‘When she returned home, it turned out both her parents had died of sadness’ – Jan Banning’s Comfort Women

For all the momentariness often associated with the medium of photography, there is barely anything momentary about Jan Banning’s series of portraits Comfort Women, this being the term referred to women taken into sexual slavery during periods of war. These images are not solely about the horrific experiences of his subjects during the 1940’s, or a representation of his subjects on a specific day some sixty years later when they were encouraged to recall such atrocities during interview and for the camera. In addition to these things they’re about everything that’s happened and hasn’t happened in between, and therefore they’re largely about the passing of time and the illimitable levels of emotion that a human being can experience within a lifetime.

Where there is an absence of momentariness, there is an abundance of singularity and solitude, which often gives potency to text and imagery alike. For example in his bookDisposable People, Kevin Bales reports of the ongoing continuity of global slavery. He relays individual accounts of various forms of slavery including that of Seba, a Malian woman who was sent to Paris as a young girl to care for the children of a family friend. Her Grandmother had been promised that Seba would be educated, but in fact she was taken into slavery by their Parisian friend and her family. An extract of Seba’s story reads,

Once in 1992 I was late going to get the children from school; my mistress and her husband were furious with me and beat me and then threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go; I didn’t understand anything, and I wandered on the streets. After some time her husband found me and took me back to their house. There they stripped me naked, tied my hands behind my back, and began to whip me with a wire attached to a broomstick. Both of them were beating me at the same time. I was bleeding a lot and screaming, but they continued to beat me. Then she rubbed chilli pepper into my wounds and stuck it in my vagina. I lost consciousness.

Although profoundly moved and shocked by reported statistics that I had previously read and heard in relation to this topic, I had never been quite so chilled by them as I was by this individual account, and others in Bales’ book. It was this piece of writing and therefore the power that is generated from one single account, however widespread the problem, which I first thought of and similarly associated with Banning’s series when I saw it published in Issue 168 of Hotshoe last year.

Aesthetically these pictures are beautiful. On the surface alone they relay a plethora of experience and emotion that immediately engages the viewer, and as Bill Kouwenhoven accurately states, ‘It is the eyes that get you at first.’ They’re also beautiful because in the consistency with which Banning has approached each woman there is fairness and equality. There’s intelligence in being equivocal here, where the investigation into each woman as an individual with an independent story is coupled with the repetition of form, which is also representative of the vast numbers of women who experienced and still experience this despicable treatment.

Kouwenhoven identifies some of the motivations behind the behaviour of the men involved as ‘a matter of course against…enemies’ and ‘to control…soldiers sexual excesses.’ Such experiences are verbalised in the interviews that accompany the images. Some examples include,

During the day in a warehouse, she had to weave mats with other women and cook her own food. Sometimes she was raped right then and there, but most of the time she was taken by soldiers to their rooms in the barracks compound. – Wainem

I was still so young, within two months my body was completely destroyed. It’s sufficient that I have to go through it, my grandchildren should be spared this kind of thing. I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing, that’s how it felt during the Japanese era. – Niyem

She was never able to bear children; her womb was damaged by internal injuries sustained at the barracks… “It hurt so much, it was as if heaven crashed onto earth. My body can’t forget it.” – Icih

When she returned home, it turned out both her parents had died of sadness. – Emah

For me the text is particularly compelling because in addition to revealing the experiences of the women depicted, it also begins to express the impact that such events have had on Banning’s subjects and their families since, relaying the layers of time embedded in these portraits. Consequentially we begin to realise the anthropological significance and potential influence that this body of work does and should exert.

Of course there are various ways to capture the passing or passage of time using photography, but as stated, Banning seems to have achieved this in ways that are both anthropologically potent and highly emotive. Beyond this, where Banning has managed to capture his subjects’ emotions about their experiences through their expressions, they still remain very much their private selves. This balance between what we know and don’t know, what we think we know and what the things that we don’t know cause us to think about, and what we are exposed to and not exposed to in numerous senses of the phrase, are crucial to the success of the piece and have been handled impeccably.

