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Visual Anthropology

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Imprinting on the Heart: Photography and Contemporary Yolngu Mournings Jennifer Deger

To cite this Article Deger, Jennifer(2008) 'Imprinting on the Heart: Photography and Contemporary Yolngu Mournings',

Visual Anthropology, 21: 4, 292 — 309 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08949460802156318 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08949460802156318

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Visual Anthropology, 21: 292–309, 2008 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online DOI: 10.1080/08949460802156318

Imprinting on the Heart: Photography and Contemporary Yolngu Mournings

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Jennifer Deger This article examines the ways photographs of the recently deceased have come to occupy a central place in Yolngu grieving practices. Harnessing the potentially traumatic ontological qualities of oscillating absence–presence that are inherent in such images, I show how Yolngu in Northern Australia use this affective force as a way to refigure and reconstitute embodied and sensuously mediated relationships between the living and the dead. With vision simultaneously allowing corporeal permeability and expansion, mourners impress the image of the deceased within them, through the eyes to the heart as the fleshly organ of affect, associative recollection, and lived intersubjectivity.

This is an article about visceral lives of photographic images. It’s about the potential for certain images—in this instance, photographs of the deceased—not only to touch and move us but to become imprinted on our being, living within and traveling through us, enhancing our experiences, informing our outlook, and ultimately animating the world. It’s about the inseparability of such images from the potent affective charges they generate, and the ways such indelible, inhering images mark and transform our inner landscapes and thence our relationships with the world and others. To put it another way, I am concerned with the shadows—and the flickering light—that the dead cast across our futures, and the intrinsic connections that photographs can have, and mediate, in relation to such concerns. My interest in the phenomenology of images and mourning has arisen as a result of my collaborative media work over the past twelve years in the remote Aboriginal settlement of Gapuwiyak in Northern Australia, a place where everyone is all-too-well acquainted with death and its aftermaths. In particular, this article was prompted by what seems to me to be a striking moment in Yolngu cultural history. Until recently in northeastern Arnhem Land, photographs of the dead have been destroyed or at least placed securely out of view for several years after a death. This taboo on viewing images of deceased people, shared with many other indigenous groups around the country, has generally been explained within the broader Aboriginal community in terms of the crossculturally understandable potential of such images to ‘‘upset’’ close kin. However, JENNIFER DEGER is a postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University. An ethnographer and theorist of vision, imagination, and technology, she works on collaborative media projects with Yolngu from northeast Arnhem Land, Australia. E-mail: jdeger@bigpond.com

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as I have argued elsewhere, this gloss actually covers a complex and culturally specific response to the mimetic potency of the camera (and other electronic recording devices [Deger 2006]), an analysis of which requires an appreciation of the mimetic and intercorporeal dynamics of Yolngu relationships with kin and country as figured through ritually charged moments of the becomingsame-as-Ancestors. In this article I will swing my analysis from cameras and the images that they make to focus on the productivities of viewing. For it is not just the materiality of photographs themselves [Edwards 2001, Wright 2004] that needs to be taken into account in this cultural context, but the material effects that Yolngu understand the work of viewing to trigger in both kin and country. As I will describe, the emergence of new practices and priorities in relation to photographs of the dead requires a reconsideration of the potency of such images as they are taken up, refigured—and, as I will argue, quite literally incorporated—by individual bereaved cultural subjects attuned to the transformative powers of perception, imagination, and the work of feeling.

WAKU In March 2006 I received a phone call from Gapuwiyak. There had been, I was told, another death; someone closely related to me. With throat and stomach clenched tight, I waited as my brother-in-law sang the news to me down the mobile phone. The choice of singer was my first clue: I knew it must be a Dhuwa moiety person. My mind raced as I strained to catch the words, wondering who it was, knowing that choice of tune, the beat of the bilma (clapsticks), and the themes of the song all alluded to the identity of the deceased, whose name could not be spoken. Then, because my adopted Yolngu kin understand that I still struggle to follow these ritual announcements properly, when the song was finished I was told the news directly: ‘‘It’s your waku [one of my sister’s children, someone who calls me mother]; it’s the school principal’s eldest son, that one with the name beginning with D.’’ More details followed, D. had been murdered, found in a patch of bushland the afternoon before only meters from the road that runs down to the shopping center in Nhulunbuy, the mining town he’d just flown into for the weekend. The coroner’s report revealed that he’d been bludgeoned to death with building-site refuse. He was only 28 years old; his assailants, who have since been charged and sentenced, were not yet 18. Later that week, when I finally got through to D.’s mother, Nirrpurranydji, she asked me how well I had known him. Not very, I confessed. He’d been an adolescent boy doing his own thing during the extended period when I lived full-time in Arnhem Land. ‘‘Don’t worry, yapa [sister],’’ she said. ‘‘I’ll show you a photo when you get here.’’ A few weeks later, I helped my yapa prepare the room that would house our waku’s body for the week of the funeral. When everything was in place—the new bed with its single mattress and matching tables, the plastic flowers hanging


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on the door, the home-stitched curtains adorned with the shark of his clan identity gathered across the window, the flag from his favorite football team folded, ready to be draped over the coffin—she closed the door, reached into a drawer, and pulled out a photo of a smiling young man. Passing me the picture she spoke with the full force of a mother’s strength and sorrow: ‘‘This is the beautiful son that’s been taken away from me.’’ I looked at the photo for about five seconds before she took it back and tucked it away. This image of a young man I barely knew is now part of me—burned into my being by the terrible circumstances in which it was shown (and then once again concealed). Even without closing my eyes I can see the shape of his head as he stands side-on, looking out to the left of frame; I see the lanky ease in his posture, the innocent grin beneath a thin moustache. As I call this image to mind, there is a shadowy, spectral quality to the recall. Yet the associated affective experience is full of quivering force: a commingling of sadness, guilt, fear, fascination, yearning, and despair—uneasy-making feelings that I am finding impossible to lay to rest.

