Photography of Sound

Beijing, March 2011


When I look at this image, the most vivid memory I can conjure up is the sound of a cough. Its a cough so guttural, so violent that it summons an immediate discomfort in me. I would worry for the health of the man responsible for this cough if I didn’t know better. The fact is, though, this cough did not belong to just one man, but many native men and women in China. It happened so often that by the time I was finished with my 4-day visit to Beijing, I became used to the constant onslaught of coughing, spitting, and shouting.

But this image was taken on my first day, in the first few moments where this coughing revealed itself to me. A group of students and I were driven to a small district in Beijing where we were picked up by a team of men driving bike taxis. There were two of us to every driver and once we organized ourselves we set off to take a tour of the Hutong area. Within five minutes, I was incredibly concerned for the man driving my taxi, who was constantly coughing and spitting. However, he seemed incredibly good-natured, pretending to crash into his friends’ taxis. I began to notice that every other taxi driver had the same exact mannerism, and every other taxi driver was just as happy as mine was. That was when I remembered something I’d read about Chinese culture that indicated their affinity for coughing and spitting loudly in public. I felt relief and then a burst of amusement at myself for being so confused. In that moment, the sound of the cough changed in significance for me entirely, from an ominous sign of bad health to a jovial reminder of the culture I grew to love and miss.

I have often wondered why, when I look at this image, I am more apt to recall the sound of the coughing than the view of the district. The answer, I believe, lies with Barthes as well as Proust and his Madeline story. The images are all there in my computer, ready to be accessed at any whim. Because I know this, I hold the imagery less dearly in my memory than something I may never be able to access again–the sound.  I think that sound summons more memory and feeling for me than any image I look at of that day. Because of this, I have to believe that my memory of that place (which I may never see again) is much like the memory of a lost loved one, in that Barthes’ argument that a mere photograph of a place or person cannot really capture the essence of them.This is something that Proust’s Madeline narrative indicates as well:

“The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.”(45)

With the help of Proust, I can understand that this cough, this material object or sensation, immortalizes my memory of this past moment. I am lucky enough, however, to have this photograph which allows me to remember that sound, which in turn allows me to remember the essence of that past. That is why I will hold onto this image, and that sound for the rest of my life.


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