Dead Sleep, Chapter One
I stopped shooting people six months ago, just after I won the Pulitzer Prize. People were always my gift, but they were wearing me down long before I won the prize. Still, I kept shooting them, in some blind quest that I didn't even know I was on. It's hard to admit that, but the Pulitzer was a different milestone for me than it is for most photographers. You see, my father won it twice. The first time in 1966, for a series in McComb, Mississippi. The second in 1972, for a shot on the Cambodian border. He never really got that one. The prizewinning film was pulled from his camera by American marines on the wrong side of the Mekong River. The camera was all they found. Twenty frames of Tri-X made the sequence of events clear. Shooting his motor-drive Nikon F2 at five frames per second, my dad recorded the brutal execution of a female prisoner by a Khmer Rouge soldier, then captured the face of her executioner as the pistol was turned toward the brave but foolish man pointing the camera at him. I was twelve years old and ten thousand miles away, but that bullet struck me in the heart.
Jonathan Glass was a legend long before that day, but fame is no comfort to a lonely child. I didn't see my father nearly enough when I was young, so following in his footsteps has been one way for me to get to know him. I still carry his battle-scarred Nikon in my bag. It's a dinosaur by today's standards, but I won my Pulitzer with it. He'd probably joke about the sentimentality of my using his old camera, but I know what he'd say about my winning the prize: Not bad, for a girl.
And then he'd hug me. God, I miss that hug. Like the embrace of a great bear, it swallowed me completely, sheltered me from the world. I haven't felt those arms in twenty-eight years, but they're as familiar as the smell of the sweet olive tree he planted outside my window when I turned eight. I didn't think a tree was much of a birthday present back then, but later, after he was gone, that hypnotic fragrance drifting through my open window at night was like his spirit watching over me. It's been a long time since I slept under that window.
For most photographers, winning the Pulitzer is a triumph of validation, a momentous beginning, the point at which your telephone starts ringing with the job offers of your dreams. For me it was a stopping point. I'd already won the Capa Award twice, which is the one that matters to people who know. In 1936, Robert Capa shot the immortal photo of a Spanish soldier at the instant a fatal bullet struck him, and his name is synonymous with bravery under fire. Capa befriended my father as a young man in Europe, shortly after Capa and Cartier-Bresson and two friends founded Magnum Photos. Three years later, in 1954, Capa stepped on a land mine in what was then called French Indochina, and set a tragic precedent that my father, Sean Flynn (Errol's reckless son), and about thirty other American photographers would follow in one way or another during the three decades of conflict known to the American public as the Vietnam War. But the public doesn't know or care about the Capa Award. It's the Pulitzer they know, and that's what makes the winners marketable.
After I won, new assignments poured in. I declined them all. I was thirty-nine years old, unmarried (though not without offers), and I'd passed the mental state known as "burned out" five years before I put that Pulitzer on my shelf. The reason was simple. My job, reduced to its essentials, has been to chronicle death's grisly passage through the world. Death can be natural, but I see it most often as a manifestation of evil. And like other professionals who see this face of death-cops, soldiers, doctors, priests-war photographers age more rapidly than normal people. The extra years don't always show, but you feel them in the deep places, in the marrow and the heart. They weigh you down in ways that few outside our small fraternity can understand. I say fraternity, because few women do this job. It's not hard to guess why. As Dickey Chappelle, a woman who photographed combat from World War II to Vietnam, once said: This is no place for the feminine.
And yet it was none of this that finally made me stop. You can walk through a corpse-littered battlefield and come upon an orphaned infant lying atop its dead mother and not feel a fraction of what you will when you lose someone you love. Death has punctuated my life with almost unbearable loss, and I hate it. Death is my mortal enemy. Hubris, perhaps, but I come by that honestly. When my father turned his camera on that murderous Khmer Rouge soldier, he must have known his life was forfeit. He shot the picture anyway. He didn't make it out of Cambodia, but his picture did, and it went a long way toward changing the mind of America about that war. All my life I lived by that example, by my father's unwritten code. So no one was more shocked than I that, when death crashed into my family yet again, the encounter shattered me.
I limped through seven months of work, had one spasm of creativity that won me the Pulitzer, then collapsed in an airport. I was hospitalized for six days. The doctors called it post-traumatic stress disorder. I asked them if they expected to be paid for that diagnosis. My closest friends-and even my agent-told me point-blank that I had to stop working for a while. I agreed. The problem was, I didn't know how. Put me on a beach in Tahiti, and I am framing shots in my mind, probing the eyes of waiters or passersby, looking for the life behind life. Sometimes I think I've actually become a camera, an instrument for recording reality, that the exquisite machines I carry when I work are but extensions of my mind and eye. For me there is no vacation. If my eyes are open, I'm working.
Thankfully, a solution presented itself. Several New York editors had been after me for years to do a book. They all wanted the same one: my war photographs. Backed into a corner by my breakdown, I made a devil's bargain. In exchange for letting an editor at Viking do an anthology of my war work, I accepted a double advance: one for that book, and one for the book of my dreams. The book of my dreams has no people in it. No faces, anyway. Not one pair of stunned or haunted eyes. Its working title is "Weather."