PHOTO TRAUMA Of course, I’m not alone in finding such photographs deeply unsettling. Many writers on photography have meditated on the invisible presence of death within every photographic frame. Barthes [2000 (1980)], Sontag [1977], and others have lingered with the uncomfortable feelings that arise as the still frame pulsates between presence and absence, the frozen moment in time wrenching open the gaps between past and present, confronting the viewer with the inescapable fact of mortality. But how much worse it is when the photographic subject is actually—and recently—dead: at these times the photograph’s power to puncture everyday time, space, and self is more brutal, more distressing. John Berger identifies this shocking jolt as a form of trauma: ‘‘In such circumstances the photograph is more traumatic than most memories or mementos because it seems to confirm, prophetically, the later discontinuity created by the absence or death’’ [Berger and Mohr 1995 (1982): 87]. In this instance, the sudden and unexpected nature of the death was cause for further trauma. For Nirrpurranydji, however, it seemed that the photograph offered potential access to something more than discontinuity, absence, and loss: for her and many other Yolngu, photographs have become highly valued as a source of comfort and connection, even as—or perhaps especially because—they provide a focus on, and amplification of, the excruciating disjunctions of death. Showing me the photo created a shared space of affect and experience that forged a new link between myself and my yapa (sister): I not only acted as witness to Nirrpurranydji’s loss, I was able to respond with a focused, silent empathy at a time when words felt thin and inadequate to the magnitude of the moment. Yet, as much as those five seconds affirmed our close relationship, from Nirrpurranydji’s point of view, the showing and the viewing of the photograph were primarily about renewing and strengthening my relationship with her (our)


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son. It would help, as she and others told me, to ‘‘keep him close’’ and ‘‘to hold him in my heart.’’

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SHIFTING PROTOCOLS AND ONTOLOGICAL AMBIVALENCES Until recently, there were strict restrictions on viewing photographs or film footage of the deceased in Yolngu communities. In the early 1990s, when I first visited Gapuwiyak, there were clear and definite restrictions surrounding the display and viewing of images of the deceased. Repeatedly, I was told that when someone died every photograph (and film, video, or audio-recording) should either be destroyed or wrapped up and placed securely out of sight.1 After a set period, as determined by the family, public viewing and display of these images would once again be allowed. Photographs of the dead were treated as if they retained a lingering and potentially malevolent trace of the dead person. They had the power to impact physically on the living, adhering to and even penetrating the bodies of those who were exposed to them. Although the detrimental effects of viewing such images were only vaguely spelled out—‘‘You might get sick,’’ was the most direct answer I got—the message was emphatic. When someone died, photographic images and videos together with audio recordings, became dhuyu: they were restricted, charged with the presence of the deceased, dangerous to look at. When first exposed to photography by missionaries and anthropologists Yolngu used terms such as mali (shadow, soul) or wungali (visible projection of oneself, shadow, image, picture, replacement, soul, spirit, ghost) to describe what they saw [Zorc 1986]. Significantly, these days Yolngu tend to use English-derived words like ‘‘photo’’ or bitcha (television) when discussing these technologies. Nonetheless, there remains a strong ambivalence about the ontological status of these images—an ambivalence that, as I want to demonstrate here, is productive even as it shifts in response to the technologies, their availability, and new ways of making sense of the world through these technologies.2 During the 1990s I was told that photographs, especially of old or deceased people, were not simply the ‘‘same’’ as the subject but the ‘‘same’’ as their sacra. It was explained to me that photographs of the recently deceased were inappropriate to look at, and hence dangerous, because that person was now ‘‘the same’’ as their clan sacra, the objects and sights that can only be revealed for ceremonial purposes. These explanations emphasized the ways that the mimetic powers of the camera amplify the links between the subject and associated sacred clan designs, objects, and sites in ways that render these potent and restricted sights invisibly present within the frame [Deger 2006: 92–116]. They were therefore both inappropriate and dangerous to view for reasons that extend well beyond the usual gloss that these images are simply inherently ‘‘upsetting.’’ This notion of ‘‘sameness’’ and material extension of the person is part of a broader cultural concern Yolngu have with the ways in which certain substances produce a material, detachable part of the person. As Ian Keen [2006] noted, these extensions expand the corporeal field of the subject across time and space and, in the process, make that field vulnerable to sorcery. Similarly, a threat to tear up


