1865 photograph of Lewis Powell who stabbed US Secretary of State William Seward repeatedly in an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Powell was executed along with three other Lincoln assassination conspirators.


by Mishana Hosseinioun

There appears to be a force almost magnetic and primordial in kind which draws us to photographs of men awaiting their execution. We look into these images alike fortune-tellers gazing into a crystal ball, only to gain futile reaffirmation, time and time again, of the one and only certain fate we will ever know—our impending death. For, as Roland Barthes would concur, in the image of these damned individuals we find a tangible and familiar, mirror-reflection of our proper finitude[i]—the kind of recognition that can only come from having looked death in the eye before, presumably, if not from having lived death in the a-temporal expanse of our fears and darkest moments.

Nevertheless, such images—though morbidly prophetic and evocative of their subjects’ imminent demise—seem to manage to simultaneously escape the flow of time, in the ultimate act of redemption against mortality. In many ways, the click of the camera responsible for capturing (or liberating) these images, amounts to that which in Benjaminian terms would be considered the revolutionary application of emergency breaks[ii] against the passage of historical time, allowing us to stop and chat with life on its untimely journey toward death, as it were, or “to climb into its skin and walk around in it,”[iii] in the famed words of Atticus Finch; in so doing, we might just be better able to come to grips with its fleeting reality and universal beauty, and perhaps even acknowledge it as the singular fragile skin that truly binds together all of humanity.

In that spirit, let us look closely at the subsequent trio of snapshots to dissect the common skin of light or shadows, shall we say, shared by each, and also with all others that have ever been photographed[iv]: the first, a photograph of former death row inmate Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, the second, that of A Thief Being Buried Alive taken by Antoin Sevruguin, and finally, the image of ourselves—our self-image. Along the way, let us pause to weep for these men, as we would, essentially, at our own wake, for soon we will learn that these three images are possibly one and the same.

Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, 12th of December (give or take a day) 2005:

On and around the eve of Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams’ execution in San Quentin, California, one cannot help but feel the tug of the looming punctum[v]—the assurance of the former Crips gang co-founder’s lethal injection behind prison walls—pinned in stark contrast against the studium[vi]—the sea of protestors ‘braking’ and barking in solidarity at the penitentiary gates. In the flurry of hours either before or after the execution (here, time loses its foothold, really), this vigil seems to prematurely mourn the death row inmate’s passing as much as it posthumously wills him to live. The result is a striking tableau vivant[vii] of history brought to a standstill[viii].

“Tookie lives on. Tookie lives on!”

Aided by their elaborate cardboard appendages, some protestors are decidedly showier and more manifest this year than they probably were at their last anti-death penalty stand-in, determined, in their view, to shake things up differently this time around. Others keep to themselves in silent, close-eyed meditation—a pose that likely sustains them as much through their daily yoga practice as it does now, and that, coincidentally, has been statistically shown to reduce violence when practiced en masse[ix]. Helicopters intermittently circle the premises not unlike vultures sniffing out soon-to-be cadavers, the blaring sound of their gyrating mono-wings ventriloquising the gesticulating jaws below. Stray TV news reporters attempt to fit in but must certainly find it difficult, encased as they are in their blinding cadres of light, and trying hard not to look like they might have been conveniently teleported onto the site by their satellite bureaus; even then, their stiff, flaxen coifs are enough to give them away, sprayed across an otherwise somber backdrop as though splotches of yellow paint from a Richterian landscape.

When witnessed in concerto, are these different proto-images not one dynamically still meta-image, swaying from side to side, taking us backward and forward and no where at all, at the same time—a frame dipping in and out of the filmic continuum of executions, peace rallies, and sound-bites of yesteryear and the morrow? Seen in their all-at-once-ness, these different components can practically be read like volumes off the ever-shifting shelves of a Warburg library,[x] their meaning, a function of the transient constellation which they together comprise—their fate, a matter ‘written in the stars,’ metaphorically speaking.

