Some years ago, this photo of this young girl smoking was literally covering half of the Fotomuseum in The Hague. My specialty is photojournalism and what I thought when I saw this photo is very much proof of how focusing on something for a long time, can create certain patterns of thought and can make us see connotations. I remember looking at it and thinking – issue: child prostitution/ problem: makes it seem mysterious and Lolita-like/observation: even then, the simple beauty and the candid look in the child’s eyes is arresting, and it does make a point, through contrast, a rough one. And… I was completely wrong. Instead, this is an art photo called Cigarette Candy, and it is part of the Immediate Family series through which American photographer Sally Mann became well known in 1992. Seeing these photos made me want to know more. And this is how I ended up watching What Remains.
Sally Man does not want to be an artist, she simply is one. In the film, she genuinely talks about herself and her work, and it all seems so natural. She makes art out of the ordinary, she photographs the things and the people which are closest to her. In fact, that’s her advice to young photographers: to photograph things that are close, because the best art you can make is out of the things you know and love.
Mann lives in Virginia, on a farm. The film is not only a look into her artistic process but also into her daily life, which includes her husband, her children and a lot of animals.
The title What Remains comes from the photo series she is working on during the film. She is documenting death and the decaying process through which the body goes after the person dies. It is her aim to challenge values and moral attitudes but she doesn’t do it for the sake of doing it. Instead she takes a genuine look, an empathetic and uncompromising one at precisely what happens. And she is warm and fearless.
The films shows everything from her method which requires so much patience, to the way she sees the world, and this last part is what I was most fascinated by.
There are two points in which I recognize myself in what she says and does. One is that her work involves the quotidian, the things close by. And since I was small I had a fascination and attention for the details of our surroundings, the things that make our environment and the way we relate to them. They make a lot of our experience and our story. We live our lives with those things and they have meaning.
I recognized myself also in the direct way in which she looks at the world. One particular story that sticks to my mind is the one in which she tells about a man escaping from jail and ending up on her land. The man gets shot by the police and when she goes to see what happened, she sees a tiny puddle of blood on the ground. She feels like touching it and she sees the ground absorbing it slowly. How is that for detail, for observation and for a poetic way of looking at what generally is not accepted as poetic?
You can watch the trailer below and see the whole film online here.