The Author Is Not Dead: W.G. Sebald (& Photographs)



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W.G. Sebald claimed until the end of his life that the photographs and documents he used were in large part “authentic”—that is to say that the people he writes about existed, and that the vast majority of his photographs are “what you would describe as authentic” and “are a direct testimony of the fact that these people did exist in that particular shape and form.
— Todd Heidt

In my novel, which I have been working on for the past two years, I have decided to use photos to reinforce a particular effect of the story I am writing.  It is a conscious decision, in contrast to my highly intuitive writing style, and it is clearly influenced by W.G. Sebald.

It was not an easy decision, as it conflicts with my view that words should be enough to evoke the right images in the readers’ minds, and that if your quality of writing is good enough, there should be no reason to add media. So why will I do it anyway? What are the justifications for this seemingly anti-literary technique?

Let me start by showing you a short extract from my own story. This is from chapter one. My first-person narrator has come back to the Greek island where his girlfriend drowned under uncertain circumstances the year before. He is following the route they took and makes a stop at a little church in the forest:


The car keeps moving forward on this winding road taking us down from the mountain-pass through a forest covered by dark green pines on either side. When it finally straightens out, we enter a small valley full of autumn-coloured maple trees, and I spot the small, white chapel still standing there mute an indifferent as if nothing had happened. This memory is particularly clear in my mind: It was a beautiful day, like now, with the dense blue sky visible between the branches and the sunlight filtering through the yellow and orange leaves with a vibrancy that gave the whole scene a spiritual sensation. I climbed up in one of those tall trees to get a better view of it all. I have the picture she took of me in the drawer, together with all those other photos we captured on this trip. Somehow I am not able to throw them away, although the thought of them hiding there worries me. It is a bit like the memories stored in my mind, those photographs from the past, which you can sometimes recall in detail, sometimes hardly remember at all.


I took two photos of her leaning towards the white marble altar placed in front a wide tree trunk. I think the old church is visible in the background, but it is the striking, bright light hitting her face like a studio lamp that I remember the most. It makes her look gorgeous, with her pale, rosy skin, and lion cub eyes; more orange than brown in the filtered sunlight. She is dressed in pink striped shorts and a white tank top. Her blonde hair curled especially for the occasion and she gave me that strained smile that often appeared when she was forced to pose. In the second picture she has a completely different look, as she has become aware of a bee flying out from beneath the altar, and her body is frozen in a posture of instinctive defence; her right heel lifted off the ground, with the thigh and knee pulled in towards her groin; her shoulder turning in on herself in an attempt to protect the vital organs, and her face is tilted in the opposite direction, looking back and down at the imminent threat. Her mouth slightly open as if she is about to scream. And I love her eyes in this photo, filled with a mix of surprise and fear. She looks so alive in this one, so naturally beautiful, with no inhibition or shyness of any kind.


So what is the effect of this photo I have added here, in relation to the text? And is it really needed to tell the story? Before I try to answer these questions, let us have a look at some of the theories discussed in the numerous articles available on this subject in general, and on Sebald specifically. One of the most comprehensive and interesting I found was by Todd Heidt, written for an online magazine perfectly named Image & Narrative. It is an analysis of Sebald’s use of photos and other media in his novel Emigrants.

In light of such use, the nature of photography as a certificate of presence fades as it becomes a narrative in its own right. Photographs do not merely trap a moment in time; rather one reads the faces and places photographed, investigating catachresis (misuse/mismatch) of meaning between text and image looking for that which neither could intimate alone. It is neither the case that the photographs serve the text or that the text serves the photograph, but both are in a dialogue which actively alters the perception of the other.
— Todd Heidt

So a photograph becomes a narrative on its own, something I imagine would be a very familiar and obvious statement if you are a photographer (which Sebald admitted he was not). But it is when the image is set up against a parallel textual narrative that it becomes especially interesting. Instead of being a certificate of authenticity in the story, which would be expected if this were a memoir, it adds ambiguity and mistrust, raising questions about the reliability of the story and narrator instead. Moreover, this is an intentional technique that Sebald seems to need in order to dive into the deep wells of both his personal and the historical past, not knowing what will be discovered until he stumbles upon it.

