"The story of a human being... or when two plus two make five"

By Mette Sandbye, professor of photography, art critic and head of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at Copenhagen University.

Published in Published in Beth R. Kent Klich. Politisk revy, Copenhagen Denmark. 2008

What is the story of a human being? Can it even be told? Yes, but obviously a final and true version does not exist. Life is lived forward but remembered backwards. But even at the end of life, it will not be possible to give an unequivocal account of it. Even within the narrative genres it is not possible to point to the best, the truest. The diary text is written here and now, it has the strength of spontaneity and presence, but it does not contain the insight and reflection that temporal distance gives. The memoir text, formulated at a distance of events, on the other hand, is full of holes and may be reevaluated and retold at any point. But how about the photograph then? For most of us, the family photograph is one of the things we treasure most. It is with the family photograph in hand we truly feel in touch with the past. But we also know that it is only a certain version of the family story that these usually arranged photographs present. The documentary photograph can penetrate the facade of modern life and show us things we did not even know existed or had chosen to close our eyes to. Traditionally, this has been the finest task of the documentary photograph. But this may also prove problematic. The photographer is after all an outsider and will always be, no matter how much, how long and how closely he relates to his subject matter. And the photographs show us halted, isolated momentsin which what came immediately before or after usually is not a part. With the handheld video camera, sound and motion are added and the authenticity increased; butangles, editing, sound and other cinematic effects contribute to turn the narrative of the video documentary in certain directions. But what to do then, how does one tell the story of a human being? One useful strategy may be - as Kent Klich hasbeen doing now for more than 20 years - to use all of these effects and expressions at one and the same time, with all the advantages and disadvantages they each possess.The photograph of the junkie prostitute right after shootingup presents a situation not many of us have experienced,but it does not tell us anything of what she is thinking ordreaming. The video self portrait, on the other hand, does. The wig game in the snapshot booth shows how, as ayoung girl, she would play role plays, play with her identity;but these black and white photos do not say anythingabout “what happened further on”. The old family pictures show another family like yours and mine; but consultant doctor Svend Heinild’s records depict a family under extreme social pressure which therefore could not stay together, parents who could not handle their children and each other, and a little girl whose mother took a remarkably low interest in her, a girl who was placed in a children’shome, was aggressive and had contact problems, yet, atthe same time, was very charming. It is at one and the same time this time factor, the very temporalduration of the project, and his mixed strategy whichare the unique features about Kent Klich’s story about Beth, not least in a photo-historical perspective.The classic social documentarism Photographer Kent Klich was originally educated as a psychologist; and an important objective of his first project with and about Beth was, using her as an individual case,to present the dual problem of drugs and prostitution as ageneral social problem and to criticise a society unable to solve its social problems and which therefore leaves people to fend for themselves.This point of departure is in a sense quite classic within the socially engaged documentary photography. It is a genre which began with the Danish-born journalist and photographerJacob A. Riis. At the end of the 19th century, he used his camera to document the appallingly bad conditions among poor immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side. Even though he is considered the father of documentary photography, what is truly interesting about Riis was that he at one and the same time employed the unique documentaryand expressive potential of the photo as evidenceof the conditions which he as a journalist presented in his texts, while at the same time realising that the textual component was crucial in order to deepen and put into perspective but also to some extent to dramatise what could be seen in the photos. Using narrative techniques borrowed for instance from fiction, his stories were able to attract the interest of the well-to-do citizenry, so that instead of distancing themselves from these social outcaststhey were able to feel for them and to some degree evenidentify with them. In Riis’ wake followed Lewis Hine who to begin with was asociologist. Hine used his photos and texts to document the working conditions of the widespread child labourin industry. Both Riis and Hine were able, through their documentary projects, to see social reforms implemented which would actually benefit the people they had depicted.Next, a large number of socially