Multivalence of the Image: The Image as Investigative Tool

J’Lyn Chapman

When I first read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel about a man trying to discover his origins after immigrating to Wales on a kindertransport during WWII, I was perplexed by how a work of fiction, even one steeped in historical fact, could include photographic images. Photographs are a particular kind of historical fact. Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida that this fact is composed of the fusion of sign and photographic referent, “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens” (76). I had thought of fiction, although not in these terms, as using its signs to create or perform its referent. Sebald was engaging with what seemed to me two different kinds of sign systems that were at odds with one another. Yet, even more importantly, I found that while images are conventionally used to document and fiction defamiliarizes, Sebald’s use of photography in fiction seemed to obscure reality in a way that occurred to me as particularly truthful. His novels at once stirred in me the delicious sense of unreality that resembled my earliest reading experiences while also leaving me feeling tender and wounded for reality. Through my reading of Sebald—which was meant to but could never quite succeed in demystifying my experience of the work—I’ve come to believe that he was trying to disavow us of our preconception about what makes fiction and reality unique because retaining the division is dangerous. Take for example, the case of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp were organized by the SS to ready the camp in preparation for a visit on June 23, 1944 by two Swiss delegates of the International Red Cross and two representatives of the government of Denmark. The visit presented the camp as a idyllic and quaint. “Park benches and signposts were set up,” Sebald writes in his account of the camp in Austerlitz, “the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over a thousand rosebushes were planted, a children’s nursery adorned with pretty fairy-tale friezes and equipped with sandboxes, paddling pools, and merry-go-rounds” (243). It is stranger still and just as factual that the Red Cross returned to Switzerland quite happy and praiseful of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. And as if this fact about a big lie is not horrible enough, after the Red Cross’s visit, the Nazi’s then made a propaganda film called in English, The Fuhrer gives a city to the Jews, in which inmates were cast as actors in a theatrical production of communal living with work and socializing and cultural events.

The facts are strange enough as they are, absurd even. The reality of Theresienstadt, and really of the whole period of Nazi Germany, is intellectually confounding and perhaps even impossible to represent. So how does one write about such a thing? And, in this case, how can an image function beyond merely furnishing evidence? The images that Sebald uses in his fiction, including stills from what remains of the film, do a different kind of work that facts, even extraordinary facts, cannot. Take for instance the photograph of a Theresienstadt postage stamp that bears the image of a miniature etching of a bucolic countryside—clouds and trees billow, a path leads the eye past a small pond and into an indistinct distance. The scalloped edges of the stamp frame the scene. If we move out of the literal image, we recognize that stamps, in general, are metonyms for place; this particular stamp is also a metonym for heimat, the rural or agrarian homeland or heimlich, that which is familiar or congenial. To use Freud’s discussion of heimlich in his essay, “The Uncanny,” we can also identify in this particular stamp the alternate meaning of the word—“concealment” or that which is kept out of sight. There is both an indiscernible spire in the landscape that remains partially hidden as well as the knowledge we have that Thereseinstadt was a concentration camp where nearly 33,000 inmates died and approximately 88,000 were sent on to extermination camps. An interrogation of heimlich’s duality—when heimlich turns into unheimlich, the turn wherein the familiar suddenly becomes dreamlike, provoking feelings of anxiety and dread—is at the heart of Sebald’s work. This image, and others like it, takes the awful, ineffable truth and, and, relying on conventions of documentation, seems to familiarize and objectify it; just as we recognize the image as documentation and recognize in the image the familiar, something flickers at the edges, flickers inside of us as we also recognize the way the image exceeds its neat frames.

In short, I’ll say that I learned the following from close reading Sebald’s work. First, images—whether photographs or reproduced ephemera—disrupt the traditional, teleological narrative line, so that even when historical fact plays an essential role in literature, the writing does not have to rely on narrative conventions that reify problematic notions of cause and effect. Second, the inclusion of images in literature creates a heteroglossia, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, in which verbal and visual texts reflect infinitely in mise en abyme, thus, destabilizing their referents and confounding the identity of their subjects. Third, images interrupt the authoritative, monologic voice of a narrator or author and enable multiple points of view, which might pull out synoptically or hone in intimately. And, finally, images can uncannily precipitate the failure of representation itself; in other words, images obviate the constructedness of the text, the reach of description.