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a photo of someone in the heat of an argument can be cause for great concern. Yet photos also allow people to extend and enhance their ‘‘presence.’’ Or to withdraw it emphatically—as is the case every time my gathu (one of my brother’s daughters) fights with her Balanda partner and moves back to her mother’s home, taking two shelves of framed photographs of herself and their daughter with her. Yet these days, when I ask about the dangers of looking at photographs of the recently deceased, I am generally told ‘‘it’s okay,’’ that there’s ‘‘nothing to worry about.’’ Members of the self-identified ‘‘new generation’’ tell me matter-of-factly that they ‘‘see the images in a different way than the ‘old people’’’ (i.e., the previous generations). Rather than avoiding or hiding away these images, they seek them out. When someone dies, one of the first things many people want to do is to view photographs of that person. Even before the funeral, and for months and years afterward, photos are collected, copied, and exchanged among the extended kin network.3 No other type of photograph generates such an interest and activity.4 Men, women, and children want to have, to keep, to touch, to caress, and most of all to look, long and repeatedly, at images of their relations who have ‘‘passed away.’’ As time goes on, photos of deceased people are enlarged, framed, and hung high on bedroom walls (thus still out of public view), out of the reach of dogs and toddlers. Or they are carefully kept in wallets and pockets, even trimmed down and taped to mobile phones. They are given as presents; they are pulled off the wall and packed for trips; they are brought out and shared with visitors who look intensely, often sitting quietly at the edge of the social group, until they’ve been moved to silent, salty tears.5 As time passes, such viewings become more relaxed, generally without the obvious affective intensity of those initial days and weeks of bereavement.6 In my experience, people are largely unconcerned about the technical quality of the image or even the physical condition of the print itself; nor is the primary interest in the content of the picture, the lighting, the pose, the surroundings, or the identity of the photographer.7 Although these aspects can considerably enhance a viewer’s appreciation of an image by adding invisible layers of meaning and triggering a range of memories and associations, in my experience what matters most in such moments is ultimately to get hold of—and view—any recognizable image of the person. Not everyone looks. Some elderly people do not approve of this new practice (and in such cases, people are extremely careful to keep all images out of their sight), and some others, such as brothers and sisters of the deceased, may reference kin-based prohibitions on bodily proximities to explain why they choose not to look—even as others in the same relationship actively seek out photographs. But while individuals make choices about looking based on the particularity of their relationship with the deceased, what is striking is that in the act of looking the bereaved are not separated or withdrawn from others. (And equally, those who look at the photos keep a careful eye on those who do not, aware that in this instance the act of deliberately not looking is in itself an affirmation of relatedness.) Thus, unlike Barthes—who found in one photograph of his dead mother the particularity, the punctum, that opened him up to the inner upswell


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of a private grief and recollections—Yolngu not only view within the social, they reconstitute the social through the photos. Even as each viewer looks and feels a relationship that is according to both the particular qualities of specific kinrelations and textured by the lived experiences of knowing and being with the deceased, the affect these photographs generate is the very ground of reinforcing and reconstituting the social as an inherently intersubjective and intercorporeal space of kinship that includes both the living and the dead. Acts of viewing enable an individual’s grief to be witnessed and thence socially affirmed, while at the same time the palpable and deeply moving experience of witnessing another’s grief has its own ripple effect, gathering up those present, consolidating deeply felt networks of relationships. Although these new practices surrounding photos of the dead represent a drastic easing of traditional prohibitions, it is important to emphasize that restrictions—and the underlying ontological and political reasons for them—have not completely disappeared.8 It still matters enormously how and who and when people view photos. As a rule, these viewings take place in controlled, or at least controllable, environments and contexts. One encounters an image already prepared to see it—not, as many Yolngu have experienced in the past, unexpectedly, such as when images of deceased people have been broadcast indiscriminately by a distant television network. In other words, even though they are being actively shown, shared, and viewed, these images are not on public display, but rather are used to facilitate socially constitutive and contained moments of showing and sharing, of looking together in an emotionally charged yet quietly reflective shared space of grieving and remembering. They can be shown and then concealed, brought into view then safely tucked away (put back inside the wallet, the pocket, the box, the drawer), in keeping with the revelatory dynamics that inflect more formal ritual moments [Deger 2007].

TRACES THAT INHERE In his survey and discussion of the development of shifting photographic ethics and protocols among Aboriginal people, Peterson [2003] attributes the emergence of new attitudes toward photographs of the dead to Aboriginal people’s increasing familiarity with and access to photographic processes.9 Certainly this is part of the explanation for the changes: in recent years Yolngu in Gapuwiyak have had considerably greater access to making and reproducing their own images digitally, mostly through (uneven) access to computers and printers in institutional centers such as the school, clinic, or office. Moreover, some Yolngu explicitly claim these new practices as ‘‘modern,’’ appreciating that their photos enable them to participate in a globally recognizable form of memorialization. (Along with the rest of the world, they’ve looked on, and felt empathy for, families displaying photographs of loved ones lost in 9=11, the Asian tsunami, the Iraq war, and other disastrous moments of tragedy and loss.) But there is a danger here of missing the particularities of what is going on: there is the potential to conclude that Aboriginal people, in taking up these modern technologies, have simultaneously assumed a more ‘‘rational,’’ technologically informed, or simply


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‘‘practical’’ approach to images and their circulation, and in the process have abandoned previous beliefs as now self-evidently ‘‘mistaken’’ or ‘‘primitive.’’10 Further, there is a tendency in this formulation to assume that those who remain ‘‘not keen to look’’ are motivated to keep their eyes averted by the force of their grief, an explanation that also seems to require no further elaboration. What I want to argue here is that facts such as an increased access to images, growing technological sophistication, and=or a sorrowful avoidance of the emotional pain evoked by such images do not adequately explain the specific kinds of significance these photos hold for Yolngu—and their reasons for looking, or not looking, at such images. For the purposes of this article, I want to consider the visual dimensions more deeply. For it seems to me there is something quite literal to be understood from their answers that they ‘‘see these photos differently from the old people.’’ Indeed, it seems that if there has been a shift of focus in relation to how Yolngu perceive these photographs that places an emphasis on the work of viewing and feeling as a way of mediating—and indeed refiguring—the indeterminate, spectral spaces between the living and the dead. Likewise, I want to consider photographic images in terms that move away from a focus on the materiality of the photograph itself, and its relationship to the subject as a corporeal extension of a person, in order to take up more serious consideration of the spectral productivities of images as they inhere inside the viewer: images that are precisely neither person nor photograph but something in-between.11

