with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

What I Was Looking for Was Green

Bloodless categories, narrow notions of the visible and the empirical, professional standards of indifference, institutional rules of distance and control, barely speakable fears of losing the footing that enables us to speak authoritatively and with greater value than anyone else who might . . . Our methods have thus far been less than satisfactory for addressing the very nature of the things and the problems it is our responsibility to address, leaving us not yet making something new enough out of what are arguably many new ideas and novel conditions.

Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters[1]

Though I have not yet made something new enough, I am coming upon things less narrow — by the day, speaking more fears. Everything less and less academic. I am giving up the footing of authority, slipping where the bloody paths of history articulate with the lies of futurity. I find truths warped in my own tiny frames, pull them from drawers, stop, startle, write what changes in the moment, match it with memory. Fail. A photography theorist, steeped and unmoored.

I am tracing time in all of the directions in which unspeakable violence launches it. I know enough to start. I know that the time of racialized and gendered trauma is erratic; it moves backward and forward, circling and hovering, quick like vivid flashbacks, slow like graying hope, in fits and starts, like wounding and like healing. I study the alchemy of what makes the complex personhood of her, and her, and her. I look for her shape and his hands, her shape and his hands, and her shape and his hands.[2] Their shapes, their hands.

For a long time I did this, in part, by neglecting to articulate what haunted me, and the images that made me, alongside “other” hauntings, along with/even as other haunted images. I had read, been moved by, other theorists’ calls to look at the spectres to which their visions pointed me.  I went and I wrote everywhere with ghosts, but never consciously with my own.

But now I look for her shape in his hands.

She would fall or run but for the steadying and the holding.  Of her shape in his hands. It’s 1975, in September.  She is 21 months old and her hair is molded, but thick and soft, a textured complement to uniform polyester. That green pantsuit.  She can feel it if she can’t remember it.  Hair thick, soft, molded funny, atop so much synthetic sharpness, like in all of her little girl pictures. She won’t ever know if her toddler hair naturally made a tendrilled mushroom because her mother would have daily worked it into that shape and her mother is gone now, before she thought to ask her.  Did you put sponge rollers in your one-year old’s hair?  If she did, they were pink and the clasps made a plastic-y snapping sound when they closed and opened.

Her lips are stuck before the cry they never get to. No, they are not about-to-smile lips. Because of what we know now and because of how we see now: this picture came immediately before what came after, 13 years later, when the same shadows and snakes that framed and circled were also there.  And the cry was definitely also there and there were things that muffled it.  Her look is always steadied, if not itself steady, straight-lipped in the face of tremblings.  What would she look like if she quivered?   How would she land if she fell?  Where would she go if she ran?

His is a gritted teeth smile.  He holds tight in that pose because there is a chance that that loving kneel might brace all of them against a whiskied rage.  There are years of this possibility, punctuated by moments of truth.  There are starry summer nights when what is perfect is to sit with him on a blue and red plaid sleeping bag, atop this same parched grassy spot, to listen to him laugh at his own stories, watch him tip between his lips so many miniature V.O. whiskey bottles. A Daddy version of a tea party. She warmed to be there — special, smiling deep inside, eating up lessons in poetic cynicism.  Her first Ethnic Studies classes. Her first introduction to the “gringos that will destroy you before they see you succeed, mija.” They stayed with her.  And it was hard to know, through and despite this love, that the bloodied knuckles, dented doors, and shrieking mothers always happened just a few feet from there.

She came to match the color of death and she always thought it was her fault.  (Of course, it was the family that dressed her that way). The garden hose that snaked around them, the one always slithering behind, was green like her pantsuit.  She wore the blame for years because she loved him and wanted to help him and he asked her to and though she was smart, like everyone knew — so very smart — she didn’t stop to think that there is no life-giving role for a torn garden hose.  That when your shrieking-turned-steady mother tells your sad, sad, father that she is done, finally done, with fists and falling and he shakes and looks for torn garden hoses in the garage, if you are 14 years old and you follow him there, it is not a helping time.

If you are 14, you will not know what this time will mean.  He put it in the trunk of his car.  She watched.  He drove away with the same looped and torn thing that, before, they’d used to water hope.  He tied the hug of one end of it around a big tree by a small cliff, the other end of it around his neck, and then the jump choked and snapped all life, all time, and the purple death spread and suspended at once.  Caught desert air.  Bled the sun.  It was Easter Sunday.

A girl very unlike her, pure from praising the resurrection that morning, found it early that afternoon while playing with her brother on that small mountain in New Mexico. The monstrous thing swayed, bruised and hanging.  It took her innocence without a word, with limpness and ugliness, and no one has ever apologized.

I look for her shape in his hands.

I move in time with ghosts.  They are snapped and shot in visions.  I theorize them in photographs.  I pin them down and let them go and I follow again where they take me. They are taking me closer to her, and more and more, she needs new words, my different voice, to reckon with them. They are not only remnants of the past, pieces of history and memory, that flash up in moments of danger, but they are loomings of the future.  They flash like predictions.[3]  Their traumas are horizons.  Their images are pixelated ticking.  We have to see them before they’ve come and gone or we will never see them coming, or how they came.

I look for her taking shape in his hands.

I look for her, for her – for her benefit. I look for her taking shape in order to find and theorize the time of trauma so that it attends to its reflected and predicted properties in the experience of images, of photographs. I thus look for her and how she sees. I look for what she remembers as if she always knew it, and how the photographic experience – through its work with and across the time of trauma – turns objects of memory into signs of future death.

Barthes is instructive in this quest, as he writes that death is the essence of the photograph, noting not just the freezing — the flat death immediately produced by the camera’s work — but also the prediction, the inevitability, of every photographic subject’s death in their imaged and forever stilled likeness.[4] But how is trauma indexed in particular photographs? How does trauma change the subjects-objects within photographs to become traumatic signs – or trauma filters, themselves?

