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the clinical approach

‘So, you were one of the first ones obtaining fragile, directly from me’. This is the first time I hear Raphael Dallaporta’s voice, and this is his first sentence. Raphael Dallaporta (1980) is a Paris based upcoming documentary photographer who received the Paul Huf Award 2011, among other prestigeous awards. Maybe I’m so intrigued by his latest book fragile because I studied physical therapy in the 1980s and we were practising on human specimen: arms and legs of dead people – without skin – soaked in phormaldehyde. All justified, in order to be able to discover muscles and tendons, bones and joints. The straight forwardness with which organs and body parts are depicted in the anatomy books we studied then, is similar to the way Dallaporta photographed a sternum, a spinal cord or a brain of deceased people on the table of a forensic pathologist, working at the Raymond Poincare University Hospital in the outskirts of Paris, close to Versailles. The clinical approach is sustained throughout this 5 years project. It is rarely done in photography, not at all in the tradition of new documentaries. Anatomical plates, is what Dallaporta wanted to realise. In colour. Call it a more contemporary interpretation of those medical illustrations, working with simple case studies, faits divers, and text. As in the case of his earlier books, fragile is the result of a long term collaboration with professionals from different disciplines. Be it a land mine cleaner  (Antipersonel), a reporter covering social issues intersecting with justice and law (Domestic Slavery), or, in this case, a forensic pathologist. The working method in itself: the collaboritive, is not new. Just look at the way Susan Meiselas realised her book project Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997/ 2008). Based on long term collaboratives with archivists, historians and antropologists in order to create a memory bank for the global Kurdish Community.

How fragile la conditione humaine is

In each of  Dallaporta’s book projects the photographed subjects are stripped off to the bare minimum. Be it a blast mine  from the Czech Republic or a heart with previous bypasses that belonged to an 81 year old man, discovered in the swimming pool of his place of residence around 10.45 AM. The body was floating in the water. Declared dead at 11.25AM, according to the autopsy report. It was through an archeologist (working with him currently on the project Ruins on scientific archeological sites in Afghanistan) that Dallaporta was introduced to a paleo-pathologist, working full time in the Forensic Medicine and Pathology department at Raymond Poincare Hospital. There, he was introduced to the director, Michel Durigon, and decided to start a collaborative project based on his expertise. Why? ‘Maybe because at a certain age you start to ask questions about ‘death’, you have the disposition to start to explore this theme. Maybe the death of other people, brings you into this experience’.  The title fragile  refers to the functional stickers on a crate used to transport the large format fragile portfolio. That portfolio was shown in hand-made vitrines during the New York Photo Festival, in an exhibition curated by  Kathy Ryan from New York Times Magazin. For the first two years the working title used to be ‘autopsy’, stemming from the Greek word ‘autopsia’, meaning: seeing with one’s own eyes. After four years, when the director of the institute was reaching his retirement and leaving the institute, Dallaporta considered that the right time to finalize the project. It was then he started to ask himself, why he went for four years in a row – a week per month – following forensic autopsy. ‘The main thing I learned from this experience is, how fragile la condition humaine is. Sometimes the cause of death is very banal, violent or sad. For example, the book starts with a story that is quite similar to that of Kain and Abel in the Bible’. Plate IIa. is showing the sternum  and sections of cut out ribs. And between those ribs, muscles pierced by a kitchen knife. The whole thing, photographed from above, is looking like a salmon steak. The caption reads: ‘According to the information that we received, M. [..], aged 25, was a victim of a stabbing at around 2.30pm at his home [..]. The single wound was inflicted by his brother in the context of frequent fights. The knife (not present at the time of the autopsy) was a sharpened kitchen knife of 19.5cm in length (handle, 10cm; blade, 9,5cm) with a single cutting edge’.

