On time, beauty and the permanence of photographic images

AIDS (SIDA) campaign in Belgium. 1986. (© Dominique Bataille photography)

For weeks, I resisted watching the unbearably sad video recorded by Amanda Todd.  I knew her dramatic entanglement in a web she could no longer control.  I dreaded the uneasy feeling of the voyeuristic driver slowing down on the highway to get a better look at accident victims lined-up on the side of the road.  I was trying to look the other way, not indifferent, but out of respect.

I eventually found the courage to watch it after reading an article from the Mirror News.  I thought she would have wanted her message to be heard.  I thought I had to muster the courage to look despair in the eyes.  It was harder than I thought and has haunted me since.

The devastating loss of such truncated and unachieved life is beyond words.  Sadness and abandonment.  The desolation of a world where so many of us are dying to be hugged and loved.  Something one can feel and never fully express.

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

As a photographer, I wanted to share a few words of visual wisdom with all the Amanda’s out there living in fear of their stolen images being placarded all over the Internet.

We live in a world where photographic and electronic technologies allow images to be captured anywhere, at any time and without warning, and then remain hanging “out there” forever.

Concealed cameras are an ever-invasive species that can’t be eradicated.  Inescapable. Their often blurry and pathetic images to be shared and viewed by thousands, instantly fed an ever-growing web of scandal-hungry consumers.

On-line bullying,voyeurism, revenge porn and “digital abuse” lie on the other side of the Internet coin – a side that we can no longer ignore.  Of course, it is unwise to ever share intimate images you would not want to be made public, but for teenagers, engulfed in a world of sexting, the appeal of electronic flirt is a constant temptation.

Half jokingly, I suggested once, that perhaps schools and gyms could preventively post warnings in bathrooms and change rooms.  Something like: “Smile! You are being filmed” might be a friendly enough reminder?

Maybe a martial arts strategy should be devised? There is no point opposing the blow that you can’t stop.  We can’t lock our kids in dark rooms for the rest of their lives.  I think that parents must teach their children to be at ease with themselves, with their images and the images of their own body.  Nudity is not a shame, not a dishonor and certainly not an infamy.  It may often be enjoyed privately rather than publicly, but this does not make it a crime.

Perhaps society ought to be less hypocritical and cease to stigmatize teenagers and adults alike who may have been careless or victims of abuse?  Amanda Todd was only 12, I believe, when, under peer pressure, she impulsively flashed her breasts before a camera.  What 12-year old has never made mistakes? Was she able, and informed, at such early age, to understand the consequences of what she saw to be an inconsequential “dare” from people she thought to be friends? Did she consider these images could one day come back to haunt her?  Did she know that heinous individuals would use them for the purpose of blackmail and bullying?  What if she had lived in Europe, where most beaches are “topless-friendly” and nudity rarely a cause for concern?  Would her fate have been different?  Should we reflect, as a society, on a more tolerant approach, knowing that beautiful and talented boys and girls are ending their lives because of the intolerable shame associated with social judgment they perceive as an unconditional sentence?

The human body is beauty.  There should be no shame in beauty – even when revealed accidentally – and kids caught naked on camera should not live in fear.

Our lives are fleeting sparks in the night.  Ephemeral stories that we dream eternal.  Sand between fingers.  Time is running out.  When all is gone, photographs remain.  Linger.  Frozen.  Written on the pages of eternity.   “Photo-Graphie”; at the speed of light, time stands still.

When I was in my twenties, a photographer friend of mine, Dominique Bataille, approached me with a rather unexpected and peculiar request.  He had been contacted by a local NGO, to work on the very first AIDS campaign launched in Belgium to raise awareness towards STD and protection.  In the early eighties, AIDS was still an entirely unknown disease and “French letters” passed discretely and under cover as smuggled goods.  “SIDA” was an unidentified and mysterious ailment that some dared to blamed on the victims as “a punishment from god striking the disgraced children of Sodom and Gomorrah living in sin”.  There was much work to be done, and people involved with AIDS awareness campaigns were avoided like the plague.

My friend Dominique had been asked to take naked photographs of a young couple embracing for a poster that would be distributed around the country.  As photographers, we had worked together often and knew each other well.  He asked if I would be willing to stand on the other side of the lens?

I did not hesitate much.  Although shy and discreet by nature, I had finally grown to be at ease with nudity and my own body.  I initially did not feel entirely confident seeing myself naked, placarded all over town, but thought that the cause was worth the concession.  I also felt that always being hidden behind the camera, I had to, in all equity, be prepared to step before it as well.

Many years later, when visiting my friends in Belgium, I saw a copy of the SIDA poster pinned on the wall of their daughter’s bedroom.  She was not born when the photos were taken and was now in her early twenties and studying photography herself.  She said: “I don’t like models that are too muscular”. “Are you the man in the photograph?”.  I nodded, contemplating the passage of time and noting a small scar at the back of my leg, hardly visible then and almost entirely gone today: “It was a long time ago”.  “We did the whole photo session with just one floodlight.  It created nice shadows”.  I remembered the short-lived awkwardness of undressing before my friends, the esthetic discussions about lights, angles and backdrops and the slight anxiety of being exposed on the walls of Brussels.  I though about the inexorable permanence of photographs.  I thought of my naked body “out there” forever.  I was at peace.  I thought that, one day, her own daughter may find an old, faded, long forgotten, black and white poster and wonder: “Who is the man in that picture?”

“He was a good friend of your grandfather.”  “A photographer.”

About Michel Botman

Michel Botman was born in Belgium, where visual arts have always flirted with the limits of reality. In the eighties, Michel Botman started exploring the first tools to manipulate images though computers. For about 15 years, Michel Botman worked throughout Europe in the emerging field of Computer Applications for the Graphic Arts. Extensive experience in Digital Imaging allowed Michel to move into the field of computerized systems for Diagnostic Imaging. As VP Sales & Marketing for eSys Medical and later with Eclipsys, Michel Botman always remained dedicated to the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of his career. At the present time, Michel Botman is refocusing his life towards graphic arts. “I studied photography in Europe, but never had time to practice it enough. Life took me on other paths towards computer technologies and running a business. I enjoyed it very much, but I also love art. I always keep my eyes open for exciting opportunities and people that touch my heart.” Michel Botman currently lives between Toronto, Canada and Bangkok, Thailand. Above Gravatar pictures are of Michel Botman and his son Noah Botman.
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