It is not enough – for her who is looking for her shape – for us to say too-general things about the analogous work of trauma and photography, for example, that they both index something not fully experienced, something that our everyday capacities can’t decipher, but at the same time, deliver this thing, this unseen, to us in the affective realm. Ulrich Baer writes: “the shutter’s click allows certain moments to be integrated for the first time.” The photographs are of the past, but not. “Such images stage not a return of the real but its first appearance: an appearance of a meaning that… although it concerns the past, did not exist there.”[5] This meaning may, I suggest, exist in and for the future that then folds itself over onto the past.

My mother made the shutter click, and in Baer’s terms allowed this moment to be integrated for the first time into an immediate context of experience, memory, and meaning of which I have no direct recollection. I don’t know what it meant for her and those who held it as a photograph before it became mine. My own, lived contexts of experience, of memory, have determined the meanings I take when I look at this image, and they have all changed, and changed back, and changed again, over and across time. My mother made the shutter click and birthed what can never not be evidence that my father and I would be snaked and overtaken by a garden hose. She made the shutter click and birthed all of that death. The ultimate abject maternal and her killing vision.

This is deeply theoretically interesting, but I never sit long with this idea because it echoes too much gendered violence, violence at the hands of family that abandoned us after he did. The idea slides too easily, blends too easily into my father’s family’s notion that my mother killed him when she told him she was divorcing him. It’s a notion that forgets the death he carried himself, the death he made of her and her desires – on her and our behalf — for his fatherhood. The death he nurtured of her self-worth, the death he managed to make with so many otherwise life-holding vessels – the garden hose being the most literal, material.

Whose trauma is in this vision? Framed with this question, the moment that this photograph captures is integrated for the first time into a context of meaning, memory, and experience that centers the effaced maternal. My effaced maternal, my mother. I look, also, for her shape in his hands.

My mother made the shutter click and birthed the image. Its meaning has been integrated – and has resisted integration — many times over into different contexts of experience, memory, and meaning and it has, in turn, changed – literally colored — other experiences, memories, and meanings. Which brings me to one of my central questions which, deliberately, is not what constitutes the photography of trauma, but what does the photography of trauma constitute? How does it shape our visions and temporality within and beyond them?

It’s been in that frame for as long as she can remember. Growing up, the green in it was equally about her pantsuit, the color the grass wanted to be, and the garden hose he’d use to care for his aspirations: cucumbers, tomatoes (these did ok), apple trees (these did not), a cherry tree that he knew would never yield a thing but that he planted for her anyway because she loved cherries. The green was all of these things; it was there, undeniable, a kind of permanent promise.

She looked at the photograph for years before and after the promise was broken. Before the garden hose broke it with the help of his hands, before – at and around his neck – it broke the promise. And she looked at it for many years after. The green was always unmistakable, though what it came to mean, what it had done, was now colored in, by, and as, horror. Anymore, to see the futile promise of cherry trees in it was far beyond what she could do. This was now, almost always, a picture of him about to let her fall, a picture of him dropping and breaking.

Four years ago, I contacted a childhood friend retired from the Albuquerque Police Department to ask if he could help me obtain the police report from 1988 that I’d never seen, that nobody in my family had ever seen. I’d made calls to the relevant park ranger’s office many times, but nobody had been helpful. It had been almost 30 years. A month after I emailed my friend, he sent me the report, attached to a short message: “I’m very sorry. This is hard. I hope it gives you what you need.”

Immediately, I looked for the photographs.

I didn’t need them. It was ok that they weren’t there. I’m not angry at my friend who never answered me when I pointed out that there was a photo evidence sheet in the report, but no photos. I told him I wasn’t asking for them yet, I just wanted to know if he had them. He never answered. I wrote later and said I wouldn’t be asking again. It was ok. I’d seen it vividly in my head for almost 30 years and a hanging – however much you want it not to – looks only, ever, like a hanging. Sometimes it looks like a sweet father-daughter scene on a parched front lawn. What could the police report’s photographs show me that I wasn’t always carrying anyway, and in any case, I know now that I am deeply invested in the integrity of my own traumatic visions and the context of my experience that makes them slip in and out of one another, that makes them color objects and twist time.

I remember the hose as green. I remember helping him look for it and what I was looking for was green. I remember him carrying it, green rubber loopy, to the car and putting it in the trunk. But the police report says it was white. Maybe it was. Maybe he did take the green one with him and for some reason, somehow, ended up using a white one instead. Or maybe when my mother made the shutter click, she birthed not only horror posed as a loving father-daughter pair, but a sweet, green memory that would battle against a limp and purple death. When I was fourteen, I saw him take to his car the snake that had always bound us, but in truth, it was never a snake until that Easter Sunday.

And now when I look at it, it is always that snake and was always going to be that snake, except for when another narrative interrupts the integrity of my traumatic vision, throws a warp in traumatized time and implores me, us, to look more closely at its pixelated ticking. It grabs what’s in front of it as much as it remains stuck in what lies behind. Was the snake green or was it white and how did trauma make it?


Ruby C. Tapia is a prison abolitionist scholar and activist. She theorizes, writes, and teaches about the photographic visualities of trauma.






[1] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996) 21.

[2] In Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, she writes, “I see her shape and his hand in the vast networking of our society, and in the evils and the oversights that plague our lives and laws.” Williams is referring to a very different and very personal history with this observation; however, other authors and readers, including Avery Gordon, have applied this language to interrogate experiences of social and personal control over violently disempowered women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 19.

[3] In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin wrote “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Illuminations, Introduced by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973) 255.

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 15.

[5] Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Boston: MIT Press, 2005) 12.

Related Posts