On pain and how to photograph it

Let us start by postulating that pain is staged. Such a postulation would make pain somewhat irreal, a game even. But we know that when we feel pain, we feel its pangs genuinely enough. In experiencing pain, we do not sense anything irreal about it, let alone do we consider that it might all be just play. We do not think to ourselves: “let me imagine such-and-such an event in order that I feel pain.” So, keeping true to our postulate that all pain is staged, let us try to understand how pain comes to be felt as real. 

Federico García Lorca tell us:

Everyone understands the pain that accompanies death,

but genuine pain doesn’t live in the spirit,

nor in the air, nor in our lives,

nor on these terraces of billowing smoke.

The genuine pain that keeps everything awake

is a tiny, infinite burn

on the innocent eyes of other systems.

Federico García Lorca, ‘Blind Panorama of New York’ (García Lorca 11-17)

We understand pain in that we experience it. In experiencing it, we know, without being able to acknowledge this, that pain is other to our being. Sensing, but bereft of the concomitant awareness, that pain is other to our being, we see it with blind eyes in the face of the Other. And pain masks the otherness of the Other. 

And the pained subject is, well, blinded…

An essential element in making pain feel real is self-harm. But surely, we do not think to ourselves: “let me imagine such-and-such an event so I will indulge in self-harm which will guarantee the feeling of pain.” No! We simply feel pain!

Pain, like madness, is a voiceless voice. Pain, like madness, is silence. Any attempt to use words to tease out its potent sting is rebuffed. In the preface to his book “Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason”, Foucault says: “The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence. I have not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence” (2001: XII). And Derrida replies and says: “This second project, which would devote all its efforts to discovering the common root of meaning and nonmeaning and to unearthing the original logos in which a language and a silence are divided from one another is not at all an expediency as concerns everything that could come under the heading “archaeology of silence,” the archaeology which simultaneously claims to say madness itself and renounces this claim. The expression “to say madness itself” is self-contradictory. To say madness without expelling it into objectivity is to let it say itself. But madness is what by essence cannot be said: it is the “absence of the work,” as Foucault profoundly says” (2001: 51). 

In the experience of pain, the Other is occluded. That is to say, that in the experience of pain, the Other is revealed to the blinded subject through non-revelation, a non-revealing revelation – invisibility and transparency. In the experience of pain, the Self is left without mirror or reference; the Self is left free to wallow in the dark pit of pain. Pain and all the aforementioned elements that are concomitant to the experience of pain are affordances the Self can relish in in its want and obligation to experience nothing and freedom. Through the drama of pain, the Self (re)learns what it means to be – to be?

García Lorca concludes his poem thus:

There is no pain in the voice. Only the teeth exist,

but isolated teeth that will be silenced by black satin.

There is no pain in the voice. Only the Earth exists here.

The Earth and its timeless doors

which lead to the blush of the fruit.

Federico García Lorca, ‘Blind Panorama of New York’ (García Lorca 43-47)

The healed Self, the Self that has come so close to experiencing its objectivity, to experiencing itself by itself, is at the moment of glory the quintessentially broken or divided Self – at the moment of collection it recognises itself as essentially divided. The Self acquiesces to the fact that the past experience of pain will remain forever a contradiction in containment. Pain desires and is exit. Pain refutes wholeness and any form of containment. Pain is antithetical to the new state proclaimed by healing. Healing is the voiced cry of the new-born; but pain is silence and silent. Pain, no matter how illusory and essentially irreal, having now been experienced, allows the stupendous schism in being, a schism manifested as that which is essentially split and brought about by a split, as consciousness. Through this schism, through the awares of this emergent consciousness, the Self is recuperated, salvaged, so to speak, from the dark pit, and the Other habited. And one is thus eternally divided; one is two (and one is still one).

Photography, like pain, is staged. This is not to say that things or persons are necessarily staged for every photograph that is taken. No! What we mean by saying that photography is staged is that the eye of the photography apparatus stages everything. Stages everything, but necessarily (and we’ll shortly see why this necessity) omits one important element…

I have spoken profusely about images and words but have never so far mentioned sound in any of my writings.  

Photographs are mute, and as such are all the more synonymous with pain, pain understood as silence and that something silent. It is this muteness in photographs that potentiates in the observer the moment of recognition, the moment of “the photographic”. Silent representations, such as most straight photographs are, embedded in their original ‘noisy’ context (think here rephotography, albeit in a wholly conceptual manner), yield the scream – “It was!”

Luigi Ghirri says about his work: “In photography, the deletion of the space that surrounds the framed portion is as important for me as what is represented: it is thanks to this deletion that the image takes on meaning, becoming measurable. The image continues, of course, in the visible realm of the deleted space, inviting us to see the rest of reality that is not represented. […] My duty is to see with clarity, and this is why I am interested in all possible functions—without separating any of them out, but taking them on as a whole, in order to be able, from time to time, to see the hieroglyphs I have encountered and make them recognizable. […] The meaning that I am trying to render through my work is a verification of how it is still possible to desire and face a path of knowledge, to be able finally to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life” (1978). 

The post-aesthetic age is the age during which images are recognised. 

The Scream 2010


DERRIDA, Jacques. 2001. Writing and Difference (1967). Translated by Alan Bass. Oxon: Routledge Classics

FOUCAULT, Michel. 2001. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1964). Translated by Richard Howard. Oxon: Routledge Classics.

GARCÍA LORCA, Federico, 1990. Poet in New York (1940). Translated by Greg Simon & Steven F. White. London: Penguin.

GHIRRI, Luigi. 1978. Kodachrome: Introduction. Aperture Foundation [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/luigi-ghirri-kodachrome/ [accessed 25 March 2020].


The Scream 2010, short animation video, MediaPro Magic, Romania. Directed by Sebastian Cosor. Available at: https://vimeo.com/120788284 [accessed 25 March 2020].

Featured Image:

Rag stuck in barbed wire fencing. February 2019 at Moll ix-Shipwrights, Paola. Photograph by the author.