By Meg O’Neill
With age, eyes like a lens, adjust to the bizarre new realities of the world, as naivety is lost and awareness to life’s imperfections grows more evident. Life will never be all sunshine and daisies. Instead, the encroaching darkness of tragedies will always loom about, threatening to swallow one whole. Yet, through the lens of the camera a shutter is opened, allowing for light and hope to be brought in, even if for 1/4 of a second. Photography has become a way of coping, a way of instinctively capturing the world and in print, later, beginning to understand it.
Anais Nin once said “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are” 1
Because “we see things as we are,”1 the resulting body of work, Leave Me, speaks to themes that are personal to the experience of documenting Cuba froman American’s perspective. In four different collections of 10-12 photographs in each, echoed forms, colors and subjects string together to both create a holistic representation of Cuba while simultaneously connecting motifs that are beyond just the Cuban experience. The photographic series Leave Me makes use of how personal experience tends to influence perception, conditioning reactions to the work. Due to the chaos that previous experiences create, the individual perception of the viewer creates barriers to the interpretation of the work. Through the use of imagery, both barriers and chaos show their ability to be contained by the capturing of a photograph. This idea continues through the photographs of items that reflect the concept of containment. Leave Me explores how the pre-conditions of man’s own experience cause chaos that must be contained in order to survive.
Consumed with the psychological clutter of the daily lives we attempt to survive, religion becomes a way to motivate ourselves. Religion provides comfort in knowing we are not caged by only our earthly lives, but that there is more beyond the walls of this earth. Drawing the viewer in close, Leave Me I entices the viewer to linger in and among each image, as the photographs depict images of bizarre morbidity and curious scenes of unavoidable clutter. Thus, religion invites the viewer in by providing comfort of the known and reassurance of safe passage through the unknown. These images ground the viewer in an uncertain location but evidently that of a developing country. This can be seen in the dilapidating, colonial style of architecture, the images of fallen rubble, air drying clothes, and some mystical shrine. As the viewer continues along in the sequence, he or she becomes more and more aware of the Latino and African ethnicities of the people present in the photographs; there are no Caucasians. The ethnicities begin to hint at the location of these photographs, as well as point to a culture, which tends to be more involved with their practices of religion. In addition, the content of the images, such as the outdoor caged birds, the Catholic saint, the beached sacrifice, the tribal mask, and the mystical shine are all hints that help to define the culture; thus presumably placing the location of these photographs in a Latin American country. The images then form a comprehensive portrait of a place, and place is a necessary container for all life to survive. It is also what then can define life, defining aspects of one’s life. Through these images of this unknown place, religion becomes more prominent, and thus defining this place.
Leave Me I gives the viewer glimpses of an undefined and chaotic place with religion as a form of assurance. Comfort became lost in the taking of these photographs; as an American traveling in an unknown foreign place filled with was curiosity and fear, yet was bold enough to release the shutter. This vulnerability is reflected in the subsequent photographs as they remind the viewer of mortality and entrapment. The images are 18 by 13 inches, making them big enough to see detail, but small enough to allow for the viewer to not be overwhelmed by the scale. The scale, stagnancy and content of photograph leaves the viewer susceptible to fear by viewing images of death, overwhelming chaos, and entrapment. Leave Me I, giving the viewer only subtle hints of location, compels the viewer to connect to the entrapped subject’s fear of what they do not know. The fear of the unknown consumes the mortal who can see, hear and fear, yet even with all these clues is still disconnected from certainty.
The sequencing Leave Me I, arranged in a pattern of horizontal- horizontal-vertical, horizontal-horizontal-vertical, creates a visual beat that reflects the rhythm of the subjects’ lives. Even within the still images of these photographs, one gathers a sense of sound emerging from the streets or waves, as the camera appears to have captured only a moment among many of continuous action. Sound, in essence, is a sense, which can only be heard by the living body’s ear. Thus, the sequencing, the visual content and the implied sound comforts and reminds the viewer that, unlike the bagged bird, they are alive. The same holds true with the sense of sight. A dead body cannot see, and only the living eye may experience the physical sense of sight. Thus, in experiencing these images, even the images containing death, the viewer becomes aware of his or her own physical existence.
