Yiorgos Depollas, “freelance war correspondent” and occasional “collaborator with intelligence services”, has publicized thirteen photographic documents from his archive, each accompanied by a succinct text. Ill the photographs have as their subject the “strange deaths” of famous or eminent personalities recorded by Depollas΄s camera, among them astrophysicists, sheriffs, poets, Nobel laureates, surgeons, revolutionaries, gangsters, anthropologists and journalists. The subject matter is both unusual and macabre, since all these deaths apparently remain unsolved. In any case, humanity’s most imperceptible acquaintance with mortality remains the photographic image itself.
A first glance might suggest affinities with the work of Weegee, the famous recorder of New York’s police chronicles, who for decades produced raw images of the seamier side of the 20th century’s most glittering metropolis. A closer reading of Depollas‘s previous sequence, Untitled Documents, confirms that any resemblance is superficial. This earlier work consisted of a series of staged tableaux, also presented in the guise of unpublished documents, which wittily challenged the meaning of authenticity in both photography and reportage in general.
Depollas‘s latest stagings betray an exemplary sense of the sarcastic. The small-format polaroid prints attract the viewer’s attention and intensify the mystery of their subject matter, essentially playing the role of forensic images. The black colour surrounding the images emphasizes their funereal context, while the hole ostensibly punched through one of the photographs recapitulates the hoary old cinematic cliché of the occluded bullet, beloved of war and gangster films. The fact that the photographer has also appropriated the role of the victim in each photograph remains discretely hidden till the last image, in which the photographer is revealed in the role of the “famous Mafioso Toto Prima”. Oddly enough, for many viewers the photographer’s concluding staging of his own death reinforced the mystery rather than clarifying it. Several of those who visited the exhibition in Thessaloniki during the course of February 2000, including some actively engaged in photography, were completely taken in by the underlying narrative, up to and beyond the final photograph. A few even regarded the photographer’s staged ‘true-fake’ suicide as blasphemous vanity for postmortal recognition, ignoring the fact that the text accompanying this image was the work of the supposed suicide himself. The texts accompanying the images are terse, their style veering from the austere to the parodic, while the choice of ‘victims’ accurately reflects a cross-section of the personalities which regularly attract the attention of the mass media and their
William Ivins Jr. has remarked that “the 19th century began by believing that what was reasonable was true, and it wound up by believing that what it saw a photograph of, was true”. In other words, the assessment of a photograph as document and, ultimately, as an index of truth is based on the degree of conviction exerted by its appearance rather than on a judgment of its essential content. This content, when and if it exists, is distinctly harder to pin down. The 1871 executions of communard revolutionaries in Paris, based to a considerable extent on forged photographic documents, still communicate a self-evident massage. However, it is not merely the fascination of the apparently real, or in other words the nominal value of photography, which reinforces received opinion; a significant role is played by what Max Kozloff has called “preconceived judgments”, on the strength of which photography is regularly called upon to confirm the most strongly held public expectations and preconceptions, based as they are mostly on the social and political climate of the time. The concept of truth, with its inherent polyhedrality, is thereby all the more easily distorted and Pirandello is inevitably being recalled: “it is so if you believe it to be so”.
The 13 Strange Deaths also invite us to carefully examine the relationship between the image, photographic or otherwise, and language. As a codified instrument of everyday communication, language can seem almost too familiar to be questioned; as a result it acquires, virtually by default, the duty of explication, dictating the provisional meaning of every photograph in a situation where by comparison, the image’s code appears relatively hermetic. Does language invariably contribute to the deciphering of the image? The case of Depollas’s Deaths is eloquent of the fact that in many cases, photography demonstrates nothing more than what it depicts: a man lying on a beach, for instance, or fallen before a wall. To this extent truth has been respected; these scenes did in fact take place before the lens, irrespective of whether they were staged or not. The adjacent text, however, casts a delusive light upon the image, attempting to impose a univocal interpretation of each photograph. This perception acquires greater significance when one considers the photograph as a link in the information chain, realising that much of the criticism leveled today at the image is in fact directed at its accompanying text or title and their equivocal influence. It is language which regularly describes or circumscribes photo journalistic images, while turn are required to enchant or terrify the viewer.
Going a step further, the Strange Deaths pose questions about the hegemonic nature of contemporary media and information networks. Does the information provided correspond to the real problems of society, or is it restricted to a hunt for the satin, the grotesque and the violent? Does the attraction lie in the depicted Deaths themselves, or in their strangeness? To what extent have we allowed ourselves to become passive consumers of distorted sensationalism and frivolous emotionalism, in a process whereby the prioritization and selection of news stories becomes part and parcel of the power game? On this subject, Umberto Eco is definitive: “. . . a strangler of young warn remains always and objectively a strangler of young warn, bit if his excessive headline-grabbing has the purpose of making us forget an air-raid over Vietnam or a government scandal he becomes (from a journalistic point of view) an artificial strangler...”. Eco is here emphasizing the potential distortion which a real event or document can suffer through journalistic manipulation, even though the facts themselves may not have been misrepresented.
It is worth considering the process by which Depollas uses photography to create a new past for himself. Given the well-known propensity of mass media to determine the image of the present, and the efforts of technology to accurately design the future’s contour (“I don’t need to imagine the future”, IT guru Nicholas Negroponte has remarked “I can invent it”), the wholesale manipulation of reality trust inevitably include a restructuring of the past, on an individual or collective level, in order to ensure a closer fit in the dominant ideological suit. A new past, however counterfeit, makes a convincing prop for the emergence of a new world-view. As it hovers indeterminately between the real and the counterfeit, photography, even in its conventional form, can offer valuable services in this direction.
Another interesting point is the photographer’s emphasis on the subject of death irrespective of their accuracy, not all tragic or scabrous stories in the popular press find their dramatic culmination in death. It seems clear that Depollas ‘ s acerbic approach to the subject of death, particularly to the image of his own death in thirteen separate variants, represents a farse, a kind of exorcism of the existential fear which is an ineradicable part of the human condition.
In the final analysis, two elements make up the cohesive centre of Yiorgos Depollas’s work over the last twenty-five years. On the one hand, his consistent urge to challenge social and artistic conventions and all arbitrary limits on the freedom of human thought; on the other, a predilection for satire which emerges spontaneously frau his creative work. This is a stance which can be registered as “endangered to become extinct”, since it is becoming increasingly rare in photography and the arts in general, marginalised by the climate of secure solemnity and insecure demureness currently dominant in artistic discourse.
Althusser has defined ideology as “a system of representations [...J which acts on man and women by a process that escapes them”. Photography is clearly implicated in this definition, being a system of representation which contains within itself significant ideological determinants and which manifests itself in ways which are by and large concealed from its recipients.
Yiorgos Depollas’s 13 Strange Deaths are above all a critique of precisely this condition, and require the viewer to share his belief in the necessity for a demagnetisation of the gaze and a rejection of the almost metaphysical faith often placed in the image, seeking instead a more active and hence reciprocal exchange.
This s t a s i s, as suggested also by the unrestrainable flux of images that besiege the human gaze, could possibly lead to a state of “strange necrophania”, as far as previous attitudes and practices are concerned The return from such a strong shock though might initiate a new era for the image and human communication in general. With these photographs Yiorgos Depollas is extending to us, smiling indiscernibly, an open invitation to participate in this difficult transition.