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Volume 18

Dead Medium - Summer 2017


Written by
Torsa Ghosal

Torsa Ghosal is the Associate Editor of Papercuts magazine. She is the author of the novel, Open Couplets (2017), published by Yoda Press in India. Her poems and short stories have appeared in venues such as The Hindu BLink, Aaduna, Poydras Review, Unsplendid, Himal Southasian, and Muse India. She is also a researcher, specializing in narrative theories–-that is, the systematic study of the aesthetic experiences offered by stories across media–-and 20th-/21st- century experimental literary forms. Her critical and scholarly writings can be found in Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, South Asian Review, Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, Post Script, and Latinos and Narrative Media. In the past, she has assisted the editors of the journal, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of post-1945 English literature at California State University, Sacramento.


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Endnotes: On Photographing the Dead in the Family


They say the camera captures your soul – is that what explains our tenuous relationship with photographing the dead? An essay in the lyrical catalog form explores this notion, and more.


If the deceased is a child or a youth, the photograph comes free of cost. After all, photography is the art of affixing light as time. A dead child is untimely, though death has no time. Even on the steps of Varanasi’s Manikarnika ghat, amid the perpetual tandava and lasya of flesh-charring flames, a child wrapped in gold-bordered red chunri, fastened to a bamboo frame, is the missed foot of talam. And so, the death photographers of Varanasi follow an unwritten rule—they do not charge grieving families of children or youth. With unclaimed corpses, it is another story. The photographers, priests, and barbers have to pitch in to keep the rituals going, the hourglass-drum beating. Otherwise, a photographer at Manikarnika ghat can earn anywhere between 1500 to 2000 rupees a day by clicking and printing images of the dead at the behest of their families.

For centuries, the Manikarnika ghat has been set aside for cremating Hindus. No bathers swim in the pewter waters that wash its steps. This is the territory where death photographers such as Indra Kumar Jha go about their daily business. Jha, who is the collaborator and subject of Matteo de Maya’s series of postmortem images from India, is also the keeper of a Kali temple at the ghat. A petite man with brown eyes, he wears a black thread around his neck. His speech slurs. The death photographs he takes are usually close-ups or mid-close-ups—portraits on pyres. However, Jha does not use the point-and-shoot digital camera with which he has shot hundreds of corpses to take pictures of his family. The device, like the burning ghat itself, is set aside. So contagious is the touch of death.

Corpses awaiting cremation at Manikarnika are washed in the Ganges. Then, they can be left leaning on the ghat’s steps until it is their turn to be set ablaze. Dangling between land and water, the corpses-in-waiting face the east. I saw it in a photograph Jane Tuckerman took at Manikarnika ghat in 1985. Tuckerman is not a death photographer but a visual artist and professor of photography. Her image, unlike the ones the death photographers click, was not commissioned by mourners. In Tuckerman’s photograph, two bodies wrapped in white cloth from foot to toe, bound to bamboo frames, wait on ashen stairs leading to the river. Keeping them company are two stray dogs, the back of a cow, and a man on a boat whose head escapes the frame.

Once fire is fed to the pyre, it takes three hours or more for the corpse to burn. In the first twenty minutes the ribs show. Soon, masticatory muscles contract, feet flex. A body burns like a tree, fueling the fire as it goes. In the end, the Ganges laps up the cremains. As this multi-step ritual unfolds every day of the year, the death photographer has the onus of recording and retaining a trace of the body that will have undergone oxidation soon after.


Photographs record moments that will have been. Their tense is futur antérieur: simultaneously, cela sera (it would be) and cela a été (it was). So observed Roland Barthes when examining a photograph of his mother and that of a prisoner on death row; both deceased by the time he is contemplating their images, writing La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida). The English equivalent for “futur antérieur” is future perfect but Barthes’ translators prefer “future anterior,” leaving a trace of the French source. Is not the subject of Barthes’ book the trace?

As an index—or trace—of the past, photographs foreshadow the finitude of life. All photographs in this sense are memento mori: a reminder of impending death. They say, she (the photo’s living subject) who is present here will have been dead in the imminent future and you (the viewer) will follow suit.

