How can a photograph reference something that it doesn’t depict? Does this goal go against the very nature of the medium—or, paradoxically, is photography the best conduit for this pursuit?
Photographer Edgar Martins grapples with these questions and more in his series What Photography Has in Common With an Empty Vase. The project is a collaboration between Martins and some of the inmates incarcerated at HMP Birmingham, the largest privately-run category B prison in the Midlands, United Kingdom. Martins worked closely with the prisoners and their family members in order to encapsulate multiple perspectives in his photographs.
Each image in What Photography Has in Common With an Empty Vase is suffused with piercing loneliness and the sense that something is missing. At times, this absence is marked directly; for example, in one shot, Martins traces the outline of a man’s head and shoulders on an otherwise empty landscape scene, allowing us to imagine what the image could have looked like with a human figure. This inclusion changes the photograph dramatically. What was initially a simple seaside scene suddenly offers more—and we, the viewers, are left wanting. The outline triggers feelings of nostalgia that the image alone does not elicit.
“My work uses the social context of incarceration to explore the philosophical concept of absence,” says Martins. “From a humanist perspective, the work seeks to reflect on how one deals with the absence of a loved one, brought on by enforced separation.” In truth, in many of Martins’ images, we sense the presence of an unseen body. In some of the photographs, this vacancy is explicit: in one still life photograph, a single child’s shoe is presented plainly on a light pink background, a label declaring “DADDYS GIRL” pasted across the toe. In others, a feeling scratches the back of our mind, edging us towards the thought that something (or someone) is missing from a tranquil, empty field bathed in gold light.
Situating this inquiry within the sphere of prison life—the isolation of incarceration, the longing for those waiting outside—is a powerful choice, and Martins’ photographs confront the viewer with this important topic while simultaneously offering a study of emptiness and loss. The images suggest a response to Martins’ enigmatic title: like an empty vase, which compels you to think of the flowers that could sit within (and notice their absence), so too can a photograph connote the lack of something, the unfulfilled potential. Not every piece of an image is contained within its composition.
Martins has created a collection of images that plays with concepts related to presence, absence, visibility, loss, and longing in varied ways. Through vacant (and resonant) landscapes, emotional environmental portraits, and deftly manipulated images, Martins explores photography’s ability to address these deeply emotional states of mind while probing the medium’s ability to contain what exists outside the confines of the frame.