Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn

During the First World War it was common, even routine, among belligerent armies to execute some of those deemed guilty of cowardice or desertion in order to deliver justice and assert the authority of the military hierarchy and the courts-martial. Each of the photos in Chloe Dewe Mathews’ collection Shot at Dawn depicts a place where one such execution took place, on the same day of the year, at the same time of day, around 100 years on. The resulting images tend to be rural scenes that convey the distinct character of early morning: silent, dimly lit, often misty, never populated with figures. Her photographs recall Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death and similarly, were it not for the simultaneous reception of imaginary and linguistic information, there would be little knowing they were images of war at all.

This character is intentional, it is residual of one of Dewe Mathews aims, that of challenging the established norms of photojournalism and provoking a new mode of response. ‘Our world is saturated with [photojournalistic] images of war’, she stated in an interview, ‘they don’t work anymore – certainly, they don’t feel meaningful to me. Seeing a dynamic composition, or extreme emotion on someone’s face: images like that engage us for one or two seconds, but then we pass on’. This notion, that the affective value of photojournalistic images is continually diminishing, was proposed by Susan Sontag in On Photography. In Sontag’s oeuvre this notion is derivative of the ontology she affords to the photographic image. ‘A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled of the real, like a footprint or a death mask’. It is this trace that gives us the sense that the situation depicted must have really existed and therefore must really matter. However, so Sontag’s argument goes (at least in On Photography), it is due to the increasing velocity of the image-flow that the public becomes numb to such photojournalistic images of pain and suffering.

Dewe Mathews response to this crisis of photojournalism is constructive. She has effectively responded to Sontag’s call in Regarding the Pain of Others for a mode of photography that enables a sustained critical reflection rather than a quick emotive response, that acknowledges that ‘too much value is assigned to memory, perhaps not enough to thinking’. Along similar lines Dewe Mathews stated that ‘with Shot at Dawn, it was nice to have the opportunity to think about something very quietly, rather than going for the guts’. Absent from her photographs are the usual tears, mutilated corpses, desecrated landscapes that compel us to look away while demanding to be remembered. Rather, the eerie, unpopulated, yet everyday scenes betray the silence of early morning, no doubt a time and space for quiet, lonely reflection on the photographer’s part; the viewer is invited to do the same. The banality and superficial insignificance of the scenes lead the viewer to one question more than any other: why is there no monument to those who died here, tragically?

The absence of a monument explains a second of Dewe Mathews intentions. This intention has been referred to in a number of interviews via roughly the same statement: ‘By photographing them [the landscapes] … I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten’.

100 years had passed since the firing squad took aim at the court-martialled when Dewe Mathews set up her tripod, ‘at about the same spot from where the firing squad had stood and looking directly at the place where the victim was placed’, took aim herself, and shot. Dewe Mathews carried out a reenactment of the executions and through this succeeded in reasserting the presence of the dead. The chilling serenity of her landscapes seems to be awaiting disturbance, animation, apparition. They are exceedingly still, ordinary scenes, seemingly completely insignificant except for the knowledge of what once really happened there. In this sense the photographs are haunted, uncanny in Freudian terminology. Furthermore, due to the aforementioned ontological status of the photograph as a deathmask of the real, the haunted presence of the executed in the image also implies their resurrection in the real-world, even if it were only momentary, only visible by virtue of the optical unconscious.

But does the momentariness of this presence in the real-world not imply a futility in Dewe Mathews’ endeavour to prevent the executions, which she believes to be an injustice, being forgotten? Indeed, in the seminal Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes categorically denies that a photograph can conjure memory, instead suggesting that it can only affirm the reality of the past. ‘The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see indeed existed’. It is because of this that Barthes situates the temporality of the photograph itself within the aorist tense, the absolute past. Of course, the subjective encounter of the viewer with the photograph does not belong to the aorist tense and at no point does Barthes imply this. Viewing a photograph involves a folding of time back upon itself, not a re-presentation of the past but rather, and literally, a presentation of the past. Here we arrive at a definition of the conceptual opposition to which Barthes repeatedly returns, that between “studium” and “punctum”.

