Photography is particularly ill equipped to visualize the ineffable or to address what can't be easily expressed in words. Bound to its indexical nature, photographs are frustratingly tethered to their subject matter. Yet this limitation and challenge makes photography a particularly rich medium. The tension between the actual and suggested meanings of an image is often key to its power. Because of its frequently obtuse nature, photographers often lazily use keywords like 'memory' and 'trauma' to impart significance to images and work that is not resolved. However, in skilled hands, a photograph can deal with these subjects. Teresa Eng's Speaking of Scars attempts to address a personal trauma and its lingering presence within her memory. Through inventive design and subtly suggestive images, Eng's book avoids these pitfalls and, by leading us through her therapeutic process, achieves a beauty and power all its own.
The book's design is especially interesting and crucial to its success. Eng makes use of folded pages, translucent overlays and overlapping pictures. Images unfold, pile up and fold back onto themselves. Stacked on top of one another they suggest that each image is built upon and dependent on others. Even in their cumulative powers images can't answer or explain. Left with mysterious piles, folds and overlays, the images remain silent in the face of a trauma they are incapable of expressing. Unlike a lot of clever design whose bells and whistles do little to enhance the work, the multiple strategies used within the book are essential to its meaning. One must engage the images to decipher their meaning. We are active participants. Like Eng herself, we puzzle and infer meaning from the images. The book contains little text beyond a J.M. Coetzee quote in the beginning and a short personal statement at the end that reveals the full story behind the work. It is worth leaving that unsaid as it adds to the power of the book.
Most of the images seem to take place in a hospital or place of convalescence – hospital rooms overlook the sea, coastal mountains sit in the distance and fruit or flowers sit on the windowsill. However, all is not peaceful. Images of calming hope are mixed with images of enigmatic frustration and silent rage. In one image, a blunt post or furniture leg pushes obdurately against a stretched and resistant vinyl floor. The few people who do appear reveal bruises or turn away from the camera, their faces and bodies obscured in shadows. Through her careful editing, images gain powerful and menacing resonance through their associative sequencing and pairs. An innocuous ripe cantaloupe echoes an image of bruised flesh and mirrors back terrifying possibilities and associations. A small bunny statue sits in a corner and appears to be retreating from the world and difficult memories. Blinds and curtains obscure the outside world or part to reveal the light and sea. Darkness and light wax and wane like moments of hope and despair. In another image, a silk wrapped fragment of furniture is more suggestive of what it is hiding than its pink pretty surface.
The therapeutic value of art, for both the maker and viewer, is fairly obvious. What is less frequently revealed is the therapeutic process for the artist. In Speaking of Scars, we are drawn closely into Eng's own therapeutic process. Refracted through her trauma and difficult memories, the work takes us along with her slow recovery. Forced to make connections and see the subtle relationships through Eng's eyes, we see that however powerful images may be in revealing the world around us, they can also suggest deeper, unspoken and evolving meanings. As viewers, like the artist, it requires work to make these connections, but the rewards can be great, cathartic and beautiful.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.