Even when we weren’t officially engaged in our work, we were still taking pictures. There wasn’t any election for you to observe, and my photos weren’t meant to illustrate anything that needed illustration. But we’d become full-time snappers, even away from democracy and rebuilding projects you supervised or my own weak efforts to pull together some new idea about the way cultures navigated between rejuvenation and extinction. We never worried there was nothing new to see, that we had picked the pocket of the world’s peoples till they held nothing but lint, and this trip was no exception: from the first, regarding the eggshell-over-concrete of the capitol building that on the inside looked more like a half-built clubhouse still filled with plywood lean-tos and rusted iron supports, we knew that we in the midst of something new; renovations were underway, the new was being pulled out of the old like plasma from a wino’s blood. You held the camera and took pictures as I narrated what we were seeing, trying again to put it into words that told the story without falsifying it.
The pictures we took our first weeks were ordinary enough, a record of our acclimatization alongside reminders that people really lived like this, in the midst of that. But two weeks in and the pictures changed, like a magical screen has been lifted from in front of the things in the picture, and the beauty, the essential strangeness of the scene takes over: no one has ever lived like this. There is something in each of these images: the way the woman at the farmer’s market reached forward with the buoyant root she wanted me to buy made her look like the wicked witch, and there in the corner of the frame, you’ve captured the wooden box she’s carried the root to market in, having packed them in the dirt they grew in to preserve them. On her hand curls the spidery inscription of a prison camp tattoo. In another photo is the white fairy tale castle whose black iron gate should have opened onto the Magic Kingdom but which was really the entrance to a graveyard full of partisan bodies in common graves, a political potters’ field. We asked everyone we knew for a week before someone knowledgeable enough would guide us through it. “It’s acknowledged,” our guide, a professor in mathematics explained in an English heavy with qualifications and evasions bred between math theorems and the need to survive his culture, “that things were done in a way that doesn’t cast such a positive light. The past presents difficulties to all peoples in our geography.” After the tour, he took us to a corner café and the three of us drank four swag-bellied bottles of the local wine to forget where we’d been.
One of my students invited us to follow him home to his village one weekend for a local festival celebrating the coming of spring. We followed him gladly, and filled memory cards with images documenting the visit: the mule drawn cart that took us from the central square where the minivan dropped us and my student off, the woman who held a bound sheaf of grain in a way that recalled my grandmother carrying a bag of groceries up the stairs to her apartment, the wash of colored pebbles along the curvilinear wall of the reactor’s smoke stack that showed happy miners and white coated scientist-technicians. “This used to be top-secret town,” my student confided to us when we all shared a joint. If you were to take a picture, you would’ve laughed at the banal symmetry: above us, the workers in the mural held out a green rock to the scientists in their lab coats, and below, my student Toran passed the joint to you. “But then, they realized there were no secrets worth keeping anymore. Everyone knew everything. And so, why all the secrecy?”
The night before the festival, we were guests at a dinner held in our honor. When the mayor shook our hands, he wore a suit nicer than most Wall Street brokers, and he was at some pains to show us how modern and up-to-date his way of doing business was, calling everything new “spiff.” The controls to his satellite dish were spiff, and so was his full range of automated appliances. (Later in our hotel room, you joked that he’d fallen for all the mod cons, but in his face, it was hard to question the sincerity with which he announced this renewal.) It was this lust for spiff objects, perhaps, that led to the confusion: you wanted to show him something on the camera, a picture you’d taken, perhaps, and of course the camera itself interested him. As you scrolled through the pictures looking for the one you meant to show him, he neatly took it out of your hands, another gift like the tabletop sized flag of unity I’d brought to give him. In the moment, there was no way to correct him because of what we lacked in the language, but we consoled ourselves later that surely my student could help us with the complicated negotiations. It wasn’t the camera, of course; to hold to objects so fiercely would make us the worst kind of people; it was the images on the chip that we wished to preserve, and the need to capture those we had yet to take.
The next morning the knock on the door of our hotel room to summon us to the festival caught me in the midst of some rosy dream of traveling to a remote tropical island. My student shepherded us down the stairs and onto a street corner in time to see the mayor ride through town on a decommissioned jeep. Even without our camera, we were familiar enough with the awkward mix of worldly power and militarism to frame its significance. Behind him followed a phalanx of elderly women, really old, the oldest in the village, and behind them, a troupe of vestal virgins swirled their wide skirts. An order of dogs, it felt like, just ordinary household pets out for a walk with their owners, but sensing they were the center of attention, each pulled its leash tight like an arrow that pointed at their pride. Even in the moment of joyful observation, I felt regret at not having our camera to preserve the images of what I was seeing.
Of course, we will never forget the float that followed, even without a photograph. Another farm truck with a polished chrome grill and mud-spattered cab, it dragged a flat bed trailer with its wooden sides taken down to create a moving stage. On that stage and facing backwards sat a stuffed middle aged couple, made of straw and dressed in wedding costumes: he wore a tuxedo, and she had a bridal gown filigreed with lace flowers and stuff. In a picture, your eye would catch on the straw poking from the groom’s sleeve, hanging from beneath the bride’s yellowed veil. If you weren’t me, you’d never notice the pocket square, the folded-down flag of unity I’d given to the mayor. I didn’t even notice till the parade had stopped before the reviewing stand that our camera hung around the bride’s neck. They were the straight from Fraser’s book on fertility rites, the bloodsuckers from the season past; they were us. This old couple, who elicited a fair share of laughter from the assembled crowd who waited in front of store fronts for the parade to pass, was followed by the new king and queen of the current season, two young people who covered the cobblestone street with flower petals and who showered candies on the parade goers.
The reviewing stand was really more like a corral, fenced on three sides and heaped with straw inside. When the new king and queen reached the end of the parade route, the young groom’s shoulder helped to lift the older couple up onto the carefully pitched straw. It was hard to tell around the plank in my eye, but I think maybe it was the new bride who actually held forth the ember that set the pyre ablaze and consigned the effigy of last year’s couple to posterity.
You started to cry; I saw the flame reflected in the tear at the lower edge of your eyelid, and then saw it leap like a spark to the watery smear that clouded my own vision. Why not cry? We are seeing proof that our own revival, so long promised, has been refused.
by Matthew Dube