THE GRAPHICS OF GRIEF
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY PHOTOGRAPHY DOES NOT FOCUS ON HORROR, nor does it have despair as a factory default. I don’t set out at the start of the day to use my camera to prove that life is worthless. Quite the opposite, in fact. Certainly, I realize that my own native need to depict hope in my creative work will render me quaint, even naive in the eyes of many. However, that persistent bias toward beauty, toward uplift, does not mean that I shy away from visualizing the things that make life difficult. As always, it’s in the balance between the two extremes that we manage to be most honest in the pictures that we make.
The universality of grief, as it’s enveloped the entire world in recent years, can be crushing, and yet deciding to express that grief in photographs can be daunting. Can we just glibly shoot weeping mourners at graveside and say we’ve told the complete story of our communal losses? Can we restrict our commentary to merely depicting statistics, tables, charts? Can we veil our tears behind symbolic images? How can we use the camera to show something that is so internal, so personal, so individual?
Looking over my work from the end of 2019 to the present (or late ’21, at this writing) I don’t see a lot of deliberate attempts to “show” the damage the pandemic has done to us…that is, nothing purely reportorial. You can’t “cover” a global nightmare the way you’d cross town to “cover” a building on fire or document a collapsed highway. Everyone creates their own visual contours to these kinds of feelings, and any attempt to cram them into a ready-made template will fall short.
And then there’s another idea that occurs to me.
Perhaps my way of walking out of this crater is through images of hope, to make my camera a defiant force for not allowing the darkness to prevail. Maybe the persistence of ugliness demands that at least some art embrace the light, to affirm our need to go on, to actually insist on doing so.
We could all fill huge portfolios of pictures that merely symbolize the burden of our times, such as the shot seen above, which, ironically, actually predates the crisis. But where are the pictures that proclaim that “my heart will go on”? Are those to be thought of as hopelessly sentimental, and thus dismissable? Is our only concept of “reality” a mosaic of misery? I believe the world of photography is wide enough for many voices to be heard, and I refuse to certify the mere recording of tragedy as the only official story worth telling, even in these times. My camera is my tool for finding a path out of the shadows, and I trust myself to make pictures that acknowledge horror while showing what forces are needed to counter it.