Dilapidated. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18X13 inches)
Dilapidated, the first image in Leave Me I depicts cluttered chaos amongst distressed buildings andthe blue sky. The blue sky is completely contained by the surrounding buildings and photographic frame, making it inaccessible to the people in the frame. A large pile of stone rubble and trash sits in the foreground. A brown dog scavenges in the rubble and people stand to the right of the rubble. The faces of the people are either turned away from the lens or blurred, encouraging the viewer to focus on the messy environment. The lines of the buildings attempt to bring the image to a single point perspective, yet the rubble destroys this attempt for order, creating a sense of uneasy despair. In addition, the overwhelming mess of the rubble appears to be trapping the subjects as they are teased by the blue sky, which they cannot access. This is reflective of the way in which physiological chaos can overwhelm one, trapping them from viewing the world expansively like the sky. However, organized and un-tilted, the framing of the photograph allows for some comfort among the chaos as it is brought to order.
Circles. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18X13 inches)
The second image, Circles, continues the chaos with many wild birds freely flying. These birds unlike the people before have access to the sky above, giving them freedom from being trapped in chaos, unlike the people. In the right foreground a Catholic saint holds a cross up and out, almost as if towards the free spirited birds. This saint is the first religious icon seen in Leave Me I and tries to impose order on this hectic scene. A tan building sits low across the frame and another stone building emerges diagonally down and center from the top right. Again in Circles and the next image, Flying, the buildings and frame confine the blue sky. The buildings, as man’s way of containing life’s activities, begin to work as a cage for blocking the subjects of the photographs from vast freedom of the skies.
Flying. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (13X18 inches))
From the perspective of looking upwards, Flying displays clothes drying in the wind. The movement of the wind through the clothes brings chaos to the image, yet the chaos is confined to the rack that hangs these clothes. Furthermore, these chaotic clothes are literally being filled with the sky as the wind blows through them, connecting containment to freedom.
Caged. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18X13 inches)
The fourth image Caged, brings order to the sequence as two birds sit in cages against a distressed wall and on the right of the image an elderly women walks past a dark interior space. The living birds are trapped within cages unable to fly freely, while next to them an elderly woman is walking freely. Yet, because of the hexagonal shape created by a reflection of light on the lens, the viewer is reminded of this image of being a photograph, which is trapping the women. The women is not literally caged by the birds, yet the abstraction of her is unable to freely move, making her seem closer to an object then a living human being who is able to experience chaos. These images begin to associate ordering chaos with compartmentalization as a form of achieving freedom.
Eye of the Mask. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18X13 inches)
The light acts as freedom from entrapment in Leave Me I. Sky is religiously associated with the heavens and light religiously associate with the divine. Thus in having both religious entities and the sky shown in the Leave Me I the photographs draw parallels between religion and the sky. Eye of the Mask depicts a marble floor with a wooden tribal mask top center. The divine heavens are implied through the blue and yellows reflected on the tiled floor, understood as light coming through a stained glass window. Through the play of the light, the mouth hole of the mask is highlighted in blue while the eyes are highlighted by yellow light. From a religious standpoint, these subtle hints bring to mind the spreading of the gospel through word of mouth, and the old saying “I have seen the light.” Although Eye of the Mask shows one specific place, the reflective quality of the marble, along with the illuminated light, create or imply other worlds that might be entered by slipping through the marble cracks. Because these worlds cannot physically be accessed, they imply further entrapment and association to heaven, which cannot physically be accessed except through death.
