Friday, August 26, 2011
Photographer of the Dead
Crammed into a small, dark room, inebriated people jostle me from every side. Amidst the wailing and moaning, I steady myself to take a picture of the deceased woman lying in the center of the room. A warm liquid drenches my pajama pants as a mourner spills their alcohol on me. Feeling a bump to the back of my knee, I catch myself just before falling on top of the dead.
How did I get to be here?!
Yesterday we arrived in the village of Vatofotsy. A lady had died and the people were on their third day of mourning (meaning that they would bury her the next day). We decided to be culturally-appropriate and just grieve with the people, which for us meant paying our respects to the family, having quiet conversations, and not teaching any lessons until the next day. I decided to steal away for a minute to go up on the hill and take a photo of the city from above.
“Yip yip yip yip!” I heard yelping from the mountain. I must admit that my first thought was that there was a dog fight, but then I saw a line of mourners coming down the trail, headed to the room where the dead lady lay. I soon learned that as people came in from other towns, as soon as the Vatofotsy was in was in sight, the wailing would commence.
“The brother of the deceased is here to see you,” Mirana informed me as the evening grew dark. A forlorn-looking gentleman shook my hand. “We have heard that you have a camera. Won’t you please come and take a picture of my sister before she is buried?”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nowhere in town for me to get pictures developed,” I explained. “You wouldn’t have an actual photo, but just an image on this screen here.” “It doesn’t matter,” the man replied. “We just want to honor her memory by letting her have one picture taken before she is never seen again.” Oh my. How on earth can you say no to that?! “Of course I will.”
Since it is already dark and there are preparations to be made to the body, we make plans for me to come at 7am the next morning to take the picture. Mirana and I set our alarm and doze off – only to be awoken by sobbing and mourning songs that went on all throughout the night.
I awoke to Mirana shaking me. “The men are outside and ready for you!” It was barely light. The 6:30am alarm had not gone off yet. Who knows what time it was. I grabbed my lamba, tied it around my pajama pants, and stumbled outside. I gave the men a solemn smile, and followed them down the muddy path through the mist to the wailing room.
As I entered, the women instantly started primping the body of the dead woman for the photo and the brother started primping himself and the woman’s son. I asked, and sure enough, he wanted a picture with the family and the deceased after I took one of just her laying there…which brings us back to the beginning of this tale.
Finally upright, yet smelling like a distillery, I take a photo of the dead woman. I drift off, wondering if my sister, Cali, ever had any classes on this in photography school… Snapping back to real time, I let the immediate family position themselves near the lady’s head and take another photo, only to hear the brother ask me to then take yet another picture of the woman’s cousin, great-aunt, etc. Soon enough, I have taken a panorama around the room of everyone in there – and quite awkwardly. I can’t exactly say, “1-2-3-smile!” when people are mourning all around me, and am definitely not used to taking pictures of people looking downright morose, but such is life in the rain forest. I finish snapping the photos and head back to my tent, while the mourners hoist the woman onto their shoulders and start the long, slow journey up to the burial place of the ancestors.
So, smelling like alcohol and still in my pajamas, I had this great and strange cultural experience. And that, my friends is how I became the “Photographer of the Dead.”