Lost in place.

Reflections on tragedy and photography with Fernando Brito’s landscapes

Jill Lane | New York University

Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails
of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!
He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner.
Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.
He alone had been spared.

—Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Every ending is the same: a man, or two, or three, lies dead in a landscape, alone. Each image is a dénouement: the close of a conflict, the end of a life. We do not meet the characters. We know nothing of the plot, we do not see the action. We do not witness the turn of fate that yields each violent ending. We do not know whether the man felt fear, release, or recognition as he faced his death. We do not know who tied back the hands, who held the gun, when or why the trigger was pulled. We do not know how that body came to lie exactly here. We only see the end: a young face against gravel, his thin arm, broken.

These images of violent death need not be an occasion, again, to ask whether, how, and why we should see the pain of others. Asking whether, how, and why we should see the pain of others when faced with images of brutality may be a way precisely to not see the pain of these others, replacing it instead with thinking about seeing the pain of any others, sometimes any others other than those dead before us.

You do not have to look. No moral obligation will be satisfied if you do. No ethical account settled. The body count in Mexico will not be altered if you look, or if you don’t. These images do not make the world easier to live in, for anyone. They suggest no path toward change, recovery, or healing. The body count will not change if you or I offer this interpretation, or that. Fernando Brito’s photographs make no such promise.

Brito’s landscapes do offer a space of rumination, a pause to be in the space of death, with these dead. Sontag writes, “To designate a hell is not […] to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames” (Sontag 2003: 114).

Brito’s is a catalogue of everyday death in Culiacán. It resists elevation into art or interpretation in its near-monotonous repetition of landscapes interrupted by corpses. Here a sloping mountain against a luminous sky, and a corpse. There a raw purple sunset over rippling waters, and a floating corpse. Here a cluster of brilliant green trees, a field of bending, ripe corn, and there under the brush, mired in mud, or splayed in dust, again a corpse. A stunning sunrise, and there a boy in dusty sandals who did not live to see it. Each body is one more person slain in a six-year narco-war that, unlike other wars, does not bomb and brutalize the landscape as it accumulates breathtaking casualties, now 47,515 and counting. These damaged landscapes allow us to see, all at once, the shock of violent and untimely death against the slower ecologies of nature; the indifference of the landscape to those that live and die (the sun stubbornly sets and rises); and the way that the landscape nonetheless offers the dead some kinder resting place than the social worlds that occasioned each death. There is a calm in these images that defies the crisis that has occasioned them.

The serial structure of the catalogue resists narrative structure: like the yellow police tape that runs the length of the horizon (see image), it has no beginning, and no end. That yellow band is a bitter motif, repeated here and again across the landscapes. It offers evidence that along with the photographer are the police: while the photographer registers the scandal of the unburied dead through the frame of the camera lens, the police re-frame the scene with the bands of police tape and evidence tags, marking out the space of death and crime from the larger landscape around it. Yet, through Brito’s lens, the tags and tape offer no safety from the crimes they ostensibly circumscribe, and offer no sanctuary or solace for the dead they enclose. Brito’s photographs allow us to imagine a steady stream of other such images going forward and backward 47,515 times: all the landscape of Mexico sliced by police tape; all the landscape of Mexico a scene of unburied dead.

We could, perhaps, consider each image—each dénouement—a synecdoche, dense and hard, of the tragedy for which it serves as final act. Tragedy, we know, deserves the name when “the events come on us by surprise” but “at the same time […] they follow as cause and effect.”1 The action that tragedy illuminates, then, will seem (like these images) at first unspeakably shocking, arbitrary, and blind. But it will in due poetic course reveal itself to be the relentlessly and painfully logical outcome of a long series of terrible events, choices, and other actions that preceded it. Tragedy, wrote Bert O. States, is for this reason the consummate art of catastrophe. Drama is, he says, in perhaps his finest phrase, “a poetic strategy for unconcealing the concealed future, and it is at once a lament and a consolation for this fact” (States 1994: 65). Herbert Blau said the same in 1957, on the occasion of staging Brecht’s Mother Courage, that woman who sacrificed all her sons for the profits of endless war: “Drama is the impulse of our suffering; the theater is its tongue and nerve, its muscular image, its vibrant but passing incarnation” (Blau 1957: 1). Drama can give body to the logics of death.

To see each image as a tragedy, in this finer sense, is to see each as the future of a complex past whose constituent parts finally converged here, in the now of the photograph. Consider the boy in the image, who lays next to a body wrapped in white canvas, at the edge of an empty road, arm across his face, his yellow boots alone giving some evidence of the particular person that he was. The life of that boy (brief candle!) is a line across a complex temporal terrain shaped by myriad interconnecting elements and intersecting paths of others that all converged here, with those yellow boots in the mud. The police convert the scene of death into a crime scene—a scene whose action is murder, and whose organizing question is who did it (the reign of actual impunity for such crimes notwithstanding.) A tragedy would pose an action of another order, and instead ask: how did it come to pass? The arrogance of kings (or Presidents or capos), the dulling weight of poverty, the corrupting greed of police, or judges—all of these have pushed time solidly out-of-joint. Tragedy would unfold such dislocated time to show just how the realm came to sacrifice tens of thousands of its young in bloody recompense for some mad gain. Macbeth will lament, All our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death! A cry will rise from Lear over the child whose murder he himself caused: Howl, howl, howl, howl! And his necessary grief and death might indeed move us so, that we would use our eyes and tongues to make heaven’s vault finally crack—or this, at least, is what we would desire.2 Sontag: “People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of narrative, does not wear out” (Sontag, 2003: 83). It is not that these 47,515 deaths are a tragedy: it’s that we—I—long for a tragic structure through which to know them.

Photography, unlike drama, has no such strategy, passing other otherwise, to unfold the catastrophic constellation of the past-present-future that it captures. It always appears, as Benjamin would have it, as a flash: simultaneous blindness and illumination. We know that all photography traffics in death: the photograph becomes itself as it separates from the very present it captures, as that present recedes, creating a fissure between the life of the photographed then, and the now of the photographic object. All photography, we might say with Eduardo Cadava, balances this relation of blindness and illumination: “the conjunction of death and the photographed is in fact the very principle of photographic certitude: the photograph is a grave for the living dead” (Cadava 1977: 10). When the present captured by camera is death itself, as in these images, they become (per Barthes) horrible: horrible because the phenomenology of the photograph will “certify that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is a living image of a dead thing” (Barthes 1981: 78–79). Fernando Brito’s photographs do not memorialize; they do not let us remember the dead alive. They give us the dead in the space of death.

Photography, Barthes tell us, offers a punctum that awakens or allows access to “a kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched a desire beyond what it permits us to see” (Barthes 1981: 59). That boy’s yellow boots are, for me, the punctum that opens his life as that “blind field” I begin to (or want to) discern: yesterday, he picked out his yellow boots, not knowing he would die in them. Was it to impress a girl? To intimidate a rival? Had he saved money to buy them? What did he like about them? The boots outlived him; there in the mud they spill all desire he invested in them. Visually, that detail forces an arrest within the photograph: a contrapuntal stop and go between the yellow boots and the yellow police tape, triangulated with the yellow rope used to tie the body next to him: each speaks of a line of action that converge, fatally, here. The violence that produced the scene remains, as in Greek tragedy, off stage—beyond the proscenium/camera frame, ob skene, literally on the other side of the skene which (perhaps like the punctum) suggests a blind field of action we cannot otherwise see. In tragedy, eventually the skene will open to reveal the otherwise un-represented deaths of queens and kings. In the photograph only that contrapuntal depth in the image traces the obscenity of the violence that produced it.

Benjamin insists on the possibility for urgent and meaningful recognition of our violent present through the interpretative practice of the historical materialist: “Truth is not a process of exposure that destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it” (Benjamin 1977: 31). Revealing truth, like the now-antiquated process of developing a negative (in Spanish, exactly, revelar), is an art of slowly pulling the image into recognition. Writes Benjamin: “Every present is determined by those images that are synchronic with it: every now is the now of a specific recognizability. In it, truth is loaded to the bursting point with time” (qtd. in Cadava 1997: 64). Those bursting images are “dialectical,” because through them “the Then and Now come together, in a flash of lightning, into a constellation” (Benjamin 1999: 426). This process of recognition does not engage the linear unfolding of tragedy, and may not offer the redemption of the Act V body count; it is, instead, a re-cognition of the now as now, a historically produced now, that sits in relation to other possible pasts and futures—perhaps redemptive, perhaps less costly—that otherwise threaten to vanish. Such images capture a constellation of tensions of such extreme density that “thinking stops” and “crystalizes” into a monad (Benjamin 1968: 262–63); our resulting shock of recognition allows a fleeting but decisive glimpse outside the relentlessly rushing realities that produce such an endless stream of death.

I am not certain that Fernando Brito’s images teach us how to reveal a truth that could do any justice to the serial death they portray. For me, they pose Benjamin’s imperative, but soberly, without any expectation of being met: look and (try to) recognize what is before you. But can we? Like Ulrich Baer’s study of Holocaust landscapes, in Brito’s photographs “we are forced to enter a site that failed to accommodate human experience in the past and that will not allow itself, as a photographic site, to be completely filled in by the present viewer’s imagination” (Baer 2002: 65). We can perhaps only shuttle between landscape and corpse, across the visual anchors that bring them into relation, as evidence, as allegory. We might do well, then to stop seeing the landscape as the terrain (the stage) on and against which these lives met their end, and instead think of landscape—as a modality of looking at place—as a register of those brutal acts that cannot be properly placed—cannot be located or put in any proper place, ethically, politically.

Ken Gonzales-Day, like the photographers Reinartz and Levin whom Baer studies, has sought out the now “empty” landscapes that once were the site of brutal death, searching for and photographing “hang trees,” those semi-natural scaffolds for the deaths of hundreds of men and boys, many brown and Latino, on the northern side of the border in California (2006). He arrives, like Brito, after the fact, but now decades after: after the body was removed, after the police or others have pulled down the police tape, after traces of blood or skin or desire were fully drained and absorbed by the surrounding landscape, through wind and rain and gravity. Like the dead of today’s narco-war, the deaths that he remembers were vigilante assassinations that operated both outside and with the tacit sanction of official Law. The boys that died this way were imagined by the Law, then and now, to be in some way already marked for death, inherently given to criminality and thus punishment. The search for lynching trees yields photographs of a terrible beauty like that in Brito’s landscapes: majestic trees whose branches are, achingly, even more mature and even stronger than they were when the killers hung that rope across them. They were unwitting partner and witness to deaths we try to fathom.

In such landscapes what is out-of-joint is not just the world that the images describe, but also our relation to it. Landscape is a mode of losing oneself in place. Our loss is not what matters: it is whether and what we recover.


Jill Lane has been co-editor of e-misférica (with Marcial Godoy) since 2008.


1 Artistotle writes in the Poetics: “But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality”; and again: “Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.”

2 Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, scene v:
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, scene iii:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!

Works cited

Aristotle, Poetics.

Baer, Ulrich. 2002. Spectral evidence: the photography of trauma. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Beckett, Samuel, and Samuel Beckett. 1958. Endgame, a play in one act, followed by Act without words, a mime for one player. New York: Grove Press.

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Benjamin, Walter. 1977. The origin of German tragic drama. London: NLB.

Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. 1999. The arcades project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

Blau, Herbert. 1957. "Brecht's "Mother Courage": The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic". Educational Theatre Journal. 9 (1): 1–10.

Cadava, Eduardo. 1997. Words of light: theses on the photography of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Gonzales-Day, Ken, and Rita González. 2006. Hang trees. Claremont, CA: Pomona College Museum of Art.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

States, Bert O. 1994. The pleasure of the play. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.