Sacrifice. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18 X 13 inches)
This place embodies the overwhelming feeling of entrapment through the imagery of walls, cages, bags, and jars. This theme of entrapment is furthermore echoed in the capturing of each object by the lens of the camera. Sacrifice shows a clear plastic bag containing some sort of bird only seen by the yellow claws, lying on the beach. The bag is in the foreground and cuts through the earth, water and air, giving the bag and whatever is inside omnipresence like that of a spirit. Many grey and white clouds are seen against a vast blue sky. Although transparent, the bag appears predominately white and gray, similar to the clouds in shape and color, consequently linking death to religion through the merging of the sky and the dead bird on the earth. The irony that the bird should be in the sky and not trapped on the ground further connects containment to death. Death, being a permanent state, as far as science knows, of disconnect from the experiences of the world is yet another form of containment shown in Leave Me. As seen by all the objects that have been able to access the sky thus far in the images, namely the birds and clothes, order has been imposed in order to allow for this access. Even in the apparent chaos of Circles, the birds still appear to be flying in a pattern as hinted at in the name. Thus, Leave Me I depicts access to freedom from physiological chaos to be done through containment and order.
My Morocco. 2003. Burno Babrey. Book
Forms that create references to themes of containment and chaos within the Leave Me series work in a similar way to Burno Babrey’s body of work entitled My Morocco. Babrey’s fascination with Morocco enables for the capturing of forms within the culture that mimic one another to create themes within the work. These forms are often patterns. One reoccurring theme implied by the patterns brought up is that of containment seen by “the City that Anais Nin likened to the inside of a brain captured perfectly, [by Burno Babrey], its labyrinthine quality.”2
Keep-Sake. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (13×18 inches)
The final image, Keepsake, combines the ordering of chaos with containment. Order is brought to the room in Keepsake by two uncluttered shelves holding a wooden box at the bottom and two jars which reveal a dead preserved lizard and bat upon closer observation. These two keepsakes continues to remind the viewer of death’s containment of worldly chaos. If as mortals our souls are contained to our bodies, then the image provokes the question “Is there an escape for the soul from the clutter of daily life other than death?” Thus the light from the window to the left of the frame becomes important, as it guides the viewer back into a reassurance of the beyond, as both an escape and alternative possibilities.
In the Leave Me II collection of photographs, the lens is used to explore how past experiences and relationships can influence stagnancy in our actions. In Leave Me I images were placed in a pattern by a vertical and horizontal plan creating a rhythmic beat. In part two, the orientation of the photographs set the pattern, but the last three images disrupt the rhythm as they become more random. This disruption takes away the rhythm of the photographs leaving the work as a whole still. The stillness is similar to the stagnancy caused the entrapping qualities of past experience. It is also reflective of the Cuban people’s inability to access freedom from the economic conditions imposed by the United States’ trade restrictions. This will be discussed later in Leave Me IV. In addition, the photographs use content and forms, such as multiples and suspended objects, to display relationships of ungrounded multiplicity.
Hang On. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print. (13X18 inches))
Past memories are grounded by time and place, yet through the mind memories become abstracted from their defining characteristics into mere lingering feelings onto which the mind hangs. Within Leave Me, content of hanging or suspended forms references something that is metaphorically, hanging on or about to let go. These hanging forms can most clearly be seen in the fourth image, Hang On, where two hanging plants in shadow obstruct the background. This obstruction of suspended forms is similar to the way in which individual perception, as a result of past experience, is suspended within the mind, obstructing the way in which the world is viewed. This connection between suspended forms as obstructing perception is made by what is beyond the archway. Two individuals are frozen in their movement through a gallery of paintings. The contemplation of the artwork by the girls references the process of perception from yet another viewpoint. The people within the image, unaware of an outside presence, attempt to make sense what they are seeing. Yet the viewer is witnessing them from a removed state is able to see the order through the archway containing and simultaneously obstructing paired items such as the two plants, two girls, and two paintings, which organizing the image.
