“Some time ago a friend from Cairo sent me a photograph. […] Although it was taken on the banks of the Nile, the picture could have been taken anywhere, in Warsaw, Berlin, or Tokyo. It is nearly impossible to make out the details of the place. This photograph occupied me for several days, not because of what was in it but because of what was not: a real sense of place or time” (Matalon 126).
The ambiguity that is inherent in photographs is one of the major themes in Matalon’s novel. Photographs themselves do not reveal more than you can see; unless you actually know the person or object or place which is depicted, you are completely at a loss. This also means that what is in the image can transform – be transformed – into whatever you want it to be. If I want the photograph that I posted to be a snapshot of two of my friends/my cousins/my mother and her friend/random children at the North Sea/the Mediterranean Sea/the Pacific Ocean/the Black Sea in 1976/in 1997/in 2008/last summer – so be it. Neither of the above is true, but who would object? Most pictures will not “speak” and tell you where and when they were taken or who they depict, and even if they do (there could be a well-known landmark, a calendar, a famous person), how would you know that the photograph was not staged or retouched? Think the contested images of the first moon landing. Think fake profile pictures. Think Photoshop.
Matalon plays with this characteristic of photographs in various ways: she uses incorrect captions; she lets her protagonist tell the story behind picture, only to then take it back and reveal a misconception. But we need to be aware that we face this ambiguity whenever we see a photograph; we can never take the alleged object for granted.