Tabitha Soren: This American Moment


Tabitha Soren, Running, 2011

Our little friend could not face the 20th century, so he went running, except there was no place to run to, all the exits were closed.   Christopher Maclaine in The End

Photographs invite narrative, or more precisely, they trigger our narrative impulse. Giving in to this impulse can be pleasurable; to construct a story inspired by an enigmatic image can satisfy like scratching an insistent itch. But photographs produce unreliable narrators. Like reverse alchemy our notions of truth are often transformed to dust. The recurring trend towards abstraction in photography is partly fueled by a desire to escape narrative so that images might be experienced phenomenologically as inscrutable forms. But emptying the frame of any element that might anchor the image in human experience can create its own dead end. What to do?



Tabitha Soren, Running, 2013


Tabitha Soren, Running, 2011


Tabitha Soren photographs people running through cities, deserts, swamps, and industrial wastelands.  Sometimes the places are familiar like an entrance ramp to the Triborough Bridge approaching Manhattan or a warren of alleys in San Francisco.  Other sites are more humble or mysterious, documents of the geography of nowhere, such as a fog-enshrouded stand of Eucalyptus trees through which a man frantically hurdles.  Why is he running? Is an assassin pursuing him? Is it the long-promised zombie apocalypse? Has he lost his mind during a weekend seminar on trends in photocopier repair? Beyond slapstick scenarios we might impose, there is a quickening pulse of dread in the man’s headlong thrashing into the unknown, a desperation so palpable that we might forget the theatricality of the image.

We are blind to what might be impelling the runners to flee.  There are no looming monsters or terrorists clutching weapons, no hint of mob hysteria. We cannot see what they see; it might be that there is nothing observable outside the frame that would warrant such a reaction. We are witness to an individual panic. Perhaps they are attempting an escape from their own skins, a private hell of mental illness or recurring memories of trauma. Are these runners paranoid and delusional, or are they visionary? Like the actor Kevin McCarthy in the original version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers who scrambles through the streets trying to warn of the horrible fate that awaits all of humanity, Soren’s runners might be harbingers cursed with a terrible prescience.  Will we listen?



Tabitha Soren, Running, 2013


Photographs of other people’s misfortunes are as common as pictures of sunsets. Images of broken bodies and terrified faces fill archives and hard drives. Many pass through us like an unpleasant tasting liquid; we grimace, swallow, and forget. Others stay with us personally and culturally, function as evidence and symbol. A naked girl runs away from her incinerated village, she holds her burning arms away from her torso. Her face is a mask of pain and terror. Other children run along side her while soldiers, fully clothed and seemingly relaxed, walk behind.  Beyond the specificity of her experience (if there is such a thing as beyond), she is attempting to escape the 20th century and the arrogance and cruelty of repeated interventions of imperial power in her homeland.

The 21st century started badly and it has only gotten worse.  We seem to be unable to escape it even in our imaginations. Virtually every representation of the future is apocalyptic, be it a slow unraveling caused by climate change or out of control viruses, or emphatically final. Where are the peaceful and egalitarian visions? When I think of 9/11, the images that threaten to consume me are not of burning collapsing towers but the faces of people looking up, paralyzed not by spectacle, but by the claustrophobia of the catastrophic moment. They stand motionless, hands to mouths, expressions quivering with disbelief.  When I think of this I want to run.



Tabitha Soren, Running, 2012


I remember another runner, a character in Christopher Maclaine’s masterpiece of experimental cinema The End. Maclaine’s film was made in 1953 in the aftermath of the Hydrogen Bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean. Color footage of the mushroom cloud open the film and is quickly followed by Walter, a ‘poor damned soul’, running through the streets of San Francisco as though to keep ahead of nuclear fallout. He runs up endless flights of stairs and down dim alleyways with his skinny tie flapping goodbye over the shoulder of his boxy gray suit. Walter does not have the psychological or emotional aptitude to cope with his environment so he tries to escape by a reckless hurtling through the social landscape. Walter is unaware that this is the last day of his life. “If he had known” Maclaine narrates, “He could have lain down and dreamed, then he could have passed from one dream into the next.”

The fight or flight response in humans is an adaptive behavior to threat. Our collective trauma has compromised the option of nuanced emotional response to such an extent that we careen erratically between the two. Tabitha Soren has stated that sometimes she thinks ‘only the staged can be authentic’.  Soren’s photographs are choreographed documents of individual and cultural paranoia. Her images of panicked flight are theatrical, cinematic, elegant yet awkward, funny yet tug at the loneliness of fear. Maybe it is impossible for an image to contain the shifting complexities of the lived moment, yet there is a cumulative power in reiteration. Through re-staging this scenario with different actors and environments, Soren has recorded the fearful and reactive climate of this American moment.



Tabitha Soren, Running, 2011


This essay originally appeared in Dear Dave, Magazine, #19