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.