The coat says everything. The way it hangs, the heaviness of it, the filth, the folds. It levitates, like a ghost above a ghost of a man. It is a drab gray thing suspended beneath an archway of gold. The coat is, for me, what Roland Barthes calls the punctum of the image – the element that punctures, the element that pricks. My heart. My soul. It is the little lynchpin that whispers – humanity. There is a skeletal man sleeping on the ground but my eyes are drawn again and again to the coat, hung neatly above him, a modicum of order, a vestigial sign of home.
His shoulder blades say everything else. They are the stunted converging wings of a fallen angel. We prefer most bones remain unseen. Invisible bones are the hallmarks of affluence, hidden below our fabrics and our fat. His shoulder blades form the head of an arrow, his spine forms the line of the shaft. In the diagram I see in my mind it says Look at where our lives lie dreaming. There’s a whole other world in that head, a world inverted and equally insane to the nightmares that haunt these streets of Rome.
A photograph is a Tarot card that shows the reader what he already knows. There is no divination here. For the photographer himself it speaks to his own worlds filled with dreams and only his interpretation counts toward an evolution, an awakening; if he chooses to see beyond the eyes of his body. For everyone else it is a Rorschach, an open channel, a tributary that runs into the collective subconscious. Certain images, certain photographs, show us who we are, beyond what the mirror claims, beyond names.
The coat. It’s like a woman in a burka, floating above the prostrate man. A body hidden. Temptation stayed. Out of sight out of mind. The spectral representative for an entire population of girls and mothers, granted modesty, spared of shame. This is The High Priestess balanced between the pillars of Boaz and Jachin, the two silver lines emanating from her head standing in for her crown of moons. Intuition, the Third Eye, the man himself the sleeping world, destitute, malnourished withering away before our eyes.
It was early morning when I found him, just after dawn, as I wandered the back-alleys of Rome. I walked past and doubled-back, beguiled by that golden carpet. I didn’t linger. It felt intrusive, to photograph him. It felt wrong. But something compelled me. I defer to Walt Whitman, as I often do when I can’t explain this living:
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing
I must get what the writing means.