"Weather" was what took me to Hong Kong this week. I was there a few months ago to shoot the monsoon as it rolled over one of the most tightly packed cities in the world. I shot Victoria Harbor from the Peak and the Peak from Central, marveling at the different ways rich and poor endured rains so heavy and unrelenting that they've driven many a roundeye to drunkenness or worse. This time Hong Kong was only a way station to China proper, though I scheduled two days there to round out my portfolio on the city. But on the second day, my entire book project imploded. I had no warning, not one prescient moment. That's the way the big things happen in your life.
A friend from Reuters had convinced me that I had to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art, to see some Chinese watercolors. He said the ancient Chinese painters had achieved an almost perfect purity in their images of nature. I know nothing about art, but I figured the paintings were worth a look, if only for some perspective. Boarding the venerable Star Ferry in the late afternoon, I crossed the harbor to the Kowloon side and made my way on foot to the museum. After twenty minutes inside, perspective was the last thing on my mind.
The guard at the entrance was the first signpost, but I misread him completely. As I walked through the door, his lips parted slightly, and the whites of his eyes grew in an expression not unlike lust. I still cause that reaction in men on occasion, but I should have paid more attention. In Hong Kong I am kwailo, a foreign devil, and my hair is not blond, the color so prized by Chinese men.
Next was the tiny Chinese matron who rented me a Walkman, headphones, and the English-language version of the museum's audio tour. She looked up smiling to hand me the equipment; then her teeth disappeared and her face lost two shades of color. I instinctively turned to see if some thug was standing behind me, but there was only me-all five-feet-eight of me-thin and reasonably muscular but not much of a threat. When I asked what was the matter, she shook her head and busied herself beneath her counter. I felt like someone had just walked over my grave. I shook it off, put on the Walkman, and headed for the exhibition rooms with a voice like Jeremy Irons's speaking sonorous yet precise English in my headphones.
My Reuters friend was right. The watercolors floored me. Some were almost a thousand years old, and hardly faded by the passage of time. The delicately brushed images somehow communicated the smallness of human beings without alienating them from their environment. The backgrounds weren't separated from the subjects, or perhaps there was no background; maybe that was the lesson. As I moved among them, the internal darkness that is my constant companion began to ease, the way it does when I listen to certain music. But the respite was brief. While studying one particular painting-a man poling along a river in a boat not unlike a Cajun pirogue-I noticed a Chinese woman standing to my left. Assuming she was trying to view the painting, I slid a step to my right.
She didn't move. In my peripheral vision, I saw that she was not a visitor but a uniformed cleaning woman with a feather dust mop. And it wasn't the painting she was staring at as though frozen in space, but me. When I turned to face her, she blinked twice, then scurried into the dark recesses of the adjoining room.
I moved on to the next watercolor, wondering why I should transfix her that way. I hadn't spent much time on hair or makeup, but after checking my reflection in a display case, I decided that nothing about my appearance justified a stare. I walked on to the next room, this one containing works from the nineteenth century, but before I could absorb anything about them, I found myself being stared at by another blue-uniformed museum guard. I felt strangely sure that I'd been pointed out to him by the guard from the main entrance. His eyes conveyed something between fascination and fear, and when he realized that I was returning his gaze, he retreated behind the arch.
Fifteen years ago, I took this sort of attention for granted. Furtive stares and strange approaches were standard fare in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. But this was post-handover Hong Kong, the twenty-first century. Thoroughly unsettled, I hurried through the next few exhibition rooms with hardly a glance at the paintings. If I got lucky with a cab, I could get back to the ferry and over to Happy Valley for some sunset shots before my plane departed for Beijing. I turned down a short corridor lined with statuary, hoping to find a shortcut back to the entrance. What I found instead was an exhibition room filled with people.
Hesitating before the arched entrance, I wondered what had brought them there. The rest of the museum was virtually deserted. Were the paintings in this room that much better than the rest? Was there a social function going on? It didn't appear so. The visitors stood silent and apart from one another, studying the paintings with eerie intensity. Posted above the arch was a Lucite plaque with both Chinese pictographs and English letters. It read:
nude women in repose
When I looked back into the room, I realized it wasn't filled with "people"-it was filled with men. Why men only? I'd stayed a week in Hong Kong on my last visit, and I hadn't noticed a shortage of nudity, if that was what they were looking for. Every man in the room was Chinese, and every one wore a business suit. I had the impression that each had been compelled to jump up from his desk at work, run down to his car, and race over to the museum to look at these paintings. Reaching down to the Walkman on the waistband of my jeans, I fast-forwarded until I came to a description of the room before me.
