“The history of a country
cannot be written in silence
and its memory
must not be built in the dark”
GRIEF IS A VAST ACHING SECRET. Like an ocean in thrall to the moon, it moves inside the individual with a profound gravity. Squalls of emotion my stir the surface from time to time, but they cannot speak of the magnitude of what yearns silently beneath.
Photography is an art of surfaces. To capture some sense of another’s grief is difficult indeed; to attempt to communicate it collectively is near impossible. But this is just what Erika Diettes’ photographic installations do attempt… They succeed because she understands that true human connection is a matter of fellow-feeling not pity.
The portraits were made during interviews with 20 women who had been tortured; in many cases by forcing them to witness the mutilation and murder of a loved one… father, mother, husband, son… It is difficult to be moved by abject horror. Our mind recoils, emotions numb. A protective reflex blocks the full impact of such knowledge and leaves only gruesome disconnected spectacle. Erika Diettes avoids this cognitive defence mechanism by focusing not on confrontation but on the emotional echo of empathy.
DURING INTERVIEWS that lasted up to three hours, Erika Diettes noticed that there came a moment when the narrator pulled back, often closing her eyes, as if holding a memory inside, keeping the loved one close and, perhaps, shielding the listener from the full force of her reality. It marked the moment in their story when everything changed and life would never again be as it once was. Like the climax of a tragic drama, a tipping point was crossed where the future is set and there can be no return. It is these expressive gestures that are preserved in the portraits, as the narrator leaves the present conversation to immerse in her private elegiac ocean.
The photographs are printed onto silk and installed so that the translucent fabric sways and ripples in the air. No more feeling themselves to be part of this world, the interviewees tell of how the violence has left them “dead in life”. Their likenesses hang suspended in time and space, haunting places of quiet contemplation – churches, convents, cathedrals – like wraiths.
Entitled ‘Sudarios’ (shrouds), each shear of fabric, each closed pair of eyes, draws a veil across these gruesome chronicles of depravity, degradation and death to focus instead on the inward grief of the living; to understand the profundity of these events not in the horror of their execution but in the depth of their consequence.
Erika Diettes is a Colombian artist who lives and works in Bogotá. ‘Sudarios’ was presented at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in August 2013.