Peter Watkins

There is a photograph that pains me purely by its absence. It is a photograph I have never seen, but I know that it exists. It is a tangible thing, hidden discretely in a sealed envelope. This photograph is absent; it inhabits the space of nothingness and darkness. It appears to me as a purely conceptual photograph: although I know its presence is attainable, it is nevertheless out of reach to me.

I discovered this envelope as I was going through my father’s possessions, shortly after his passing. Among his documents (birth certificates, death certificates) at the back of his filing cabinet, I stumbled, quite by chance, upon this thing. In it, there is a photograph and some documents, and I will never open it. On the envelope are some official markings, police stamps dating from 1993, from Zandvoort, in the Netherlands. In matter-of-fact, capitalised black ink are hand-written words by my father: “LAST PHOTOGRAPH OF UTE, 1993.” This is the last photograph of my mother. Her body was discovered by Dutch police early one February morning somewhere along the sandy resort beaches of Zandvoort that line the North Sea. She had been staying in a psychiatric ward of a hospital in Germany, before setting off in the middle of the night, northward bound, presumably heading back home to England. She would step out into the ocean either in the knowledge that she was taking her own life or in the fantasy that she could swim back home; she was always a strong swimmer. I later discovered that Zandvoort lies at equal distance from my mother’s hometown in Germany and our family home on the border of South Wales where I was raised. A coincidence with a kind of poetry that cannot be ignored.

The thing is, I have never looked at this thing, and I never intend to do so, but the projected image of this photograph is seared onto my brain and into my consciousness. The image came to me, was imagined for whatever it was, at the moment of conscious recognition of the object, the sealed envelope, that lay in my hands. In my mind, it does not develop or change with time, but it comes to me, in bright flashes, fleetingly, its image fixed and unchanging.

featured in romka # 8, 2013