Half a year ago, on free Tuesday, I went to the Museum Of Photographic Arts. Of course the photographs were stellar. They had to be: Pictures of the Year, International. So they meant something too. A lot of them told heartfelt tales of suffering and struggle. Some were surprising in their compositions (a series taken from a freeway overpass of the back of pickup trucks driving below that held resting migrant workers). Some were typical (battered shoes alone an empty road, the weathered face of a nameless old woman). Very few were unexpected or jolting. It’s like my friend James said once: “photographers today don’t take real pictures; they take pictures of what they think pictures should look like.”
Then, from across the gallery, I saw the photo below. It hung as the sole piece on a small wall completely out of conversation with the other pieces. It was like that person at a party who is immersed in the crowd yet utterly alone. So hauntingly beautiful.
I am fascinated by body modification. Unlike Kant, I find tattoos and scarification on the human frame to be incredibly beautiful. And sometimes if I am tipsy, I’ll argue even a bit sublime.
I threaded through the museum crowd to read the title and story plate that hung just to the right: “Scarred for Life” by Yannis Behrakis.
One dark night, this man was attacked by other men for being black. With knives, the attackers plunged deep into muscle and rent those long lines down his back like a plow furrows a field. Sowing a crop that this man reaps forever.
The cuts must have been so painful and deep to have formed such ridged keloids. Can you feel it? The knife hitting bone, stopping for a second then skittering on? The pink tissue swelling open like battered lips? The hot blood turning cold and sticky?
The scars read like the lines in a palm; but instead of telling a future (here is your life line, here is your money line, here is your love line), they tell a past of hate hate hate hate.
In a discordant moment, my joy in beauty met and embraced the horrible knowledge of the hate and violence that this man has to carry on his body for the rest of his life. In that terrible moment, I felt nauseous. Not how people use it now but actually what it means: I was a thing of revulsion, capable of inspiring nausea in those who would gaze on me.
There is nothing beautiful about this photo at all. Except there is. Through the accident of how the scars snake over this man’s rich skin. Through the way the photographer composed the shot. Beauty embraces horror. That is the hard truth which wounds my heart. I felt complicit. I felt I was involved in harming this man. My gaze was as wounding as any knife.
I still feel that way.