In addition to Barthes, for numerous other connoisseurs and critics, the essence of photography is inextricably tied to its ontology. As a mechanical art form, photographs attest to the undeniable presence of the subject. In fact, mid- and late-twentieth century commentators, including Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Andre Bazin stress the testimonial function of photographs given the supposed lack of human intervention in their production. Of course, this is before the ease of manipulating digital images bust the myth of unmediated reality associated with photography. And it is after we forgot all about the daguerreotypes that were overpainted for cosmetic ends or gold toned to prevent fading. Still, today, photography’s romance with the “real” is far from over. Lev Manovich and D.N. Rodowick are some of the many contemporary critics who approach analog photograph as an index of presence, contrasting it with digital simulations. At the same time, the presence to which photographs can testify is of the past. As such, reflecting on analog stills constituting movies, Rodowick notes a la Barthes that the film attributes past presence to that which no longer is: thus, “watching [analog] film is literally a spectatorship of death.”


It is not as if photography is connected with death primarily at a conceptual level. The history of photography as an art form remains closely associated with representations of death. Noël Marie Paymal Lerebours, a nineteenth century photographer and “Optician to Observatory, Paris etc. etc.,” observed that early daguerreotypes produced “cadaverous specimens.” Given that these daguerreotypes did not record color and distorted tone values (greens and reds were rendered extremely dark while blues and violets came out eerily light), the living subjects of photos often ended up looking very dead. In Lerebours’ words, the result was “a cold and stiff copy of nature.” Moreover, daguerreotypes were expensive. So, not many had photographs taken during their lifetime. And given the infant mortality rate, many had not lived long enough to be photographed, even if their families had the means and the intent. Death necessitated photography.

A body burns like a tree, fueling the fire as it goes. In the end, the Ganges laps up the cremains. As this multi-step ritual unfolds every day of the year, the death photographer has the onus of recording and retaining a trace of the body that will have undergone oxidation soon after.

In the nineteenth-century, memento mori (that is, death or postmortem portraits, named after a longstanding Western art tradition) were often taken in domestic settings, amid the din of life. The corpse could be surrounded by family members—dead babies cradled in parents’ arms. Poles, pillows, or people would prop the dead bodies upright. Or, the corpse would be outstretched on the bed as though in deep sleep. A hint of flour on the skin could lighten complexion, reduce the exposure time. Eyes were drawn on the corpses’ portraits. Examples of such images taken in the UK, the US, and different parts of Europe can be found in museums such as Musee d’Orsay and special collections like The Burns Archive. In one such image, three barely discernible figures surround a corpse that pierces the camera with her painted eyes. In another, a very young boy lies on the bed as though sleeping—the most prominent feature of his face is the overpainted eyelashes.

When photography became affordable, the culture of death portraits declined. Families had photographs of the deceased from their lifetime and no longer needed the dead to pose as living. Yet, in a slightly modified form and context, death photography survives in places like the Manikarnika ghat of Varanasi.

If photographs mediate past presence, then the mid-nineteenth century daguerreotypes of corpses as well as the contemporary death portraits taken by the likes of Indra Kumar Jha, are strange photographs. What they foreground above all else is the end of mediation. As a corpse, the body is nothing but itself. No longer mediating or coupling with the world; a dead medium. Knowing that the body has opted out of the connective webs of the realm, the death photographer undertakes one final attempt at feeding the dead body back into live networks—of family, of memory. Yet, when beheld by the living, these images subvert the temporal logic underlying the concept of photography. Death is not in the future anterior in these photographs but is the here and now of the clicked subject, whose condition no longer mirrors that of the living viewer.


A term that Barthes uses to designate that aspect of photographs which connects them to the world of the living viewer is punctum. Punctum is the detail in the image that touches, pricks, or wounds its beholder. Punctum also is the opening of a tear duct.

