A Photograph

By David Brooks

Henry 8.v.13

In my previous piece I wrote of the selection of photographs for a small exhibition. The photographs were not my own, but at one point there was some consideration of adding to it some photographs that were. When I wrote about the selected photographs I endeavoured to balance the impression created by one of them – of six ducklings in a pond – with a story of the tragedy that had taken five of their siblings a few days before the photograph was taken. It was a small point of scruple, perhaps, hardy a matter of the falsehood of art. Perhaps not so the exclusion of a photograph of mine, a photograph of a late-castrated ram, although the dishonesty entailed is not so much in the exclusion – there were many sound reasons to exclude it – as in the photograph itself. A number of the reasons for its exclusion had come from me in the first place, foremost among them that, for an event designed to raise money for an animal charity, it would be counterproductive to include a photograph that, because of its painful subject matter, people were likely to be less inclined to buy. But in deciding not to include the photograph I nonetheless felt, much as I had about presenting a photograph of ‘happy’ ducklings without acknowledging the tragedy of which they had so recently been a part, that it was the suffering of animals that was being excluded, an exclusion all the more culpable in that it occurs in a society which does so much to hide or ignore the immense suffering it causes to non-human species.

The question of exclusion is only the beginning. The photograph troubles me in so many ways that it seems to cry out for lengthy, complicated and painful contemplation – or, if not physically painful (how dare one speak of any other pain, when the ram that is the subject of the photograph is experiencing so much), then shameful, since I myself was a party to the decision to have him castrated, and so to causing his suffering – a suffering caused, paradoxically, in the misguided attempt to relieve his lonely yearning from the hillside for the ewes on the farm in the valley below, his injuries in his attempts to escape to them, and the problems his ram behaviour would present to any attempt find a new and safe home for him (he is a ‘rescue’ ram, whom we are trying to spare from the cruelties of production farming) should something happen to us.

We had been told that castration would be relatively simple and painless. But something went wrong. He ran too fast at some point, or tried again to push through a fence, or perhaps it was just that the vet did not take into consideration the way a ram lies down, and the stress this might place on a wound. The wound began to bleed, the morning after he was brought home, and the bleeding would not stop. We changed the dressing, hoped that there might be sufficient coagulation, but the second dressing filled, the rate of bleeding increased. We returned him to the vet for observation. A new dressing – greater pressure –worked at first, but by the next morning he had lost so much blood he was critically anaemic. Six months later he is well, fully recovered, happier than we can remember him. But recovery excuses nothing.

All that is background. Shame – my shame – but only a beginning, a proem. The photograph was taken just before he was returned to the veterinary hospital. Indeed I think it was during the taking of the photograph that I realised that he had to go back, that all was not well at all. The way he looked at me, as I took it, as if asking me to do something. Sheep are prey animals. The fact that they do not express pain by wild bleating or the kind of shrieks that a pig will utter, has led to a perception that they do not feel pain very strongly at all. But it is not that. There is no reason to think that they do not feel pain very acutely indeed. It is just that, should they utter it, they will draw attention to themselves as injured, and attract predators to them.

I would like to say that I took the photograph as a record, should I need it: that I took it for him.  But in truth, and although I think that was a part of it – that a ‘beautiful’, ‘powerful’ photograph of a suffering ram might have some use in a campaign to lessen the suffering of farm animals – I think the ‘beauty’, the ‘power’ were uppermost, that it was the trained and opportunistic eye of the photographer that drove me to go inside and get the camera, whatever other reasons I began almost instantaneously to devise. Something in the light, the scarlet of the blood against the off-whiteness of his fleece – that, and an engrained sensitivity, bred of forty-odd years of art galleries, poetry, to a particular combination of pain, blood, softness, vulnerability, strength, light and shadow, a sort of cocktail of sign and affect that to some, myself included, can be like a drug. I took the photograph first and foremost because I am a photographer. I am a poet, a writer, too, and even in the midst of the greatest stress and turmoil find words, lines, images coming to me, and will write them down. I will stop on the highway to write something down. I will rush from a lecture-hall to write down, before I forget it, something that came to me as I lectured. I will roll over at night and write a thought or image in my notebook in the dark. In the midst of a bushfire I would probably have a notebook with me. Because, as I have come to realise, the impulse to wrap words about something is also the impulse to make sense of it, to try to connect it with what else one knows and feels, a kind of gyroscope, it you like, to stabilise and orient your passage through being. And I want to say that taking photographs can be like this, and that this might have something to do with why I took this one. Although I also want to say that the effect can be retrospective, as if some instinct in one knows that this might be something one will need to think about; that one photographs something because one has not finished with it, because it disturbs one, because there is something it seems to want one to explore or explain.

