Photography, Testimony and Death (discretion advised)

If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.
José Saramago

We all die alone. There is no knowing what comes to one’s mind in the suspended time of our departure. It is known that, on their deathbeds, Turner claimed the Sun to be God, and that Goethe asked for more light. What this meant, or supposed to mean will remain to us forever unknown. Final words such as these are images that resume a life, or that start a new one. Slightly changing Georges Didi-Huberman’s (2003) words, as images, such thoughts are able to tell us the truth; not all of the truth and not only the truth; but the truth, nonetheless.

We all die alone. There is no knowing what comes to one’s mind in the time of our departure. Death is the quintessential example of the limits of communication. Our efforts, in that sense, are translated through different media and in different forms. When Walter Benjamin declared the impossibility of communicating experience (Erfahrung) he looked back at the terrors of WWI as the proof of incommunicability. The soldiers came back unable to communicate their experiences, unable to draw, from the suffering of war, a meaning for the life that would continue, never the same, surely, but life. Maybe, if Benjamin, as well as his colleagues of the Frankfurt School and thinkers of the time, had looked beyond the borders of Europe, they’d have seen how the colonial presence had already diminished communicability with the slavery and traffic of black populations of Africa, the evangelization of indigenous Americans and the de-structuring of Asian social organizations. Nonetheless, it is in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe that the social control for which colonial territories served as training ground reached its apex. Control over life was now widespread. WWI represented the control over the right to live and die that culminated in 38 million casualties, between wounded and dead.

Courtesy of the Walter Kleinfeldt Archives, Tübingen/Germany.

 That is, on my understanding, the truth of Walter Kleinfeldt’s photograph. We all die alone. Even more, we have forgotten or un-learned how to make sense out of death. We do not only die alone, we die backwards to the divine. That is the truth of Kleinfeldt’s photograph. With immense sensibility – something extremely symptomatic -, the photographer chose to focus the camera on the surprisingly untouched crucifix that holds its position amongst the rubbles. A hopeless redeemer, Christ stands as desperate figure, impotent in face of the massacre, unable to reach for the fallen soldier.

On the foreground the blurred-face cadaver lies, backwards to Christ. He could have been sleeping, but the distressed position of the arms and the bare-feet, as well as the blurred face, denounce a life that is no more. Beyond the fallen soldier, the photographer. Kleinfeldt must have been 16 when he took this photograph. Did he come across the body on a round?  Did Kleinfeldt know this soldier? Did they fight together or did Kleinfeldt, maybe, killed him? The history behind this is obscure and, actually, un-important. The punctum of this photo is the relational play of focus and blur between Christ’s and the soldier’s faces. The clear focus on the statue, opposed to the blurred face of the soldier offers two complementary readings. The first one regards the relation, made above, of a death that turns its face away from the divine; death is no more a natural episode, a coronation of life, leaving the mark of the individual in the community and in the lives to come. In this sense, the focus on the statue makes a statement that can be seen as either revolt or claim for atonement. The complementary reading is the symptom behind the choice of focus. By blurring the soldier’s face, Kleinfeldt turns his face away from death. We are not allowed to pay our tributes to the fallen soldier, because we cannot look at his face. This is the image of the anonymous soldier to which the photographer, unable or choosing not to show the dead’s face, adds the divine to the sphere of testimony. Thus, Kleinfeldt’s image – or should we not say Kleinfeldt’s, the statue and the soldier’s image – communicates the loss of meaning of the experience of death and its incommunicability: death separated from the human sphere, put apart from human grasp. Powerfully critical, this photograph is a manifest against both the loss of transmission and the control over the right to live and die. By the diagonal play of focus between foreground and middleground, between the blurred face and the statue, Kleinfeldt, denounces the unlinking between life and death, between transmission and loss of experience. On the other hand, it is also a diagnosis. It is Kleinfeldt, as a subject, who chooses not to look at death. In a precious way, the photographer managed to transmit his own loss through the image. This image translates what Benjamin called “profane illumination”.

Whereas Kleinfeldts images remained unknown fora century, a second image – in fact series of images depicting the same event – became viral in 2015, causing commotion, rage and diverse responses from the international community, NGO’s and the general public within different political spectres. The image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body ashore, laying over his belly on a Turkish beach moved the world. Heavily reproduced and exploited, Kurdi’s image became the synthesis of the refugee crisis. Beyond the social and political implications of the uses of the photograph – which I myself have to deal with by using it – it allows us to address the problem beyond these implications by highlighting the need to speak of the so-called refugee crisis, about death, about photography and about the necessity to testify for the and on behalf of those whose lives come to us, unfortunately, as its opposite. As Georges Didi-Huberman (2003) and Giorgio Agamben made it clear (1998), to talk about barbarity in the level of the unspeakable is relegating it to mystical adoration. As hard as it might be, as much error as we can incur to when dealing with it, we must talk about Kurdi’s image, as much as we must talk about many other images of the sort.

