Photo Essay: Structures of Existence
The idea came to me after seeing a Louise Bourgeois exhibit a few years ago. One of the display cards said, in plain black print, “There’s no such thing as space, only structures of existence.”
I admit that I still don’t understand what Bourgeois meant by that, but since then, I have been taking note of people’s relations to their environments, whether these relations are natural, constructed, or both. Much of this interest has been fueled by my amateurish ventures in photography, which seems, to me, a blunt yet accessible medium for expressing such relations. The photographer Luigi Ghirri, for example, was a prime practitioner of this topographical approach, treating images as methods in decodifying spaces.
Traveling provides particularly rich ground for exploring new human-environment dialogues. Recently, I found myself in Japan with family. It was my first time there. I didn’t speak the language, so I spent most of the time as a keen observer. I registered how bodies conversed with spaces—locals would glide between, through, around, and across buildings, while tourists would break rhythm, halting here and there, jostling through subway crowds and temple paths. Each of these environments was undoubtedly altered by their multitude of figures. Some people stuck out like hitchhiker’s thumbs, others camouflaged effortlessly, yet all added their bodily fingerprints to the spaces they were inhabiting.
Partway through the trip, I began to fidget between two questions: What should I document? What should I experience? Such worries had little hope of being resolved in the moment. As a traveller, life is rife with documentary dilemmas. Sometimes you are nudged by a striking moment of beauty, urged into the motion of snapping an image without quite realizing what you are doing. And sometimes it is the opposite: you walk around with a lens in front of your eye, squinting into digitized glass, perceiving the world with its end in sight. Rarely does one find complete peace in setting aside these habitual insurances on memory.
For better or worse, photographs comprise the bulk of evidence that I have left of experiences. As much as they attempt to capture the existence of their subjects, they have also become my own proofs of being. Perhaps this is what Bourgeois had tried to impart, even if indirectly. We visit a place, intent on collecting shiny encounters, when what we experience is merely an extension of what we have already made for ourselves.
It is not unlike thumbing over a picture that has accumulated a thin patina of time, finding more than what you witnessed when you first saw it, and noticing, with reluctant wonder, a gesture toward what cannot be shown.
Phoebe Pan studies English literature and classical piano in Oberlin, Ohio. She is fond of the essay form and keeps a monthly tinyletter called Soupbone.