Young Girl

By NIGEL FOGG

A Portrait by Marsha Burns

Can I begin by crying?

She is so frail, so strong, so shocking, so beautiful, so young, so damaged, so afraid, so courageous, so angry, so old, so wise, so determined, so veiled, so strident, so hurtful, so full of life…

More than we seem able to know…

Young Girl | Marsha Burns

She is hung like a crucifix in the vortex of the bordered photograph: her posture, her pose, is a little askew, and she has ordered and commanded the spaces around her with a fierceness which, transposed, triggers a feeling of disquiet: I can barely bare to look at her, to meet her gaze, to peer into this life and to have it revealed to me as too painful, too heavy, too difficult, and too much won, and winning…

She seems hardly more than a child, is thin, almost emaciated, and there is something in the raised tension of the shoulders that suggests an asthmatic…. Her nose confirms this, for the nostrils are slightly flared, and a set determination in the mouth traces a history of the struggle for each breath, each gulp of life-giving air drawn into lungs that are too small for so huge a spirit…

Her arms too are evidence of a tensile battle, are long and slim and lost in the ambiguous zone between childhood and womanhood…

Her hands though are the clearest revelation of a kind of peace achieved through constant warring:

This girl is no less and no more than a warrior, for her hands are too large for her body — are matched to a different destiny, are claws grasping life out of the certainty of death, which is waiting at a little distance…

The fingers tucked into the waistband of her trousers are talons, half as old as time, and the sinews around the knuckles are the sinews of carpenters and bricklayers — and pianists — graceful and full of a mature and practiced assurance…

After the certainty of her piercing eyes – which are passed over, initially – her bare midriff draws me, thin and frail and fragile.

Looking closer I catch my breath to have confirmed my animal suspicions: that this girl is an escapee, a child who has already wrested from the world a stay of execution, and in whom the will to live is frozen fire, unspeakably powerful…

A long scar creeps from beneath her bodice blouse, and has sealed the narrow chest; a scar traced from her breastbone down the crease of a muscular stomach, skirting shyly a taut navel…

It seems long-since healed, but is raised like a weal, as livid as a branding, and is brandished as a trophy, a proud and open secret paraded in public…

And if I look at her closely, when the pain and the applause in me subsides, I see that she is suspended between life and death, though in a place of sanctuary – more safe than I will ever achieve in my life.

She is a child grown, through pain, into a premature and extraordinarily beautiful woman, though her proclamation is not of femininity (it is that too) but simply a triumph of being – native, animal, intrinsic, generic…

I recognise the life-force, and know its desperation.

She is a testament to life’s longing for itself, and in the guileless self-assurance of a gaze that draws its focus from a distance which is foreign to me, and from which she pierces me with a kind of infinity that is beyond all range of knowing, I am lost in the darkness of her eyes, which are implacable.

In the even light of the studio, where a slight luminance is drawn from behind her arching shoulder, her head is the head of a porcelain doll, too large for her frame, too serene, and one eye catches a brief highlight which sets ablaze the darkness of the other, which is lost in the shadows a universe away to the east…

So that she seems faintly squint, and yet in trying to set her firmly in focus – when I can finally confront my own fear of death, and dying — I see that the failure is my own, and my vision and my knowledge are too shallow to encompass her universe…

Her eyebrows particularly are of an arching and aching and tranquil beauty, and they span a wide and high and priestly forehead, so that in struggling to achieve something of the same frank and neutral manner of her gaze, in looking at her, I know definitively that she is of a state of consciousness, of being, of penetrating intelligence, that I cannot know…

And as if in defiance — to humble the collective audience that she has transfixed — and in proclaiming a wholly different life-view, she has tumbled a straggling stranding of dreadlocks, bleached and angry, around the globe of her face, while wide loops of gypsy earrings – too large, too heavy – dangle from her ears…

She is a true revolutionary, and is as brash and brilliant, and as defiant, as a manifesto…

I long to know the details of her life – more than the facts and the small agonies of existence — to witness the raw spirit in each of her daily defiances…

Yet I do wonder what language she speaks — that is, the one that is not universal — and I try to imagine her voice, its sound, its spirit, and spacing…

(Also, privately — and in the abstraction of this strange meeting place in the mute and neutral plane of the photograph, where neither of us is conceded any prerogative — I am curious to know how she would see me, and where I might be classified in her penetrating and encyclopaedic scrutiny…).

I wonder what it must be like to live a little, close to this flame, to be touched by this generosity, to see something of what she sees, in standing at her shoulder as she faces her world…

She sparks in me a troubling disquiet, because, of all the crimes committed, those against children cannot be pardoned, not of men, nor of god: although utterly a stranger, a private empathy has transfixed me, and I find myself anxious to know if I am implicated, however unwittingly and at a distance, in the cause of her suffering…

I long to be assured that beyond this moment of time in this one photograph, she is still, somewhere, alive, thriving…

Yet I am sure of one thing, in gazing at her: she is the summation of our longings, each of us, in that she has achieved her true identity, her purpose, whatever the sequels may have been…

She exudes a serenity which suggests a state of consummate existence, each moment of which is a celebration, a feasting on fulfillment, quiet, and so filled with humility as to appear a little arrogant…

I don’t know where she is. (She knows where I am, for all eternity.)

I wish her, deeply, profoundly, out of all the crying and the agony and the suffering in the world,

I wish her well.

I hope she has won her war.

+++ Author Nigel Fogg of FOGG Camera Bags is a photographer, writer, classic Citroën enthusiast and craftsman. He lives in south-west France where with his wife Bee Berman he helps make the FOGG camera bags. Nigel spent four years as a curator, of sorts, at the National Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa.
Marsha Burns is a Seattle-based photographer.



  • right_writes

    There it is Dan, a picture painting a 1000 words.

    Well 1380 in this case, thanks to Messrs. Fogg and Burns.

    A good read, thanks.