EYES, IMAGE, INTERSUBJECTIVITY From very early ages Yolngu children are taught to engage with the world and others through their eyes. Relatives look babies directly in the eye, repeating their kin relationship as they playfully make faces or otherwise attract the infant’s attention. Likewise, the visual provides ways for a baby to demonstrate his or her agency and knowledge of relationships prior to the development of linguistic skills. ‘‘She’s looking at you,’’ I’m often chided when, caught up in the wider flow of conversation and comings and goings, I stop paying direct attention to the baby on my lap. ‘‘Yaa [ah, yes] . . . momu [mother’s father’s sister],’’ my Yolngu kin might say to the child in such moments, appreciative of the ways the baby’s gaze demonstrates a recognition of a particular relationship that is affirmed and made mutual by my returned gaze. As children get older they become skilled at the refractions of vision and the affective and social consequences of looking in particular ways or at particular people, places, and objects. Different styles of eye-to-eye contact become differentiated and practiced, people learn to pick up on the quickest flash of an eye, or in other instances are careful to not look at all. In this cultural context the social is mediated with an understanding that eyes are libidinous; indeed, in a society where kin relations are mapped onto the body (e.g., breast is mother, brother is shin), it’s not for nothing that the eye is the sign for lover. Vision can be covetous and acquisitive, but equally in other circumstances it can be gentle and caressing. Yolngu understand that vision extends the boundaries of the body


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beyond the flesh, even as the eyes are sites of bodily permeability. Indeed, the eyes are important exactly because they constitute a permeable interface between the inside and the outside of the lived body. Yet the eyes can also close the body—even as they puncture another—as a term for staring, mel-dal (literally, hard eyes), attests. So what kind of looking—what kind of visual relations—is rendered possible through these images? Are photographic eyes truly dead eyes? Can they look back? Susan Marrawakamirr, my sister-in-law and indeed closest Yolngu friend and colleague, says, when I press her, that, yes, sometimes she feels that her husband returns her gaze when she looks at his photo, as she so often has done since he died five years ago. ‘‘Sometimes. Maybe. But . . . not really. It’s not really him,’’ she concedes, forced into a position (and thence out of the productive ontological ambivalence that photographs generate) by the directness of my question. Certainly the eyes are an important part of what people look at and comment on in these photos. Affectionate expressions such as mel djuli (beautiful eyes) or mel djanamirr (dear eyes) are often used by relatives as they look at these photos; expressions that seem to me to be less about the particular expressive qualities of that individual’s eyes than an explicit invocation of precisely the affectively charged intersubjective relations that eyes enable between people. However, looking at photographs of faces involves simultaneously a locking of eyes and a failure to engage the other. The photo provides a promise of connection but also the disappointment that the other does not—cannot—respond. Indeed, the loss of vision, the incapacity of the dead to look out for themselves, to see the world and connect with others through vision, is directly alluded to in some women’s funeral laments when they sing about a son ‘‘who will never see his wanga [country] again,’’ and at certain moments in the ceremony when women in the relationship of mother gather around the coffin and look out on the proceedings on behalf of the deceased, seeing together for the deceased.12 Given this emphasis on the loss of visual capacities by the dead themselves, what I want to suggest here is that, rather than seeking to make contact with their loved ones through locking eyes with a photo (or as Wright argues in this Special Issue attributing perception and agency to the eyes of the dead in photographs), Yolngu are using photographs to refigure lived and embodied relations with the dead by means of different kinds of visual dynamic in which the emphasis is on the work of looking by the living. When Yolngu describe to me the processes of seeing that looking at these photos stimulate, they emphasize the associative dimensions of the experience. They talk about the memories these images trigger and the fullness of the feeling they produce. ‘‘It makes me think about special times, when we were together, what we did, who else was there, how we felt. I feel the happiness, remember our connection.’’ People describe the ways they bring to mind the invisible sacred realm that is associated with that person—their sacred objects and clan designs—or they imagine their spirit in their country taking on the totemic forms they are associated with. Thus photographic images are used to generate more images that, in turn, work to deliberately amplify the rush of associations with a fullness of affective force. This is not to say that the viewer does not experience


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the shock of discontinuity. Indeed, it seems that it is precisely the opening up, the dislocation from the everyday, that the photograph provokes that is being activated and harnessed in these ritualized viewing practices. Memories of joy mediate the pain of loss, without turning away from the brutal facticity of death. Paradoxically, it is this willingness to face death in this way, to exist simultaneously in the fullness and emptiness generated by the loss of a loved one, that allows for a space for the dead in the world of the living.