"Nude Women in Repose," announced the voice in my headset. "This provocative exhibit contains seven canvases by the unknown artist responsible for the group of paintings known popularly as the 'Sleeping Women' series. The Sleeping Women are a mystery in the world of modern art. Nineteen paintings are known to exist, all oil on canvas, the first coming onto the market in 1999. Over the course of the nineteen paintings, a progression from vague Impressionism to startling Realism occurs, with the most recent works almost photographic in their accuracy. Though all the paintings were originally believed to depict sleeping women in the nude, this theory is now in question. The early paintings are so abstract that the question cannot be settled with certainty, but it is the later canvases that have created a sensation among Asian collectors, who believe the paintings depict women not in sleep but in death. For this reason, the curator has titled the exhibit 'Nude Women in Repose' rather than 'Sleeping Women.' The four paintings that have come onto the market in the past six months have commanded record prices. The last offering, titled simply Number Nineteen, sold to Japanese businessman Hodai Takagi for one point two million pounds sterling. The Museum is deeply indebted to Mr. Takagi for lending three canvases to the current exhibit. As for the artist, his identity remains unknown. His work is available exclusively through Christopher Wingate, LLC, of New York City, USA."
I felt a surprising amount of anxiety standing on the threshold of that roomful of men, silent Asians posed like statues before images I could not yet see. Nude women sleeping, possibly dead. I've seen more dead women than most coroners, many of them naked, their clothes blasted away by artillery shells, burned off by fire, or torn away by soldiers. I've shot hundreds of pictures of their corpses, methodically creating my own images of death. Yet the idea of the paintings in the next room disturbed me. I had created my death images to expose atrocities, to try to stop senseless slaughter. The artist behind the paintings in the next room, I sensed, had some other agenda.
I took a deep breath and went in.
My arrival caused a ripple among the men, like a new species of fish swimming into a school. A woman-especially a roundeye woman-clearly made them uncomfortable, as though they were ashamed of their presence in this room. I met their fugitive glances with a level gaze and walked up to the painting with the fewest men in front of it.
After the soothing Chinese watercolors, it was a shock. The painting was quintessentially Western, a portrait of a nude woman in a bathtub. A roundeye woman like me, but ten years younger. Maybe thirty. Her pose-one arm hanging languidly over the edge of the tub-reminded me of the Death of Marat, which I knew only from the Masterpiece board game I'd played as a child. But the view was from a higher angle, so that her breasts and pubis were visible. Her eyes were closed, and though they communicated an undeniable peace, I couldn't tell whether it was the peace of sleep or of death. The skin color was not quite natural, more like marble, giving me the chilling feeling that if I could reach into the painting and turn her over, I would find her back purple with pooled blood.
Sensing the men close behind me edging closer, I moved to the next painting. In it, the female subject lay on a bed of brown straw spread on planks, as though on a threshing floor. Her eyes were open and had the dull sheen I had seen in too many makeshift morgues and hastily dug graves. There was no question about this one; she was supposed to look dead. That didn't mean she was dead, but whoever had painted her knew what death looked like.
Again I heard men behind me. Shuffling feet, hissing silk, irregular respiration. Were they trying to gauge my reaction to this Occidental woman in the most vulnerable state a woman can be in? Although if she was dead, she was technically invulnerable. Yet this gawking at her corpse by strangers seemed somehow a final insult, an ultimate humiliation. We cover corpses for the same reason we go behind walls to carry out our bodily functions; some human states cry out for privacy, and being dead is one of them. Respect above all is called for, not for the body, but for the person who recently departed it.
Someone paid two million dollars for a painting like this one. Maybe even for this one. A man paid that, of course. A woman would have bought this painting only to destroy it. Ninety-nine out of a hundred women, anyway. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for the woman in the picture, on the chance that she was real. Then I moved on.
The next painting hung beyond a small bench set against the wall. It was smaller than the others, perhaps two feet by three, with the long axis vertical. Two men stood before it, but they weren't looking at the canvas. They gaped like clubbed mackerel as I approached, and I imagined that if I pulled down their starched white collars, I would find gills. No taller than I, they backed quickly out of my way and cleared the space before the painting. As I turned toward it, a premonitory wave of heat flashed across my neck and shoulders, and I felt the dry itch of the past rubbing against the present.
This woman was naked as well. She sat in a window seat, her head and one shoulder leaned against the casement, her skin lighted by the violet glow of dawn or dusk. Her eyes were half open, but they looked more like the glass eyes of a doll than those of a living woman. Her body was thin and muscular, her hands lay in her lap, and her Victorian-style hair fell upon her shoulders like a dark veil. Though she had been sitting face-on to me from the moment I looked at the canvas, I suddenly had the terrifying sensation that she had turned to me and spoken aloud. The taste of old metal filled my mouth, and my heart ballooned in my chest. This was not a painting but a mirror. The face looking back at me from the wall was my own. The body, too, mine: my feet, hips, breasts, my shoulders and neck. But the eyes were what held me, the dead eyes-held me and then dropped me through the floor into a nightmare I had traveled ten thousand miles to escape. A harsh burst of Chinese echoed through the room, but it was gibberish to me. My throat spasmed shut, and I could not scream or even breathe.
—Reprinted from Dead Sleep by Greg Iles by permission of Signet, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Greg Iles. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.