Monday, December 7, 2015

Forensic Photography and the Roads of the Dead

I have just finished reading Jason De León’s stunning new ethnography, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” (University of California Press, 2015). He makes a powerful argument that the official US “Prevention through Deterrence” immigration policy funnels hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants through the killing fields of the Sonora Desert, allowing Federal policy makers to disavow direct complicity the annual deaths of thousands, projecting onto the realm of nature responsibility that more properly should rest with collective human agency.  (See the evocative National Geographic interview with the author on the project.)  

I’m especially moved by the way in which De León builds on the forensic work he and his students in the Undocumented Migration Project  have been doing, teasing out from the bodily remains and material traces of lost migrants to reconstruct the lives of those who travel el camino, “the road,” in search of a modicum of economic security in the United States.  To my mind, the book becomes profoundly compelling n its final third, as the discovered corpse of one woman, eventually identified as Maricela, found in the desert, opens up in the reconstructed narrative of an entire kinship network that spreads from Cuenca, Ecuador to New York City. Central to this ethnographic process of giving voice to the dead and the survivors is Jason’s meditation on the circulation of photographic images taken by him and his team.  Although he had initial reservations about photographing the dead woman refugee and sharing the image of her remains with her surviving relations, he gradually came to appreciate that the image, in time, came to function as a kind of substitute body, providing a degree of resolution for those negotiating the agony of “ambiguous loss,” uncertain whether to conceptualize their loved one as alive or dead.  The photograph, as it is contemplated and re-narrated by her relatives in collaboration with the ethnographer, allows them to imaginatively re-situate her on the migrant “road,” to arrive at a degree of understanding of her final moments as she attempted, with whatever strength remained in her body, to fulfill her dream of traversing the borderlands and providing for her children left back home. Through the UMP’s forensic work and the labor of her New York family, her remains, albeit devastated by the desert environment, were in time returned for internment in Cuenca. Her physical remains and the spectral shadow of the forensic photograph  continue to exist in a complex tension in the social imaginary of her mourning family.

For all the life-diminishing functions of the “state of exception” produced through US border policy, these memorial practices have restored a measure of dignity and personhood to at least one lost soul.  One is put in mind of Roland Barthes’ meditations in Camera Lucida  on the simultaneously tortuous and life-sustaining functions of memorial photography, which allow for curious forms of time travel, moving back and forth across the borderlands of life and death: to paraphrase Barthes, “She is dead; and she is going to die.”  To be sure, there are many circumstances in which sharing forensic photographs of dead economic refugees with their family would be an act of social and psychic violence, but in this fascinating, haunting instance, the photograph takes on a vital substitute function for the absent person. (It is perhaps for this reason that De León could not bring himself simply to email her image to the family, but felt compelled to present her family members with physical prints of the photographs; merely digital images, one senses, could not adequately convey or embody the ritual dimensions of the missing body/person.)

I am also fascinated by another instance of ritualized image deployment in the book, a desert religious shrine photographed by Jason’s collaborator Michael Wells (p.176).  In a niche within a weathered rockface, somewhere in the desert, we see over a dozen votive images of the Virgin and of saints, along with rosaries and crucifixes, left by migrants evidently praying for safe passage across the potentially deadly desert expanse. The images are lodged into rocky ledges and the lines of prayer beads in some cases seem to extend along indentations in the stone, worn over time by water or extremes of temperature. Speculatively, might these offerings —-consisting of a framed image and an extended line of beads— themselves function as microcosmic models of the traveling selfhood of each migrant, or, in structuralist terms, as ‘structural operators,” that mediated between migrant, saint and the desert landscape--producing iconic images of “the road” (el camino) that the refugees seek to complete?  Is each line of beads, in other words, a little model of the hoped for line of the dreamed-of path to a safe haven? Might we conceive of such a shrine, in Godfrey Lienhardt’s terms, as a kind of  symbolic action, performatively calling into being a hoped-for extension of the donor’s intentionality?  Beyond that, might such ritual practices be understood as an attempt to re-enchant, to render knowable, the otherwise alien and enigmatic landscape of the desert, for migrant passersby who are, as De León notes, alienated from the multi-layered knowledge of the land that its indigenous communities are heir to? At the same time, given that migrants are deeply cognizant of the dead who have proceeded them on el camino, and of the great risk of death they themselves face, can such votive shrines be understood, in part, as memorials for others, as well as acts of potential, pre-mortem self-memorialization--so that even if one does not physically survive the trek, an aspirational pathway to the Other World is traced?

To be sure, given the extraordinarily tenuous and perilous circumstances of fieldwork by the UMP—and given the fact, as De León notes, that surviving migrants are nearly always unwilling to dwell on their experiences in the desert---these may be ethnographic speculations beyond clear cut verification. Yet they are the kinds of vital, if heart-breaking questions, suggested by this painfully beautiful book.

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