The Power of a Rat-Infested Photograph by Basit Jamiu


Once I happened on a photograph in an old empty room. The picture was that of a girl between the age of 10 to 14yrs. It was in black and white, and I assumed it was taken decades ago. The picture was not complete. The part that showed the left leg was no longer there. Rats had eaten and made little holes on it. The picture, with the half of the face still visible, lacked direct intrigues or convincing beauty. The awkward balance of the photograph did not show that it was done in a hurry. Rather, it showed that it was captured without much calculation from the photographer. The lack of flowery colours helped the austere appeal.

This picture, even after so many years, is clear and accurate in my memory. And amidst my journey to attract love, time and passion for photography, I find the image of the young girl not haunting, not frightening, but merely present as testament of the power of photography. I began to look at photographs with a closer view of understanding the correlation between knowledge and seeing. Photographs, in essence, are important with or without background knowledge of the object. In some ways, object with knowledge is just the same as object without it.

Whenever I looked at the half image of the young girl, I attributed her face to someone I didn’t know but should know. As I began to invent affinity for the young girl, at first, I convinced myself that it was the image of my great-grandmother when she was 13 years of age or a relation of mine long dead. All the people I showed the half picture didn’t recognise her. I would misplace the image after some years, but the memory of it would never leave me.

Photographs, I believe, have two powers: presence-in-absence and in-presence. The power of in-presence, whether consciously or unconsciously, can last only but a fleeting moment. But when this presence stays long after the passage of looking, wielding its power even in the absence, it becomes what I call presence-in-absence.

Beyond this dominating and continuous presence is the expanding nature of an image. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, affirms that even when indifference approaches or betrays a photograph, it cannot “erase the weight.” Human’s photographs are also created with illusive transformation of the self. Many times, I have been photographed, and often I find myself transforming into a posture, the habit of posing in front of the lens for a fitting image of me, distancing the invented self from the lived identity.

The history of photographs as a memorable object, I believe, endures only to help us remember things, sometimes things that are unrelated to its experiece. Often, a picture of a landscape can remind us of a dream, a long trip, the saddest day of our lives or a dead person. Teju Cole affirms this in his newest book. Blindspot by Teju Cole is a fritata-like combination of images and texts. 150-plus images from peculiar cities which include Zürich, Tripoli, Lagos, Seoul, Ypsilanti, Ubud, Brooklyn and São Paulo. But we can also percieve the uncorrelated harmony of the photos and texts.  In Blindspot, as with many instances, photographs serve as an extension of memory. Cole agrees that the words in Blindspot are not straightforward commentaries but “match words to these interconnected images”.

John Berger echoed that photographs are many things because they manage, always, to fit all things, all feelings, words and time. Now, whenever I see a torn picture or a rat-infested paper, the image of the young girl in the half picture flashes in my memory, triggering amenabilities. Whatever I get from the looking, whatever memory is left after the gaze and whatever meaning and contribution it has on my life, it serves a fitting and renewing purpose in extending digital appreciation. One thing remains clear to me: the more I think about photographed images, the more complex and rewarding they are to me. My obsession with photography and my search for in-depth meaning in images always has a starting point but it never seems to have a place where you put a pause to it. Photography as a process of thinking is a continuous endeavor that lingers as long as it exists to be viewed and assessed.




Basit Jamiu serves as the fiction editor at Enkare Review. He lives in Nigeria. He is also on Facebook, Twitter.

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