak one word in French: “oui.” For me, as a child, she did not speak much about the Nazis; but as I got older; when this photograph was taken; she was much more honest with me about her life and she told me stories; we would drink red wine and talk in the evening when she had no children and she could place “mother” aside. For she was a structuralist too!
  • The Face                                 
Figure 3. "Zack" 2007 

                           I turn then from the Mother to an image of the “face.” In the face, there is supposed to be a reflection of the soul. Isn’t it a wise person who once said that the eyes are the windows to the soul? And what does the soul say? “I am weary” or the soul says, “Protect me” or the soul says a myriad of other things. I can only give my own subjective observation. But if Barthes is right, as he speaks about in Camera Lucida, in the reflection of the face, taken at an instant, taken at a moment, when the cameraman says, “cheese” the subject turns, perhaps distracted for awhile, preoccupied with a hundred other things, but in the moment, freezes, and there is his face captured in that in-between time, that liminal moment of a glance. The punctum, then, of this photograph is not the face. But, it is the “glance.” For the face turns, and looks, not at the photographer, but to a place that can only be called desire, which is placed beyond the object. The mouth, barely upturned into a smile, almost frowns, as if unfulfilled. The eyes are not an insistent stare; they are submissive. But, they bespeak of a certain weariness. As if to say, “I will pose this once, and that is all.” For who holds the gaze? Is it the spectator or the subject? In this image, it is the spectator. For the subject hardly penetrates at all with his glance; it is the spectator, who notices the punctum — which I repeat — is not the face, nor is it the uncombed hair — but it is the glance, the eyes struck in a half-close. It is the image of a person there but not there. Only there because he has to be there, at the moment — a quickly taken family shot when my cousin was doing his homework and didn’t want to be bothered; he had just come home from soccer practice and was sulky and enigmatic. But only I know this because I am the observer and the one who took the picture (which I am grateful he granted me the opportunity). The thousands of seconds that preceded the photo and the thousands of seconds that come after it are probably more important than this one shot, seemingly, for this one shot, really says nothing at all, except, to say, “This is a glance.” So, what is left is only the spectator’s gaze. The image then is emptied out, and allowed to be filled in by the viewer’s own wishes and projections. Do we identify with the face here? Is it a face that we can relate to, as if to say, this is my face? Or, do we evoke some sort of sympathy, which we are apt to do; this is the way the punctum works: it is a punch to the viewer to make a response to the image; in a way it is a hidden message revealed like a secret now — just now — told.
  • The Stare     
    In the last image, I chose a photograph of a guarded security officer in front of the Palazzo Madama in Rome, Italy. The building is the Senate building of Rome and is heavily guarded by uniformed military with Uzis. I took this photograph; and I chose it here for it is the only photo I could find of my own collection that is the opposite of my cousin’s glance above. This is the stare, that I was talking about which is ontologically distinct from the glance. This is a “look” that says, “back off” hidden in some evolutionary module in the brain that is triggered as a defense mechanism. Perhaps in the days when man, like the feline, had to use his stare to ward off enemies. Have you ever seen an owl at night or a person whom you don’t know or a cat with glowing eyes? Then you know what I am talking about then, when I talk about the stare. In the stare, there is a direct encounter with the real — as Lacan calls it — that is not polite or constructed around the symbols of etiquette. Although the man’s presence is governed by the Law and the Names of the Father — he is placed there to protect the senate building and he wears his insignia as a symbolic gesture — his stare shows the obscene side of the law. The stare is the obscene superego who appears paradoxical as a corrupt image of the law and I took its picture and I trembled when I did so — and being the wuss that I am, I ducked into a Roman alley to avoid any recrimination.  I imagine this is the stare that the condemned receives before he dies; or the last image a person has of terror. But that is something that an image here cannot reproduce for the real lies beyond symbolization. And in the image, the guard is rather stoic in his stance than menacing; or he could be thinking, “when do I get off of work?” The only way I could know for sure about the real would be to incite any rage hidden in the intimation of a stare; and of course, any extrapolation to the real was already latent in the uzi that he had straddled to his side.
figure 4. “Palazzo Madama” 2006
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