:: Article

Funeral Carnival

By Fernando Sdrigotti.

I can’t remember how it was before reading Barthes’ Camera Lucida. But after reading that book it has become nearly impossible for me to go back to old pictures without seeing death all over the place. Photographs capture death like no other medium, says Barthes; this is the essential theme of this greatest of books (violently summarising his elegant arguments). To greater or lesser extents of factuality, photographs capture life before death, reenacting life, yes, but more importantly condemning the photographic object/subject to another death. This is much more evident if we see pictures of now dead people, of course; but in fact we are all dead in each picture of us, for we are about to die and already dead for a hypothetical viewer in some hypothetical future.

Yet it isn’t pictures of dead people that I am seeing today. Or maybe yes, I am, for the people in the pictures will die (maybe some have died already); but the people weren’t the subject of these pictures, these photos I shot of the November 2010 student demos. Death never crossed my mind when I shot them, for I felt I wasn’t shooting people per se but a very important event, perhaps the most important mass event since the 2003 demos against the war in Iraq. Contrary to what we might think, people take on a secondary role when it comes to events. Perhaps until time puts the event in context and the people — and death — come to the foreground. I’m looking at these pictures. They are full of life and by extension full of death. They show the death of a dream: that of affordable higher education (the dream of free higher education had died before).

I don’t know what moved me to photograph the November 2010 demos, but the fact is that I found myself there with my favorite camera for urban situations: a Micro 4/3; light; reliable; unobtrusive. Perhaps I was there thinking that I was recording this moment for posterity, as one registers a birthday or an important event. Things had been hectic during the previous weeks; there was the impression that only a mass movement could force the Con-Dem government to U-turn on their decision to hike tuition fees. Each one of us present there, with or without cameras, was aware of the need to deliver a loud and clear message. And it was a loud day indeed; not only in terms of sound, but also loud in terms of the words and imagery and actions used to convey everyone’s anger. Many have written about the carnivalesque atmosphere that reigned throughout the demo, an atmosphere that prevailed even during the trashing of the Tory HQ in Millbank. This event, so rapidly condemned as mindless violence by everyone on the right and the left of the political spectrum (and even by a section of the students’ leadership) was the turning point of the events, spiraling a whole new set of alliances, putting everyone’s agenda clearly on the table, but also dividing the students themselves. I never published the pictures I took at Millbank and I won’t: I would hate my work to become court evidence. These photographs have been consigned to a physical death already: digital oblivion, obliteration.

As the Con-Dem coalition pushes its class warfare further, these pictures become sadder by the minute. The momentum has already been lost and so has the possibility of building on the student movement (ULU’s closure delivering perhaps the coup de grâce). The carnival has turned into a funeral tango, and the initial anger into conformism. Whatever will shake us out of our sleep hasn’t shown its face yet, it hasn’t be photographed, at least not by me.

Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 31st, 2013.