Christina Sharpe’s omni-disciplinary book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being shook my orientation in the world and my visual cortex. A brief overview: Sharpe proposes the term “the wake” to describe the afterlives of Transatlantic slavery and its cultural reverberations. In her argument, she investigates media, poetry, literature, theory, and personal experiences in tandem to unpack the situation of existing “in the wake.” She stretches the word “wake” into all of its possible positions: the wake of a boat on water; the wake as a funerary procession; the recoil of a gun, declaring: “To be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfold- ing” (Sharpe, 13-14).  

The text is brilliant, as are her punctuating lines of inquiry into images throughout the book. I was particularly moved by two images that Sharpe interrogates — both photographs of young children being transported to safety after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, taken by Joe Raedle for Getty Images.

Sharpe responds to the above image:  

“She is alive. Her eyes are open. She is lying on a black stretcher; her head is on a cold pack, there is an uncovered wound over and under her right eye and a piece of paper stuck to her bottom lip, and she is wearing what seems to be a hospital gown. She is looking at or past the camera; her look reaches out to me. Affixed to her forehead is a piece of transparent tape with the word Ship written on it.

Who put it there? Does it matter? 
What is the look in her eyes? What do I do with it?”

(Sharpe 2016, 44)

When considering the perceived onto-epistemological role of images in our lives and a broader social consciousness — photos that claim to tell us what we know, that tell us what has happened, and who was there; that promise to hold feeling, knowledge, being, and time — the question Does it matter? appears radical. In our epistemological image-economy, of course, it matters; by the same metric, I would argue that the circumstance of the image doesn’t matter at all, as the image is still seen, consumed, and explored regardless of the particularities of its coming into being.

The questions Does it matter? and also What do I do with it? push me to call into question the force of photography not only as a site of knowledge but also as a practice of looking. Dawoud Bey calls to looking practices in his 2012 series The Birmingham Project, in which he visited the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In 1963, prominent black church was bombed by a four KKK members. Four young girls perished in the bombing, ranging from ages 11-14: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. 20 other young black people were injured, and two young black boys were murdered in the aftermath. In the project, Bey photographed duos — old alongside young — from Birmingham in a church setting. The younger subjects reflect the age of a victim in the racist attack. The older subjects reflect the age that an affected witness or victim would be today.  

Bey says on the power of the diptych form:

“The diptych for me has more to do with this idea that we tend to think of the photograph as being something that embodies a single moment. And for a long time I’ve wanted to disrupt that notion of a single moment by having multiple moments coexist in within the shape of a single piece.”

The force of these double photographs in The Birmingham Project is to suspend temporality. The portraits — each holding an imagined extension of those lives lost in the Baptist Church bombing, and its wake — don’t document the past or the contemporary moment alone. Instead, they hold within them 50 years of dealing with this tragedy. His images are of the wake, expressed through his documentation of subjects — real and imagined, present and absent — who have inherited circumstances beyond their control; who are bound to a constant navigation of history and its grip on the logics of the contemporary world. It’s in the interstices between each diptych in The Birmingham Project that a certain mist becomes palpable — a melange of broken temporalites, gratuituous violences, classifications and events, imaginaries in every direction, aeresolized and suspended in the air. 

The precise poetry of the diptych form is revealed by what is not documented. The interstice between overlapping compositions posseses the power to illumiate the inherent and the unseen (our Weather, as Sharpe might call it), as fog in a car’s highbeams. This power is not limited to Bey’s meticulous work in response to the single terror of the 16th Street Bombings. Diptychs occur in the wild, too. 

These images are of the wake.

To call back to Sharpe, what is to be done with this overlap? In the unplanned “diptychs” presented here, each image is presented in the wake of its own individual disaster. If Bey’s images recall and hold the ongoing disaster in the wake of the singular event of the 16th Street Bombings, what is the shared and ongoing disaster held by these images of semi-disparate origin? Through the devastating, fortuitous diptychs, time collapses and appears to recycle itself, and the subject of the diptychs remains just beyond reach. Perhaps these compositions, and the endless combinations that could occur in their shape, claim to know not the subjects of
the images themselves — or the whole circumstance of each happening — but the more extensive condition of the anti-black world.

As an artist, I wonder how the photographic — a theater of the real that also possesses the ability to implode space, time, history, and notions of truth through the simple act of juxtaposition — might be used sneakily, even cunningly: towards illegibility and unlearning; imagining non-sensical and fabulated relations and events; shifting the terms of history.

Ultimately, if our goal is to escape the eternal and ongoing modes of the production of an anti-black world — an escape which, ultimately, is not fully possible in real-world terms — might a refusal of temporal and spatial logic offer us imaginative paths to exit? Might photographic logics and their careful undoing be a key to the spatial, the temporal, the chronological, the sensation of knowing — and therefore the logical?

The organic manifestations of overlapping compositions offer a call from the dark. They declare overlapping conditions — across time and space, class, race, gender, and tradition. They utter an argument for solidarity; empathy; resistance — through aesthetics. Images, objects, and even histories reflecting each other are reminders: yes, the anti-black machine is churning, but the work we aim to do has nature and inertia; poetry, power, and potential. The mind need not be the only muscle. ︎