Whilst studying this work I also found myself thinking about a passage in Susan Sontag’s 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others. It reads,

More upsetting is the opportunity to look at people who know they have been condemned to die; the cache of six thousand photographs taken between 1975 and 1979 at a secret prison in a former high school in Tuol Sleng, a suburb of Phnom Penh, the killing house of more than fourteen thousand Cambodians charged with being either ‘intellectuals’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – the documentation of the atrocity courtesy of the Khmer Rouge record keepers, who had each sit for a photograph just before being executed.

I was specifically compelled to think about the similarities and differences between the images that Sontag refers to, and the images produced by Banning, partially because they were both created as a by-product of war. As a starting point, in the images that Sontag refers to I am aware that it is individual life in its entirety that has been taken away, yet in Banning’s project I recognise that it is elements of life that have been removed or imprisoned, and this makes a very big difference to the way I see these pictures.

The image below, recently published on the cover of Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, is an example of the type of photograph Sontag was referring to.

The photograph is of an unidentified girl prior to her execution in Tuol Sleng. When I look at this picture, rightly or wrongly I feel that it is very momentary. That is to say I feel that I know nothing of the life in this person before this point and I know nothing of their life after. It strikes me that this might sound unsympathetic or cold, of which this is not my intention. Rather I wonder if, because I am very aware that there is no substantial life after, I cannot in this instance contemplate a life before; that it is this moment alone that is wholly significant and resonant to me, because I know it is one of the subject’s last. Here the photo is its own loudest voice at whatever volume it speaks.

Yet in Banning’s images it is clear that it is not just the significant events during the periods of abuse that were the catalysts for the expressions we see on the faces of his subjects, but rather the passage of time that has carried those experiences with these women to this point. It seems important therefore not just to think of time as an essential element to the contextualisation of all of the images that I’m discussing, but to think of time itself as context.

I am also aware, when comparing these images, that my emotional responses are derived from different places. Where I’m saddened by the senseless loss of life in the anonymous photograph above, I’m also angered and disgusted by the purpose of the image, which seems to be to act as a trophy or souvenir, as much as a form of evidence. Alternatively in Banning’s pictures I am saddened by what has been lost within the lives of his subjects, but in light of the subject matter I feel a sense of relief that the pictures have been produced in order to provide a voice and identity to the women represented. It seems, therefore, that it is not necessarily merely the content of the photograph that becomes emotive, but the function of the photograph itself. And further it appears that this can occur through the photograph as a tangible object, which is perhaps something that is less frequently experienced with the increasing use of digital photography. Something about the fact that the type of photograph Sontag refers to was made intentionally to be held in human hands increases my disgust at its production. Yet if those hands belonged to a grandmother who was viewing her grandchild for the first time through a tangible photograph, my emotional response to the physicality of the picture would of course be very different again.

When I began this post by saying that there is barely anything momentary in these images, I meant to imply that there might be an element of them that is. Indeed, this is primarily the fly that has landed on Wainem’s hat, and the extraordinary impact it has on the photograph. Amongst the enduring feature of the experiences of these women, the fly offers an implication of the transitory nature of Banning’s subjects’ roles during the war. Connotatively, the fly is something that carries dirt and is often swatted or dismissed, never something to nourish or treasure, ideas that may sadly be associated with the effects of the treatment of comfort women. Alternatively and more appropriately however, we may associate these ideas with the men who commit these heinous acts, a thought which is preferably applied to this image where the fly appears entirely small yet somehow indelible. The insect adds an element of hierarchy that is variously interpretable, and perhaps speaks of acceptance and inclusiveness purely through its endurance within the edit. It is quite lovely that the preservation of this fleeting moment can say and mean so much within the profundity it is embedded in within this series.

Banning’s Comfort Women is an incredible piece of work for numerous reasons. It provides an indispensable voice and an identity to a previously inaudible and indistinct group of women. It questions not just what time can do, but what the passing of time can do to a photograph. Within their collection the images are powerfully singular, yet not wholly momentary. They are anthropologically fruitful, significant and constructive. They are completely balanced between revelation and secrecy to extraordinary effect. And they are full to the brim of heart, compassion, emotion, history and the culmination of experience. It seems that the complete combination of these qualities is so rare in a photographic body of work that the series becomes, quite extraordinarily, as extraordinary and beautiful as the exceptional women it depicts.