I imagine Barthes drafting La Chambre Claire in a Lutetian limestone apartment at 11 Rue Servandoni during two summer months in 1979, crying. However, he types, “I do not weep.” The last book of Barthes’ to be published during his lifetime, La Chambre Claire is a quest. The macguffin that triggers the plot is Barthes’ attempt at distinguishing the still image from its moving counterpart. But what he actually searches is the perfect photograph—the trace—of his recently deceased mother, Henriette Barthes.

While writing La Chambre, Barthes declares at one point, “all those young photographers who are at work in the world” are “agents of death.” Why he casts photographers as necessarily young is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he pictures them as the handsome boys with coarse fingernails who dine at Flore or Bofinger or the one with delicate hands he spots on the terrace of Le Dauphin. Several such anonymous young men drift in and out of the evening adventures around Saint-German-des-Pres that Barthes records in his diary throughout 1979. Having spent two years without mother, by the end of 1979, Barthes feels there is nobody left for him but hustlers.

After reading Barthes, I had spent days looking for a term that could denote the moment when the live become the dead. Is there a name for the durée of passing other than “life”?

The only thing Barthes likes when he is being photographed is the camera’s sound, “in an almost voluptuous way.” For him, the photographer’s organ is his finger, “what is linked to the trigger of the lens,” which, I think, prompts him to meticulously describe the hands of boys he encounters in Paris or elsewhere. Comforting and sensuous at once, haptic contact also underlies his notion of the punctum given that it is a detail that touches, pricks, or wounds.

When Barthes finds the image of Henriette that he has been looking for he does not reproduce it in La Chambre Claire. As a reader, I found this unacceptable. Reading the book in English translation, I concluded this is an oversight on the part of the publisher or my copy’s printer. That photograph of Henriette standing in the Winter Garden must have been there. I went spiraling clockwise up the stairs of a library for the French first edition. To be sure, that version had an additional photograph but not the one I was after.

The photograph of Henriette in which Barthes re-discovers her after her death was taken in 1898, when she was five years old. The choice of the image is peculiar: one would think the living impression Barthes had of his mother could not correspond to an image of her childhood. Yet, this is the image that touches Barthes in the way his mother could touch him. Punctum is the “kindness ‘out-of-play’” in Henriette’s 1898 Winter Garden photograph.


There are technological bases for calling photographers “agents of death.” And when Barthes calls the shutter the “trigger of the lens,” the trigger is not only a metaphor. In 1882, Étienne-Jules Marey, a restless inventor based in Paris, designed the photographic gun—Fusil Chornophotographique. Initially a researcher of heartbeat, blood flow, and breath, Marey had become gradually enamored by the motion of animals and objects. He created the Fusil Chornophotographique to study movements too rapid for the naked eyes. The rotations of the rifle’s chamber exposed a dry plate. Marey’s photographic gun shot twelve frames of flying birds at 1/720th of a second each. Filming—I found out in a dark hall lit by the projections of a magic lantern on Rue de Bercy —borrows something from the mechanics of killing.

The shutter-trigger can section time. The instant when the finger releases the shutter or its digital equivalent is liminal—the space between what is and what will have been, the gap between that which is live and that which is dead.

After reading Barthes, I had spent days looking for a term that could denote the moment when the live become the dead. Is there a name for the durée of passing other than “life”? Something more precise, something that does not encompass all living? In the process, I stumbled on names for the time intervening between death and afterbirth, originating in religions that grant the boon or bane of afterlife. There is bardo of death in Buddhism: in Tibetan “bar” stands for in-between and “do” can be a tower or an island, a no-man’s-land. There is antarabhava in Sanskrit, an intermediate existence.


Corpses cremated at Manikarnika, though, are liberated from the cycle of life after death. Since lord Shiva’s ring let go of his ear when he was bathing in the Manikarnika kund, lord Vishnu had craftily argued that Kashi should be where the living are finally let go. Thus, according to legends, ever since Shiva has watched over the avimukta ghats, or as I would like to believe, danced to the iambic octameter of tandava on the crowded slopes of Varanasi’s riverfront, liberating mortals’ souls in the process.

This is what wounds me. For months, I remembered my father’s mother not as I had known her in her life but as an amber-stone face with cotton balls stuffed into its nostrils, lying on a bamboo cot, about to be taken to the crematorium.

