The independent news organization of Duke University

Mortality by photography

staff note

A few weeks ago, an order for 25 three-by-five Shutterfly photo prints arrived at my door. The photos were mostly Instagram photos that I needed to occupy my empty picture frames, which had sat vacant on my shelves all semester. Nearly all of them were posed photographs of me and my friends taken on an iPhone camera. Unlike film photography, iPhone photos are disposable, economical and ubiquitous, so printing them allowed the ephemeral digital renderings to possess tangible sentimental value.

Most of the photographs detailed this past semester and my senior year of high school. As I flipped through the prints, I felt a sense of despondency for a time that was and will never be again. The moments are frozen in time — from stumbling upon a sunflower patch over the summer to my senior prom. Each moment will eternally exist and will never exist again.

I will be turning 20 this year. Every year, without fail, I cry on my birthday. There usually isn’t a particular reason for it — but an overwhelming wave of despair washes over me every fourth of December. It is possible that I am experiencing a sense of loss — the loss of my childhood on my 18th birthday, the loss of another year of life, perhaps.

“Photographers are agents of death,” Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal inquiry into the essence of photography, “Camera Lucida.” Barthes believed in a photograph’s power not only to freeze moments in time but to capture subjects in either a mummified or fossilized state devoid of both life and motion. Barthes’s concept of the temporal paradox of photography lies in our attempts to make photos lifelike to certify reality — a delusion in his eyes. But by shifting this reality to the past, the photograph suggests that it is already dead.

Barthes exploration of death and photography was a bit hard to conceptualize at first (and to an extent it still is), but on occasion my mother will show me pictures of my grandfather before he succumbed to lung cancer. Most of the photographs are candid shots of him smiling or laughing with a mischievous glimmer in his eye.

I was still very young on the occasion of his death. We sparsely visited Algeria, so I did not know my grandfather very well, but I recall him sneaking candies and chocolates to me when my mother and grandmother were busy in the kitchen, as they so often were. When I see photographs of my grandfather, I often project the dwindling memories I have of him upon the photos. I ascribe a new life to someone who is long gone, and much like Barthes details, he becomes simultaneously living and dead, perpetually approaching his fate.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I examine each photograph that has documented my teenage years, ever since I was 13 years old. Nearly every photo is an assemblage of friends, past and present, with smiles plastered on our faces, in neat rows staring at the face of the camera. Unlike photography for art’s sake, my photographs are not subject to Proustian semiotics; each photo was carefully curated, cropped and edited to acquire social validation, none with any inherent artistic attention to detail.

Our orchestrated poses seek to convey contentment with life. We play into the social game whose rules state that we must constantly be surrounded by others and enjoying ourselves. Love and belonging are third on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and considering most of us at Duke have access to necessities, being loved and accepted by our peers becomes a high priority. One of the more obvious ways we attempt to convey our need for love and acceptance is through social media. But do our social media profiles also confirm the linear trajectory of our own mortality?

Susan Sontag touched on the ubiquity of the photograph in “Plato’s Cave” well before the age of the iPhone camera, asserting that photographs are used with the intention of certifying an experience, yet operate to withhold that experience. Rather than absorbing a moment in its entirety, we seem to have an urge to put the camera between the experience and ourselves — not merely to preserve what is there, but also to provide the illusion of participation.

Although it isn’t likely that I will stop taking photos anytime soon, I certainly will remain aware of the occasion and frequency at which I photograph my surroundings. If photographs capture and reflect death, I will strive to counter the effects through being present for what remains of my life. Even so, I prefer to regard photography as a chronicle of my life and who I am. I don’t plan on being remembered for anything profound or revolutionary, but I hope the photographs of myself and my life can convey some semblance of meaning.

Sarah Derris is a Trinity first-year and Recess staff writer.


Share and discuss “Mortality by photography” on social media.