I make no claim for this photograph, other than that it was a kind of gift – light or dark I don’t know – in that I am not a good enough photographer to have been able to take it deliberately (the friend who printed it out for me, enlarged, so that I could enter it, asked whether I had Photo-shopped it, seemed to think that the chiaroscuric effect could only have come from manipulation, but no, it was a trick of the light, I told him, or something in the way, for a split second, the light seems to have tricked the camera). The reader will laugh, perhaps, since there is so much that is ‘wrong’ with the photograph, but there is something in it that reminds me of some great paintings: the affect-pattern of a Caravaggio, for example, or (I don’t know why) of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, though perhaps most of all of those strange anatomical illustrations by Casserius, made in Padua in the late sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, in which, say, a young woman stands before a landscape symbolised by a simplified fig-tree, displaying, with such painful paradox, her dissected belly, opened like a forced rose, in which a foetus ‘sleeps’. One knows that a young woman, drowned in the Bacchiglione – a suicide, very likely – was brought/bought in, to be dissected on a slab. One knows that Casserius’ depiction – as with this photograph – is also such a violation. One wonders at the invasion of privacy – for whatever else this photograph captures it captures a moment of private suffering. One wonders at the right to gaze. One wonders whether the castration that has caused this pain, this bleeding, is not also a symbolic castration – whether, in taking the photograph, one is not also somehow castrating this ram again.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Leaving aside the clear fact that much of the truth of our being is not beautiful, and that if one permits and follows only the beautiful one is only the more and more deeply culpable, I will nonetheless admit that Keats’ (in)famous dictum (from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) does have about it a measure of truth and usefulness. Without the constant reminder of the possibilities of calm and fairness and beauty, such striving as there is to hold up, to bring things closer to those points, would be all the weaker, and so there is a responsibility – for poets, artists, and so many others – to pursue beauty. But of course the dictum also has its horrid (horrored) counter-truth. Most poets and writers, to speak only of them, come to do what they do because they have at some point been deeply moved by the beauty and power of words (and, yes, by the pleasure and strangeness of them). And ages of rhetoric (and advertising, politics, journalism) have confirmed and explored the interrelation of that power and that beauty. A phrase, a statement, is the more powerful the more carefully and ‘beautifully’ it is shaped. A paradox. That the more truthful one wishes to be, and the more powerfully one wishes to express that truth, the more one has to call art, or artifice, to one’s aid. And at the extremities of the things we might wish to express – the horror of the Holocaust, let us say, or the enduring holocaust of the animals that Isaac Bashevis Singer called ‘eternal Treblinka’ – this paradox becomes particularly stark: we find ourselves seeking the aid of art, of ‘beauty’, in the very attempt to most powerfully condemn that horror. Numerous writers and philosophers have said that the Holocaust cannot be written. Could this by one of the reasons why? That the sheer horror of that which is to be written makes a dark travesty – only points out the paucity – of the arts brought to it; that at some point, like the north points of separate magnets, the stark truth and the artifice one calls upon in the attempt to express it will not meet? Looking at this photograph again I see something I had missed – or, rather, make a connection that I had not made before. The ram has his front left foot slightly raised, in a manner that lends the image an unexpected delicacy, even modesty, as if the ram has been caught by surprise, as if he were about to turn from the gaze. Is this foot, this hoof, raised because he is about to take a step? Or is it instead – that warning signal I have noticed so often (as when a sheep is approached by an unfamiliar dog) – that he is about to stamp: in effect to tell the photographer (the photographer, the viewer, the writer, the reader) to go away?

We talk, with unintended candour, of taking a photograph, as if something were being stolen. ‘Primitive’ peoples – construed as such by early anthropology – complained that something – their soul? – was being stolen when they were photographed. Have I done something like this to this ram? Certainly I have dragged him into signification. ‘Caught’, ‘frozen’ like this, with the blood, the ethical chiaroscuro, he is already a ram of sacrifice. Abraham hovers, knife in his hand. ‘Caught’, ‘frozen’ like this, he can be turned, as I am now doing, into words, fragmented, dismembered by them, each part – each sign – snatched up, carried off by the flow of discourse, the quidditas, the being of this ram overwhelmed, effaced, any claim that this is a photograph of him a troublesome, paradoxical lie.

How do we bring – anything – into words, without doing this? Is there any bringing-into-words that does not do this? Even titling this photograph is a problem. Is it ‘Just-Castrated Ram’? The ‘just’ seems duplicitous to me, and although everything in him is still ram, even six months later, in our strictest understanding of the word that – a ram – is what his is now not. Yet ‘Wether’, the received/accepted term for him, when the evidence of his castration – the bleeding – is still fresh before us, seems inappropriate, hasty, unless one be accorded a bitter irony. And ‘Photograph of a Late-Castrated Ram’, my initial choice, would merely if unintentionally normalise castration, if only by implying that there is a better time for it. Belonging as so many of them do to an age of cruelty and use, an age of refusing to see the animal, the words we use are tricky, sometimes explosive, and at the best of times awkward and obtuse. Perhaps, given the minefield it must inevitably be for us, the arrogance and shame and abuse it coats us in, the cruelty it re-presents to them, we should not write the animal at all.

And yet if we do not?

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