‘I was not fascinated by the death while following the autopsies at the institute, I was much more fascinated by seeing the organs, the body parts; what they look like. How we are composed’. To project yourself, and life, in there’. During the autopsy in the auditorium, the object was handed over to Dallaporta. He had to be ready, shoot fast. Taking the picture in the same circumstances, under the same conditions, as which the experts were using to look for the cause of death. ‘Wearing different pairs of gloves I manipulate the object, transfer it from the autopsy table to my set-up. Which is basically a glass plate. Below the glass there is an absence of light, because of a black velvet cloth that absorbs light. All in order to create a shadow in the background. And to use the light only for the specimen. I am photographing from above with a Sinar P2 camera. In a couple of minutes I shoot, load my film, return the organ, clean the glass plate, and wait for the next signal from the professionals’.  Capital Roman figures for each chapter, a selection of images per chapter (co-edited by Jerome Sother), showing generic examples, and plain titles defining the cause of death, all together determine the structure of the book. ‘So there is no confusion whatsoever about which body part refers to which cause of death. Two shot per cause of death. One story per chapter. And that’s it. It is pretty close to the way the surgeons and pathologists work’.

A society without forensic pathologists is a sick society

There are three levels of text: the title of the chapter, the caption of the image and the abstract of the autopsy report (the original text is in French). Except for the translation, it is the original text, cropped from the report. That could be the conclusion or a description in the middle of the report, written by the forensic doctor. These short text fragments on a blank page, leave more space for your own imagination. The identity of the victims is not known. ‘I prefer to erase the names and leave an empty blank. It is more respectful. Also in order to leave room for self projection. And to talk about absence. A metaphor for absence. The only restriction I had to deal with was that the body could not be photographed recognizable’.  There has been no contact with family members. The autopsy is not assigned by the family but by legal procedure, by the prefecture. Dallaporta finds his source of inspiration rarely in the world or art and photography. His main influences come from the professionals he works with and their functional approach to photography; their strictly functional needs for the medium. ‘For fragile the main influence was a 19th century book on quadrichromy engraves, I consulted in the library of medical studies in Paris. And a text by Michel Foucault, in Naissance de la Clinique (Birth of a Clinic), entitled ‘Ouvrez quelques cadavres’, invited me to actually go to the clinic and start this project. An excellent text around obscurity, death, and how important it is for a society to open up somebody’s corps. A society without professional forensic pathologists is a sick society. That could politically and in terms of crime have major consequences’. In a two page interview in the back of the book, Michel Durigon explains under which rigurous circumstances and in a calm spirit an autopsy should be carried out. Did you know the police personnel helps to undress the body before it is opened? And each piece of clothing is identified and weighed? And did you know before the body is washed, swap samples (mouth, anus, vagina) and samples from under the nails are taken, as well as those to establish the presence of gunshot residue? And there are different  methods for level-by-level ‘evisceration’ of organs. The protocol – a detailed guide to the rules of pathological examination – stems from the 19th century, from a Prussian autopsy rulebook.

regular police report

Kummer / Herrmann transformed the project into a not over-designed book. The Dutch graphic designers stepped in during the final selections. ‘A dry, minimalist, simple and efficient lay-out, is what they came up with, as well as that delicate green for the cover and the text pages. Green is a color that is very absent inside the body, so in anatomical plates it is usually used as a background. And if you look at your arm, the green of your vanes is also close to this color’. In book technical terms it is a subtle and fragile design. The choice of cheap paper, a simple Swiss binding and one sided printing are all referring closely to  the format of a regular police report. ‘We wanted the book to be like a police report, but at the same time to be similar to neutral anatomical plates. So the simple file and the excellent printing, these two aspects, in one book’. Fragile is published by GwinZegal in an edition of 500 copies. This French publishing house, also an art and research center, has choreographed a low budget exhibition now touring Europe andf the US, combining  fragile with four other projects by Raphael Dallaporta.

Based on a Skype interview by Mirelle Thijsen in Amsterdam with Raphael Dallaporta in Paris on January 13th, 2012.

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