When my grandfather passed away a few months ago, they (honestly I don’t know who—the general consensus?) picked out a single portrait of him from when he was around 50 to serve as the official photo for the funereal ceremonies. Unlike some Western ceremonies, traditional Korean funerals do not have wakes, whether the body is buried or cremated. Only close family members have the opportunity to see the physical body for a brief moment shortly after the death, before the coffin is closed or the body is wrapped up to be transported to a firing house. Instead, for the remaining period of three (for national political figures, five) days of ceremonies, a photograph stands as the person who has passed.
This particular photo of my grandfather was placed inside a room within the funeral home, before which the living burned incense and lay white chrysanthemums to pay their respects to him, bidding him a safe trip to the other world. Copies of this same photo was also placed in other unofficial mourning locations throughout Korea for those who weren’t able to travel to the official location where his body was being held. Some people journeyed hours just so they could stand before this picture, preferably at the official location in Seoul. They bowed, they spoke to, and wept for my grandfather, their gaze always directed at this one photograph of my grandfather, arrested in time several decades prior to his death.
Over those few days, it seemed the photo, an image that was intended to represent him, became my grandfather to the people who visited. On the fifth day when we finally buried him, we carried that framed photo back home, carefully wrapped in a soft, silky fabric. I was holding the large portrait on my lap inside the car, and a close friend of the family, asked if she could carry the portrait herself. Without hesitating, I passed her the photo, and upon settling the frame on her lap she said, “It is such an honor to have the privilege of escorting the prime minister back to his home.”
Many have written extensively on the role that photographs play in the moment of a personal or national tragedy. In “The Highest Degree of Illusion,” David Levi Strauss writes that one such function of the photograph is to mitigate pain, that is, provide a more tolerable alternative to a painful reality. For weeks after the World Trade Center disintegrated into ashes on September 11th, 2001, people—both those who were physically present to witness the crashes and those who were not—relived the event through viewing an endless repetition of its images in the media:
It’s not that we mistake photographs for reality; we prefer them to reality. We cannot bear reality, but we bear images—like stigmata, like children, like fallen comrades. We suffer them. We idealize them. We believe them because we need what we are in them (Strauss 185).
But we no longer simply rely on images during the occasional difficult times; we rely on them all through our lives. Or rather—let me correct myself—it seems as though difficult times have grown so frequent and continuous that it has become ever more challenging to consider whether we can now live without images at all. With the expansion of technological achievements over the last few decades, images and colors are everywhere. They need not be reserved for special occasions or situations; they are accessible by most people, and not just the privileged few. Vilém Flusser, in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 1983, articulates the phenomenon as a kind of thorough infiltration of images (photographs, specifically) into our world:
In the nineteenth century the world was grey: walls, newspapers, books, shirts, tools, all these varied between black and white merging together into grey—as in the case of printed texts. Now everything cries out in all imaginable colours, but it cries out to deaf ears. We have become accustomed to visual pollution; it passes through our eyes and our consciousnesses without being noticed (Flusser 66).
If this was the case in 1983, at the time Flusser’s work was published, it is even more so now. Now, in 2012, we need images; we can no longer process, recognize, accept “reality” without the mediation of images, as Strauss has written, that provide us “just enough unreality and distance to ‘make it real’” (Strauss 184). We have become addicted to images.
Before all of this began to take place, back in 1936, Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” had warned his readers about the power of photographs and film to alter human perception of art and the physical world. Though he laments the loss of the aura—the historicity of an image/object—he recognizes images as a potential agent for political change, that is, mobilizing the masses to establish a better system in their desolate worlds. Nearly fifty years later, Flusser continues the legacy of Benjamin’s inquiry on precisely how this power has played out: a domination of human beings over other human beings has become that of cameras over human beings.
