Grief Has No Distance
by April Thompson
“her cot a map
of the world, her death the north folding in on itself.”
— Dallas Hunt,
Dallas Hunt’s poem “Rueful” (2021) recounts the death of his grandmother amid stanzas that reference the state of the world, the news, tenderness, and violence. In describing the moment of her death, Hunt turns to land, the world, the cardinal direction; in so few words he expresses how scale can shift when you lose someone. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote, “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”1 Distance allows us to see others and be seen by them. Distance connects two points across a straight line. And so, it makes perfect sense to me, this simple declaration that “[g]rief has no distance,” because grief can feel at once ever-present and also no- where to be seen. In her lecture “Remarks on Letters,” Mary Ruefle asked, “For what is a letter, but to speak one’s thoughts at a distance? Which is why poems and prayers are letters. The origin of poems, prayers, and letters all have this in common: urgency.”2 I would go a step further and say that the human need to create poetry and prayer comes from an existential awareness that one day, the distance between oneself and another will be replaced by space, by loss.
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When my dad died in early 2020, a doctor told me, “Make sure you grieve properly, or it will be harder later.” I didn’t know what it meant to grieve properly. For a while, I thought it meant remembering every- thing very well. I wrote down last moments, sentences, sequences. I wrote it down to never forget and to relieve my mind of repeating it, as I tried obsessively to commit it to memory, or else to finally grasp it. One seemed inevitable, the other impossible. My own experience of grief was characterized by loopholes. My memories surfaced in a way that seemed disjointed but was in fact vibratory. “Vibration” is the only word I can think of to express how memories can shine on each other, since vibration in physics refers to a periodic motion about an equilibrium position. These vibrations felt like a deeply personal photography that upset linear time. After experiencing them, I realized that in order to understand my grief I needed to forget everything I’d learned about photography. I reached for art that could show me a different meaning of the medium—one that was spatial, embodied, and non-linear. One that honoured intuition and feeling.
• • •
Schooling taught me that the theory of photography involves words like “index,” “punctum,” and “fixity.” And although theorists used these words across generations—from Barthes to Sontag and Levi Strauss— this discourse is anchored to the daguerreotype of 19th-century industrial Europe.3 Such paternity is carried in the seeds of these words, which resonate with settler-colonial processes of the Industrial Revolution; to index is to classify, the punctum is bound to violence, and fixity can enact immobility. When the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, it was seen as a tool that could improve human memory. We didn’t have to remember—the camera could do it for us. This industrial idealism toward the camera shifted the way we think about memory, and centred the image and the visual, over the bodily and other senses.
• • •
A cyanotype shows nine men dressed in suits, ties, and hats, assembled as a group. Those positioned at the front of the group sit with their hands on their knees as they gaze at the camera. The rich tonal reversal has cast their hands and faces in a deep blue that draws the eye in. It is counterbalanced by the white areas— outlines of four rocks placed at each corner of the photosensitive surface, or the outline of two cedar sprigs. This cyanotype by Tania Willard was part of her 2018 exhibition “Anthro(a)pologizing,” which drew on her research of images of Secwépemc peoples in public collections such as the American Museum of Natural History (New York City, NY) and the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, QC). Recognizing that the ownership of these images by institutions was preventing them from circulating in their home communities, Willard made replicas of the images and brought them back to sovereign Secwépemc Territory.
Willard’s cyanotype translates an archival photograph from the Canadian Museum of History depicting the 1916 Indian Rights Association delegation. This group, consisting of Chief James Raitasket, Chief John Chelahitsa, Chief Paul David, Chief Basil David, Chief Elie Larue, Chief John Tetlenitsa, James Alexander Teit, Chief Thomas Adolph, and Chief William Pascal, was petitioning the government of Canada for land rights for their respective territories in BC.4 In the image they are documented far from their communities, having travelled to the Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) in Ottawa, ON, which housed a reconvened Parliament as a result of the fire that burned down the Parliament Buildings Centre Block earlier in 1916.
Across “Anthro(a)pologizing,” Willard used the materials of land measurement and surveyance, such as survey tape and calipers, alongside depictions of Indigenous peoples to bring attention to the systemic overlay between the control of land and the domination of bodies within settler-colonial violence. The cyanotype process was originally invented in the mid- 19th century as a cheap way to produce technical engineering drawings, and as such its history is bound to property and capital. Willard processed the cyanotype with the sun shining down on sovereign Secwépemc Territory and has placed a constellation of the land within the image, in sun, sediment, and cedar. In this, the land becomes the conditions that shape the image, rather than a structural entity that the blueprint denotes as property, thus inverting the historical use of the blueprint process. In her translation of this portrait on sovereign reserve land, Willard honours the ancestral fight for land claims while also connecting this to the present-day continuation of those struggles.
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Academic language on photography is obsessed with death. Barthes believed that to be photographed was to experience “a micro-version of death”5; for Sontag, photography was the “inventory of mortality”6; and for Levi Strauss it was that photographs “are always about something that is gone and so are in league with death.”7 This insistence on linking photography with death is a neurosis of white academia. To view death as equivalent to the photograph is to obsess over the finality of both, which limits an understanding of death to a post-industrial rubric. This rubric is a legacy of what Jonathan Crary defined as the “industrial remapping of the body in the nineteenth century.”8 It upholds a concept of death that prioritizes the corporeal and productive over the spiritual, resonant, and immaterial.