engaged photo projectsfollowed, from the American FSA-photographers of the1930’s (who documented the miserable conditions of the rural poor in light of the economic crisis), over the postwar Magnum tradition, to photographers such as Boris Mikhailov whose large book “Case History” from 1999 describes the living conditions of the homeless, outcastadults and glue-sniffing street children in Kharkov, the capital of the Ukraine. A perennial dilemma for this kind of documentarism is the element of possibly exposing the portraitees which is almost inevitable. If we are to be confronted with other people’s need and misery - and preferably take a standand do something about it or at least feel empathy - we need to see their misfortune. But it is also easy to be both fascinated by the exotica and keep our distance. It is a form that may contain an element of social pornography.Back in 1971, American photographer Larry Clark published what has since become his legendary book “Tulsa”,in which he showed the everyday lives of very young drugabusers in a previously unseen and highly confrontational way. His book became so powerful, because one got the impression that the photographer himself was leading this life and that he got absolutely close to his portraitees and captured the rawness and directness without anykind of distance. It was a book which sent shock waves through the American culture. Nearly 30 years later and on a background of the ensuing criticism of the genre “socialdocumentarism”, Boris Mikhailov solved this problempartly by letting the homeless people - to whom he did not belong - stage themselves and, among other things, pose nude or in strange arrangements, partly by photographing himself while observing them, and finally by incorporatinghis reservations in the book’s preface. Kent Klich’s “trick” is a diverse one: he presents a social problem through one person whom we really get to know as a whole person rather that just a type, because he follows her over so many years, and he even gives Beth herself the word. Without suppressing the social aspect,the viewer gradually comes to take an added interest in Beth as a person and in her immense survival capacity and instinct of self-preservation. And Klich lets Beth takecontrol by putting the camera in her hands, and her recordings have become Beth’s Diary. Here, she is the one to decide when to turn the camera on and off and what is tobe recorded. This results in both frontal recordings of directconfessions to the camera and in recordings that mayresemble home videos, but which are at the same timevery personal and poetic recordings of the first blackbirdchirping outside her kitchen window and her boyfriend, The Old One, disappearing down the road on his moped on his way to work.This film is Beth’s video diary with all of the authenticity inherent in the genre: the unsteady camera with its sometimes awkward shifting of focus; the direct and confessional way of addressing the camera; Beth rollingher eyes while assuming to be talking friendly with hermother on the phone; Beth filming The Old One while talkingteasingly to him at the same time. Here one becomesa fly on the wall in their everyday life. But all the while, weremain aware that it was Kent Klich, the photographer, whoprovided her with the camera and almost forced her to use it (just as it may occasionally be him who is using it). Notin order for her to conduct self-therapy, to come to termswith herself. For the wisdom and the insight in her ownlife’s development which she presents have to an astonishingdegree been there all along. They have not manifested themselves by being a part of Klich’s project. No, the camera is there for us, so that we may learn about Beth’s story. We are never in doubt that Kent and Beth are in this project together, and this is the most unique and prominent characteristic about the whole thing. But the seemingly unproblematic intimacy of the diary is, however, punctured from time to time as Beth’s repeated sighing suggests that this is not at all an easy thing for her to do.The appeal of the family photograph “The Book of Beth” which was published in 1988 mainlyconsisted of three narrative tracks and modes of expressionin terms of genre: Beth’s own story of her life was first,followed by Klich’s photos of her day-to-day life, black and white and very direct, with slanting, casual and insistentcuts. Here, we got totally close to Beth shooting up, lying naked with a customer on a mattress, fallen over in her bed, half-comatose from an overdose of sleeping pills. The third track was consultant doctor Svend Heinild’s medical notes in the highly personal record he had been keeping ever since meeting her for the first time at the age of only four when she was committed to the Coast Hospital in Refsnæs where he was working. Through his diary-like notes, immensely touching and depressing at the same time, we can follow Beth and her family through all of her life until his last entry from 1977 when Beth at the age of 28 has become an addict and a prostitute. These notes make foralmost unbearable reading about a little girl in miserable life conditions who is in and out of various institutions. Someof these texts have been reused in “Family Story”. Klich’s photographs in “The Book of Beth” are raw, expressive and frighteningly direct, even though there are also pictures of a happy, smiling and peaceful Beth. On one of the very first pages, there is a portrait of Beth at the age ofperhaps 7-8-9, a happy girl, and the only one in the book of her private family photos. This is a totally ordinary picture;but this may be the very reason it sticks out. This could beyou or me, your child, my child. It calls out for attention andcommunicates a direct recognisability, an affective bondbetween Beth, the child, and the viewer. The same photograph can be found on one of the first pages of the newbook, but here it has been accompanied by several others taken from Beth’s family’s own photo albums. This visualextension adds new perspectives to the first book of Beth. In a literal sense, there is something touching about old amateur and family photos; this is exactly why we all are so eager to hang on to them. These are pictures which place the individual in a larger story, a family genealogy over a period of time. Even though there is talk today about “the nuclear family being in a crisis”, the very concept of “the family” still remains one of the most important fixed points in the forming of human identity. Even though Beth today is practically alone- her father and her three siblings have all died - her storydemonstrates how family has played an enormous part inher life, for better and for worse... mostly the latter, even though at several points in her video she emphasises that she takes the responsibility for how her life has been.The family album has an important part to play in how we form our identities and our sense of being humans, living in a larger, also temporally stretched out context. The family photographs let us know that we are not alone in this world; they tell us - mainly - about all of the good and happy moments we have experienced. “I want to be normal,I want to be myself”, Beth says at one point in the film,and it is this normalcy that we often use our family photos to confirm. We know that they often tend to show only one side of life, a positive and happy one, but still - or perhapsfor this very reason - we love them.If the house was on fire, most people would make sure to try to save the family album. The paradox of this kind of pictures is that on one hand they represent something extremelypersonal, be loved and important to the individual, while at the same time being so standardised in the way they have been taken that others will be able to recognise themselves in their ordinariness. For back home we, too, have got more or less the same pictures. We know the group portraits of school classes of which there are quitea few in “Family Story”. They present a picture of a certaintime and a group of children, all of them looking ahead to the future with somewhat similar preconditions. They could be anybody; but one of the school children in the picture is Beth’s cousin Ole who died from an overdose, and one is Beth who went on to become both a drug addict and aprostitute. There is something very touching about seeing Beth’s father and her 10-12 year old cousin in two different photos, posing in the same red armchair, wearing almostidentical shirts and happy smiles. Beth’s aunt was an alcoholic, and Beth’s father therefore took care of her cousin Jan who was living with her father for a while. There are solemn photos of major family gatherings with nicely settables and guests in their Sunday’s finest, passport photos,family snapshots of everyday situations at home, or front alarrangements of family members while on an outing, taken to record for posterity this very outing on this very day.There are pictures telling us about Beth’s family life andher life as a child and a young person in the 50’s, 60’s and70’s which also convey a very recognisable period picture of an ordinary and average family that, judging from these pictures, does not come across as traumatised, up against it, problematic or heavy with tragic fates to come. If the old family photos do not directly refer to loss and traumas, they are on the other hand associated with melancholy and loss in a more existential manner. This applies to all the photos of “what once was” that they remind us of the passing of time, that the past will not ever return,and that we as humans lead a temporal life - always on our way to death. Each photo thus comes to represent a “memento mori”: it tells us that we, too, are going to die. In Beth’s case, this feeling becomes so much more manifest,because we know that most of her family members have infact died, and that, really, it is somewhat of a miracle that she is not dead herself. And the melancholy of absence is further increased by Beth being less visible in these pictures than the other family members: Beth was first institutionalised at the age of four, many other institutions were to follow, so she was quite often absent from the family. And finally, the sense of loss and decay is increased by the many close-ups of her worn and damaged body.There is something about photographs that shoots its way out of the picture and hurts us like an arrow, says Roland Barthes in his famous book “Camera Lucida” from1980 which takes as its starting point Barthes’ own