According to Flusser, the real threat of this recent phenomenon is that, like a schizophrenic who doesn’t realize she is schizophrenic, people do not realize the degree to which they are victims to this domination. Most still believe they still hold free agency to exercise control over their perceptions of the world, when in actuality, we (especially those who grew up during the digital age) have been unconsciously programmed throughout our lives to think in the manner and fulfill the goals of what Flusser calls the photographic universe. He argues that because the process of this brainwashing operates on a subliminal level, we respond and act automatically without thought according to its program: “It programs the observer to act magically and functionally, and thus automatically, i.e. without obeying human intention in the process” (Flusser 74). Further, since this world of images operates by chance, human agency becomes completely obliterated; what is at stake in our subordination is the inability for us to reclaim our freedom, as long as we remain ignorant.
Are we that vulnerable or is the photographic program that powerful that is has taken over all of our lives? In 1980, when Roland Barthes published Camera Lucida after his mother’s death, he recalls going through a pile of photographs of his mother to find the “right” one, in which he could truly recognize her in her entirety as he remembered her. “I never recognized her except in fragments,” he writes, “straining toward the essence of her identity, I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false [emphasis added]” (Barthes 65, 66). He describes that his “grief wanted a just image, an image which would be both justice and accuracy [emphasis added]” that is “beyond simple resemblance” (Barthes 60, 107). When he finally finds the image that wholly embodies her “air,” “the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever,” it is in a photograph of his mother when she was five years old (Barthes 69). Though her body is gone, Barthes now has possession of an image that holds her entire being, to which he can refer over and over again to relive the experience of being with the one he loved but who is no longer present in the world.
Are we now in a perpetual state of mourning? In this age, when there is an overflow of images, one can simply turn to its infinite reservoir to try to find that one true photograph, one that will feed our dreams, alleviate our pains, or as Barthes says, one in which we can “confront in it the wakening of intractable reality” (Barthes 119). But why choose the discomfort of the last option when we can drown ourselves in dreams and illusions? Flusser speaks of the camera’s program as a kind of suffocating dictatorship that drains the souls of human beings while they unknowingly suffer as passive victims. But we want the photographic intoxication; we want to find that one miracle that will save us from the tragedies of everyday life. So everyday we go on our computers and sift through the eternal flow of images on the internet and our hard drives; we gratify our emptiness with the bits and fragments of the miracle that some offer, endlessly searching, hoping to one day find that true one, the only one that will suffice.
Even after weeks of mourning with other family members, there was something missing. The official funereal photograph was supposed to serve as the way in which people could see my grandfather one last time before he left this world, and even after his burial, this photo was placed in a room at my grandmother’s home so that visitors could greet or speak to him. But I never recognized that person in the photograph as my grandfather. The person in the photograph was grandfather, the politician, not grandfather, my loving grandfather, who always made witty jokes, shared wines and Campari Oranges with me, and asked me when I was getting married. I wanted to see him one last time; during all those weeks in Korea, I felt like I was speaking to the wrong person.
I left Korea before my mother to return to New York while she stayed behind for a few more weeks to spend more time with my grandmother. When I called my mother to tell her I arrived safely, she asked me to search through her albums to find all of my grandfather’s photographs to upload onto a family server. My mother had four rows of bookshelves devoted to photo albums, most of which had pictures of my grandfather. I spent weeks going through them, carefully peeling back the plastic protective sheet, removing the photograph, scanning, replacing, then repeating the process. I would sometimes pause to look at one longer than the others, but only when, like Barthes has written, it possessed a fragment of my grandfather’s being. Two or three times when they looked very close to his “air,” I scanned a photo and emailed it to myself, but I have still not found that one just photograph. I console myself by saying that I don’t need a visual object to remember or speak to my grandfather. But whether the image be the truth or merely serve to feed an illusion, I need to see my grandfather one last time. And so I search until I find it, or until time makes me forget.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.
Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1983, Print.
David Levi Strauss. “The Highest Degree of Illusion.” Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture, 2003. Print.