Waiting. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18 X13 inches)
The face, expressing emotional reactions, is one of the most recognized and remembered forms of the body, yet in Leave Me II the faces in the photographs have all been obscured or blocked from full view. This distortion disconnects the viewer from an emotional connection to the individuals within the photographs and likens the humans to objects. Objectified humans then are seen to be stagnate. In Waiting a women sits outside a closed green door against an orange wall with a stone monster-like face protruding from the wall. The women’s face is obscured from view, looking away from the camera in longing, but the viewer cannot be sure. She waits, shut outside a building, genuinely unaware of anyone watching her. The face jutting out from the wall is the only face in Part Two that is clearly in focus. Its mouth opens narrowly and the dark contrast into the mouth allows for only one small access into the building behind the wall. This face and its weighted expression represent a magnification of the emotions of the individuals within Leave Me II. The pressures of living in a developing world, mixed with the emotional toll of living surrounded by chaos have weighted these individuals. Coincidently, the face is carved from stone; making it just like the individuals and objects within the series, stagnate from action as ramification of their emotion.
Leave Me with its rich color pallet invites the viewer in even in the frightening images. Leave Me III starts to bring barriers into the images, blocking the background from full view, which will later be emphasized in the final series. These barriers also act as distortions of reality as the glass obscures the view in the back, the CD reflective qualities create a new world, and the implied spaces are seemly dangerous and inaccessible to the viewer. This series focus on the hand made, and develops the documentation of Cuba as one of witnessing the working people. As recognized before, the photographs are not inherently Cuban, yet reflective as a developing Latin American Country. Leave Me III now begins to mold the developing country from stagnancy in the Part Two to a working class in Part Three, which emphasis a manual old fashion form of work. Furthermore, Leave Me III with the last image discloses the location of this place as Cuba with their iconic hero against their flag.
Wash Off.2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print. (18X13 inches)
Wash Off begins the series, by having a physical man made barrier blocking the viewer from the implied space behind, the natural land. This barrier cuts through the middle of the image dividing it, further emphasizing this theme of inaccessibility. This barrier to the land is a sink, which implies the rising off of dirt thus further disconnecting the people from the land within these images. The barriers throughout the Leave Me series mimic the way in which the lens provides a barrier between the photographer and the world witnessed. These barriers disconnect the photographer from the world, while the images when later viewed propose that these barriers in fact are a way of disconnecting in order for observation. In reference to Sacrifice an abundance of water is shown by the ocean, similar to the abundance of chaos in the world, yet in Wash Off there is no water, only a physical man made object containing the water. This references ways in which man can implement containment, creating barriers to restraining from having too much. The editing of the photograph has created the clouds to have visible gradient and the colors to be hyper real, polarizing the relationship between the sink and the land. The concrete barrier, through editing has the appearance of more honesty, as it seems less surreal than the gradient clouds in the background. Again the sky is shown here as being inaccessible, and blocked by a man made creations echoing the entrapment from this other worldly freedom seen in Leave Me I. Furthermore, the shape of the mountain behind the skin mimics the pervious seen form of the beached bag in Sacrifice, inferring that maybe these implying the great disconnect between the livings’ chaos and the deads’ freedom from that chaos.
Hero.2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print. (18X13 inches)
Strength.2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print. (18X13 inches)
The workingman is seen in both these photographs, and through the use of color is highlighted as being connected to the environment. The color blue is seen in the window with light shining through it as well as behind the portrait of the iconic Cuban hero Che Guevvada. This color references regality, like that of the Virgin Mary, towards Che and associates the window with access to the vast blue sky of freedom seen previously in Leave Me I. The blue can moreover be seen on the smocks of the barber and the pottery man, who through this color association are no longer disconnected from the environment as well as connected to the hero and the freedom. Furthermore, Che is even more connected to the people because despite his scale and looming presence in Strength as bigger then the people, if one were to follow the lines which follow his gaze towards the photograph on the left, Hero, one can connect Che to this working class man also wearing a similar gaze. This relationship of the common man and hero connects back to beliefs of the Revolutions lead by Che, which emphasized the importance of the every day man’s battle to work for the good of the population as whole rather than for means of ones own. This is known as the Hombre Nuevo. In addition, in the background of Strength, there is yet another workingman wearing a smock cutting hair. He is first seen as the working man, but secondly seen as someone who is in the action of cutting, referring to disconnecting parts of oneself in order to have a fresh start. This disconnect is similar to the way in which containment disconnects one from the world allowing for chaos to subside.
