Who Hasn't Been Photographed?
Many years ago, Peter Greenaway — before he started proclaiming that cinema died back in the 1960s or '70s, and that only he is in the position to revive it today — spoke in an interview about a project based on a theme that, at the time, seemed novel and intriguing. Who, out of everyone living in the world at the present moment, has been photographed?
This was an era when we assumed that many of us, even in the Western world, could conceivably breeze through life without ever (or only rarely) being photographed. Greenaway aimed to craft a devious, documentary homage to those cagey souls who had avoided the demonic curse of the camera lens.
But today, the idea of such a beyond-media existence definitely belongs to the 20th century. Now, between ubiquitous social media 'selfies' and surveillance cameras everywhere — not to mention the sinister apparatus of 'biopolitics' that records, in one way or another, willingly or unwillingly, our most intimate physical information — it is hard to imagine very many people who have never been photographed. Perhaps even in the past week.
But, strangely enough, we seem to like it this way. What Jean-Louis Comolli once described as a generalised, social 'frenzy of the visible' — causing doomsday philosophers like Jean Baudrillard to use the word 'obscene', meaning a world where nothing is hidden anymore, where everything is on the surface — has, at last, come to feel comforting. We have passed through the looking-glass of Guy Debord's 'society of the spectacle' and found that, after all, we are still functioning, everyday, human beings. Only, the make-up of that everyday has changed.
New technologies create new technological fantasies. In the digital age, we have fallen prey to what Thomas Elsaesser recently identified (at the Orphan Film Symposium in Amsterdam) as a certain 'archival anxiety': for a thing to really exist, in collective memory, there has to be a trace of it in some archive, somewhere. So we start imagining that everyone and everything 'has been photographed'. And not only photographed but retained, stored and documented. Even slightly spooky surveillance tools like Google Earth start looking attractive to us, as surrealistic records that are at once mechanical and magical, open to the intervening hand of chance or accident.
This shared mania started slowly, back at the time of Oliver Stone and his JFK in 1991, which Bilge Ebiri has recently called, in retrospect, a 'creation myth for the 1960s' — that is, the attempt to freight hugely symbolic significance onto a single event (the assassination of Kennedy), as if the entire key to contemporary American history could, and must, be found there. And the JFK story, as we all know, is intimately bound up with precious strips of amateur film that accidentally caught some fragment of truth (what truth, we still do not know) — both the Zapruder reel and its 'reverse shot', the Orville Nix footage that has recently returned to the news, thanks to the photographer's investigative granddaughter.
This connection of family, generations and investigation is intriguing. Elsaesser speaks of the curious fantasy at work in Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012) — in which the mystery over what the filmmaker's deceased mother did, felt and desired is transformed into an audiovisual reconstruction of the 'traces' which this woman, in fact, never actually left behind.
For me, an even odder manifestation of this archive-fantasy fills the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series in all its media forms. Here, the dream is that an obscured, conspiratorial crime of 40 years ago can be exhaustively 'exhumed', thanks to old folks keeping their personal photos, professional photographers preserving their complete contact sheets, and even sinister corporations maintaining perfect files in their storage facilities.
It is another myth of origins: for our 21st century 'ecstasy of the visible' to work, everyone must have intuitively realised, back in the 1960s, to never throw anything away. Archive fever...