Site Visits – Trauma (Mauthausen, Place de Republique, Stadt de France, Charlie Hebdo, Munich, Brussels, Mostar BiH).

Whilst abroad during the term I found myself drawn to numerous places of recent trauma. Suffering is at once a universal and an exclusively personal experience. One of the characteristics that makes trauma a curious phenomena is that it shapeshifts.

Whilst specific traumatic events may be inextricably linked to a time and a place, the trauma exists outside of these confines. It travels with the affected. Whatismore, it changes over time. It is slippery and ungraspable. Trauma is often connected to extra-ordinary events which seem to bend intuitive concepts of time, space and moral agency to create inexplicable events and behaviours. This in turn perpetuates the trauma.

While maladies of the body are deterministic, logical and understandable, trauma often appears to exhibit the opposites of these traits.

Ulrich Baer, in Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT Press, 2002) argues that traumatic events exert their grip on memory and the imagination because they were not adequately experienced in the first place and that photography, when seen as a tool for documenting the atomic nature of events and in turn memory, can serve as an access point for redressing the past.

Baer quotes Cathy Garuth who explains that trauma is characterised by “the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time., but only belatedly, in its repeated  possession of the one who experiences it.” (p8.)

Trauma seems to result from the mind’s inability to edit and place an event within a coherent mental, textual, or historical context in ways that would allow it to become past of lived experience and subsequent memory.

Returning to the sites mentioned above, there is no first-hand trauma associated for me with these places and so I felt voyeuristic when visiting them*. With some, Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria for example, I found that the act of photographing severely hampered my ability to be present in experiencing the space and thus I put my camera away early into the visit. When sites of trauma become tourist attractions the lines get blurred.

Still, I felt a constant inclination to photograph traumatically meaningful sites. I was trying to understand them and understand the actions that took place in them. I was trying to capture them, to freeze them in time together with my own hand, so as to allow them to be studied patiently.

In this same way, my video project within Spatial Process last semester was an attempt to do the same. When I first entered the space that I later videoed I knew straight away that I would never fully comprehend what had taken place there in the 96 hours prior to my arrival. And so I set something to document the space and time, knowing that it was a slice in space and time that I would I would always seek to return to and always seek (impossibly) to understand.

*Hence I have refrained from including any of my photography of these sites fearing it would only feel tokenistic.

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