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INCORPORATING IMAGES When Yolngu say that these photos provide comfort, that they help to ‘‘keep that person close . . . to keep him in my heart,’’ it seems that looking at these photos enables a form of sensuous incorporation. The work of mourning takes the form of a repeated looking at these potent (both in terms of the ontological resonances and the affective power) images that effectively imprints a trace of the deceased into the affective core of the bereaved, thereby ensuring an enduring and embodied connection between the living and the dead. Even as vision extends the corporeal boundaries of the subject outward to encompass the image and the imaged in a sensuous embrace (Susan tells me that she hugs the photo of her husband with her eyes), the image enters the viewer through the portal of the eyes to make a visceral impression on the heart. The logic of this is surely suggested by photography itself. If photos materialize shadows (in Yolngu terms, mali or wungali), then these acts of looking perform a further imprinting, another fixing of the spectral in the fleshly materiality of the world. Even as vision extends the boundaries of the viewer’s body to enable a visual embrace with the lost loved one, the eyes draw the image inward toward another receptive surface: the fleshiness of the heart, the organ of affect—the site of feelings that take one beyond the bounds of the self—and where one experiences the anguished moments of life that cut to the quick of being. (This inner landscape of fleshy organs and sensory circuits is perhaps never so receptive to these images as in these moments of pain and loss. Even so, I would also argue that this internal corpography has to be culturally cultivated to receive imagery, to be attentive to the potency and demands of images, to respond to the relationships it allows.) Yet, unlike photography, the mimetic efficacies enacted here rely on repetition, the building of layers or the penetration of surfaces. This is an imprinting that is a kind of impressing.13 This viewing is also a process that is about movement and transformation. Yolngu have explicitly described the sensuous circuits through which such images travel. Telling me that vision travels through the eyes to the heart (ngayanugu) and then on to the head or mind (mulkurr), they privilege the visceral= affective power of vision, indicating a strong sense of vision not only as a prelinguistic modality of experience but as something that can have deep effects on the viewer exactly because this experience ‘‘hits’’ the seat of emotions prior to any rationalizing or otherwise overriding cognitive processes.14 The work of looking can then be seen, quite literally, as an act of imprinting the image on the heart. Such a sensuous incorporation works to refigure the very


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core of being—and this is not an abstract or unshaped being: it is a site of multiple impressions, where things leave their mark, and these marks are not only meaningful but are infused with the trace of that which made them. Thus this work of memory and mourning involves an inward and outward dynamic that engages with and through the world, marking and transforming the bodies of the living—as the dead are undergoing their own corporeal transformations underneath the surface of the earth. This notion of the work of viewing as a form of imprinting does not imply a fixity or stasis; the heart, in this instance, is not some internalized photo album where the dead are embalmed. These images are enduringly efficacious: it is not necessary to hold them in the mind—they are there and will be brought to life through these circuits of sensuous connectivity. The photos and associated feelings, thoughts, and images provide the basis not simply for recalling but for recognizing new forms of similitudes (visible evidence of connectedness) that affirm the underlying patterns of the ancestral. This kind of looking requires an ability to open one’s being to the world via the eyes and to allow the images inside, to press and penetrate the affective core of the viewer, just as the traces of ancestral beings have left their marks on the country they traversed. These images then lie latent in one’s being, ready to be triggered by other sights, or sounds, or practices that enliven the presence of the dead. The body thus becomes the repository for layers of images and feelings that animate each other when triggered by encounters in the world that activate their immanent presence.15 These processes then allow the living to refigure and reproduce relationships with the deceased in a new form. Indeed, what is lost through the death and what is reconstituted in the viewing, in both physical and corporeal terms, is relationship. One photograph can reaffirm multiple relationships—and thence different qualities or aspects of the deceased—even as the social is itself constituted in the act of mourning—as it is in more formal rituals.

LOOKING WITH THE HEART: FROM OUTSIDE TO INSIDE AND OUT AGAIN Up to this point, in keeping with how Yolngu have defined the term to me, I have used the English word heart to gloss the Yolngu word ngayangu. Other anthropologists have defined ngayangu as ‘‘the seat of the feelings,’’ located specifically in the stomach [Tamisari 2000: 281]. But for the purposes of this discussion, whether Yolngu say ‘‘heart’’ to me when they really mean ‘‘stomach,’’ as a matter of crosscultural convenience when we are speaking English, or whether there has been a shift in the cultural corpo-cartography of feelings produced by several generations of exposure to Christianity, Hollywood movies, and popular song, is largely beside the point for these purposes. More important, it seems, are the meanings that Yolngu give to its interior status. Doturrk, a Yolngu term that means inside, heart, and also inner meaning, signals another dimension of this movement of images within the viewer. This emphasis on the inside or inner indicates a concern with the more potent and sacred aspects of cultural knowledge, places, and objects [Morphy 1991]. For Yolngu the movement of something from outside to inside signals a movement toward dhuyu—the restricted, the secret, the sacred.