familyphotos. This is what he calls the punctum effect. This is an effect evoked by Kent Klich by including Beth’s familyphotos, but at the same time and in a figurative sense he thematises it by quite clinically showing us Beth’s bodywounds. Or by showing us some of the institutions in which she spent so much of her childhood the way they look today. Today, quite a few of them stand as closed-down, dilapidated symbols of the traumatised lives they once housed, while others still function as homes for socially exposed children. History as a patchwork quilt In the period since Kent Klich started his collaboration with Beth to tell her story and until today, not only the theory of the photograph but also more general areas such as philosophy and the sciences of history, literature and art have problematised the idea of the unequivocal and true, linearly told story. Within photography, these discussions arose in the wake of an intense problematisation of the kind of objectivityand reality reference which has traditionally been associated with, in particular, the documentary photograph.The photograph is a language just like any other, it can be manipulated, it lies, it can be used to serve ideologicalends, it is no more “true” than the written word, and its meaning is inextricably tied up with the context in whichit appears. In the mid-1980’s when Kent Klich started his work with and about Beth, this theoretic dismantling of anynaive notion of the photograph as “a window to the world” had made its way to both audiences and photographers. But how to move on from that position if one still wanted to tell about real people’s lives, the way that Kent Klich wanted to do it with his story about Beth? Rather than claiming that “this was how it was”, a story composed of several different expressions and narrative tracks may actually be perceived as “more true” in all of its uneven complexity. As when American comics artist Art Spiegelman in his book “Maus” (1973-1991) takes on the task of telling the story of the Holocaust through how his parents experienced their time in a concentration camp. Spiegelman’s book is told on a background of interviews with his father and his own reflections, his drawings show both the past as experienced by his father and the presentas it is experienced by the artist, all persons are drawn as animals. Thus this story about an actual historical event which we know so well from history books and documentary films becomes so much more engaging by being told through personal memory but as a braiding of different narrative angles and genre expressions. Another successful example of such a new narrative strategy was American documentary photographer Larry Sultan’s book “Pictures from Home” (1992). His original intention was, using photos of his own parents, to give a critical portrait of the American family in the Reagan era; instead, he ended up including in his book old family photographs, stills from homevideos, his own diary notes and interviews with his parents in which their opposing interpretations and criticisms of their son’s project are allowed to express themselves. The eye opener here is that the many unconnected narrative tracks are not turned into a sort of post-modernist truism about nothing being true and nothing having any importance; instead, one is actually captured by the many differentways of opening up the same story which for this very reason comes across as more true and real while at the same time leaving space for the spectator’s own reflectionsand ways of putting this material together. In their points of departure, both Spiegelman’s and Sultan’s projects are in a sense classic documentaries and tied to a specific and general aspect of reality: one wants to tell about the Holocaust, the other about the American family pattern in a certain historical period. But by using more than one personally told point of entry into the same story, both of them succeed in telling something new and therefore captivating the spectator in a quite unique manner. Kent Klich’s original point of entry was to present aspecific social problem - drugs-related prostitution- which nobody so far has been able to solve or even improve on, and which most people do not know very much about or are unwilling to face up to. Just like Larry Sultan’s book, Kent Klich’s overall project about Beth is a patchwork quilt sown in many fabrics, colours and materials which allows us to stop and recognise that very curtain from the summer house or the dress one wore in a photograph taken at a certain occasion. Just like old clothes carry traces of memories and quite specifically of those who wore them, photographs are traces of lived lives which as no other medium can generate affect and empathy in the viewer and put us in touch with “what once was”. According to a classic modernist photodogma, one should neither stage photographs nor accompany them with texts. A text would imply that the photographer was not able to tell everything inpictures. But as already Jacob A. Riis realised over a century ago, this is not an either-or but a both-and. The sum total of the means of expression employed by Kent Klich to tell the story of a human being becomes more than the single parts put together. Two and two make five.