The pre-conditions of past experiences and memories tend to trap one in stagnancy. As one wonders through this earth, man’s own creations stemming from the knowledge of the past can become obstructions, as they separate one from being completely unbiased. Man becomes separated from viewing the world anew, unable to leave any prior judgment out of interpretation. Thus, the things man comes to create end up further pre-conditioning the way in which the world is viewed. In the early days of man there might have existed the unbiased, yet as we grow in our knowledge of the world and access to knowledge becomes more readily available, the more barriers we have conditioning our perception. Utilizing the lens, Leave Me IV addresses this idea of barriers using content, form, and color. Barriers to spaces inside or beyond access of the viewer are present in all the images. These barriers are represented by closed doors, man made objects and man himself represent the way in which experience can cause one’s own entrapment.
Shut. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (13×18 inches)
The first image of the series, Shut, introduces the collection by displaying two women confined within the doorframe of an unusually large door. The door is blue, associating it with the sky’s freedom in Leave Me. In Shut, the door closes the women off from what is beyond in this interior space. The door, along with the blue painted fence nailed onto the door, are barriers to the freedom of accessing what is beyond. As one woman is self-involved, looking in a small mirror, the other seems to continue conversation, both of whom are unaware of this seemly looming object behind them. These two women are the first in the Leave Me series whose faces have not been distorted to the viewer. In fact, the second woman who continues her conversation seems to be making eye contact with the viewer, implying the woman’s knowledge of another presence. Through critical assertion, the presence is most likely that of the photographer, yet the eye contact that is made with the viewer evokes the viewer’s own knowledge of presence outside of the frame. In the context of religion, God and the soul are both outside presences, implying that this outside force could be the viewer. The eye contact also invites the viewer into the photographic series, requiring the presence of the viewer for the read of the photograph and will later be connected back to in the third image.
Pilgrimage. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (13×18 inches)
As the viewer moves through the photographs of obstructions, the religious symbol of the saint in Pilgrimage becomes a barrier to the viewer. The saint is in the middle of the frame,blocking the path that others are walking towards; a blinding, white sky compressed in the middle top of the frame by the buildings that line the road. Along this road are what appear to be shops, which can be seen as society conditioning what one can view along the paths taken and what society defines as necessary for purchase. However, as stated before, sky represents the freedom of heavens. Thus, in questioning the clashing relationship between the religious relic in the market place and the knowledge of the people walking towards the freedom associated with the sky, the viewer begins to explore ways of accessing freedom. Free market or the ability to make purchases becomes associated with freedom, presenting the viewer with a clearer picture of the place in which the pictures were taken. After surveying the surroundings, the eye comes back to the saint, which seems to be receiving the viewer, obstructing their passage till the viewer has reconciled with the saint. Religion for many people is a form of security, which reassures individuals of life beyond this world, evoking a freedom not confined to this world. Yet, some would argue that because nothing in the afterlife has been proven, religion is a man made creation, inflecting conditions on how individuals act in this world. This is seen through the saint being man made, inflecting conditions on how individuals move within the frame of the photograph and how the viewer reads the photograph.
Regal. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18×13 inches)
The fifth image in the Leave Me IV series depicts a closed door, made of white wood with square blue framings. Through the use of color, the blue and white along the closed door are associated with sky. Echoing further this associated freedom or escape behind the door is the sky poking through the upper left corner. The concrete ornamental doorframe that surrounds this door with a lion’s crest places this structure in the context of an important family, symbolizing power, religion and property. Thus, this symbol, representing regality that for most is hard to attain, further imposes lack of access to what is beyond the door.
Passing the Time. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18×13 inches)
The next image in the sequence becomes a turning point for the body of work as for the first time in the Leave Me series an interior space is clearly shown. The space gives the viewer the sense of being in the home of the everyday man by the antique furniture and slightly distressed walls. Passing The Time shows two red rocking chairs low in the frame with a potted plant centered between the two. Multiplicities are also seen in this image with the two chairs, the vertical lines along the back white wall, and the two blue door ways to the right of the image. Furthermore, for the first time in the Leave Me series, Passing The Time shows open doorways bathed in the light. Although the viewer cannot completely see what lies beyond these structures, the light and openness present some form of hope. Along the back of the white wood wall hangs an antique clock. The shape of the clock, centered in the frame, mimics that of the halo seen previously in Pilgrimage, provoking the question of how time and religion are interconnected. In addition, the clock becomes another restriction as it reminds one of the limitations of time on the earth for mortal beings. The red color of the chairs also brings to mind the idea of blood and mortality.