What is bound to come of this slowly tapering pictorial constellation of protesters deserting their posts, leaving behind the occasional limp banner and prayer candles at the end of their wicks, is the impulse to reconstitute the aforementioned complex set of interrelated events as a crystallized monad or a mental snapshot for posterity to subsequently redress[xi]. In the case of Tookie’s execution, the latter attempt is facilitated by the availability of the following conclusive data: 12:35 am PST.  Such is the officially proclaimed hour of Brother Stan’s death—a once irrelevant set of digits, suddenly affixed with historical import and seared into the mind’s eye as a monogram[xii] image of a clock’s arms cocked to signal that precise hour and minute—an extension of some sort, of Tookie’s cocked neck, cocked life, and above all, of a memory image that allows us to straddle forevermore the line between his life and death, never being faced with the minute before or after, yet all the while, bravely staring at death, dead-on, for what seems like an eternity. After all, the toxic juice that contracts Tookie’s muscles for good is also that which is quite likely “strong enough to contract the whole of historical time”[xiii] in the same shot, and arrest along with it, the hands of time.

Antoin Sevruguin, A Thief Being Buried Alive (ca.1890-1900)[xiv]:

In one way or another, Antoin Sevruguin’s photograph of A Thief Being Buried Alive produced in Iran ca. 1890-1900 is also arguably a photograph of Stanley Williams, particularly the one taken of Williams from within the confines of his prison quarters and popularly reproduced in the papers—yet another universally reoccurring stock image of ‘the doomed man,’ unleashed anew onto its conveyor belt of becoming (or unbecoming, is it not?). Once viewed side by side, the two bald and bearded men even begin to look alike, both staring glassy-eyed, as though beyond a perceptible visual field, into the blind field[xv] of the hereafter—the grayness[xvi] of their communal predicament acting as the only factor robust enough to neutralize the one’s blackness and the other’s whiteness.

These images which are unmistakably caught in a dialectical embrace with one another, and which by their mere juxtaposition, have the potential to (a)mend the (w)hole of their mutual history, could provide ideal testimony to Godard’s contention that the past is not gone, it has not even passed yet; for, plainly and simply, upon facing one another, the two photographs seem to echo the same narrative of a seemingly open ended and recurring past—that of man’s recurring ‘passing,’ if you will. Similarly, it is as Christian Metz puts it, a past presence[xvii], which refers to the unique ability of photography to concomitantly reside in the dual temporality of the past and the present while conferring upon the objects it represents, both an unmistakable imagistic presence as well as a marker of having well been a thing of the past. Photographs of individuals, pre-execution, conceivably contain the utmost degree of past presence given the heightened drama and near collision of their respective punctum and studium, that is to say their equidistance from both life and death.

This particular Sevruguin photograph is precisely as its title suggests—a contradiction in terms. If the paradoxical notion of being buried alive does not entirely evade us, at least it has the capacity to arrest us, stop us in our tracks, until we can vainly try to wrap our minds around it. As spectators bearing witness to the photo of a nameless, typecast individual—a Thief—up to his neck in what looks to be his own grave, we are stepping onto a sort of photographic quicksand in our own right, no longer traveling horizontally along a chronological axis, but descending downward, into the depths of an aesthetic underworld, so to speak; such a picture which carries within it the dual potentiality of death and life, just as the individual terms, buried and alive imply, respectively, also predictably holds a promise of magic and mystification for the viewer, hence its genius.

There is more to Antoin Sevruguin’s talent, however, than meets the eye. Sevruguin, who photographed Iran between 1870 and 1930, was perhaps best know for his photo-portraits of Royalty and romanticized depictions of courtly life at that time—the genre of photography that would become his passport to fame and that would keep his doting patrons contented. Nonetheless, he would quietly pursue his own, independent, historical materialist agenda on the side, or on all sides, to be exact. In other words, beyond merely catering to the ‘Orientalist’ fantasy of the commercial market,[xviii] he fulfilled his promise to himself of capturing Iran from all of its angles[xix], even if it meant exposing a scene of barbarism for every instance of victory[xx]; his portrayal of A Thief Being Buried Alive, is just one case in point.

The Self-Image and Crying at Your Own Funeral:

Dubbed a mummy-complex by André Bazin, the need to preserve history meticulously, such as by attempting to document it from every vantage point à la Sevruguin, can be understood more generally as the common preoccupation of mortals with the conservation of life, and by extension, the desire to hold sway over our destiny; “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it […] for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption […],”[xxi] Bazin specifies. This assertion suggests that the chief faculty of photography, unlike other media, is one of salvaging an actual piece of life from the G-force of the ephemeral three-dimensional world. In this way, he claims that the image effectively takes on the life of the object being photographed, albeit in a mummified form—a life released from the downward spiral of time, yet snatched by the shutter all the same. The question thus remains as to whether an object photographically mummified is at all free if it leaves the shackles of time and space only to be embalmed, in turn, by the camera. What new device, one might ask, will then rescue it from its pictorial sarcophagus?