Sebald’s narrative style is dependent upon the process of recovery and the structure of remembering, bringing stories and photos to bear upon the narrative not from a logical, retrospective and teleological perspective of hindsight, but as they become available and allow the reader to share in both their discovery, curiosity and obscurity.
— Todd Heidt

My own novel is very much about that same exploration, or should I say excavation, of memories, both the autobiographical one (the author’s) and the fictional (the narrator’s), and even the photographical one (either described or displayed), have an important role in this discovery process.

In my extract above, there is a photo taken from the perspective of someone in a tree looking down at the church described in the text, and we can see the marble altar standing there as empty as the row of seats next to it. So the reader will be inclined to pause and ask themselves a few questions before they continue to read: When was this taken? The year before, when he was with her, or in the present time, when he is back again alone? Do the two additional photographs described by the narrator exist or are they only memories of her standing in front of the altar? And if not, was she already dead at this point and did not drown after all? Does she even exist, or is she perhaps just a figment of his imagination?
I came across a blog post the other day, where the writer uses an example from Emigrants to discuss the effects of Sebald’s use of photographs and text. It is a photo of a family at a dining table and the narrator has just told us that he knows who the little girl with the glasses is.

The narrator seems to know who the little girl is, but he does not tell the reader. It may very well be Sebald’s own family photo—and if it were Sebald’s memoir, we would want to know—but here the ambiguity is acceptable, particularly since this is billed as fiction. In well-written fiction we tend to believe the world of the page: this becomes our reality.
— Alisa Golden

And again it strikes me that Sebald is acting more playfully than systematically, and his writing style also seems intuitive and exploratory, jumping in time and space without explanation, as if little is pre-planned and that he does not know where the story will take him.  This seems to be a thread through all the “Self-Writers” I have been discussing in this article series, and perhaps the concept of drawing fictional accounts from your own memory, does not allow for tedious conscious constructions. There will be chosen forms and squared off canvasses to enforce restrictions, but other than that, it seems that these authors have to let themselves completely free to allow the memories to flow:

…so that instead of drifting into sleep I slid into my memories. Or rather, the memories (at least so it seemed to me) rose higher and higher in some space outside of myself, until, having reached a certain level, they over-flowed from that space into me, like water over the top of a weir.
— W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

At one point, the narrator/Sebald tells us that he is so “deeply absorbed” in his writing that he has “not the faintest recollection either of the hours of waiting or of the bus journey.” And he ends by saying that it was not “until I am on the train to Milan do I become visible again to my mind’s eye.” So basically he shows us that when he writes, he disconnected his mind, meaning I must assume, that he ventures into a subconscious, intuitive space, where the fragments of, and connections between, memories, can be recollected and brought to the surface of his story.

His use of photographs seems to be a more conscious and planned act, although he states that he is “collecting them not systematically but randomly. They get lost, then turn up again.” So it seems to me that they perhaps also play a part in the subconscious recollection and writing process of the author.  

In my own writing, I often remember the photograph of a scene, meaning the artificial documentation of the real-life event, more clearly than I recall the event itself. Either because I have looked at this photo many times since, or because my mind has chosen to store the photograph as the actual memory, maybe because it has a more clear focus and is conveniently framed, compared to the more illusive and non-concrete nature of reality.

It is rather weird to think about this, but for all of us currently experiencing the modern world of social media posts and other digital re-representations of reality, it is not far fetched at all, that our brains will eventually prefer/ take advantage of the artificial interpretation vs. the actual. And I ask myself: What do I really remember from my youth? And how many of those memories are stored as visual images based on photographs, compared to the images of the actual experience?

In order to secure these narratives in a truth of some kind or other, the stories pass through the photographs and back to Sebald himself playing the role of an I-narrator of an autofictional world rendered precisely to cast doubt upon the boundaries between truth and fiction, while reaffirming the ethical imperative to continue to bear witness to the traumatic twentieth century.
— Todd Heidt

In the next article we will discuss another Self author who used images in his writing: Bruno Schulz illustrated his poetic prose stories with his own atmospheric black and white drawings and claimed to be a citizen of “The Republic of Dreams.




The "Self" article series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature, from Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who poured their own life history into their novels without compromise, in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonates so clearly with their readers willing to listen.

Comment below to let me know what you think!


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A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.