Carolyn Rickett

On mourning, making, circulating: Refusing the 'posthumous humiliation' of Susan Sontag

Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon one that's as automated as possible, ready to spring - Susan Sontag On photography (1973)

The 'loquacious presence'1 of a loved one's death can demand a productive response. For artists working in literary and visual mediums, the affect of private grief is often channelled into a memorialisation project where a tangible artefact is constructed, and ultimately then made public. When noted intellectual Susan Sontag died from cancer, her 'close friend' Annie Leibovitz worked through her mourning process via the production, circulation (and commodification) of carefully selected images in A photographer's life: 1990-2005. The book's sweep of photographs - from an eclectic lens that documents and mediates the pathos of familial bonds, traversed geographies of global landmarks, and signature poses of the famous - dialogically, insistently and inevitably (re) arrange themselves around the haunting spectre of Sontag's illness and death. Leibovitz's imbricating desire is for a viewer to participate in a shared testimonial enterprise of mourning Sontag's palliative decline and abject body in extremis by gazing at her photographic record. This paper offers a personal meditation - an explanation (perhaps expiation) - on my respectful refusal to perform the ethically compromised role of Sontag's reciprocal witness.

Keywords: Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag, mourning, photography, reciprocal witness, ethical viewing


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Note on the contributor

Dr Carolyn Rickett is a Senior Lecturer in Communication and creative arts practitioner at Avondale College of Higher Education. She is co-ordinator for The New Leaves writing project, an initiative for people who have experienced or are experiencing the trauma of a life-threatening illness. Together with poet Judith Beveridge, she is co-editor of the following poetry books: The New Leaves poetry anthology, Wording the word, here, not there and A way of happening. Her research interests include: literary narratives, trauma studies, medical humanities, therapeutic writing, poetry praxis, journalism and ethics.