Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between the Imaginary and the Real: Photographic Portraits of Mourning and of Melancholia in Argentina

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between the Imaginary and the Real: Photographic Portraits of Mourning and of Melancholia in Argentina

Article excerpt

During Argentina's 'Dirty War' (1976-83), the military regime attempted to erase an entire population; today the photographs of the dead / missing stand in defiance, contradicting that attempted erasure of the desaparecidos. In this essay, I explain the connection between photography and loss, and how photography fits within Lacan's understanding of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real, and the 'gaze'. I discuss complicated mourning (circumstances which inhibit / delay mourning) and the difficulties created by political disappearances: as long as the family members maintain the belief that their loved one(s) might still be alive, they cannot begin the process of mourning the permanently lost object. Beginning with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and, using the web-based art exhibits of Marcelo Brodsky and Inés Ulanovsky, I analyze the role of the photograph in Argentina, how it serves as a linking object, how it is used to symbolize the dead / missing, and how it can function to facilitate mourning, or to serve as proof of pathological melancholia. I argue that such artistic representations of loss function to reinscribe healthy mourning rituals within the Argentine society.

Keywords: photography, mourning, linking objects, Lacan, Brodsky, Ulanovsky, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Argentina, 'Dirty War', desaparecidos

The dead are always with us and the bereaved continue to bond with them; indeed the dead must be incorporated in some way if families, other groups and indeed entire societies are to have any sense of their past.

(Tony Walter, 1999)

The camera introduces us to unconscious optics

as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

(Walter Benjamin, 1968)

Photographs, as the only material traces of an irrecoverable past, derive their power and their important cultural role from their embeddedness in the fundamental rites of family life.

(Marianne Hirsch, 1997)

Photographs serve a variety of functions. During the 20th century, the role of the camera evolved from an intimidating apparatus with almost magical abilities (used exclusively by professionals) into an integral element of modern life. Families began documenting their lives - celebrations, vacations, ordinary moments - essentially creating a lasting visual narrative for generations to come. For some, the family photo album has effectively replaced the once treasured family heirlooms. When homes are destroyed by fire or flood, owners lament the loss of family photos - pictures of their weddings, their children, their own baby pictures, their ancestors - perhaps more than any other item lost. Photographs function to psychically link the living with the dead and, in unfortunate situations, they serve to identify persons who are missing or even dead.

In Argentina, the photograph of the dead / missing has an even more profound significance: it stands in defiance, contradicting the attempted erasure of the desaparecidos by the military government. In one sense, what Argentina has lost is both incomprehensible and ineffable; it sits squarely in the center of what Lacan calls the Real; however, because the government denounced the individual family losses, and later maintained not only indifference, but also impunity, those losses could never be fully recognized; hence, they could never be properly cathected and traditional mourning can never be fully attained. Subsequent generations continue to bear the psychic burden of that lack - that which is never enough. Photographic art exhibits such as 'Buena memoria' [Good Memory] (Marcelo Brodsky)1 and 'Fotos tuyas' [Your Photos] (Inés Ulanovsky)2 demonstrate the process of mourning and the psychic relationship between victims lost and those who remain. They provide a public space which recognizes loss and provides what Freud (1917) calls 'reality-testing' - an essential stage in the process of mourning loss, and attempt to reinstate the Symbolic order by reinscribing healthy mourning rituals within Argentine society. …

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