Masami and Arthur Yesaki

Masami Yesaki November 5, 1951 - January 10, 2013 Photo taken June 29, 2011

Masami Yesaki November 5, 1951 - January 10, 2013
Photo taken June 29, 2011

All photographs stop time, it is this quality and this quality alone that makes each one melancholy.

In the summer of 2011 I invited Masami and her husband Arthur into the studio. Masami was fighting cancer and we needed to juggle scheduling around treatments and days when she found she had little energy. I asked her if I could photograph her because there was something indomitable in Masami's personality that the illness had polarized.

When I look back to the shoot it does not surprise me that I was disappointed with almost all of the images. Whatever was happening, whatever it was that came across so strongly when in Masami's presence, it was not visual. I don't know if you can photograph strength of will.

It never left her. I had a chance to visit with Masami for the last time a few weeks before she passed away. She commanded a brightness in the room. The light and the conversation flowed from her to everyone else.

And so now, I am left with this photo, and an absence, and a wondering how it can be that people persist in their photos when they are gone. When I think like this I am always called back to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

"All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality do not know that they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death: with the denying alibi of the distractedly "alive," of which the photographer is, in a sense, the professional. 

"With the photograph we enter into flat Death. One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with distain: "You talk about death very flatly."— As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude! The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one who I love most, nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only "thought" I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two nothing more than waiting. I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of the "nothing to say."


"In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy. He is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. What pricksme is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of a photograph as my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Weather or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe. 

[I've slightly edited Barthes, removing references to terms he defined earlier in the text] 

Tim McLaughlin

Photographer and writer based in Vancouver, Canada