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December 6, 2004

Showing Scars

My photograph might be called a family photograph, though it was taken not to evoke holiday memories, but to provide evidence. I was taken by my uncle, of me, well more rightly, of my body. Can I show you my scar, I ask. The reply is most often prefaced, if not overwhelmed, by silence. Sometimes I am permitted, out of courtesy, (I found out later). Sometimes I show it because I need to show it. And sometimes you turn away. While my photograph can hardly be called ordinary, Barthes reminds me that, �� in it for you, no wound.� (Barthes, 73)

So while I don�t need to display my photograph here, I won�t.

The image is a standard 3� x 5� photographic glossy print. The angle indicates it was taken from above. There are two planes of the image, one of the floor and one of a bed, identifiable as the type used in hospitals. The bed has a guardrail along the side which the floor is visible through. The right hand side of the image is a strip that is out of focus and underexposed but is clear enough to show a tan linoleum floor with a blue stripe along a wall. The wall has an electrical outlet with at least six cords crisscrossed and tangled in front of it. It is hard to tell how many exactly because they are obscured by the rail of the bed. A testament to this image being other than an art image, composition is weak with almost the entire right half of the image taken up by the guard rail and floor.

The photograph was taken a few days after a near fatal car accident I experienced in January of 2000. I was unconscious for two weeks beginning when I got into my car, about two hours before the accident. My family, my mother specifically, was asked to give consent to amputate my left leg after attempts had been made to save the leg but gangrene had set in and was beginning to spread. My family was faced with making a decision, one that they felt should have been mine to make, one that they would have to explain to me when I regained consciousness, and yet one in which they were given only one option. Not knowing what my reaction would be upon regaining consciousness, my uncle took out his camera with the intention of reproducing an image that would convey to me what they saw so as to make it possible for me to retrace their visual path by which they arrived at the decision to give consent. A few weeks later my uncle had the image developed and, perhaps not surprisingly, found that it had failed to capture the evidence he sought to embed within it. In the time between when the images were offered to me and a few months later when I was felt ready to see them, they disappeared. My uncle simply �lost� them.

Over the course of the next four years, the time it took him to find them, I have talked with him on several occasions about what it was that he had hoped to capture. In many ways what this dialogue resembles is what can only be found in the �intermediary� spaces, spaces between photograph and memory, that Wigoder describes. My uncle tells me that his intention was to make an image that showed my struggling body attached to a dead leg that unquestionably needed to be removed to allow the rest of my body to live. He says, on one day, that the image failed because it presented a whole body in distress, rather than a salvageable body separate from a dead leg. On another day he says the image failed because it showed an image of swollen and broken tissue and bones without any indication of, something akin to what Barthes was looking for as he sorted through images of his mother, the �Maya� they knew. And perhaps our conversations show that what Mitchell sees as �visual culture and visual images as go betweens in social transactions� is possible even when images do not appear in the material form that his students bring to class for their presentations. (Mitchell, 175)

For Barthes, an image provides a punctum, or a wound only under particular individual circumstances. While he claims that it would look �ordinary� to his readers, my photograph is quite different from Barthes� image and hardly �ordinary.� I have chosen not to show it because while it might very well provide an extra-ordinary punctum, what you would see is not my punctum, not my wound, not that to which I refer. A friend used some video footage of me about six weeks after the photograph I�ve been discussing was taken, footage of me moving from a hospital bed to a wheelchair for a short non-narrative video project she was working on. She received criticism that the footage of my moving body was to full of meaning, too powerful perhaps, for her to control. It was too predictably evocative.

While Barthes� picture of his mother would be ordinary to anyone but him, the image of the sick body resonates as a particular kind of evidence in the body that might be thought of alongside Sekula�s discussions of the many historical attempts to create images of the body as evidence to be used to wield power, images of everything from racial inferiority in the photographs of Francis Galton to the results of subjection to poor working conditions in the photographs of Lewis Hine. While I, like Barthes, can show you my scar through revealing the image itself though not my wound, while I sometimes wonder to what extent this is a failing, I�m not interested in facilitating the image of my body being used as evidence of anything, which once it appears is, perhaps, inevitable.

Posted by at December 6, 2004 7:38 AM