This industrial framework for death has become entrenched by the increased commodification of death-related service in post-industrial societies. Katsumi Shimane’s 2018 thanatology research demonstrates how rapidly humans in industrialized societies have evolved in their relationship to funerary customs, where death-related services are increasingly outsourced.9 This has been a rapid shift from the pre-modern approach to funerals, where they existed as a form of mutual help that was necessary to survival within the social group.
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Scale is a central component in both grief and photography. In grief, our once-rationalized measure of scale can feel unresolved. It’s common to experience a dissonance between the measure of one’s loss and the scale of the world around them. What seems to be the ending of the world (as devastating as “the north / folding in / on itself”) can feel unnoticed as the world moves on.
In her exhibition “The Strata of Many Truths” (2019), Roxanne Charles interrupts this use of scale within archival images, and makes space for the scale of grief and trauma to be acknowledged in ways that are non-visual. Her exhibition responded to archival images from the Museum of Vancouver collection that documents the St. Mary’s residential school in Mission, BC which operated from 1867 to 1984. The entryway to the space was redefined as an honour gate, inspired by the honour guard ceremony of Canoe Cultures where paddlers are greeted at the shore by an honour guard who forms an archway with their paddles to uplift the spirits of the people.10 At her honour gate, Charles enlarged the figures of two children from separate archival photographs taken at the 800-acre school vineyard, which was worked by Indigenous children. Charles moves them out of the frame of the photograph and into the space with cedar boughs hanging overhead. Visitors had to acknowledge their presence as they entered the exhibition. In her use of scale, Charles is recoding the body back into the image, removing the hierarchical dimensions of the archival visual field.
The scale of loss was honoured across the exhibition in the ways that Charles created space for healing, prayer, rest, and contemplation. This centred community care for the visitor, rather than a passive consumption of images. This was most evident in the materials available to craft prayer ties, a form of ceremony that involves gathering medicines and placing your loving intention into them before giving them as an offering. Visitors could craft these prayer ties and leave them around a pyramid of soil from Semiahmoo Reserve land, where the artist resides today.
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Shortly after my father’s death, I was lying awake and heard a bird outside my window. It triggered a memory I had not remembered for 17 years. I was standing side by side with my dad trying to revive a bird kicked from a nest. He held it in the palm of his hand, trying to feed it with a straw. I remembered being anxious because of the insurmountable gap of communication between us and the bird, not knowing what it needed. That memory triggered a more recent one—my mum standing at my dad’s bedside as he lay dying. We had slowly lost the ability to communicate with him as he drifted from sleep to another place.
As he lay breathing, my mum reached over and took a straw from a nearby glass of water. With cradled kindness, she roamed the end gently over his lips, wetting them to give some comfort. The grace of that moment, the intuition of her love amid the loss of communication, crept into my body with the force of a photographic trace transcending a singular image. But what made this moment truly photographic was the fact that it was a form of witnessing, a kind of recognition. Two unconnected memories came together to create a new photographic moment, beyond fixity or reproduction, imprinted through the vibration of feeling.
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In Leanne Simpson’s book As We Have Always Done (2017), she writes on recognition within Nishnaabewin, and states, “Part of being in meaningful relationship with another being is recognizing who they are, it is reflecting back to them their essence and worth as a being, it is a mirroring.”11
In Kali Spitzer’s work, decolonizing photography means centring slowness, consent, and reciprocity. Her series An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance (2014–ongoing) features portraits made with wet-plate collodion photography. These black-and-white, large-scale portraits depict members of her own community of Indigenous and mixed-heritage peoples, Black folks, people of colour, and women, non-binary, queer, femme, and trans kin.
There is an urgency to Spitzer’s work—to show Indigenous and mixed-heritage people as they exist now, through their own frames of reference—as well as the urgency to take up space in institutions where they have historically been under-represented. This urgency of intent is counterbalanced by a slow photographic process of care. Spitzer develops one portrait at a time, and centres a process of consent. In the darkroom, she is with the portrait sitter, sharing in the moment of transformation when the image reveals itself, and engaging with them in feedback—discussing the image, what to change, what to keep. This emphasis on representing her subjects as they see themselves is a decolonization of “accuracy” within the medium. It focuses on the accuracy of selfhood and kinship, of how one understands and sees oneself and how one is seen by one’s community. This form of witnessing enacts a mirroring that is active and reciprocal.
There is an intimacy to these portraits that also emanates from Spitzer’s decolonization of distance. Spitzer uses an 8×10 large-format camera for her wet-plate photographs, meaning that the camera must be hyper-focused to one particular area of detail. It’s impossible for the entire image of her sitter to be shown in focus. This means that Spitzer and her sitter actively decide which parts of themselves they allow to be seen, shared— scars, wrinkles, tattoos. There is autonomy and agency in this control of focal depth, in the delicate balance between what is visible and what is not. Spitzer gives equal weight to the unseen and the seen, including the space she holds for the invisible labour of care.
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I recently read that wet-plate collodion photographs from the Victorian era make their sitters look like mourners, when in fact, many of them may have been wearing bright yellow or pink. The wet collodion process (being sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light) makes warm colours seem dark. The trick of the 19th-century camera to cast its subjects in mourning does not escape my attention. It’s a fitting metaphor for the academic obsession with photography and death, how this can occlude every image’s broader context. The works of Willard, Charles, and Spitzer demonstrate possibilities for photography that decentre the visual and reintegrate the relational, spatial, and the felt, as guided by Indigenous worldviews. They are evidence that understanding the medium as a form of relational witnessing is necessary if we are to acknowledge its capacity to engage with the complex and varied human experience of grief, loss, and pain.