I must explain a little bit about the history of crimes of passion in Brazil in order to talk about this piece. Killing for love has always been an issue dealt publicly and quite explicitly in Brazil. According to author Jose Gabriel de Lemos Britto in his 1933 book “Psychology of Adultery”, Brazilians were the people who most killed for love back then. In her article “Crimes of Passion: The Campaign Against Wife Killing in Brazil, 1910-1940”, Susan K. Besse (1989) describes how a patriarchal and sexist Brazilian society in the beginning of the twentieth century dealt with adultery:

Crimes of passion were by no means a new phenomenon in Brazil; according to Portuguese law (to which Brazil was subject during the colonial period), a married man who discovered his wife in the act of committing adultery had the legal right to kill both her and her suitor, and the social custom of doing so did not die with the formal abrogation of this “right.” (Besse 1989, 653)

In the nineteen forties the situation was out of control. Not only did the rate of women victims of crimes of passion raised, the popular press also contributed to the sensationalism towards the situation in order to boost their sales. Other segments of the press, on the other hand, started a campaign against that barbaric situation. “The progressive newspaper A Esquerda concurred that Rio de Janeiro was living through a period of “authentic savagery,” and urged women to unite to protect themselves against “masculine cowardliness [which] stalks to kill”.” (Besse 1989, 653) However, not only did women start to protect themselves, they also started to get back at men. As a result of the initial wave of violence against women, the opposite started to happen and women started to be the ones committing crimes of passion. In order to minimize the problem that only seemed to worsen with time, in 1940 the Brazilian Penal Code was revised and “emotion or passion no longer excluded criminal responsibility. After 1940, concern over the wife killing waned” (Besse 1989, 655), which does not mean that the problem was solved. Actually the problem remains until these days, being the most recent famous case from July 2010, when the soccer player Bruno was accused to murder his pregnant girlfriend (Ertelt 2010).

That was my background information before I started studying photo theory in the fall of 2010. It is important that I list a series of things that started going through my mind, which eventually led to the final concept of “A Envenenadora” (The Poisoner), a photographic film directed by me. My first, and possibly the most important, inspiration for this piece is the photograph “Chimney Sweeps Walking” (Charles Nègre, 1852). I was first introduced to this photo when reading the essay written by Mary Warner Marien (Howarth 2005) about it. What most interested me was not the image itself, even though I find the faded colors fascinating, but how Nègre composed the photograph in a way that it simulates movement. I must confess that if it had not been for Marien’s essay, I would probably not have thought about it. The photographer is from a time that it was necessary to stand still in front of the camera for a long time for the photograph to be taken. Therefore, capturing movement was virtually impossible. What Negrè did then, was to ask the three men to stand as if they were walking, and they had to stay still for a long time, simulating the movement. I thought that was a very intriguing paradox: in Negrè’s time, it was imperative that the subjects stayed still to be moving. But not really. If the subjects were moving, Negrè might have only captured a blur, which would be the actual movement; and then the movement would be trapped in the stillness of the photograph. One second of movement in cinema is composed by 24 sequential photographs, which trick our eyes, and makes us believe we are looking at a moving image, and not still frames. For me, that makes of photography and cinema essentially the same thing. That was the initial idea I needed to make my photographic film: “A Envenenadora”.

The last photograph analyzed in Howarth’s book is Jeff Wall’s “A View from an apartment” (2004) (Howarth 2005). I was not familiar with Wall’s work before I read Sheena Wagstaff’s essay, but I became I great fan of his work afterwards. I find it inspiring how the artist directs his photographs, by creating sets, deciding costumes, controlling the movement and light. I loved the fact that his photographs imply narratives and are staged, in tableau style. Laura Mulvey’s description of “A Sudden Gust of Wind” (1993) inspired me for the technique I decided to use in my piece:

(…) the photograph seems to go, in a strange way, beyond the instant it represents. It seems to be too visually complex, and too theatrical in its gestures. (…) The scene is staged, as though in a tableau, and its details further perfected through digital enhancement. (…) As Wall brings simulation to the aesthetic of reality, he gives the picture a theoretical dimension reflecting a transitional moment in which both technologies coexist, (…) The aesthetics of the past meet the aesthetics of the present, bringing, almost incidentally, new life to the cinema and its history (Mulvey 2006).

Once I was clear on my technique, I needed to decide what to represent on my photo/film. And Roland Barthes gave me the answer in his quintessential book Camera Lucida:

Photography transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object: in order to take the first portraits (around 1840) the subject had to assume long poses under a glass roof in bright sunlight; to become an object made one suffer as much as a surgical operation; then a device was invented, a kind of prosthesis invisible to the lens, which supported and maintained the body in its passage to immobility: this headrest was the pedestal of the statue I would become, the corset of my imaginary essence (Barthes 1981).

A little later in the book, Barthes says that photography is like death of the subject of the photo. He/She becomes a spectrum when the photographer uses his instrument of murder, the camera, and his finger pushes the trigger, the shutter. Considering this thought, I decided to represent dualities in my piece: love and hate, life and death, stillness and movement, photography and cinema.

When I read the passage above in Barthes’ book, I immediately recalled a notorious crime of passion that happened in Portugal in the late 1800’s.

Almanaque Palhares, 1910.

According to the note above, Virginia Augusta da Silva had her husband poisoned to marry her lover, who was a rich man. The note does not say much, but we know that it was not a perfect crime, since Virginia got arrested and died in jail. This was the oldest recollection of a crime of passion I found in newspapers, the time of the crime coincides with the time of the pre-cinematic apparatus, fin-del-siècle XIX, when the audiences became hungry for movement.

I initiated the making of the photograph by choosing the actors to represent Virginia and her husband. Then I decided the costumes, the set and the two positions that would represent the time of love/life and the time of hate/death. In a complete dark environment, I had the actors stand still in the first position while I pressed the shutter of the camera and had them painted with a flashlight; then the lights were off again, they moved to the second position, where they were painted with the light from the flashlight again, and only when the whole process was finished was that I released the shutter button. The result was one photograph that captured two different moments in time. The light painting process was done with a digital camera. Finally, I transformed the photograph into a film: I made a 12-minute-sequence of the photograph, added a flickering effect, and singles frames of different photographs taken in the same photo shoot, which gives the viewer the feeling that the characters are suddenly moving. The soundtrack I chose for the piece is called “Medea’s Meditation And Dance Of Vengeance” (Samuel Barber, 1956), which is based on the Greek myth of Medea, Jason’s first wife, who, after being abandoned by him, murdered their two children (Medea n.d.). This is the oldest story of a crime of passion committed by a woman that I could find, but apart from the meaningful context of Medea’s story, I also think that the music itself matches my piece, giving it the exact amount of tension I believe it should have.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Besse, Susan K. “Crimes of Passion: The Campaign against Wife Killing in Brazil, 1910-1940.” Journal of Social History, 1989: 653-666.

Britto, Jose Gabriel de Lemos. Psychologia do Adultério. Rio de Janeiro, 1934.

Ertelt, Steven. “Brazil Soccer Player Bruno May Have Killed Pregnant Girlfriend, Refused Abortion.” Life News. 07 08, 2010. http://www.lifenews.com/2010/07/08/int-1587/ (accessed 11 25, 2010).

Howarth, Sophie. Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs . London: Tate Publishing, 2005.

Medea. http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/bates018.html (accessed 12 06, 2010).

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion, 2006.