Barthes and my dearest aunt

My dearest aunt passed away last week. Her name is Maria, but she was always nameless to me. She was always the aunt. She was one of my grandmother’s two sisters. But I never met my grandmother, Francelina, and the aunt sort of occupied that place: the place of mother, for my mother, and the place of grandmother, for me (and I would suppose my brother as well).

All my life she lived on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada. She, her sister Maria and their husbands emigrated long ago and built their families there. But they visited every year, often more than once. So even the seeds of that emotional proximity were always shortened by the temporal and physical distance.

Her death is uncanny, in many ways, the distance being the trigger of these strangely familiar feelings. My difficulty in experiencing her disappearance got me thinking about her portraits and the very few photographs I took of her, for they have become the only way to conceptualize her death.

She fell ill very suddenly and her death followed quickly. After it happened, her daughter and granddaughters posted portraits of her on facebook and it started to happen: every time I looked at her portrait I failed to realize her disappearance. That failure was more or less dramatic, depending on the photograph in question.

As was expected, a portrait taken by me would prove to be the most complicated photograph to look at (this is the only portrait I found of her, can’t even find the original negatives).

portrait aunt
© Sofia Silva, “the aunt”, n.d.

Photography is always about death, whether because it kills the reality it chooses to immortalize or because it simply kills the subjects’ existence. This takes me immediately back to Barthes and La Chambre Claire. Every portrait can be, as he explains, an authentication of a person’s existence. However, that person’s existence, which the photograph apprehends, is not the sum of the contours of her/his body and face, but the “expression of truthfulness”, her/his aura.

I recognize my aunt’s aura in this portrait only because this photograph (every photograph) is the sum of several projections: how she wanted me to see her; how she thought she would look best, how I thought she felt about me, how I thought she would look best, etc, etc. In the end, the aura of the subject in the photograph is not hers, but mine, for when she surrenders herself to the photograph, she immediately ceases to be the subject in the photograph and transforms herself in the object of my affections.

The realms of the truth and the false seduce me, but I’m aware of how difficult it is to trace and walk the bridge between the two. In fact, I feel obliged to even think of a passage, from one stage to the other, and only because the art of lying and deceiving has fallen in the realm of the mundane and the ordinary.

Anyway, “the “expression of truthfulness” mentioned by Barthes is an expression of what is true for me, albeit that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the qualities of that expression. Qualities that before having an aesthetic dimension have an ethical, a philosophical and a psychological one, for we’re talking about being. A photograph is its forms, its colors, its lines… but what is represented in a photograph is the being of the photographer and the affective relation he/she establishes with the symbolic universes he/she chooses to render photographable.

In the aunt’s photograph I recognize her. Our togetherness is materialized. Because she will live on in that memory I fail to realize she is no longer photographable…

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