These conclusions greatly influenced both my creative nonfiction and lyrical essays. My long essay, A Thing of Shreds of Patches, a digital chapbook published by Essay Press, is a poetics, ethics, and autobiographical essay in which I argue that to “steadfastly look toward the past, which is real and knowable, to see one’s being-in-the-world as both continuous and evolving, as even consequential and transcendent, is essential to easing the suffering of all beings” (28–9). By tracing some of Sebald’s treks through Belgium, the country from which my in-laws immigrated, I discovered a complicated and fraught history that seemed only possible to “represent” with images.

Some of these images were taken by Charles Provo, the man who married my husband’s grandmother after her first husband died. He was around 18 when he took the photos, and he was fighting in the Belgian Resistance in Antwerp.

I included these images of effigies of Nazi soldiers that the Belgians strung up shortly after Antwerp was liberated by the British for a few reasons. First, they’re obviously arresting, and I recognize that there is something of the spectacle in them. In fact, the effigies themselves were meant as public spectacle, and the images, most likely taken to commemorate liberation, bear with them anger and celebration. They are straightforward and unadorned, and if there is something artful about them, it’s accidental. Second, in my essay I discuss ghosts—literal and figurative—and haunting as an example of how the past is always present or time is absolute. When I see these images, I am reminded of ghosts, especially since the lines that surely held up the effigies are barely discernible in the photographs. I never mention the resemblance to ghosts explicitly. I hope that my audience lingers long enough to recognize it themselves, an approach that I find that Sebald also uses. Finally, the images also remind me of lynching photographs and postcards from nineteenth and early-twentieth century American history. I do mention this, but I do not explicitly deepen the point here, which is that even in the violence that the Nazis did the Belgians and even in the understandable response that the Belgians have to the Nazis, there is something menacing and unnerving in the effigies, there is a sense of moral ambiguity.

This moral ambiguity comes out more strongly in this photograph of a mother and daughter who were thought to be Nazi conspirators. They’ve been apprehended, according to Charles, by the Belgian resistance. Their heads have been shaved, and here they are subjected to the public, to which we as viewers of the photograph now belong. Even though I include this photograph, I also describe it as if it isn’t present in the text. I wanted to exert some power here, to direct my audience to details like the handbag, the gaze of the younger woman, and the white cloth or paper that she holds in her hand. I didn’t want to draw any conclusions about the meaning of these details, but I wanted my audience to stay here for a moment. Images and text have the power to do this in a way that text only doesn’t. The pace at which a reader makes her way through a text can be determined, in part, by the inclusion of an image. I also wanted the image, decontextualized from its original purpose and recontextualized here, to allow us as readers to feel empathy with the so-called traitor.

Empathy in this essay is important for me, and I wanted to complicate it—I wanted to show that empathy doesn’t have to do with identification or understanding so much as with incommensurability. It’s paradoxical, but I think it’s how we can exist with difference. Photographs, especially those of people, are essentially very private. In these and other images that I include, there is another kind of privacy that bears itself and that moves beyond initial interpretations one could make of these signs as well as from the narrative scaffolding one is compelled to construct in the gaps. By privacy, I mean what Édouard Glissant calls “the right to opacity,” in which “the opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence” (191). In other words, some images can present us meanings that are profoundly other; while we use these images to document some truth, we must also recognize that some meanings cannot be absorbed into our thought as supplements. In other words, they cannot be reduced, they cannot be made transparent.

These are examples of images that serve somewhat documentary purposes. I want to shift to my book Beastlife, which I would call a collection of lyrical essays and that include facts that are unsubstantiated.

