There is the idea of the unspeakable, the idea that “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence” (Ludwig Wittgenstein). Photographers usually are particularly interested in the idea of that, which we cannot speak of1. Whether it actually exists - Wittgenstein’s dictum notwithstanding - is questionable. But the idea that photography can somehow (magically?) express things that language is unable to offers solace to those struggling with words (most photographers actually).
Without doubt photography and written/spoken language operate in different ways, and that (and possibly only that) is what makes photography interesting for us humans. It is also the reason why photobooks have become such fascinating objects, given photographers have developed ways of telling stories that appear to run counter to our intuition. To tell a story, we think, you need to be specific, or specific enough to give people something to hold on to. With photographs, you can tell stories by being unspecific.
Teresa Eng’s Speaking of Scars is the culmination of “a three year period, from the work that preceded the attack, to the process of recovery and the eventual trial”2. Much like many recent photobooks, it works with smart sequencing, sizing, and placement of photographs. But there is more. Somewhat reminiscent of Anouk Kruithof’s A Head With Wings, Speaking of Scars contains pasted in images. Here, for the most part, they are used to obfuscate other photographs. The viewer can reveal what is hidden undernath easily. Unlike in the case of Kruithof’s book, there never is the feeling of things being gimmicky - quite on the contrary: Things appear necessary.
Speaking of Scars did not make too many “best of 2012” lists, but it should have. I suspect many people might not have seen the book. As a photobook, it is easily and most successfully pushing the boundaries of what can be done with the medium. And it also shows the enormous power that art making can have when it is used to process personal trauma. Highly recommended.
Speaking of Scars; photographs by Teresa Eng; 68 pages; self-published; 2012
1 The irony here is that photographers aiming to become successful in the art world often also discard the idea that “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” instead opting for the pseudo-academic drivel known as “artspeak”.
2 Quoted from the afterword of the book; I’m omitting further details, further specificity what “the attack” was since I want you to buy the book and see for yourself.