It’s great when we see something pretty or inspiring and we figure out how we might capture that image to keep it, share it or create something that lives outside of ourselves, maybe even as a piece of art. Conveying feeling is important. Sharing a moment or an experience is vital to our sense of human connection. What we are really building is empathy.
So taking a photograph which portrays something which represents a not so pretty experience, but rather a moment which is indelibly disturbing, requires something more than just pointing the camera and something deeper and darker than just making a pretty picture.
For me this is summed up best in the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy:
In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.
Taking this photograph and even being in this location was difficult for me and my intention was to convey that discomfort and give a sense of things being ‘not quite right’.
The room in the photograph was the single room stone hut of an elderly nun, who lived here for many years in seclusion on the remote holy island of Bardsey and eventually was taken off the island. The reason why is evident on the walls in pained scrapings, that have since been painted over and the tiny hut re-purposed as a chapel.
I have written about my experience of visiting this small chapel with its anguished etchings hidden beneath the whitewashed walls, but my words cannot begin to convey my own horror at seeing the evidence of the hours, days, weeks and years she spent scratching into stone and the seeming holiness of that harsh ascetic life. Surely no belief system could be worth that!
I have delayed looking at the photographs I took during this trip. Indeed I have resisted using my camera altogether. I knew that looking at my pictures would take me back to my trip and my own harsh and hollow realisations made while I was there. Far from being a spiritual retreat, this visit was a short sentence in my own personal hell. Health problems, loneliness, being away from the smallest comforts of home and the distracting relief of books, television, the Internet, family and friends – all contributed to my own dark teatime of the soul. The trip ended, but my feelings of emptiness endured. Rather than being a spiritual pilgrimage, this journey was a loss of the last vestiges of faith for me – something that I must now slowly come to terms with.
At the time, taking this photograph seemed wrong. I used the fish eye lens because I was wide-eyed and agog at the suffering these walls bore witness to. It was shocking and confusing, and, unlike the war photographer in the poem, I was unable to fly away or return home due to the storm that prevented the boat from sailing. Whatever I found in that room stayed with me. Paraphrasing the T-shirt slogan: I went to this place looking for God, but all I got was this photo.
The bright purple scarf around the ‘shoulders’ of the crucifix and the crown of thorns that appeared to form a face, seemed to make the cross represent a human shape. How had I not seen this before? This iconic structure did not represent an ancient instrument of torture – it represents the body itself. It is depicted as where the suffering happens. And the sacrifice. Yet it is the mind that really experiences pain – and that part is not depicted here. Except, I realised as I looked around me, in the scratchings on the walls: a tortured mind. And in this case the torturer was also the tortured; this was self-inflicted pain! There is no one to blame, apart perhaps from a belief system that seems to gloss over, or even revel in, torture.
This modernistic shrine to pain made the suffering all too tangible and real, whether that be the torture and death – of either a god or a man, depending on your view – or the solitary, penitent life of an elderly nun and the pained mind that drove her hand to scratch into these walls in this small harsh cell. And this wasn’t a one off. Countless wars have been fought over these beliefs and are still being fought. Such stark reality in such a tiny place.
I decided to take away these cheery colours in post process because the reality was too pretty, trying to hide the cruelty behind something calm and righteous and holy. The poem compares the red of the dark room to the blood of the war zone and yet in this room all is clean and painted over. Wholy whitewash, Batman!
Suddenly the island I love so much seemed to be a place of self-denial and punishment. I wanted this quality in the photograph I took away from there. Since first visiting, I have always adored the beauty and peace of the island, but in this small room I came face to face with the suffering of human existence and the price we humans pay for our consciousness. We each choose to act or to look away – like closing the Sunday supplements and going to the pub in the poem – or in my case returning to happy vacationing.
Both my mind and my hand resisted the invitation to bang a nail into that cross as some kind of cosmic exchange of my sins for another’s pain, however long ago, whether he was a god or just a man. I would rather hang on to my sins. Saying that is probably a sin in itself. But doing nothing is too much to bear. Taking the photograph was all I could do. Contributing to the ‘spools of suffering’ as I try to bear witness to what lies hidden beneath the white paint. I know there are people who would rather I didn’t write this and that I didn’t take the picture. I believe the story needs telling.
We can look away and pretend that all we see is white paint. We can bear witness like the war photographer. We can be devoted to our beliefs. We can deny ourselves to the point of madness like the nun. We can punish ourselves. We can punish others. We can have compassion. We can alleviate suffering. We can be kind to others. We can be kind to ourselves. We can try to make a difference. We can try to look away. We can find a million different ways to pass the time or to make a point or to be creative.
We can even take photographs…
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if what we do is important or not. It’s all transient.
“All flesh is grass.” -Isaiah 40:6