Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Guilt of the Photographer

I know that fiction relies on a suspension of disbelief, to some degree, even realist fiction. But I wonder, as I begin reading Margaret Sayers-Peden's translation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles, why a person threatened with being killed wouldn't immediately go to the police. The protagonist, a retired war-photographer, is confronted by the subject of an award-winning photo from ten years ago, who tracks him down in his secluded studio and promises to kill him. Perhaps the photographer cum painter feels an obligation to the subject for his dispassionate capture and use of his image, or remorse for not remembering the subject, asking his name or even finding out whether he survived the war being documented. But that somehow seems too comfortable, to easy to succumb to guilt.

I'm interested to see how it will unfold - it the painter, we already know, is searching for some meaning to life and death, it is why he became a war photographer in the first place. There is the promise that the meaning he seeks will be developed, like a photograph, through the conversations he has with is subject and would-be killer. Perhaps there is he insinuation that by photographing this man in the midst of battle, anonymously and without emotion, the photographer in some way took his life from him. Though the subject survived the battle, his face becomes the symbol of a lost cause, a defeated party in a civil war. That theft of choice in identity - what one's life represents - will be balanced by the theft of the photographer's life.

Faulques, photographer and now painter of battles, says to his subject, companion, inquisitor "War ... can be photographed well only when, as you raise the camera, what you see doesn't affect you." (40) In this way the camera becomes weaponized, the photographer a soldier of sorts. Soldiers learn, through training or experience, to dehumanize the other, the enemy. It's necessary in order to kill, tortue, villanize. A soldier who feels remorse, sympathy or empathy is useless as a combatant. In the same way, here, the photographer cannot indulge in an emotional identification with the subject - sterilizing them, though without the villification necessary to kill them. The interesting double meaning of "shoot."

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