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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 80 [21]

Grieving Kangaroo


Photo © Evan Switzer

A third post on this absorbing photograph and the sequence from which it comes. I promised a closer reading. For those fresh to this thread, the post builds upon the posts for Day 77 [24] (‘Grieving Kangaroo II’), Day 69 [32] (‘Grieving Kangaroo I’), and to a certain extent upon that for Day 63 [38] (on ‘anthropomorphism’).


Roland Barthes, in his Camera Lucida (1980) speaks of the punctum of a photograph, that detail which seems at once to jump out at one and to focus a photograph somehow, ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me’.


What do you think is the punctum here? Is it the eyes of the male kangaroo, looking directly into the camera, his face with its complex expression of, what, grief, nervousness, suspicion? Strangely (the photographer says he was just a few metres away), it does not seem to be warning, annoyance or threat. Or is the punctum his paws about the neck of the dying doe as, in one version, he hold her head up to see her son one last time or, in the other version, the adult male grasps her in sexual possession? Is it her arms, reaching out to her joey/son, or is it, odd as this a first may seem, the two kangaroos off in the distance behind them, grazing? It may vary from viewer to viewer, and there may be more than one punctum in the first place; it may change, say, as one’s reading develops.


For me, I’d have to say, the stretched arms of the doe come close, or rather the paws. That it is both of them, just touching the paws of the joey. And that they are tense, outstretched, every digit extended to its maximum, reaching, as would seem to denote a last, anxious effort. Though I would not dismiss the two kangaroos grazing in the distance, for the emptiness they seem to emphasise. The experts, who insist that this is not a photograph of grief but of a male clutching, in a manner designed to ward off other males, a female he may just have killed in the process of coition – have they taken this emptiness into account? Where are the competing males? They are not in the background, and almost certainly they are not in the foreground, standing patiently waiting by the photographer.


The stretched paws of the doe, the two distant kangaroos grazing, and the strange look in the joey’s face, the way he does not appear to be looking at her. Of course, this may be a matter of angle of vision, perspective, depth of field – he might in fact be looking directly at her – but he, at this moment of moments, seems distracted somehow. A child, and a child does not always understand quite what is happening, but, with the complex look in the buck’s face – the particular complex in that look – it raises the matter of the photographer himself. The presence of the photographer. Have they, by his presence, been dislocated from her somehow? Has their grief been disrupted? That impossible question: what might there have been to photograph, had the photographer not been there to photograph?

There are other details, but this is a post, not an essay. I’d rather, in conclusion, turn to the other photographs in the sequence. I won’t/can’t reproduce any more of them here, but can tell you about the other five, and where to find them (in the Guardian piece, for example, and the original publication, in the Fraser Coast Chronicle).


Let’s call the photo I’ve used at the top of this post number 1. Number 2 – I don’t promise to have the sequence right – shows the same basic configuration, but the buck is now – it appears to be very gently – lowering the doe’s head to the ground (it is about half-way) while the joey looks on. Number 3 seems to be taken a moment later; the doe’s head, still held very gently, is almost at ground level, and the joey now appears to be sniffing at her pouch. In number 4, the buck and joey stand apart, the doe on the ground between them. In number 5 the buck stands high, in the alert/guard position (the photographer, Evan Switzer, has said that the buck did fend off other kangaroos who came to investigate), with the joey beside him and the dead doe at their feet. In number 6, which I have found on-line (not hard) but not in any published newspaper piece, the buck is alone with the doe – the joey is not in the frame – and is leaning over her, nuzzling or sniffing her face. Photographer aside, you could construe it as a deeply private moment.


I wish I could reproduce them all, but the simple descriptions are perhaps enough. The laying gently down, the nuzzling, the buck’s clear concern/care for the boy, support the impression of this as a caring – grieving – family unit. And no, there is no sign, in any but the lead photograph, of anything one might designate as – mistake for? – sexual arousal.


But then a different beholder may have different eyes.

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