My mother’s mother said she would like to die in Varanasi before leaving on a self-guided pilgrimage to the city with her septuagenarian friends. She was not a devout Hindu, merely had a penchant for picturing life in the most striking light. You would think she is the star of a salon in Place du Panthéon, like Noémie Révelin—Barthes’ mother’s estranged mother. But I had only ever known my maternal grandmother to live in a modest 600 square-feet apartment in Kolkata. “Direct line to moksha,” I remember her saying while seated on a cane chair in our terrace. Soon, she would tell me she changes her last name when writing letters. Whether I saw her after that evening, I can no longer tell. She did not die in Varanasi, though she went out of touch for months. Always a sporadic user of phones and erratic writer of letters, her silence did not alarm us. I later learned she’d returned from the tour with a fractured elbow, having slipped on one of the riverfront steps. She did not visit us afterward and we did not see her even upon her death. I will never know her dead. In my family, we do not photograph corpses.

What we do is search for the perfect living photograph of the deceased, as Barthes also did. In La Chambre Claire he recounts, “There I was, alone in the apartment where she [Henriette] had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved.” I know this searching.


“9.2.1967 -” by Naira Mushtaq. 2014. Gel Transfer and Oil on MDF Board. 12 x 9 inches.

When my father’s mother passed, I was at a cousin’s wedding. It was a blistering May. Wedding photos’ matte finish cannot conceal the foundation greasing on our skins. Father told us grandmother maybe dying. We must return. But I knew all along the fifteen kilometers. That night we did not photograph her but imprinted her alta-reddened feet on a white sheet; footprints being another kind of trace. We—the grandchildren—did not go to the crematorium. When the elders returned, we held out neem twigs. Those returning from the crematorium had to bite the neem before re-entering the house in order to protect the living from the dead. So contagious is the touch of death. Then began the search for an image that could tell us who she was. One contender was a photo from her twenties—for several years, I had taken that to be my aunt’s portrait. Ultimately, we settled on one clicked in the house in which she’d spent the last thirty-six years of her life. In the photo, she is reclining on the velvet sofa that was her seat of choice while watching TV. She is looking into the camera. Smiling. Her teeth do not show. She could be holding the world inside.

This is what wounds me. For months, I remembered my father’s mother not as I had known her in her life but as an amber-stone face with cotton balls stuffed into its nostrils, lying on a bamboo cot, about to be taken to the crematorium. The photograph of hers that we chose to commemorate her life did little to supplant the death portrait that my mind had framed.

Years after both my grandmothers’ had died I visited Varanasi for the first time. Trampling nosegays and marigolds, chafing past cows and rickshaws on my way to the ghats, I remember puzzling out their living faces. The evenings I photographed on a VGA-camera phone, from Dashashwamed to Manikarnika ghat, turned into bokehs with the Ganges reflecting the aarti’s and the pyres’ flames.


La Chambre Claire is often read as Barthes’ plea for crossing over. The book came out in January 1980. A month later, when it was still making its way to his friends’ mailboxes, a laundry van hit the 64-year-old Barthes. He was crossing Rue des Écoles near Collège de France, where he’d taught since 1976. He lived another four weeks, seemingly recovering before succumbing to his injuries. The death was accidental, untimely. Some speculate whether Barthes threw himself under the van, hurriedly folding himself into his own theory. After all, holding his mother’s photograph, he had felt death to be at hand.

However, the most remarkable aspect of the entire episode is its sheer ordinariness—what could be more inconspicuous than a laundry van? Similarly, what is most unsettling about the present-day portraits taken on pyres or the memento mori daguerreotypes is the ubiquity of death that shines through them. They say, everybody here is dead or dying. These are not gory spectacles of death to which the mass media treat us. These are also not portraits of deceased public figures, who we know from a distance. The memento mori daguerreotypes and the contemporary death photographs insist on their intimate relationship with the beholder. Outside the familiar and familial circles, the particular subject of death portraits—that is, the person photographed—is anonymous and absent. The palpable presence is of death both as a physical condition and as a concept that gives photography its meaning.





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