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It appears then that the sacred (and thence potent and potentially dangerous) dimensions of the relationship between the photograph and the deceased discussed above have transferred from the surface of the picture to the internal—and therefore private, nonvisible domain—of individual viewers (who are, of course, not individuals but explicitly figured in relationships by these very practices). Thus this kind of looking can be understood to be a form of sacralization: a recognizable rite not only in terms of the social processes, the repeated forms of action and socially affirmed actions, but in the transformative processes for the participants—and the objects of ritual action—as the eyes take the images inside the viewer.16 Franca Tamisari, whose work emphazises the productive dimensions of shared affect generated through Yolngu dance, adds yet another dimension to my understanding when she notes that ‘‘ngayangu is cognate with ngoy,’’ and cites Donald Thomson’s [1975: 8, n.16] description of ngoy as ‘‘the living, vital part of man.’’ Elaborating, Tamisari writes that ‘‘ngoy also means ‘inside’ and ‘underneath’ ’’ [2000: 281, n.14]. In this sense, it would seem that the act of viewing enables in a literal sense the revitalization of the dead by the living. For all these reasons it makes a renewed sense that looking at photos of the dead is not for the faint-hearted. The impact of, and the upset engendered by, these viewings must be carefully managed, and avoided, if necessary, especially for those closest to the deceased. One young man who lost his father in unexpected (and, for Yolngu, highly suspicious) circumstances deliberately did not look at photographs and other images (such as the slideshow I made for the family on my computer) for over three years. When the rest of his family gathered around my computer to look, he sat to the side, staring away from the house, adjusting his sunglasses, pulling down his baseball cap as if to shield his eyes. His mother explained to me that she worried about his looking at the photos because his heart had been weakened by rheumatic fever in his youth—her words bringing home the literal force of such images for Yolngu. She was also clearly concerned about the feelings such images would stir up in him as the eldest son: the anger, the fear of retribution, and the burden on the eldest son to avenge his father’s death. For this reason, when he finally did view the slideshow on my computer, his sisters and mothers kept a close, discrete eye on his reactions, making sure that the impact of the images did not give rise to anger or violence. For although the long and emotionally charged unfoldings of Yolngu funeral ceremonies (which often take up to 10 days), provide a socially sanctioned space for such emotions to erupt, the photographic viewings I describe here are used deliberately to cultivate a different kind of affective outcome: the culturally prescribed work of warrwuyun (translated by Zorc as a feeling of grief, sadness, sorrow, and ‘‘worry’’) in which Yolngu deliberately acknowledge and evoke loss in order to highlight absence and to feel its pains.17

THE TRANSMISSION OF SIGHT: VISIONS AND ANAMNESIS Yet for all the visceral force of the visual encounter with a materially manifest absence, for all the knowledge and remembrances these images enhance, these photos do more than archive and activate what is already known and what has already been. For Yolngu this work of looking, opening, and feeling has


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effects that subsequently shape vision itself. Ultimately, these processes foster a kind of broader receptivity to the world, laying the basis for an anamnesis of things not yet seen. When Susan tells me that she sometimes sees her dead husband walking toward the house, in full view but only to her, it leads me to think about his ghost as a kind of after-image: the trace that is present and visible in the world because of her work of looking. (At other times she tries to draw him nearer by playing his favorite films on DVD, steadfastly opening the spaces of absence and presence as she remembers previous viewings, feeling his loss, remembering his pleasures, watching the movie with him—but also for him.) The possibilities of ‘‘looking with’’ or otherwise entering a field of vision that expands beyond that which is manifestly visible to the individual are facilitated by photos in other ways, too. The kinds of seeing enabled through the photographic image of the deceased extend to dreams, visions, and even visitations by the deceased. For example, where traditionally a piece of hair might be removed from the body during a funeral in order to determine the cause of death through a secret ritual by senior men (almost every death that is not a result of old age is attributed to the malicious forces of sorcery), recently I have heard of photos serving the same purpose. Shown to select senior men at the appropriate time toward the end of the funeral, photographs are being used to stimulate a process of revelatory seeing whereby those responsible for the death are revealed either in dreams or through other psychic and visionary processes. These photographs also have a purpose, value, and potential for generating vision even for those who did not directly know the deceased. Photos are used to teach children to recognize their dead relatives well before they learn to speak. Again and again the infant will be shown the photo, taught to say the appropriate kin term. Great delight erupts when children first identify that person for themselves from a photograph. ‘‘Margni nayi [he=she knows],’’ everyone will say, smiling, nodding, testing the child again. Parents say that this knowledge will enable the child to recognize this person when his spirit appears to her— something common for Yolngu children to experience. But it seems that there is even more to it: as time passes, these internalized images become part of a lived and embodied ancestral legacy: an intimate and internalized knowledge of the contours of the face, the shape of the body, and other features is an important source of knowledge that will be assimilated into the ever-broadening and deepening capacity to apprehend of clan-based knowledge. Fostering a form of apperception and recognition, the image acts as a source of eidetic imagery—which prefigures future encounters with the world. In these ways, these photographs and the careful, attentive, receptive kinds of looking they provoke and enable provide the means of recognizing the imprint of the past in future generations, facilitating a visible, tangible, material source for affirming the ancestral relations that are the source of Yolngu identity and knowledge. In other words, these photos are a stimulus not simply for the work of mourning, or memory, but for the workings of anamnesis.18 The implanted images enable a transgenerational space of ‘‘looking with’’ that enhances the capacities to perceive the immanent ancestral. Ultimately, these photos can be understood to be fostering a receptivity to the world—and to the ancestral


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patternings that give it form and meaning—which extends beyond the strictly visual. As I have argued elsewhere [Deger 2006], Yolngu stress that there is an inherent ethical=moral relation enabled by seeing certain images that is something akin to what Keen calls the ‘‘extension of the person in space within the context of the moral-political community’’ [2006: 517].19 In other words, from a Yolngu point of view the substance of the person (and, by extension, his or her sacra) that is conveyed by the image has a quality of conveying to the viewers—embedding within them—the ‘‘right way’’ to behave, engendering a commitment to the ethos of the ancestral. Thus as one becomes-in-relation to a relation who is becoming-ancestral (as their flesh decomposes underground and their spirit returns to the wanga [homeland]), the connections and their constitutive powers of these photographs extend beyond the individuals to generate an encompassing yet particular sense of being-in-relation with the always-ness of the ancestral.