It becomes evident in light of Bazin’s unforeseen double bind, that the task of faithfully documenting history, or capturing life in all its minutiae, remains an ambitious and fundamentally impossible undertaking for any photographer. Even so, the very challenge of the endeavor is also what gives distinctive value to those photographs capable of taking us to the ledge of death and back in one piece, namely images of individuals who look to be on the brink of death themselves yet are still, in that safeguarded moment, positively intact and shielded from transience, whether they be ‘Tookie’ or Sevruguin’s Thief. For in the faces of such men we inevitably see our own countenance, and in their freeze-framed confrontation with death we find an opportunity to gather our own composure vis-à-vis our forthcoming demise.

We may, however, actively choose not to perceive ourselves in the image of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams and the Thief. We may even refuse to look at such bleak images in the first place. It is specifically this kind of passionate disavowal that signals, all the more, our inability to remain indifferent or unaffected by the latter, and which attests to these photographs’ definite, universal gravitational pull; after all, once pricked by their punctum, we cannot turn a blind eye to their gloomy prophecy, not to mention to the irreversibility thereof; for we too are bound by the same fate, only we have the choice to stop and contend with its reality if not to fully grieve over it well in advance so much so that we may even greet it as we would an old friend when it finally comes knocking at our door.

Accordingly, at ‘Tookie’s’ vigil just as at the interment of the Thief, it can be said that we really grieve for ourselves. It is as though observing such scenes concurrently allow us to mourn our own preordained passing, bit by bit, and to virtually preside over and weep at our own funeral. What is more, it is probable that we even make the legacy of the one executed, part and parcel of our own, all of which serves to further immortalize us when our own time is up. As Freud has famously written in his treatise on “Mourning and Melancholia” and Christian Metz reiterates, “the work of mourning is at the same time an attempt […] to survive.”[xxii] In this context, mourning is not only an act of grieving, but also debatably the wish to live to witness our own death and ornate funeral. The result is somewhere between trying to achieve a death-defying sense of mastery and plotting to crash the would-be ‘surprise party’ planned for us by death.

Further, it might be added that the practice of mourning ourselves is the first step toward genuinely mourning others—a golden chance to dwell in the now-time [jetztzeit][xxiii] of our precious, common humanity and to commemorate our short-lived existence together on this whirling planet. Ironically enough, the tears we shed for the dead double as a wake-up call to remind us of how alive and sentient we indeed still are, and that we are destined as much to live as to perish.

–Mishana Hosseinioun is a Drafter with the 2048 Project: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together at the UC Berkeley Law School and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, England.

More writings by Mishana Hosseinioun:

Sex Pistols & the Polis: The Weapon of the Feminine in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BC)

Black on White: Reading Fanon Against Mapplethorpe

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Phallocentric Economics, Triangular Trade & Other Shady Business

[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) p. 97.

[ii] Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin LcLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 402.

[iii] See Lee Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird.

[iv] Barthes (1981) pp. 80-2.

[v] Ibid. pp. 25-7.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., p. 32.

[viii] Benjamin (1999), p. 395.

[ix] William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, What the Bleep do we Know!? (DVD, 2004).

[x]Aby Warburg, “The Art History Scene” in Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes (New York: Zone Books, 2004), pp. 229-236.

[xi] Benjamin (1999), p. 396.

[xii] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography” in The Mass Ornament, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Harvard, 1995), p. 51.

[xiii] Walter Benjamin, “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progressin The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin LcLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 479.

[xiv] Figure 9. Antonin Sevruguiun, A Thief being Buried Alive, ca. 1890-1900. Albumen print. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Antonin Sevruguin Photographs.

[xv] Barthes (1981), p. 57.

[xvi] Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings, l962-l993, trans. David Britt (Cambridge: MIT, l995), p. 37.

[xvii] Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish” in The Critical Image (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990), p. 159.

[xviii] Corien J.M. Vuurman, Theo H. Martens, “Early Photography in Iran and the Career of Antoin Sevruguin” in Sevruguin and the Persian Image (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1999), p. 18.

[xix] Ibid. p. 26

[xx] Benjamin (1999), p. 392.

[xxi] André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), Vol. 1, p. 14.

[xxii] Metz (1990), p. 159.

[xxiii] Benjamin (1999), p. 395.