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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Remembering What you See: Rein Jelle Terpstra

pictures by Rein Jelle Terpstra

A break from dos and don'ts now.

So what would you want to remember seeing if you were going blind, if you were never going to see again?

‘Blindness is like a giant vacuum cleaner that takes over your life and sucks up almost everything. Your memories, your interests, your idea of time and how you would like to spend it, the places themselves, even the world; everything is hoovered away. Your consciousness is being emptied.’

John Hull in Touching the Rock (1990), the book in which he describes how all images gradually disappeared from his head after he went blind. Within just a couple of years, Hull had forgotten what his family or his house looked like .

That text (and the initial question) comes from Rein Jelle Terpstra's project and book on blindness, Retracing. It's a complex project about seeing, remembering, forgetting and losing one's sight (and with it one's visual memory) - and then relating this in book and exhibition form.

It's a thought-provoking and really engaging project which is collaborative in much that way that Anouk Kruithof's Happy Birthday was.

This is how Terpstra describes the project on his website.

InRetracing I am working with people who are about to lose their eyesight. I have asked them about images that are valuable to them. How would they like to remember these images and how can they do this? In a sense, I am looking over their shoulders to photograph the things they point out: the things they see, but also the things they still think they see or would like to see.

These images include the sea, someone's handwriting, the reflection in a mirror of a young woman applying make-up to her eyes, the view from the window, the studio of decorative painter, and much more.

All the images were shot on Kodachrome slides in 2010. Besides having special colours and sharpness, Kodachrome is known to last long. These images of light outlast human memory, which after all lasts only one lifetime.

I was able to have the films developed just in time in America, at the only place that still provided the service. They stopped developing this famous stock for good on 31 December 2010.

I will present this – analogue – series as a slideshow installation with multiple projectors.

For the people I work with in this project this is an urgent theme. For them, perception is no longer a given and has become a precious thing. Photography’s role of preserving images here becomes an ambivalent one.

Two human motives for photography – the wish the document certain moments and show the results to others – now have a different effect. For that reason I want to follow up this project and document it.

I keep in touch with these people. I give them prints of the slides and in a couple of years I will tell them about these prints. I will describe the photographs carefully in words, in an iconographic way, so that the images can be invoked in their heads through language.

So when you open the book you know you are seeing pictures of things that people want to remember. On the whole, the people featured in the book ordinary things that  have a tactile quality to them; a view from a window, a shiny length of piping, a paint splatted floor, an hand rubbing on eyeshadow, a trail of animal prints in the snow. Part of the reason for this is the gradual realisation on the part of the subjects that though they won't have a visual sense of the things that Terpstra is photographing, they will have other sensory experiences of those objects - the visual is being remembered through the auditory, the tactile, the olfactory senses.

Half of the book is filled with these pictures of ordinary things, with Terpstra photographing them in the service of his subjects.

The other half of the book is filled with pictures of the slide show in which the images were exhibited, with each one fading in and out rather like the blindness that will come to the people who chose those images. These are printed on a different paper stock and the background is black. Terpstra is running with a theme here, elevating the everyday into something that is to be savoured. The pictures are banal - they're not 'good' pictures, but the ideas around them elevate them into something altogether different,  something that is part of another person's experience, something that is about to be lost, something that extends beyond the picture on the page.

Terpstra says that he takes "...pictures of what they see, or think they see, and what they don't want to forget. The project is about farewell and loss, about almost anything that runs through your fingers... These people know exactly what images they will lose. One of the participants wanted me to record the insignificant, everyday images. "Those are the ones you will forget about first," she said."

Buy the book here. 

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