When the Landscape of the Face is Hidden from Us

Doi: https://doi.org/10.47659/m2.068.art

How do we respond to the vulnerability of the Other when we do not see his face? How do photographer and viewers position themselves ethically in relation to the (hi)story of suffering they are called to witness? These are the questions that steer my reflection about Jillian Edelstein’s unpublished photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Taken shortly after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed its work, the photograph evokes the moment during the TRC hearings when the Archbishop, Chairman of the commission, laid down his head and wept. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s conceptualization of “the face”; I discuss how affect is produced within and through Edelstein’s photograph, and specifically how the affective quality of the photograph both contributes to an understanding of the experience of suffering within the context of the TRC and summons an ethical response from the viewer.

How do we respond to the vulnerability of the Other when we do not see his face? How do photographer and viewers position themselves ethically in relation to the (hi)story of suffering they are called to witness? These are the questions that steer my reflection about Jillian Edelstein’s unpublished photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Taken shortly after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed its work, the photograph evokes the moment during the TRC hearings when the Archbishop, Chairman of the commission, laid down his head and wept. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s conceptualization of “the face”; I discuss how affect is produced within and through Edelstein’s photograph, and specifically how the affective quality of the photograph both contributes to an understanding of the experience of suffering within the context of the TRC and summons an ethical response from the viewer.

How do we respond to the vulnerability of the Other when we do not see his face? How do photographer and viewers position themselves ethically in relation to the (hi)story of suffering they are called to witness? These are the questions that steer my reflection about Jillian Edelstein’s unpublished photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Taken shortly after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed its work, the photograph evokes the moment during the TRC hearings when the Archbishop, Chairman of the commission, laid down his head and wept. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s conceptualization of “the face”; I discuss how affect is produced within and through Edelstein’s photograph, and specifically how the affective quality of the photograph both contributes to an understanding of the experience of suffering within the context of the TRC and summons an ethical response from the viewer.

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There was a long table, starched purple vestment and after a few hours of testimony, the Archbishop, chair of the commission, laid down his head, and wept. That’s how it began. – Ingrid de Kok
Reading Time: 13 minutes
Reading Time: 13 minutes
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