Merel BemJanuary 6, 202316:36

    The Image Formers section investigates how a photo determines our view of reality. This week: Pope Benedict XVI laid in state.

    Of course: it’s the Pope. Or was, in the years before Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, voluntarily stepped down in 2013. And are you (were) the highest boss of the Roman Catholic Church – although you would have preferred to sit with your nose in a book and your head in the sand until you died, instead of, for example, speaking out firmly about large-scale abuse within the church – then you can expect something to be organized when you die. A commemoration, a sober interment in the crypt, perhaps a canonization.

    Being laid out in full regalia in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, on top of the slanted coffin and beautifully lit by large spotlights – that is of course also part of it. That way, as many people as possible can catch a glimpse of your embalmed face from a distance.

    From a distance, I said.

    That was taken out of photography for a while. The fact that I chose the most zoomed-out image of the pope in state for this section (are drones actually allowed in St. Peter’s Basilica or did the photographer climb to the highest point of the famous dome himself?), should be seen as a kind of protest action. Because at the Getty news agency I found just as many examples in which the telephoto lens of the photographer had approached the laid-in-state deceased almost to the molecular level. It was zoomed in so far that the deep eye sockets, large flat ears, fingernails and dimples in the chin of the dead 95-year-old were visible in detail.

    By far the worst shot was taken from the feet, focusing on the pale, sunken face and curiously elongated nostrils. A little further and the man’s tonsils had revealed themselves. I didn’t often see this and the other close-ups taken by both Getty and Vatican photographers in the media. Usually photo editors chose an image from further away.

    Photos dead people

    Now, when it comes to photography, I am no more Catholic than the Pope. Pictures of dead people are endlessly fascinating. They have been around since the medium’s inception, when an image of a deceased child, ‘put down’ as if still alive, was often the only tangible memory for sad parents.

    Moreover, photography often gives us a glimpse of what our own eyes cannot reach. She shows us the nightlife when we ourselves go blind through the darkness. She shows us the world from a bird’s eye view and our own body from the inside. If you really want to take a good look at the Mona Lisa, it is better to surf to Google Arts from behind your own laptop than to travel to the Louvre. Instead of taking a quick look at a stamp behind bulletproof glass, here you can dissect the painting brushstroke by brushstroke using the strongest possible lenses. As if you are right on top of it, something we all think we are entitled to these days.

    This also applies, of course, to the pontifically zoomed-in photos of the former pope. Perhaps they are a comfort to believers who do not have the time or money to visit the Vatican City to pay their last respects. Perhaps they are immensely useful to those who only caught a glimpse of Benedict over their heads in St. Peter’s Basilica and can now see at home what they couldn’t see there.

    Still, I don’t like it. That slanted tone box, that theatrical lighting, that gigantic amount of image. Those close-ups, because it is technically possible by chance. Does the Vatican have macabre postcards in mind? Did Benedict XVI authorize this during his lifetime? Or was he just the pope and should he shut up?