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THE DEMANDS OF LIVES HALF LIVED In this article I’ve worked to explore how certain images, in certain contexts, can produce not simply styles of seeing but vision itself. By locating the work of perception deep within the body, tracking visual processes along affectively charged corporeal circuits that extend well beyond the eyes themselves, and by showing that the work of seeing extends to perceiving more than that which lies in plain view, I have described how photos of the dead are being used to activate visceral and affectively charged processes of transformation, identification, and coming to knowledge. In this way I have shown how acts of looking produce the kinds of constellations of meaning and feeling, memory and imagination through which Yolngu encompass relations across time and space as lived and materially felt and known realities. The affective jolts and associative processes that these photographs generate enable the viewer to undertake the bittersweet and melancholic work of looking and seeing in a world of both light and shadows. Over time, these repeated mourning practices produce the kind of perception and somatically charged spaces of relationship and connection that not only allow ghosts their place in the world but encourage their presence.20 In the process, mourners become invisibly transformed, the grief less allconsuming. (The last time I spoke about this with Susan, she told me simply that she had ‘‘finished crying now.’’) It makes a particular kind of sense that this new practice has emerged at a time when the gaps between generations are widening, leading Yolngu themselves to reflect on questions of past and present, tradition and modernity, continuity and disjuncture, as their people die (too many, too young) as a result of ‘‘modern’’ lifestyles, poverty, powerlessness, and despair. At such a time, when the dislocations of contemporary life are all-too-often starkly embodied in the sudden—and often violent—deaths of Yolngu in their twenties and thirties, I would suggest that a turning away from these images is no longer appropriate. Or even bearable. It seems that photographs of such individuals, figures who have lived ‘‘only half-lives,’’ as some Yolngu put it, require an attention and response that is


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necessarily of a different order than the dead among the ‘‘old people’’ of previous generations. Likewise, I wonder if the living are in need of comfort and connection with their dead in ways that are different than in previous generations. For surely the constant and urgent viewing of photos and videos is a part of something more encompassing and yet less easy to come to terms with, much less look directly in the eye: namely, a growing apprehension among Yolngu about the nature of their children’s futures, futures that threaten to diverge from tracks imprinted by ancestral footsteps in ways that are almost impossible to envision. Ultimately, then, even as they attest to loss, these photographs offer ‘‘new generation’’ Yolngu the very grounds of cultural continuity. In the face of potentially overwhelming and numbing sorrow, Yolngu have found ways of making these photographs, and the spaces of death and trauma they bring into relief, pulsate between past, present, and future. They are using the images and the feelings, memories, and imaginative possibilities enabled by them to (re)generate the possibilities and patterns of deeply felt, corporeally constituted connections across the spaces of an ancestral always-ness—impulses that are at the heart of all Yolngu rituals and so many everyday practices.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I want to thank the many friends and colleagues who, by sharing the talking and the silences with me, have helped to give form to the elusive ideas and difficult feelings that originally prompted me to write this article. Susan Marrawakamirr and Shirley Nirrpurrandji and other Yolngu have given me permission to share their stories and to try to describe their experiences so that, as Nirrpurr put it, people might ‘‘understand our pain.’’ To these and other Yolngu kin I owe a debt beyond words. Conversations with Ben Smith, Richard Vokes, Tony Redmond, Diana McCarthy, Deirdre McKay, Barbara Glowczewski, Ian Keen, Nic Peterson, Jeremy Beckett, Ian Bedford, and Richard Sherwin have enriched my thinking in many different ways. Very special thanks to Jane Sloan, whose exquisite abundance and receptivity teaches me, again and again, how to think through feeling. An early version of this article was presented at the Bilan du Film Ethnographique Seminar: From Ethnological Films to Visual Anthropology, A Reappraisal: New Technology, New Fields of Investigation, New Languages, at the Muse´e de l’Homme, Paris, March 2006; and another version at the Australian Anthropology Conference in Cairns, September 2006. Thanks to the Division of Society, Culture, Media, and Philosophy at Macquarie University for funding my attendance.

NOTES 1. These restrictions generally last several years, depending on the person’s age and importance. 2. Of course, theorists from Bazin [1967] onward have recognized that visual technologies raise a range of difficult questions about the ontological status of the image— and also that the nature of the concerns changes over time. 3. Anecdotal evidence from colleagues working in the Central Desert region suggests that this change is more than a specifically regional phenomenon. 4. Except, to a lesser extent, images of family members living in another community and archival photographs of long-dead relatives accessed from anthropological institutes. In these cases, Yolngu also deliberately use photographs to ameliorate the distress of separation and to affirm ties, but never more so, in my experience, than with the photos of the recently deceased.