In this project, I used images ekphrastically and literally; in other words, I responded to images and I included them within as structures of the text. The section “The Good Beast: Five Essays” had taken in its lifetime many different forms. The first form was a long prose essay that traced human flight. I tried to use a straightforward and exaggerated prose style that I undercut with “flights of fancy,” including images that were discordant and personal. I see the very short essays that made it into the book, each around 350 words, as existing somewhere between prose and poetry. I viewed lots of images as I was writing these, but I determined that including any one of them would be disproportionate with the writing itself, which I wanted to remain airy and ephemeral.

Caption: Attributed to Petrus Christus c. 1425

I became especially interested, obsessed really, with paintings of the annunciation. I like the one that is attritubted to Petrus Christus because of the dove and the perspective. Rather than describe one painting, I wanted to catalog objects and symbols, like the depictions of Mary in various architectures, rays of light, doves, the wings of Gabrielle, the infant Christ, etc. I wanted to dislocate Christian iconography from its original intent and context to estrange it and demystify it while simultaneously infusing it with a new kind of strangeness. This is an instance in which I want my audience to seek out these images on their own. I realize they probably won’t, but maybe that’s a secret that the text holds.

Caption: Screenshot from Trakovsky’s Andre Rublev.


I also spent a lot of time watching Tarkovsky’s Andre Rublev. I was watching it for an opening scene that depicts a man boarding a rudimentary hot air balloon made of animal skins. The scene ends with a very short clip, almost completely disconnected from the narrative, of a black horse sitting on its legs on the banks of the river. In slow motion, it rolls on its back first one way and then another, an uncanny movement I once saw my uncle’s horse make in a dusty Texas field. While perfectly natural, it is writhing and fierce and stranger still when the horse rises to stand, innervated, galloping. (In a later scene, Tarkovsky shoots a horse in the neck then films its staggering fall down a flight of stairs.) The next scene catches the horse as it moves out of the frame, this time disjunctively to the right, revealing a prone Yefim, the man in the hot air balloon. This image of the horse felt important, and I wanted to piggy-back on some Tarkovsky’s intent in include the shot—which I think has something to do with humankind’s essential spirituality. I tried to describe it, but to this day, it feels more like an unintentional failure.

Finally, in the essay “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” I wanted to use lots of photographs (many more than I actually ended up using) to feign photos meant for the purpose of archiving in a natural history museum or for remembering as in a national memorial. I mostly took these photos of dead birds while walking around, although when friends and family found out I was doing this, I started receiving lots of images of dead birds. Initially, I wanted to include a grid of all of these images and a catalog of who took them and where. I was thinking about Christian Boltanski’s installations in which he arranges zoomed-in portraits of Swiss children in a grid pattern as in The Reserve of Dead Swiss. All of this started to feel too precious though, too nostalgic. Details I found in these photographs helped me to write the essay itself (after all, who wants to stare for too long at a dead bird in the middle of a city street), but certainly the process of photographing, the bodily experience of it and the attention that it enlivened in me made its way into the essay itself. I included the photo above because of the strange coincidence of the bird dying on the lid to a public cable box, the beauty of the fluid coming from its mouth, the way the banal words “T.V. Cable” and the color of the plate almost seem like a tombstone for the bird.

In the writing I’m doing now, I’ve become interested in the process of seeing, of attention, and how that translates (or doesn’t) to written expression. But I initially thought of this after discovering the images Uta Barth made from light entering her home. I wondered how writing could act like a camera, and what I’ve found is that it can’t. This thinking feels more theoretical, phenomenological, and even more sensory than the work that I did with Sebald, and yet I think that Sebald, like Walter Benjamin before him, recognized both the predominance of the visual image in twentieth-century meaning making as well as the inscrutable, often ambiguous nature of sight. And in this way, while language cannot function like a camera, it can function like sight. It is into this strange process—full of memory and longing—that I want to write now.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.

Chapman, J’Lyn. A Thing of Shreds and Patches. Essay Press. Digital.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor : U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Andrei Rublev. Criterion Collection, 1966. Film.