If someone asked you what photography’s big deal was, all you’d have to say is that it has something to do with “the gaze,” and then show this photograph. Of course, photography is not just this image. There is a lot more - or, if you’re a curmudgeon (there seem to be many these days) a lot less. But there is a lot to be said for talking about the most outstanding examples of any art form to get an idea of their power - instead of focusing on the detritus. Thus, when talking about photography we’d probably want to talk about photographs of the human form, and out of all those we might want to talk about this particular photograph. Its title is “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother,” and it was taken by Eduard Méhomé (the photograph can be found on page 41 of Life & Afterlife in Benin - make sure to view the slightly larger version of this photograph first by clicking on the icon on the side before reading the rest of this article). (more)
I have no idea whether the title of the photograph given in the book is its original title. I doubt it. The photograph is a studio portrait, and I yet have to learn of anyone who’d give a studio portrait a title like that. This is a conjecture, but the younger woman in the photograph probably treated the image the way we all treat out personal photographs: “This is me, and this is my mother.” That’s what we do: We take photographs for what they show us - a small, but important distinction. What the photographer did we can try to guess. The book talks about the difficulty of even finding negatives for many of those portrait studios in Benin. But even if we assume there was an archive, the title of this photograph is unlikely to have been “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother.” That’s an unusable title for an archive.
So we needn’t take the title too seriously, even though, of course, it’s a great title. What makes the title so great, in terms of the writing, is that it’s nothing but completely descriptive. It’s almost the greatest possible title and the most terrible possible title at the same time. “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother.” It makes us shudder: We cannot imagine being in that situation. Or actually we don’t want to imagine being in that situation. If we just had the title and if someone told us it was the title of an actual photograph what would be going through our heads? Would we imagine it being just that: utterly descriptive?
But when you see the photograph first - as I did - and then the title, it’s still a shock. Or maybe more accurately an aftershock. You see the photograph, and you think you know what’s going on, or maybe you wonder what’s going on, you wonder whether this could possibly… and then there’s the title. It’s almost as if someone knew what we would be asking and decided, “I am going to tell all these people exactly what they want to know.”
Even if your photographic diet only consisted of, let’s say, James Nachtwey photographs, I am relatively certain - relatively, not absolutely - that this photograph will move you. It might even shock you. Needless to say, that is not why this is a good photograph. This is not why you might want to use it as an example of what photographs can do. For the shock, all you’d need is something by Nachtwey. But for something that strikes your innermost self, this photograph is an amazing example. It is a photograph that, to (mis-)use Francis Bacon’s words, speaks directly to the nervous system.
These two women in this photograph did not find the vulturistic lens of a photojournalist in their faces (“vulturistic” is my own creation, combining “vulture” and “voyeuristic”). Instead, they went to see a studio photographer to have the formal studio portrait taken. There is some more conjecture involved here: I don’t really know whether they both decided to do that. Maybe just one of them did. But if it was one, then she convinced the other person to go along. So we have an element of free will here.
We also have an element of dignity, since a studio photographer does just that: He gives his subjects dignity (as an aside, maybe what we call “compassion fatigue” results from seeing photographs over and over again where the subjects for the most part are being denied their dignity as human beings?).
What I am imagining is that the two women went to the photographer to have a final photograph taken together. That seems very obvious, but based on what we see in the photography we almost don’t want to believe that. They have both dressed up for the occasion, and they pose for the camera. The daughter is holding her mother, her left arm literally props her up - especially her head (the arm finds a visual echo in the mother’s collarbone just below). There is determination in the daughter’s gaze, some pride, and there is pain. It’s hard to imagine what must have gone through her head, knowing full well that her mother is so close to death.
As for the mother… We have to trust the caption that she is in fact still alive when this photo was taken. Her eyes - we don’t know whether they are still able to see - are turned towards the sky. The way her right arm just dangles down, so very lifeless, is shocking.
Often, I find myself questioning the caption. Maybe they got it all wrong? Maybe the mother is already dead? That doesn’t make the photography any less shocking. It doesn’t meeting the daughter’s gaze any more jarring.
This photograph is all about the gaze - its presence and, something we rarely see, its absence. The daughter confronts the camera, her eyes meeting the viewer’s. Her mother’s… are elsewhere. Which other form of art could capture these expressions this forcefully, this realistically?
But there is more. Much like any photograph, this one is about memory, about creating memory, about holding on to something. The daughter is literally holding on to her dying mother for this photograph while this it - itself a symbol of holding on to something - is being taken. She is holding on to her mother so that the photographer can take a photograph she can hold on to later.
I find it hard to think of an example where this very essence of photography is expressed this forcefully: Photography as memory, as an effort to hold on to something that must ultimately be lost.
Let’s face it, all photography is futile. That is part of its very essence.