Sunday, September 11, 2011

"The iconic properties of the more durable photograph will inevitably replace the myriad details of the experience represented in the image; in the end it is the photograph itself that is remembered" - Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

In a recent trip overseas, I had an experience that has been shared by theorists and photographers since the inception of the medium. What is the correlation between memory and the photograph of the event?

"...not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” - Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980

Every photographer has anecdotal stories about missing an event or experience because of the nagging desire to document it. The performance of documenting, distorts and removes you from the moment.

More often than not I catch myself enjoying the experience of photographing an occurrence, as opposed to well...experiencing it.

I was in the outskirts of Cairo, in the middle of the Fayum Desert . We were visiting several largely unexcavated and undocumented Pharonic and Greco-roman sites. One of the largest and best known sites is the ruins of an ancient port town named Dimeh.

Dimeh al-Siba, Dimeh of the Lions, was a Ptolemaic city believed to be founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BC, on a site that shows evidence of habitation from the Neolithic period. Today, it is more isolated, but during ptolemaic times it was at the shore of the much larger lake, situated at the edge of Moeris Bay and the beginning of the caravan routes into the Western Desert.

As a child we had visited this place many times, and often came home with any number of treasures from Greek coins, statues, pottery, and more.

Even though it's been over a decade since I was here last, Dimeh looked mostly unchanged, albeit a little more picked over.

I had remembered that nearby there were burial mounds and tombs carved into the nearby plateaus. I recall there were visible human remains all around.

There was even one time my sister was digging around and I saw her walking in the distance with a human skull on a shovel. Believe it or not, we took it home, and I had it displayed in my room for a few weeks, until everyone deemed it to be a bit just to macabre for a middle-schooler, and we eventually returned it to the desert.

Visiting Dimeh again, I had to go back and see if my memories were correct.

You can see the plateau in the background, and a small burial mound in the foreground.

At the foot of the cliffs, I noticed a commotion, and out from a tomb leaps a Golden Egyptian Jackal. He scurried up the side, and spent a few moments looking over his shoulder at me, until he calmly trotted off.

The event was not frightening nor did I feel in any danger, it was just exciting! The jackal has long been a signifier of the afterlife and protector of the dead and their resting places. The Pharonic god Anubis is the most well known incarnation of that.

I made my way quickly up the side of the mountain, and reached the tomb. I sat at the opening and tried my best to snap pictures, but as brave as I was feeling...I didn't want to meet any more jackals who felt trapped. So at the mouth of the tomb I overexposed by several stops to get inside with my camera.

You can see the carved chambers, and partial femur bone in one of the nooks.

After exploring a bit, I made my way to the top of the plateau. There were several additional mounds up there, but more interestingly were these massive shafts/pits that seem to go on into infinite. I couldn't believe everything I was seeing, not only because it confirmed my memories, but more so it surpassed them!! Frantically I was taking images of everything, I was so afraid that this moment would go away, and maybe even more so that no one would believe me.

After some exploration, I saw more mounds off to the side, with white unmistakable objects protruding from their centers.

I rushed over, brushed the sand away from vertebrae, ribs, and flanges...and then saw the partial spherical shape, it could only be one thing. The skull was only partially sun bleached, the rest retained the yellow/brown tone. I photographed with one hand, and inspected with the other.

Almost on cue, I saw the jeep leave the main Dimeh site to come pick me up. I tried my best to rebury everything, and ran down to meet everyone.

With the jeep making tracks away from the site, I flipped my camera over to review and explain my experience and found only this.

40 images of white. I had never changed my camera settings. I lost everything.

An almost cinematic experience, when I approached one shaft, a host of pigeons flew out.

You can see the small fragments and pieces of fayence jewelry.


"At some point in life the world's beauty becomes enough. You don't need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don't need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens — that letting go — you let go because you can." – Toni Morrison

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