Mural of Pain

— Peter Lucas

Photographs, being made of paper, are fragile things in this world. In time they inevitably turn yellow, they begin to crack, and fade away into the anonymous hues of dusk. Memory is also fragile. People everywhere hold onto memories through family snapshots. And while there are many kinds of memories in photographs, personal stories often become social constructs when family photos slip away into the public realm. For this reason, families in traumatic situations sometimes use their personal photos in public situations to salvage memory and bear witness. And while there is no guarantee that one’s personal story will be preserved forever, their decisions to let go of their visual memories stirs that vulnerable process of degradation and the fundamental forces of nature.

Such is the case with the Mural of Pain. In the last 10 years, some 300,000 people have been killed by small arms in Brazil. How can we begin to visualize these stories? On July 7, 2000, people from all parts of Rio de Janeiro tried to evoke such a collective tragedy. For one day, they created a 150-meter wall of personal photographs in a public square. People were stapling pictures to the plywood backing, taping them side by side, wrapping precious wallet-size photos in cellophane and gluing them to the boards, and writing messages for the departed. The finished mural was a collage of portraits, family photographs, posters, letters, personal journals, prayers, news clippings, violent images from the press, and notices of the disappeared. The wall was called The Mural of Pain.

Walking along the mural that day, I began to photograph the photos and I was struck by the interplay of family photography and the ethical act of witnessing. All the dramatic and sensational press photos of public violence were mixed in with humble school pictures, snapshots from birthday parties, candid portraits, vacation pictures at the beach. Instead of the usual post-mortem crime scene photos, families were choosing to exhibit their loved ones as healthy and sexual beings in the prime of their lives. The overlap of images blurred the lines between personal and collective memory. It also evoked the sensation that each death was connected to a larger culture of violence. Suddenly, one could begin to visualize thousands of homicides a year in a city.

As a participatory media project, the mural was also a huge vernacular photo essay scripted not by the media or by professional photo-journalists, but by the survivors and kin of those who were gone. Public grieving is a basic human right and the families were exercising their rights not to be passive victims but to participate in a larger cultural debate about violence and public safety. It was also a chance for families to write their own captions and stories. As people lit candles at night at the base of the wall, the mural was transformed into an ephemeral visual memorial with each story flickering for but a day.

On the 10th anniversary of the event I decided to make a short film about the mural focusing on remembrance, memorization, and the right to memory. When I located the panels in Rio, they had moved through several different storage situations over the years and the photos had succumbed to the weathering of time and imperfect warehouse conditions. At the end, they had been moved outdoors into the sun, the heat, the wind, the rain, the cold, and into the natural desiccation process by insects. As the photos began to peel apart and breakdown, their scars seemed to bring out the fragility of life itself. And even the fragments of language that were left took on an almost found archeological dimension where the traces of memory had been pared down to their poetic essence.

In this advanced state of decay, the photos seemed more essential. This bittersweet acceptance that all things are impermanent, that everything is either in a state of becoming or dissolving, does not lessen the collective tragedy of the Mural of Pain. The disappearing photos remind us of our own mortality, our connective relationship with those that have gone before us, and our ethical responsibility to work for change in what little time we have together. This tender sadness of time passing inherent to photography, this ephemeral nature of beauty in the world that we were once young and alive, this existential destiny we all share, seems more evident in the distressed nature of the photos. As I photographed the mural again 10 years later, I began to understand that the closer these photos get to nonexistence, the more we all exist, before and after nothingness.

To see some of the photographs from the Mural of Pain:

To see a trailer from the Mural of Pain film:

The Mural of Pain from Peter Lucas on Vimeo.

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