Images as “Evidence?”- Using Photographs in a Tragicomic

by Sultan Jahan Begum

The most distinctive aspect of Bechdel’s Fun Home is her imaginative and careful use of images to simultaneously support and digress from the textual story. The words are undoubtedly the primary story- without text, it seems plausible that Bechdel’s pictures wouldn’t make sense. While her images compliment her words at times, in other instances the pictures tell a slightly different story. For example, when describing herself as Odysseus scheming to escape Polyphemus’ cave, Bechdel sketches the first time she gives oral sex to a woman: “In heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared.” (214) Thus, Bechdel’s use of images as narrative constructs a parallel narrative to her text.

Fun Home is simultaneously a few types of genres, including graphic novel and autobiography. Yet Bechdel feels the need to supplement her theories about her dad’s suicide and her family’s influences on her nature with what we might think of as “evidence.” While memoirs may be largely fictional or subjective, since they are based on an individual’s memory, Bechdel includes maps, letters, diary entries and photographs to contribute to the various ways she remembers the past. The use of images as narrative makes itself known in a less obvious way, through Bechdel’s use of images within images, particularly the photographs on pages 100-102.

To think about this further, we can understand images (like text, but through a different medium) as capturing both events and mentalités. Photographs are capable of capturing fleeting moments in a way that paintings, for example, cannot. The two-page photograph of Roy on pp. 100-101 is out of focus, blurry, a characteristic which suggests it may have been taken quickly, perhaps because Bechdel and her brothers were entering the room. On one hand, this photo serves as “evidence” of her father’s homosexuality in a way that Bechdel’s mother’s complaints or her father’s roundabout discussion of his own homosexuality cannot. The photographer is undeniably her father, who captures Roy with the same eye that he uses to furnish a room in their Victorian. There is both aestheticism and eroticism in the scene, with the distance between the photographer and subject collapsing any philosophical distance between erotics and aesthetics and thus the photo is an expression of an event and a mentalité.

Juxtaposed with the other photographs found in an enveloped labeled “Family” in Bechdel’s father’s handwriting are a series of three negatives. The first three are “appropriately” of the father’s family- his children playing at the beach. The fourth is the negative of Roy. All four negatives are connected on one strip, just like the comic strips Bechdel uses to tell her story throughout. The juxtaposition between the father’s children and the object of his sexual, erotic and aesthetic affections is jarring at first. Bechdel leads the reader through Proust’s “sweeping metaphors,” which are at first presented as binaries- “bourgeois vs. aristocratic, homo vs. hetero, city vs. country, eros vs. art, private vs. public.” In a move typical to transgressive literature, at the end of the novel the binaries converge “through a vast network of transversals.” Thus, Roy is indeed family. He is part of the underground, unspoken gay community of which Bechdel’s father is a card-carrying member. Roy is the children’s caregiver, which naturalizes him into the nuclear family- and thus the series of photographs- even more, perhaps even in a heteronormative way.

Finally, these photographs reveal the spaces in which they were taken. These spaces are decidedly intimate, regardless of whether they reflect a public beach or a hotel room. The photographer’s eye goes to that which is important, even loved. The juxtapositions and binaries dissolve into a “natural” series of photographs of family, illustrating what cannot be articulated in words or text yet subtly making the father’s inherent homosexuality not only true, but natural. As a digression, it strikes me that this similar “convergence of binaries through a vast network of transversals” parallels the gay movement Bechdel discusses in the later chapters, which struggled to expose the normalcy and ubiquity of homosexual love and desire as something that was not outside the norm but rather encompassed the norm.

Thus, Bechdel’s use of photographs as a type of “evidence” speaks directly to how images in Fun Home can construct a parallel yet sporadically digressive narrative to the text. Bechdel’s use of “evidence” in the forms of letters, diary entries and photographs toes the lines between memoir and novel, autobiographical and fictional. The question is not whether these pieces of “evidence” are real or fictional, but rather what work they do within the tragicomic. For me, the various uses of narrative, both textual and illustrative, evoke fascinating and enthralling narratives.

Words: 774


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Filed under Bechdel, Fun Home

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