Review by Gerhard Clausing •
Sometimes a photobook can really get to you, with a narrative that is quite real. At the same time, while it may be full of mystery, the visual and verbal narrative that expresses the truth behind the mystery with all its unsolved challenges is so direct and insistent that it overwhelms you, because, as the Phil Ochs/Joan Baez song goes, “There but for fortune go you or I.” A sense of what can be arbitrary and unjust about what happens in life is a gripping challenge for the survivors as well as for the bystanders when all is seen, said, and done.
Such is the case with Vivian Rutsch’s Still Here. She is part of a family in which abuse and deaths occurred, with many details missing, and yet with some evidence plain as day, yet dismissed as insufficient by the authorities. This left her in a position of sad confusion and anger at what could only be partially understood. This photobook is a re-creation of the ways she found to deal with her difficult and sad set of circumstances.
Vivian Rutsch photographed her sister from age 14 until her unsolved death at 17. During this time the sister also underwent a gender transformation. After her death, diary entries showed descriptions of sexual abuse, and the connection between the abuse and the transformation in the child’s development became evident. Their father also died mysteriously at age 35, and the authorities showed a reluctance to do a thorough investigation of either case. What are the priorities, how is justice achieved, and how do you deal with all of that in a family’s history?
Rutsch does a great job presenting these issues as a project that keeps us spellbound from beginning to end. We are able to visually share the vulnerability of childhood, the fear of places and circumstances where danger might loom, the diary entries and drawings that point to perpetrator figures and circumstances that are difficult to put in words, especially for very young children. We find out that sexual abuse and unexpected deaths are extremely underreported and underinvestigated; her research found this to be an extensive phenomenon in society as a whole.
The images showing childhood are especially effective in conveying the situation of an individual undergoing developmental uncertainties that are further marred by sexual violence. The monochrome images are a powerful depiction of a young person struggling to maintain some sense of joy and innocence under these difficult circumstances. The design of the book facilitates a feeling of continuity by using techniques such as splitting a portrait in half between two double spreads, as shown in figures 4 and 5 below. Some of the forces at work are shown as false feelings of comfort or signals wrongly interpreted, displaying the lure of warm colors that are in stark contrast to the monochrome portraits. In addition, Rutsch makes heavy use of symbols: the forest and bodies of water, foreboding, yet also sources of life and renewal – warmth and coldness intermingled. Toys and other elements of the early years serve as reminders of the need to protect the vulnerable.
The evidence of diary entries, drawings, and excerpts of what must be considered superficial investigations and court proceedings give us a sense that these cases happen more frequently than one would imagine, and are swept under the rug more often than not. Justice seems impossible to achieve, the damage done is irreversible, and an absence of fair evidence-taking and thorough judicial proceedings is more prevalent than one would imagine. The essay by Vivian Rutsch provides us with further insights about the frequent occurrence of such neglected cases and also outlines important issues to be aware of. An index of the referenced crime location shots with specific descriptions completes the presentation.
This book is a stellar example of how to combine personal records, family portraits, and many details to not only build a lasting testimonial for the fate and loss of conflicted family members, but also for calling attention to a problem that needs serious attention on a world-wide scale. When crucial questions remain unanswered, you can at least create an awareness in others through a publication like this one. I also recommend this book as an important tool, most especially as a lesson for those who value cost-cutting, public image, and political expediency to the detriment of a safer and more just life for the vulnerable and their surviving families. And may this book also serve as a reminder to help detect early warning signs, to report transgressions, and to facilitate the proper prosecution of such cases.
Vivian Rutsch – Still Here
Photographer: Vivian Rutsch (born in Öhringen, Germany; lives and works in Dortmund and Stuttgart, Germany)
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany; © 2020
Essay and Texts: Written and/or edited by Vivian Rutsch
Languages: German and English
Hardback with illustrated cover; sewn; 240 pages with 155 images, unpaginated; 6.75 x 8 inches (17 x 20 cm); printed and bound in Germany
Photobook Designer: Vivian Dehning
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).