One of the foundations of Joachim Schmid’s work is the thought that there are way too many photographs in the world already so why not put those that exist to some intelligent use. At least, let us look at them a second time and contemplate their existence, or recontextualize them and introduce further questions of what we look at, what we draw in meaning, and what are the lasting values of the images. His latest book L.A. Women has a darker, real life context which is why I have chosen it as a follow up to Watabe Yukichi’s A Criminal Investigation.
In December 2010, the Los Angeles Police Department released 180 photographs of women found in the home of a known serial murder suspect. The release of the images was a public appeal for help in identifying the women who might be missing and those still alive as the known victims number only a dozen. The photographs do not tell which are which, they provide only a pool of possibility.
Without the context of sensational serial murder attached, the images appear to be innocuous portraits made with poor quality film, digital and video cameras. All are black women but for two whites. Some would look like pictures that people post to Facebook pages or snapped by friends. Many of the women smile, some appear asleep, many sit in the passenger seats of cars. A few of the images reveal small clues that some of the women might be exposing their breasts to the photographer although none of the croppings reveal any nudity.
With the context of being attached to the suspect, we search for grim clues. Many of which appear to have been taken in the back of a van. We notice that the rear windows have been masked with opaque paper or tinfoil. Some might be prostitutes but as Schmid says in his introduction, “We don’t know,” not even if the suspect took the images himself. One is snapped standing outside of the vehicle through the open passenger side window. She smiles as if stopping to chat with a neighbor. Does she know the driver or is the smile an automatic instinctual response to the camera? Is she being enticed into the car? offered a ride? In another, the photographer casts a shadow as he(?) frames a vertical but nothing is revealed that might lead the investigation. We feel the pull of information but are left dangling within the eeriness of the images.
We stare into the faces, some blurred by technical imperfections, and are confused by their calm expressions and smiles. We know the potential of the situation they are frozen within and for a moment we connect on a basic human level for survival – to warn and protect. Or, perhaps like viewing an image of a person before execution, we look to feel fear and master death one image at a time.