On Citizen Ghosts: The Un-Americans
For a while, when I was still teaching for the Studies in Women and Gender Program, a program at that time headed by anthropologist Kath Weston, I taught a course on women and ghosts. The premise of the course was to use feminist theory to look at the many different ways that women in America, in the 20th century and into the 21st century, get culturally erased. The course started out heavily influenced by queer theory and the idea of the lesbian as the ghostliest figure in American letters, and widened its scope over time. It was by far the most pleasurable class I’ve taught at UVa. The students, and almost always the students who signed up for the class were female students, and I got tremendously interested in looking at the multiple patterns of social ghosting as they surface in books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, visual works like Rebecca Belmore’s The Named and the Unnamed, and in Sociological discourse, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters.
From teaching this class I started noticing, as one will notice obsessively phenomena of which one has become aware, other kinds of social ghosting. And I started to notice that this social ghosting is by no means always inscribed along gender lines. Incarcerated men are the most counted and invisible of American ghosts. Photographer Graham MacIndoe, whose work uncannily brings glossy magazine quality polish to raw and painful subjects, has begun a project of photographing ghosts in America titled “The Un-Americans: Detained, Deported, and Divided,” producing photographs of people who inhabit this space of the United States but are not counted, quite, as people. Instead, theirs is a no-man’s land, a zone interdicted, shown by markings of the citizen/non citizen divide. These people are among America’s citizen ghosts.
MacIndoe’s evocative images of the families in “The Un-Americans: Detained, Deported, and Divided,” show a kind of milieu of stoical despair. Here, the victims who fear or who have survived deportation interact with the camera without guile, trusting the documentary force of that machine of vision, the camera. The photographs’ purpose is avowedly humanitarian, supported by a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and yet any photographic image is a space of conflicted and haunting signifiers; as Barthes points out in Mythologies, the codes by which we read images are multiple. MacIndoe’s work, then, should not be read as only journalist activism. Although certainly the work is journalism, of the best kind, produced in conjunction with Susan Stellin’s lucid and compelling descriptions. But, the photographs are also a kind of art, cutting under the surface to get the image that haunts.
Referencing Robert Frank’s The Americans, and possibly also alluding to The Family of Man exhibit, “The Un-Americans” evokes a counter space, where family does not secure one’s place but instead is suspended in an unclaimed and unclaimable cultural zone. That is, both those who ‘count’ as citizens as well as those whose interdicted identities, as incomplete citizens, detained, vulnerable and subject to deportation, implicitly question the nature of how claim on the social space of the American is granted. MacIndoe’s photographs center around family groups, and the stories of families torn apart: the quiet and pensive faces of children are the sharpest points of these photographs. Where Sally Mann in the nineteen-eighties photographed her immediate family in rural America, children whose nakedness and vulnerability could be freely offered by their mother precisely because no one in Mann’s audience really had access to touch those children, the children in MacIndoe’s series are utterly vulnerable. His camera handles them with a tact and distance recalling seventeenth-century paintings. The children are not encroached upon by the photographs, nor are they indulged.
Eschewing indulgence, and demarcating a political space for private grief, MacIndoe’s images in this on-going project “The Un-Americans” participate in the aesthetic of the neutral, that Roland Barthes was working toward theorizing just before this death. The neutral “resists paradigm” and is the aesthetic space of the a-chromatic, not literally colorless, but rather that register of the visual, or the written, text that to the greatest extent possible does not pose for itself. Barthes called it “Adamic.” The images in “The Un-Americans” do not imagine their own beauty, just as the people in them cannot entirely imagine themselves outside their ghosted social space, Americans who are the haunted mirror of liberal citizenship. The images do not pose for themselves. The photograph is the space in which all is seen—it fills the sight by force, argues Barthes. The photograph shows us the optical unconscious, as Walter Benjamin long ago pointed out. The photographs in “The Un-Americans” are doubly representative of the optical unconscious: they show not just what we do not see on a day to day basis because our gaze cannot hold still the way the photograph holds still. The photographs also show the optical unconscious because we turn away from those with insecure citizenship. Who are the Americans, then, in this era that produces the haunting, Adamic images and stories of “The Un-Americans”?