The image we frstly came to know of Aylan showed him on his belly; his head is close to the water and turned sideways. We cannot see his face, but there is no need of that in order to understand the message: you are facing the tragedy of a young child who has drowned. Tragedy? I wouldn’t say so. You see, tragedies deal with destiny. Destiny is that which is subject to natural history. It obbeys the laws of nature of which none of us can escape. Tragedies are inevitable. Aylan’s death, as well as that of his mother, brother and thousands of other people, were not inevitable. They were the bi-product of human work. The photograph, taken by Nilülfer Demir took the world through the news and social media, especially. The rest of the story is well-known. It is not of that particular image that I want to talk about, however, but of one taken in the stream of photographs shot during the Turkish authorities works on the place. Also shot by Nilüfer Demir, the photograph portrays Kurdi’s body, laying ashore and next to it, a man from the Turkish authority apparently investigating the situation.

In order not to infringe any copyright, the image can be seen in the followig link:

 Firstly, by not being able to distinct both Kurdi’s and the man’s face, we are presented with bodies. Surely, there is a clear evidence that these are the bodies of a child and of a grown-up, and that they are both male bodies. However, the non-depiction of faces does not allow us to recognize the individuality of such subjects. What we see on the right hand is a uniformed man representing the State and, to the left, the image of death. Deprived of name, as we first came to know him, Aylan’s death is every death.

Secondly and less evidently, there is a power relation between Aylan and the State agent. As we shall see, this relation extends to the photographer too. To understand it, we need to go back to the genealogy of the testimony. According to Giorgio Agamben (1998), Latin language, and Law, used to different terms from whence we derived the contemporary idea of testimony. The first one was testis. Etymologically, testis  stood as the one who put him/herself as a third party (terstis) ‘in a process or in a litigation between two contestants'(15). The second word was superstes, indicating the ones who, having lived something through, could therefore render a testimony.  By personifying the State, and not only that, but by watching and taking notes (the apparently bent elbows and neck, as well as by a small glance of what appears to be a notebook one deduces the agent takes note), the State-agent puts himself as the testis, as the one who, by documenting  the even, before any other action, arrives as the third party between two opposite interests. Interests? Yes. It is the act of documenting, by the symbolic and de facto embodiment of the State that judicializes Kurdi’s death. It is the tagging, the categorization, the legal procedure that turns death into a legal event. Embodying the symbols of State power, the agent becomes the third party in between the State and the event. On the other hand, behind the camera, the photographer gives testimony as superstes. Here resides the power of the image: by rendering testimony possible, the photograph does not judge, but brings forth ‘that which makes judgement possible’ (Agamben, 1998, 15). It takes the event – which depicts the absurd of legal procedure regarding the refugees – only this time, beyond the sphere of right. The image that shook people worldwide became a platform for a different, immediate political solution for the refugee crisis.

Here is where the political argument comes forth with greater strength. The relation between death, testis and superstes makes explicit what, in Kleinfeldt’s image, is only hinted at. In his image Kleinfeldt is – as perhaps all photographers may be – superstes whereas the testis is the observer, but only on a historical perspective. In that sense, Christ appears to remind the viewer of the distinction between the ethical and the legal. ‘Ethics is the sphere that does not know guilt nor responsibility: this is, as Spinoza knew, the doctrine of beatific life. Assuming a guilt and a responsibility […] means leaving the ambit of ethics to enter that of right’ (Agamben, 1998: 22). As such, Kleinfeldt’s image, dispossessed of judgement, comes closer of transmitting the experience of barbarity as the impossibility of transmission. In consonance with Benjamin’s observation, Kleinfeldt’s image transmits the impossibility of the transmission of experience, because it transmits nothing. However, it testifies, supported by a powerful reflection on the meaning of life and death.

Changing our focus to the photograph of Aylan, what we have is a shift in the composition of the testimony. We are put in front of the judge, who turns backwards to us, while the victim, on the contrary, turns its face towards us. There is no divine in the photograph. The addition of the testis to the image brings us forth to a different relation to life and death. Now, both life and death are detached from the sphere of ethics and inserted in the sphere of law. By playing the intermediary, the terstis cuts the communication between the victim and the superstes. The importance of the photograph arises when, as a cut itself, it manages to seize the moment when the judgement is made. If Kleinfeldt’s photograph denounced the increasing control over life, Demir’s photograph denounces the apex of control over death. Powerless, we are left with the role of superstes. As Benjamin declared, perhaps from this whole barbarity we may see the rise of a new culture. For that, I believe it is of utmost importance if we, either by producing images, like Kleinfeldt and Demir, or by looking at them, learn to see, learn to assume the role of the superstes and, in so doing, reclaim the ability to tell History. In so doing, we would be making justice to the Unknown Soldier, to Aylan and to the images, we do not even know. We might all die alone, but we can learn how to live together.


AGAMBEN, Giorgio. 1998.  Quel che resta d’Auschwitz. l’Archivio e il Testimone. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.

DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. 2003. Images Maglré Tout. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

1 thought on “Photography, Testimony and Death (discretion advised)”

  1. There couldn’t have been a better opportunity, we were lost, caught between now and nowhere, willing to feed the oblivion machine one by one, day by day, without a thought, or a care about the pain our creator must have felt each time a tiny little flame went extinct, a life he gave expecting us to take good care of it was lost…

    But where was he when we needed him the most, how could he tolerate this if he loved us so much, and why is he looking away when his children lay there dead, alone, does he even care, does he even exist?

    There couldn’t have been a better opportunity… and now it’s gone.


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