To read an historical photograph as the depiction of a  meaningful aorist event and place it within a meaningful narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end is to experience the photograph as studium. This is because such an endeavour implies the assimilation of the photograph into a coherent system of signs. On the other hand, the conscious acknowledgement of the temporal and spatial displacement of the photograph from the moment of its capture constitutes an engagement with a “punctum” of the photograph. Specifically, this is a punctum not ‘of form but of intensity’. In this way, the punctum is that aspect of the photograph that resists symbolisation within a definitive historical model. The relevance of all this to Shot at Dawn is as follows: whether the viewer identifies with the studium or the punctum determines to what extent Dewe Mathews can be said to have successfully stamped the presence of the dead back onto the photographed landscapes.

The studium of Shot at Dawn lies in the renewed presence of the dead that demands memorialisation. It also implies that the photographic project is part of a wider political narrative unfolding across Europe in which the executed will become justly and definitively memorialised and exalted. This position thus tends towards teleology and, crucially, involves the symbolisation of death.

Interpreting Shot at Dawn as punctum is somewhat complicated by the notion of death, which Barthes often speaks of exclusively in relation to punctum, being also inherent to the studium. To clarify this complication a distinction must be made between two orders of death to which Barthes refers. Barthes describes the photograph as that ‘which produces Death while trying to preserve life’, and the realisation of such as a punctum. In Barthes’ examples the trigger of this punctum typically manifests as the image of the mortal figure, often his mother, that serves as memento mori. Here is one such melancholic passage:

With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death. … The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only “thought” I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of the “nothing to say”.

Here, while discussing a punctum (that which cannot be spoken of, symbolised), Barthes specifies the order of death to which he is referring: ‘Flat Death’, elsewhere described as ‘asymbolic’ death. When interpreted as studium Shot at Dawn death is enshrined with cultural meaning, it is attributed signification. By contrast asymbolic death is that order of death that resists symbolisation absolutely. The punctum of Shot at Dawn, then, is this: that the deaths of the executed are meaningless, that the memorialisation the photographs imply will not be definitive and, by extension, that our deaths too will forever be void of definite meaning. This punctum is triggered by the visual evidence of routine social life continuing at the place that may at first seem to have unary significance: the paths left by the farmer’s tractor as it trundles through the wheat or the school playground awaiting repopulation by screaming children who come to disturb the silence.

While these spaces, as they are lived, have changed in the last 100 years or so, the places in which they are situated, as defined by their coordinates, have not. Place is an asymbolic category; indeed W. J. T. Mitchell has suggested that place, as it is conceptualised by Michel de Certeau, is roughly congruent of the Lacanian real, that which resists symbolisation. The real-places photographed by Dewe Mathews will always exist, they will always constitute the places where the executions really happened, and therefore so to will the opportunity always exist to remember those that died via another endeavour such as Dewe Mathews, perhaps at the next centenary.

Still, no such endeavour will ever succeed in definitively stamping the presence of the dead back onto the landscape, making them eternally remembered. Nonetheless, Dewe Mathews has enacted a presentation of history and contributed to a reinterpretation. The only caveat is that history is an open ended process, always emergent and never fully consummated, with no inherent endings what-so-ever, happy or sad.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980), trans. Richard Howard, (London, 1984).

Benjamin, Walter, “Little History of Photography” (1931), trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 2, Part 2, 1931-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 507-530.

Dewe Mathews, Chloe, “Shot at Dawn” (2014). Available at: http://shotatdawn.photography/work/ (accessed 29/12/2015).

Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny” (1919), trans. Alix Strachey, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London, 1955), p. 219-252.

Jay, Martin, ‘Photography and the Event’, in Dorota Koczanowicz, Leszek Koczanowicz and David Schauffler (eds.), Discussing Modernity: A Dialogue with Martin Jay (Amsterdam, 2013), pp. 9-27.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Landscape and Power (Chicago, 2002).

Seymour, Tom, British Journal of Photography [online], “Remembering the British deserters of World War One”, (2015). Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/07/remembering-the-forgiven-british-deserters-of-world-war-one/ (accessed 22/12/2015).

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London, 1977).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, 2003).

Sooke, Alastair, BBC Culture [online], “Beyond boots and guns: A new look at the horrors of war”, (2014). Available at: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20141111-beyond-blood-and-guts (accessed 22/12/2015).

Tate, Tate Online [online], “TateShots: Chloe Dewe Mathews”, (2015). Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-chloe-dewe-mathews (accessed 22/12/2015).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: