Tuesday, November 30, 2004

“WORD OF KNOWLEDGE” – A Southern Religious Experience

The Exhibition "Stealing Dead Souls" Appeared at the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, Maryland, in January and February of 2005.

DEFINITION - The spiritual gift of the WORD OF KNOWLEDGE is the bestowal of certain facts from the mind of God which He sees fit to reveal to one of His servants supernaturally by His Spirit. It is only a word, or a portion of God's endless storehouse of knowledge.

METHODS - God speaks in diverse manners, such as dreams, visions, revelation, or sometimes even in an audible voice. It is always conveyed supernaturally as is any other spiritual gift.

ABILITIES - This gift can tell the whereabouts, conditions, nature, or thoughts of a person, animal, place, or thing even when it is impossible to learn it in the natural.

PURPOSES - It helps one to look into the heart, mind, or nature of a man and to know his secrets and intentions. It has helped find lost articles, as in II Kings Chapter VI, but its main purpose is to help find lost souls as in the book of Acts.

“Rough Edge Photography” – The Morality of an Immoral Photographer – A Word of Knowledge from God Almighty on the Nature of Sinners and Saints in the World of Art

Let me start, in the typical Mississippi way, with a story: My mother’s oldest brother, and one of my favorite uncles who died just a few years ago, was a wild cat Mississippian named Jesse Coleman Woods. My grandfather named his son after Jesse James, of the Jesse and Frank James gang, and Coleman Younger, of the Younger Brothers gang.

The James and Younger gangs were notorious former Confederate soldier hell-raisers who entered into the pantheon of celebrated American Wild West icons; and Southerners especially have long had a deep respect for their courage and convictions for having gone up against the legal and military powers that existed during their day.

My uncle Jesse Coleman was the embodiment of a Southern hell-raiser himself and took his inspired namesakes to heart: He was also a very decent and honorable man who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, but who also didn’t take any shit off nobody over nothing!

I remember when I was in my early 20’s I had a conversation with my Uncle about possibly getting a tattoo. I was in college and tribal tattoo art was really just beginning to assert itself in the popular culture down South in a way that I found fascinating.

I will never forget the advice of my seasoned Uncle: “Son, what ever the hell you do, don’t be stupid and ever get a damn tattoo that can’t be covered up in case you find yourself standing in front of a goddamn judge!”

I’ll confess that I never did get that tattoo I wanted. I’ll also confess that I’ve long lived with an uncomfortable level of fear regarding any type of physical or mental alteration of my body or mind by process of some external mechanical, artificial or medicinal application - that is, I'm scared to death of illegal drugs and even more scared of legal therapists!

On the other hand, I’ve also long been fascinated by people who subject their bodies to such artful alterations - physical, that is, not mental!

Yes, I’ll admit that I’m that fabled heterosexual male sans tattoos who finds women with tattoos incredibly exotic. Go figure…

Photography – Stealing the Life Essence of the Photographed Moment

FROM THE WEB SITE OF EDWARD CURTIS: DIALOGUE -

In my early days of research for COMING TO LIGHT, I had read that Indian people did not like photography, that they believed that the camera captured a part of them, stealing their souls. I traveled to reservations all over the West to see what people really thought about Curtis' photographs. To my surprise, I saw family pictures covering the walls of every Indian home, and parents and kids shooting each other with video cameras. Clearly, if Indian people had once believed that the camera captured their souls, they had gotten over that. But then, was it different because they themselves were photographing each other? Were negative feelings towards photography that I had read really about the invasion of white photographers coming into their community and taking something that didn't belong to them?

At the turn of the century, it was all too common for photographers to go to reservations, photograph people, then use the images for their own purposes, never sending them back to their Indian subjects. When I showed an elderly Hopi woman a Curtis photograph of herself as a young girl, she pulled out a postcard a friend had sent her of the same image. She had never seen the picture before the postcard arrived, some forty years after it had been taken. Had Curtis stolen something from her by taking her picture and never sending her a print? Or had he preserved a piece of her past in the image that, when she received it in stunned surprise from a friend years later, she treasured to the end of her life?

What I found on Indian reservations was a tremendous variety of responses to Curtis' photographs. Most people loved seeing pictures of their ancestors. It was interesting that, when telling stories about them, they nearly always talked about their departed ancestors in the present tense as if they were still here, and referred to them as relatives, not ancestors. Some people did say that their grandparents had feared the camera, believing that a part of them remained in the photograph. When these pictures did come back to families and to the reservations where they were taken, through the efforts of tribal cultural preservation offices or of researchers, they have usually been welcomed as though the ancestors were coming home. However, in my travels, I found that some Indian people did not welcome them. One Blood Indian man threatened to confiscate the Curtis pictures I showed him, saying they should never have been taken, that the people in them should be allowed to go on into the other world, and that their souls should not be held captive in photographs.

-- Anne Makepeace

I hold a religious belief, probably inherited from my paternal Mississippi grandmother, who was 1/4 Choctaw Indian, and who was extremely distrustful of photography, that photography, more than any other art form, has the ability to capture a living element of life, a flashpoint of the soul if you will.

Of course, most recognize that the process of photographing a moment in time captures something in a fixated way that would normally be lost to history. I also believe that photographic images capture an aspect of that lived moment, a reflection of reality if you will, and that the photograph literally captures an element of the life force that presented itself in that moment that was captured.

When this living element is captured, it has the capability of re-generating itself in much the same way that certain life forms can lose a limb and regenerate it.

Photographs, in my opinion, literally steal a portion of life and can regenerate an aspect of that stolen fragment of life through the presented photograph itself.

The process of stealing an element of life through a photograph does cause, in my spiritual opinion, a degree of damage in the life force photographed. The life force may not know it, in the case of surreptitious street photographs made of people who are unaware they are being photographed, or the life force may fully consent to it in an emotionally suicidal way, such as may be the case with an under-age homeless drug-addicted girl who might “consent” to being illegally photographed as part of a child pornography publication in order to earn some money to feed her habit.

Let me be clear in what I saying: I spiritually believe that the photograph of the homeless person and the abused child taken with or without their consent captures a particle of their living essence. The photographs taken of them steal an element of their souls. The theft of the pieces of their souls harm them to a degree.

When such photographic images are taken, the only thing the photographer can do to make the universe right with what he or she has done is to place the photograph, which I believe to be a living organism, into a context of positive growth.

The great photographers, whether they know it or not, are photographers who have taken stolen elements of life and have placed those living substances into a context where the photographically captured life force has been encouraged toward positive growth.

Do I have any scientific proof for any of my beliefs? No I don’t...and neither did my grandmother or any Native Americans on that reservation visited by Ms. Makepeace. It is a religious belief.

“Rough Edge Photography” - Burnversions of Stolen Photographic Life

As I mentioned above, I am a person who is scared at a very fundamental level about altering my body or mind through almost any artificial process.

I’m also reluctant to want to be photographed.

I recognize that my soul has a finite charge and understand from a spiritual angle that every time I’m photographed I myself lose a certain element of that charge - naturally, I don’t want to loss my soul any faster than necessary!

Because of my spiritual beliefs about the power of film-based photography, I believe that photographers have a moral obligation to be as respectful as possible with the particles of life they take and create and recreate through the photographic process.

Some photographers exercise a moral sensibility better than others; some do not even recognize such a responsibility and will photograph anything and anyone in any condition for a nickel’s worth of profit.

One of the many reasons that I began to experiment with burning my photographs is because I am very interested in the principles of scarification and the application of violent distress toward re-imaging an image.

In his review of my “The Death of Film” exhibition, Mr. J.T. Kirkland (D C Art blogger, Thinking About Art) rightly noted that my images seem to have a snap-shot sensibility. I pointed out in my response to his review that this was intentional because I consciously chose to use abandoned point-and-shoot automatic 35mm cameras that I purchased in thrift stores.

This choice in cameras is important to me because I believe that the snap-shot aesthetic impacts the soul of the object or person photographed less so than the manipulated, forced, arranged and conscious act of photographing an object or person with a high-art aesthetic sensibility using high-art camera equipment.

For me, at least, there is a more honest and consensual element of conviction between the camera and the subject using point-and-shoot cameras because there are no false assumptions between the photographer and the subject - by virtue of the process, the soul of the object being photographed objects less.

There is a fundamental concept for my use of these found cameras that suggests to me the safety and morality of using such equipment for the purposes of obtaining images that will be subjected to intense mistreatment, including burning, scarring, tearing, etc.

I believe that the life force captured through my found cameras create a life substance in the fixed image. The subjection of the fixed image through the burning and scarification process places that life force into matrix of confusion that facilitates its painless separation from the host image of the subjected photographed. Once it is separated, the “Rough Edge Photography” image takes on its own unique identity that can never be re-associated with the source of its conception.

This is an important moral point for me. I don’t want confused souls drifting around in the universe angry at me for what I have done.

Some photographers, as I said, don’t give a damn: paparazzi, for example, who photographed Princess Diana while she lay dying in the car in Paris, or Sally Mann photographing dead bodies without their permission from her on the grounds of a forensic research facility, or Andres Serrano photographing corpses without their permission from him.

These are evil acts perpetrated by reckless and immoral photographers who are more concerned about associating their name with their work and their work with fame and fortune than they are about the moral issues of life and death and the right of the living, as well as the dead, to consent to acts that portray them in art.

This is an important point to understand with my work: Having lived in New Orleans for most of my adult life, I do believe in the life of the dead. The dead do live and have feelings, emotions, experience pain, recall memories and have the capability to consent.

I also understand how difficult this might be for photographers like the paparazzi or Sally Mann or Andres Serrano or thousands of others to grasp.

As I have said, I believe that my photographs become living entities. Hopefully, if I have been true unto my vision and respectful unto my subject, my “Rough Edge Photography” method results in the creation of a life form that is conscious of itself as being unique.

It is also my desire that the original subject of the photograph not be conscious to any serious degree about the loss they have suffered by me taking the source photograph of them.

One of the things I do to encourage my photographs to live and breathe is that I do not fix them in the frame with a photographic fixing agent. I have had many people look at my photographs and comment on the fact that particles of dust and ash, as well as flecks of burned negatives and the print, can be seen having fallen off the image to the recess of the image at the bottom of the mat inside the glass frame.

“Why don’t you fix that image better?” I’ve been asked. The answer is really very simple for me: I want my images to live, breath and die. Isn’t that part of natural life?

I have never understood the obsession with treating art with a photographic fixing agent for the purpose of preserving it in an archival fashion for millions of future generations to view. I think this proceeds from a very dominant and controlling mind-set that suggests that art is an object.

I don’t want my photographs to be objects; indeed, I say “my” photographs with great reluctance because I really believe that are living entities that have the right to exist unto themselves and live and breathe and die without being under my, or anybody else’s, control.

The burning and scarring of my images provides a moral platform for me to reposition my photographed imagery unto a new image.

A burned body, a burned house and a burned church, for example, all have natural characteristics that are interesting. How they become burned, hoever, may be a question of nature, a lightening storm, or a matter of a crime, the Klu Klux Klan burning down a black church in Mississippi.

Photographing such burned objects without their permission or consent is a moral crime, in my opinion, no matter how they have sustained their burns.

However, photographing entities in a respectful frame of mind, in the beauty of their true consent, and burning those images, allows for an artistic examination of the repositioned image from a moral point of view.

I guess my uncomplicated point is this: I might choose to have my body tattooed. I would never force my 4 year old son to have his body tattooed.

A step further: as a responsible father I would not allow him to do so until he reaches an age where I think he can chose to do so without my permission. What is that age? I don’t know and I admit that.

Again, let me be very clear in what I’m saying: Burning a living human being and photographing the burning and the charred and burned body is both a human rights crime and an art crime and, thus, is illegal and immoral. Not participating in the burning of the human being, but photographing the charred and burned body without the consent of the dead, is an art crime and, thus, possibly illegal and clearly immoral. Photographing the burned and charred body with the permission of the dead is the moral act of an immoral photographer and may very well be in some cases a necessary evil.

World War II era photographs of Holocaust victims would be a perfect example of this point: I believe the living souls of Jews killed by the Nazis consented to their images being photographed, by both the Nazis and the liberating Allied Forces, to serve as a perpetual reminder of the levels of depravity to which human beings can sink when choosing to follow a crazed leader or a vicious government or a shallow religion or a hollow political philosophy. Elements of the life force of millions are among us reminding us of the evil we humans are capable off because particles of their souls were stolen through photographs.

My burned church photographs discussed on Mr. Kirkland’s site in his word project, OBLIGATION, are a perfect example of what I’m talking about concerning the repositioning of imagery through burning and scarring.

Burned churches, especially in my home state of Mississippi, are a very emotionally charged subject (and seriously no pun intended). Say the word burned churches and the first thing that will pop into most people’s minds are racism, evilness and brutal and sadistic behavior motivated by the worst in people.

But there are also legitimate cases of churches burning because of faulty electrical wiring, electrical storms, reckless behavior because the night janitor forgot to extinguish his cigarette before leaving the church.My father was a fireman in Mississippi who dealt with such cases.

The trauma of a fire, no matter what the circumstances, immediately repositions the image of the entity in question to something that is more difficult to value and appreciate. In the case of burned churches, the emotional impact, especially upon the constituents of the church in question, is devastating.

But as devastating as the imagery of a burned, scarred and torn entity may be, it also has a qualitative beauty to it. The violent subjection of body and material to burning, scarring and tearing, creates a repositioned image that begs a host of questions about many fundamental concepts of conventional beauty.

Although I have never been tattooed, I see many parallels to my work with photography and the implications of altering one’s body with tattoos.

I am seeking through my “Rough Edge Photography” to discover more questions to ask about the nature of beauty and the beauty of the human body.

I am also seeking to create moral images that do not disturb the souls of others anymore than is necessary. I hope that I am successful with this action.

If I’m not, I know that I will hear about it from a host of dispossessed souls.

God Bless All Who Read This,

James W. Bailey
Experimental Mississippi Photographer

1 Comments:

Anonymous mary said...

A few things before I get to the meat:

Your description of an "underage homeless drug addicted girl who [sic] 'consent[s]' to being illegally photographed" makes my stomach churn. Surely, there are other instances of consentual photography that don't merely come from a victimized drug-addled 'innocent' girl. Consentual pornographic photography happens ALL the time. It is not just victimization.

Now, here's my real question: if taking a photograph actually steals someone's soul, then doesn't burning that photograph burn that same part of the soul? If you stole someone's cat and then burned it... you'd have not only a stolen but now burned and charred cat. How is burning it releasing it? How can we remedy the theft without causing harm to the piece of soul?

You mention a "context of positive growth". Would a family album be such a context? What about a collection of photographs in a glossy coffee table book? What about photographs of photographs?

It looks like you haven't posted in sometime, I just wanted to feedback since I found your essay engaging.

11:51 AM  

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