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5. Macdonald [2003] describes the ways in which photographs take social value and meaning among the Wiradjuri in New South Wales, developing a rich account of the role of photography and exchange relations and kinship networks, in ways that resonate with the situation I describe here. 6. This intense interest in recordings of the deceased is not confined to photographs. People also are extremely interested in access to video footage and audio recordings, other mimetic modes of presencing the deceased. Nevertheless, while the kinds of intense and social acts of watching=listening to media recordings of the dead that I describe here are not unique to photography, I would suggest that photographs remain a special case, because of their materiality, their portability, and their very stillness—a quality that many have suggested makes them a particularly potent kind of imagery for the work of memory [Sontag 1977; Barthes 2000 (1980)]. 7. Analyzing Aboriginal video production and viewing, Faye Ginsburg [1994] has identified the significance of such ‘‘embedded aesthetic,’’ describing the ways that indigenous audiences seek out and elaborate the connections and stories that inhere within the frame and which can provide layers of meaning and viewing pleasures that far exceed the story or images that actually appear on screen. 8. Also, as Nic Peterson [pers. comm.] points out, this highlights the difficulty of applying terms such as ‘‘protocols’’ to a culture that does not operate in the highly prescriptive and routinizable manner suggested by such a term. 9. Interestingly, Peterson relates a variation on the restrictions I have described, stating that in East Arnhem Land people can use photographs ‘‘taken during the deceased’s youth’’ on their coffin. In the funerals that I have been to, the photographs have only been on display for the benefit of non-Yolngu visitors to the shelter where the body is kept, and then afterward put away. (I wonder if this might relate to the relationship of the deceased as adult and the ontological relationship to their sacra, which is lessened if the image of the person is one of them when they were younger and thereby deemed to be less like their sacra.) Peterson also writes that ‘‘in general older people, and those most closely associated with the deceased, are not keen to see images of their dead relatives’’ [Peterson 2003: 145, n. 25], again recording a different situation than that which I have experienced and described here. These differences are important and not necessarily contradictory. Rather, I see them pointing toward the contingent and emergent nature of the practices. They reflect the ways that photos are being taken up by different people, families, and clans; they serve as an indication of the multiplicity of ways in which people are creatively and meaningfully incorporating photographs into their lives. 10. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, many Yolngu are self-conscious about appearing ‘‘primitive,’’ which makes them careful to couch their language about photographs and their efficacies in cross-culturally recognizable forms when talking to non-Yolngu [Deger 2006]. 11. I am indebted to Ben Smith for helping me find a way to express this crucial aspect of the photographic image as it is operating here. 12. Ute Eickelkamp points to the importance of looking-with as opposed to looking-at, in her study of Western Desert Aborigines, noting that ‘‘to share the direction of the gaze signals closeness and often familiarity’’ [2003: 319]. I think this is also true for Yolngu. Eickelkamp’s insight thus underlines that the shared space of affect I describe above when groups of Yolngu look at these photographs together is also intrinsically about co-looking. 13. Anthropologists working on other aspects of Aboriginal cultural production have made some important arguments about the significance of imprinting, impressing,


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and repetition as means of generating production of affectively charged intersubjective and intercorporeal relationships that extend to include the subject, kin country, and ancestral realm. I am indebted to this work, as it has deeply informed my own capacity to appreciate Yolngu photographic practices. See especially Tamisari [1998, 2000] and Biddle [2001, 2007]. In comparison, I have been told that hearing goes first to the head=mind and then to the heart. This differentiation of the senses deserves more discussion than is possible in this article however, it is important to note the significance of directed movement here. In these terms this looking at photos sits within, or enhances, a range of established practices for grieving and actively recalling the deceased. As Reid describes it [1979], Yolngu will often respond to a visual trigger (e.g., seeing a flower blossoming, which reminds the person that this is the time of year in which that person died), by leaning into the loss and deliberately calling him or her to mind, feeling the feelings, bringing oneself to tears and thereby making the ‘‘inside’’ working of affect and memory visible to others (for this is a culture in which the work of ritual is to make ancestral connections visible). Seen in this light, tears become an outward manifestation of the fact that the viewer has indeed been touched and moved deep within. The Yolngu word ‘‘eye,’’ mel, can also be used to refer to the sacred clan waterhole. It seems that in a culture infused by a watery poetics of creativity and reproduction [Magowan 2007; Deger 2007], where the waterhole is the primary and ‘‘inside’’ source of identity and sacra, the manifestation of tears as a watery movement from the inside out must have a deep and meaningful resonance. However, the Yolngu I have talked to do not make this explicit. The specificities of relationships matter in other ways, too. It can be dangerous for the wives and daughters of a deceased man to look at his photos. ‘‘They might get haunted . . . they might get sick,’’ is how it’s been glossed to me in English, suggesting again that one’s susceptibility to this kind of exposure—and, indeed, one’s very permeability—varies according to kinship relations. Unlike the Platonic anamnesis, the Yolngu epistemological emphasis on visual recall (and here there are links to other kinds of seeing, such as dreams) gives priority to the role of the senses and the body in mediating the processes by which one uncovers latent understandings and recognizes immanent truths. See also Lattas [2006: 24] on photos as a conduit for imparting vision or knowledge; and Eliade’s [1967] and Redmond’s [2006] discussion of anamnesis in Aboriginal contexts. Keen uses rich ethnographic material to make an interesting argument, borrowing South Asian ideas about a moral code for conduct being immanent in bodily substance, including, as he says, in mali (shadow, image) in the Yolngu context [2006]. Indeed, this work of keeping the deceased close through the work of looking and feeling is complemented by other shifts in relation to the deceased, such as families refusing to have their loved one’s room ceremonially cleansed with smoke or holding onto his or her clothes and other belongings, which once would have also been routinely destroyed for the dangerous traces of the deceased that they contain. Smith reports similar developments in Cape York [n.d.]. Another issue here, but beyond the scope of this article, is what appears to be a shift in people’s relationships to ‘‘ghosts’’ themselves, as the dangerous aspects of the deceased are played down by grieving family members; they seek to keep the spirit close by not undertaking the usual smoking=cleansing ceremonies that would drive away the mokuy, the dangerous dimension of the spirit, as opposed to the more benevolent aspect, birrimbirr.


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Jennifer Deger