The separation of body and soul

I’ve been thinking about picturing the dead and how the object making that bodies – especially women’s bodies – are subject to through the photograph are a kind of death-making. I guess I’ve been provoked by the images of Reeva Steenkamp, whose bikinied body posed next to headlines that screamed of her murder. It was painful to see those front pages. If nothing else, it tells us that images and narratives matter. Images hurt, maim, murder. Images save and recover. Linda Stupart has written a great piece, “Woman, object, corpse: Killing women through media”, which pretty much summed up and furthered my thoughts regarding those Steenkamp images. Have a read.

I wanted to find an example of an image that was painful to see, but set out to do the opposite to what those front pages did the day after Valentine’s. It had to be beautiful, it had to reckon with the objectification of women’s bodies and the very real damage they suffer because of it. No violation, no leering glance. How does one save a woman’s body from the bounds of dead object and yet still tell of the danger and struggles she faces because of that body?

My former classmate, Helen Rimell, drew my attention to her work documenting the lives of Mumbai’s sex workers which appeared on Vice last week. And I think it answered and provoked some questions:

The photo I wish to focus upon is a portrait of the dead body of a woman called Mumtaz. As explained in the piece, her family believe she was murdered by her partner. It features about half way down the page linked to above. I didn’t want to paste it here because I feel this is something you have to elect to see, not something you stumble across on a blog. As I say, I’m focusing upon that one image, but as an important aside, Vice’s SEO orientated labelling of the whole story is predictably lame and offensive – the text preview that appears if you share the link on facebook calling this “a scary story”, doesn’t really even begin to cover the depth of feeling in these images. Similarly, the shock tactics of the headline substitutes these women’s stories with horror house dummies. Helen’s photo project and her narrated experience of it are a world away from such tactics.

My opening questions when approaching this image were: what does it mean to show someone’s life and death? What does it mean for me – a white, middle class, western woman – to see this life and death; one so unknown to me?

I find it interesting that we often talk about the showing of a dead body as in some way degrading – and indeed it is the case that the Western media is happy to oggle many more dead and maimed black and brown bodies yet treats white bodies with a respectful averted gaze, but in this case the way the body shown stands outside that damaging dynamic. Yes, it is shocking, but Mumtaz’ body acts as a testimony to her life and the struggles she faced. As Helen says, the family wanted the world to know what had happened to Mumtaz and so wanted photographs of everything at the funeral.

There is also the fact that the visibility of the body is a natural part of the funeral process in this context, which surely transforms the extent to which we would call the viewing of the body an exposure. Instead, it is evidence which demands witness and the beautiful elements keep us looking at what is hard in the image. Golden petals, pink stains, a slash of sunlight – naturalistic elements of the funeral which become metaphors for this female body and female life. All are painful, all demand regard. I think it is important to recentre identity in the body in this way, especially when you live and die by the fact of it.


3 responses to “The separation of body and soul

  1. Erudite and thoughtful writing as always Maddie. The ‘SEO-orientated labelling’ struck me too when I first read the story, and furthermore when visiting the site via your link to see Helens story again, a message box pops up informing me that “The stuff you’re trying to look at is considered “naughty” by busybodies, legal types, and (probably) your mom, so we’d like to make sure you’re of legal age before we let you see it”. It makes me feel that the site is run (and possibly only read by) by 18 year olds.

    • Thank you Steve. Yes, I agree with you about the pop up box. I guess it’s their tongue-in-cheek way of obeying legislation whilst seeming ‘subversive’. I suppose it fits with the feeling of many of their stories, but when approaching one as sensitive as this, the word “naughty” is at the very least embarrassing. At the most it’s exactly part of the problem – presenting women’s bodies as sexy, fun, ‘naughty’, in contexts where those bodies deal in a complicated and dangerous world – pretty much sums up what is offensive about those Steenkamp front pages. I’m imagining the Vice editors telling these struggling, surviving, dying women, who clearly face things a Vice editor hasn’t even seen in his/her worst nightmares: “Ooh your stories are a bit naughty”…YUCK.

  2. For all the difficulty viewing it presents, there’s something hopeful (for want of a more appropriate word) in this image of Mumtaz, present in abundance, and in a way that illustrates how little there is that is at all similar in the Steenkamp images. There’s a vain hope expressed in the latter that’s about a failure to let go, and a reluctance of acceptance of the reality of her absence. Clinging to a past that was, in so far as her ‘public’ face is concerned, a carefully crafted illusion; and is even more so now. Playing to the gallery whether she wants to or not, even less in control of her ‘self’ image in her death, than she was in her life.

    Not so for Mumtaz, there’s an embracing of her finality, that may be disturbing to some in in its laying bare of her death, but which is ultimately more honest. And which shows in the petals scattered about her, the careful binding of her body, and the anointing of her skin, that the hands of others who cared about her have prepared her for that finality.

    Its strange and I think is a wonder of ‘the image’ how, in the space between two differing representations, there can be revealed something hitherto intangible.

    Thanks Madeleine, I learned something from thinking about this, in this way.

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