David Fathi: The Last Road of the Immortal Woman

Criosière, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

This, the winner of the 2016 Arles Photo Review, stands out as one of the highlights of the festival. It’s a small show, just 10 images, but it is densely packed with a depth of information and allusion that I have rarely seen in a photographic exhibition.

The story at the heart of the work is so incredible that I had to subsequently research to check whether the whole thing was a complex fiction (it isn’t). The premise is that in Baltimore in 1951, cells were taken from the body of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American cancer victim, and these cells displayed characteristics previously unknown to science: under certain conditions they would continue to grow and multiply. These so-called HeLa cells became the basis for thousands of experiments, without the family’s consent or even knowledge. Mrs Lacks may have been mortal like the rest of us but her cells are immortal.

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Fathi packs a lot into this work, perhaps a little too much. The story is amazing enough in its basic terms, but he adds further layers. First of all, the racial segregation of the period is held up as being both a metaphorical parallel to the cell science and an underlying cause for the disrespectful treatment of Lacks’ body. Additionally, some quite heavy science comes into play on the several text plates that cover more of the wall space than the photographs.

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It’s all very densely packed, and I found myself pacing between photographs and text until the depth of the work slowly revealed itself. On balance, I think my only criticism is that there is perhaps slightly too much text, and I can see a little judicious editing producing a version of the text that gets the message across without overwhelming the photographs.

The photographs then: one can imagine that Fathi may have initially felt stumped on how to visually communicate this story, six decades after the event. In the end, the metaphor of the journey from the hospital to the cemetery is a successful approach. The images are very darkly toned, and seem to have been developed in a particular method that resembles early photographic techniques; this heightens the funereal sense of the sequence. Alternate images are overlaid with a microscope image of a HeLa cell, and this rhythm lends a sensation of a pulse to the sequence, telling us that these images simultaneously represent death and continuing life.

There are small details in the images that I read as allusions: the second image (the first to include the cell overlay) has an inverted ‘No Loitering’ sign, which I saw as a darkly comic ‘up yours’ to mortality. In one of the later images the cell shape seems to vaguely resemble a map of the USA, tearing itself in two, which could be a segregation allusion. Or maybe I read too much into photographs.

In the final text Fathi says that he didn’t take any photographs in the cemetery out of respect, and whether this is true or not I believe that excluding the final destination of the body was the right decision, as it communicates that the cells never died; this feels to me like a more satisfying explanation than photographer unease.

Main takeaway

Nothing is truly unphotographable. Even if you can’t take a picture of The Thing Itself, you can use the visual language of photography to tell a story or transmit an idea.