Planted Heros. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18×13 inches)
The obstructing, closed doors appear again in Planted Heroes. The inside of this green wall is inaccessible because of metal bars on the doors, as well as the barring and boarding up of a window. The photograph shows the second story of this building, which has three more boarded up windows. This inaccessibility both from the outside and inside is reflective of both death and Cuba. In relation to death, the closed off windows and doors represent how death is containing, for there is no tangible communication between the living and the dead. There is also a lack of knowledge beyond the physical of what lays after our heart stops beating. Furthermore, once death has occurred there is no physical going back and no physical connection back to the living. As for Cuban culture, the closed of doors and windows resemble the American-Cuban relations for the past years since the Cold War. Cuba has almost been impossible to access legally by Americans and many Cubans do not have the opportunity of traveling freely to America. Thus, the flow of knowledge, goods, and people are closed off. Yet, as seen through photographs commonalities, such as CDs, and knowledge, such as views of 9-11, can still be found across the two cultures. Furthermore, the graffiti below the first story middle window implies that the culture has knowledge to provide. The graffiti depicts caricatures of Revolutionary Cuban heroes, such as Jose Marti, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro and the boat that brought them over the Gramma. Typically, in America, graffiti is anti-establishment, yet here we find that the Cuban people are using graffiti as a way of promoting the government and showing their support. In addition, the graffiti mimics plant containers that are hanging from the balcony above, which is indicative of the hanging objects in Leave Me II, referencing past experiences influence on the present. In this one photograph, the Cuban people as a whole are represented through hanging onto past experience by still supporting the Revolutionary ideals of working together, as seen in the multiple heroes and plants; seeking to achieve equal prosperity, as shown by the plants above hanging together to their ideals, like that of the belief in the Hombre Neuve.
Through. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18×13 inches)
Leave Me explores how pre-conditions of man’s own experience can cause one’s own entrapment in chaos, which in order to free oneself, one must find ways to contain either through death or order. The Cuban people, although supportive of the ideals of the revolution which enabled their living conditions today, are suffering from not being able to escape the entrapment of their economic situation which is highly influenced by the trade restrictions imposed on them by the United States. Forced to either give up their believes in Hombre Neuve by working in the capitalistic market that has formed around foreign tourism or by sticking to following their faith to the grave with assurance of the beyond. Throughout Leave Me IV closed doors show a barrier to accessing what is beyond. The use of the color blue on all the doors has been symbolic as associated to sky. In Leave Me I, through the use of religious symbols and content, the sky became associated with the divine or the heavens. The doors in this series then are passageways to this divine, yet because the doors are all closed the viewer unable to access this divinity. As discussed in Leave Me I, the viewer is a living being because he or she has the ability to see and through the photographs has become aware of these senses. One form of escape made apparent in Leave Me I appears through death; with the condition that religion guarantees what was beyond. Thus, the viewer can associate that through death can those doors be opened. Yet, the last image of the Leave Me IV series most clearly brings hope, as it again shows a single wall with a blue door a little center from the right, but this time there is a women in pink pants with her hand on the door about to walk through. She places her hand on the door just inside a blue-boxed outline on the door. This blue box contains her hand, just as the frame of the photograph contains her. Although experiences will constantly condition and create chaos within one’s life, this image shows a hope that is beyond death by using containment to keep one present and not held back.
1.”Anaïs Nin Quotes.” Anaïs Nin Quotes (Author of Delta of Venus).
2012Goodreads INC, 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.
2. “My Morocco Review.” Magnum Photos. Organ Logic. Web. 09 May 2012.