Take a Photo, Tell a Story

by Carlo Levy

Photographs are eternal. They span across time and space to reach millions of people, delivering an assortment of themes, messages, theories, and memories. Photographs stand the tests of time because of one magical truth – they tell the same stories but in different ways. Throughout the course of the history of photography, one cannot help but see a trend of photographs that are created either in the likeness of or inspired by works that preceded them. That is because history has a tendency of repeating itself, and wherever history creates moments, photographers are there to capture and share those moments. Photographers are visual storytellers – they narrate similar tales in creatively different ways. Two photographers, Felice Beato and Rong Rong, are two such storytellers. In examining two of their works, Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered[i] and No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown[ii], one will find this truth in photography – photographers share the same stories but through their own unique voices. The differences in photographs reveal how truly similar they are.

Beato’s Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered and Rong Rong’s No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown both use as their setting a Chinese site that has been destroyed, abandoned, and forgotten. The subjects in the two images are corpses – war victims in the first and a dead bride in the latter. Both exude a feeling of abandonment, relinquishment, and desertion. Beato’s image depicts a fort where war was occurred, and in its aftermath, all that remains is death, destruction, and unanswered questions. Similarly, Rong Rong’s image reveals a village where something, possible war, has left it abandoned, relinquished, and deserted. All that remains is death, destruction, and unanswered questions. Both artists creatively placed the corpses so as to achieve such a dramatic effect. In fact, both images are creations in that they are not snapshots of a moment in time. Rather, they are reconstructed and contrived to tell a story. By doing so, two photographers are sharing a tale of death and demise.

Amidst the similarities between the two images, Beato and Rong Rong differ in their view on death, and this can be seen in the voice they use to tell their stories. Beato’s purpose in his image is to tell a story of death that is final and permanent. The battle that has occurred at the Taku Fort has left it literally in shambles. The corpses are purposefully lain about to decorate the setting of destruction and death. They lack any individualistic identity; they are but masses of a decaying matter. The viewer has no story about them except that they were Chinese soldiers. What is important is that they have no future. In their defeat, these soldiers have accomplished nothing. There is no hope for reconciliation or redemption because there is no one to mourn them. In fact, there is no sign of life at all. Beato made it a point to make absent the victors of battle and instead make the corpses the focus of his image. What is seen is what is received – death and finality.

Juxtaposing Beato’s image to that of Rong Rong, we see a markedly different interpretation of death. Again, the viewer is greeted with a scene of abandonment with the desolate Chinese village. Again, the viewer finds death with a corpse purposefully lain in the heart of the rubble. However, Rong Rong has incorporated an element that was absent in Beato’s – life. Next to the corpse one finds two standing figures, a bride and a nude man. The nude man is actually Rong Rong himself, so immediately one sees that the artist is involving himself directly in the story, whereas Beato was merely recanting his tale from a third-party perspective. The nude man stands by the bride as a couple normally would when receiving vows of marriage. They are making a commitment to start a new life together. Thus this image offers a complex narrative of death and life. Beato’s view of death was that of finality. Rong Rong contests that through death, there is life afterwards. Perhaps he is suggesting that life can be achieved only through death. The fact that his embodiment in the image is nude proposes that by dying, one regains his purity and essence. The viewer is not left with a feeling of abandonment because the bride, who can be argued to be the resurrected corpse, is the man’s companion. They are looking through the torn entrance of the village, ready to embark on their life beyond. Rong Rong offers hope and redemption, offering a promise of second chances and new life.

Beato and Rong Rong demonstrate the tenacity of photographers in telling similar stories by adding their own meanings through their own voices. Both offer a discussion of death, but both reveal their own views on it. Beato’s sense of finality and conclusiveness is overshadowed by Rong Rong’s sense of new life and eternality. Using similar methodologies of contrived materials and historic locations, these artists are able to present their own narration of death – one negative and one positive. But there is that one element, death, which unites the two images together, empowering viewers to raise their own questions of death and life. The differences in photographs reveal how truly similar they are. It is up to the viewer to make that connection. Thus is the magic of the story telling of photography.

[i] Beato, Felice. Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered. British, Tianjin, China, August 21-22, 1860. Albumen silver print.

[ii] Rong Rong. No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown. Chinese, 2000. Gelatin silver print with applied color.


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