Given the date, I’m tempted to label this one, “Valentine’s Day, The Day After.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful image of what love is all about: the deep bond and real beauty that can be found when people face life’s struggle together.
I could go on about the richness of this image–the fruit on the table on the left, as if out of a Dutch still life; the varied cultural associations, all powerful, caught up in her red shirt; the tension between repose and anxiety in her clasped hands. . . . But these and the other details, both light and dark, in this remarkable photograph are not there for merely artistic appreciation.
The photo is one from the Remittance series by Robert Gumpert, a photographer working out of San Francisco on behalf of prisoners, migrant laborers, and other human beings. (Warning: this link to his website will take you to some heart-stopping photos.) This series is a meditation on migrant earnings–the remittances–that flow back across borders as yet another form of alienated labor. Gumpert notes that, according to the World Bank, remittances to developing countries are expected to increase 7 to 8 percent annually, reaching $467 billion by 2014. Thus, capital flows at the bottom of the economic hierarchy much like it does at the top: transnationally, and in a manner that can abstract, displace, or destabilize social relationships. The difference, of course, is that the flows at the top hurt other people, while the social costs at the bottom stay there.
Which is one reason why this highly enigmatic image is so moving. It could be a work of performance art, but it’s not. The decor suggests that she is doing fine, but the mask, well, that’s another story yet to be told. Asthmatic? Factory worker? Sex Worker? (In fact, she works in a nail salon.) She is both present and concealed, and somehow alienated from us and even it seems from her own environment. She seems too enclosed for her own good, and yet that enclosure may be all she has left of herself, with her money, chance of getting ahead, and control over her own life already sent elsewhere.
I don’t know what Robert Gumpert had in mind when he took these images, but I do know that he has given us something to think about, and something to think with. Each image captures a profound sense of reality without out telling us exactly what that is. What is unsaid is as important as what is being said; if, that, each side of the image is used to understand the other. This back and forth is not an arbitrary exercise in interpretation, however, but essential to understanding a reality that is defined by people and capital constantly moving back and forth across so-call borders, and often leaving only desolation in between.
Photographs by Robert Gumpert. The series is not yet available for public distribution, but I’ve provided these examples with his permission.