Ultimately — or at the limit — in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. “The necessary condition for an image is sight,” Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” The photograph must be silent (there are blustering photographs, and I don’t like them): this is not a question of discretion, but of music. Absolute subjectivity is achieved only in a state, an effort, of silence (shutting your eyes is to make the image speak in silence).
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
From whom do you look away?
Year by year fewer of your photographs have people in them. To ignore the objects – the mountains, slow trains, beat courtyards – and let them leak slowly from your memory. The art of forgetting demands strategies and this is one – forget everything except that which was not captured in the photo. When in the early evenings you find yourself screen-bound, listening to the rain and long, rolling thunder, you negotiate the recollection embedded in the image with that of who was by your side at the time – talking gently, craning their neck, pointing out some sight you missed, making corny jokes, pressing on up the steps, taking a sip of water.
Not only do you not include those by your side in your photographs, you try not to include anyone anywhere at all. Your gestures with a camera are born of a desire for recall that is quickly overpowered by the need to locate forgetting somewhere close by, between patience and erasure. The more vacant the scenes you record, the better.
To draw the gauze of forgetting over a photo you take in the end strengthens your memory of what was outside the frame. This ambition from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil flashes with every click: “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” The crux of oblivion in your pictures is encircled by memories of those who were by your side. And these memories fortify your forgetting while allowing it in turn to diffuse any possibility of solid, consistent frames surrounding the images you harbor. As your forgetting punctures this mnemonic lining, other memories are let in – like sunlight projecting the shadows of tree leaves on your bedroom wall. You will have spent your life trying to understand the function not of remembering that which was barely seen, but of forgetting in order to see more.
You remember taking this photo, which is not of an island but of those who were behind you, looking around, joyful at the sun and sea, jet-lagged, curious. With every wish that you had taken more photos of them directly, you understand further how unnecessary that would have been, what a permanent part of your remembering – primordial fortification of your forgetting – they are.
The image is no semblance of solitude or superiority. But still, you must delineate who is to be remembered outside the frame with an unseen texture. You realize the impossibility of forgetting them, no matter how much you may think you want to. And for this you are, in the end, grateful. However, that does not mean you need to photograph them, nor does it mean you do not photograph the cuts in the rocks of this island in order to forget their sight.
Is it not the ars oblivionis driving you to detail a certain emptiness, to show where people live without them living there? As Barthes writes, “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. In short, the referent adheres.” But the photograph’s invisibility is of no consequence – you take it to forget it anyway (though you forget even this reason). Forgetting what is portrayed – any inability to remember “being there” – is of little consequence either, as you only took a picture of this scene to remember who was around you at the time. The referent may adhere, but it only overcomes the invisibility of the photograph through an activation of everything outside the frame – and to forget a particular outside is a threat to overcome with every glimpse. For what you do not see – and certainly what others never will – is what you search the image to address: the shape of the rock, his lopsided hat; the water, her hair. These are more than correspondences – these are the triggers of your remembering set in motion around the forgetting at the crux of the image. It is this forgetting that becomes the referent. And although you have not forgotten what you are not seeing here, you suspect that since this may not have been clearly identified until now, it was thus never even remembered. But in this you are incorrect. For they were sitting on a bench under the pines as you took this photo. This photo is of them sitting on a bench under the pines, watching you.
It was off to the left here that you sat and talked, before walking across the island, through the monastery, to get ice cream. You have no photos of enjoying that exact spot, though. You realized in advance how superfluous they would have been to that most pleasant point of the day, how they would have only accentuated the scar left as the moment burned away in the sun.
Do not forget that they have all the photos of you together, that they took them so you did not have to. And when you eventually do see their particular visions of cypresses, city walls, and tables laid in stone alleys, will you be able to read your face for some expression of sincere enjoyment and natural duty, even as you look tired and annoyed at the simple fact of posing for a picture? Yes, you will because you must. You must forget not what is within those particular images – as they were not taken with the impetus of forgetting as yours were, far from it – but certain choices made before and after they were taken.
Your embarrassment over not fully inhabiting this city, you took photos to assuage this. Why not just accept your role, in which you construct your images of a foreign scene while forgetting where you come from, disregard the thick zones of history through which you pass while remembering reluctantly how soon you are to leave? Your photos become marks of that disconnect, of a particular lack of sympathy, of continents traversed and obliterated from concern, of all the choices that bring you there and allow you exit. That is to treat your photos as records of forgetting, as evidence that what you really wish to remember is that which you do not photograph.
But you allowed these photos of miscellaneous detritus because you know all too well to whom your duty is. “I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at,” again writes Barthes. Your duty is to remember the photos of them you have already seen – with the cars and dogs and sisters – as well as those you have taken – on the porch, in the square, outside the train station. Do not doubt that your strategy is spurred from a forgetting of the myriad choices you would have had to make differently – dating long back – in order to take more photos of them. To account for this is only to remember more thoroughly the pictures of them that already exist.
Was it enough to just be there, taking photos beside them as they took their own, when so many of theirs were of you? It is as if you were trying to appear like you did not miss them, why you photographed only the space around them, the world they were in rather than their being in that world. So many moments went undocumented by any of you – there was little need. After all, you would never need a photo of the expression in their eyes when you were leaving. For to remember their eyes at that moment, all you need to do is forget your own.