The Mallards' Call

Alfonso de Gregorio

2017 - Ongoing

Abruzzo, Italy

Can there be any sublime in today’s surveillance? How does the sublime inform us about the nature of the relationship between surveillance and social life? And if the prospect of social withdrawal is unbearable, would we be ever able to escape a state of surveillance?

In the Mallards’ Call, I repurpose imaging surveillance technologies to the photographic space that lays at the intersection of personal documentary and performative art. A long-time cybersecurity researcher by background, I now resolved to turn surveillance technology towards myself. I intend to record in my images the resulting introspective investigations, in the attempt to make the invisible visible. In so doing, I aim to shedding new light on the absences in our lives. I aim to addressing the epidemic level of loneliness in today’s society, and how the said condition incentives the use of social media where the present body of work was live shared during its production. Mediating almost every form of social participation, those media are, in fact, perfect surveillance platforms in disguise. Appropriating the techniques of surveillance, and exploring how surveillance underpins our own way of life, the present project questions the politics and aesthetics of surveillance themselves.

To develop the concept, I returned alone to the prairie where I used to walk with my late wife, and I started photographing an allegorical elegy for her and on the lonely human condition. Each image was inspired by the wakas collected in the Man’yōshū, from which the present work draws both its title and the captions.

With the project revolving around absences and their allegorical representations, the process reflects such void by resorting on infrared illuminators for night vision as modelling lights lighting the new-moon nights’ scenes, and on infrared cameras. The lights employed are outside the visible spectrum. As such, they cannot be seen, just like the beloved longed for, by all mammals – photographer included.

“Loneliness, thy other name, thy one true synonym, is prairie.” — William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea (1905)

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  • A Lord returning home has come.
    Digital C-Print.

    “A Lord returning home Has come,' said they-
    And I well-nigh swooned,
Thinking it was you. – By the Maiden.”
    – Maiden Sanu Chigami, Manyoshu

  • Would that they were flowers.
    Digital C-Print.

    “Would that they were flowers,
The white surges far upon the sea of Isé
    I would wrap and bring them home
    As a souvenir for my beloved wife.”
    – Prince Aki, Manyoshu

  • Above the north mountain-range.
    Digital C-Print.

    “Above the north mountain-range
    That rims the blue firmament
    The stars pass on,
    The moon passes on”
    – Empress Jitō, Manyōshū

  • The mallards call with evening from the reeds.
    Digital C-Print.

    “The mallards call with evening from the reeds
    And float with dawn midway on the water;
    They sleep With their mates, it is said,
With white wings overlapping and tails a-sweep
    Lest the frost should fall upon them.

    As the stream that flows never returns,
    And as the wind that blows is never seen,
    My wife, of this world, has left me,
Gone I know not whither!
So here, on the sleeves of these clothes
    She used to have me wear,
    I sleep now all alone!

    Cranes call flying to the reedy shore;
    How desolate I remain
As I sleep alone!”
    – Tajihi, Manyoshu

  • Today, taking my last sight of the mallards.
    Digital C-Print.

    “Today, taking my last sight of the mallards
    Crying on the pond of Iwaré,
    Must I vanish into the clouds!”
    – Prince Otsū, Manyoshu

  • Over Mount Onū.
    Digital C-Print.

    “[…]When back at home, what shall I do?
    How desolate I shall find
Her vacant bower !

    Poor beloved !
    Destined thus, she travelled far to me,
    I cannot tell my grief!

    How it tills me with regret!
Had I foreknown it, I would have shown her
    All in this beautiful land!

    The bead-tree's flowers my darling saw
    Will be scattered
While my tears have not dried.

    Over Mount Onū the fog is rising;
    Driven by my sighs of grief,
The fog is rising.”
    – Yamanoé Okura, Manyoshu

  • Tonight too. Digital C-Print.

    “Tonight too
    does my woman’s pitch-black hair
    trail upon the floor
    where she sleeps without me?”
    – Anonymous, Manyōshū.

  • Lo.
    Digital C-Print.

    “Lo, our great Sovereign, a goddess,
    Tarries on the Thunder
    In the clouds of heaven!”
    – Kakinomoto Hitomaro, Manyoshu.

  • In praise of saké.
    Digital C-Print.

    “[…] All living things die in the end:
    So long as I live here
I want the cup of pleasure.

    Silence with the airs of wisdom
    Is far worse
Than weeping drunken tears!”
    – Poems in praise of saké, Manyoshu

  • I remember ever so long.
    Digital C-Print.

    “I remember ever so long
That rainy night, when all alone
    I met you with your face ghastly pale Like a spectral fire.”
    – A fearful thing, Manyoshu

  • Though my thoughts of her.
    Digital C-Print.

    Though my thoughts of her
Grow a hundredfold in my heart
    Like the leaves of the crinum On the sea-coast of Kumanu,
    I do not meet her face to face.

    “ — Kakinomoto Hitomaro, Manyōshū

  • Till my black hair be white.
    Digtial C-Print.

    “Till my black hair be white,
We shall be together, I and my darling,
    Sleeping, our sleeves overlapped,
She nestling by my side,
Bound m never-ending love,
Through this new age of our Sovereign;
    So I vowed, but my word proved false,
    My hopes were vain.
    She has gone from me and our loved home,
    Leaving a crying child,
And faded like a morning mist,
Vanished among the Sagaraka Hills
    Of Yamashiro.
I know not what to say, nor what to do.
But out of the room we slept in
I come at morn, thinking of my wife,
With evening I go back and grieve.
When my precious child cries,
Helpless man as I am-
I bear him on my back or in my arms;
And ceaselessly I weep, as sings the morning bird,
    Longing for her in vain;
And, though dumb the hills that bind her,
    I gaze upon them as my heart's resort!


    Changing is this world of ours;
    Those hills, cold to my heart,
I now must gaze upon
As my heart's resort!

    I cannot but weep aloud
And ceaselessly, as sings the morning bird,
    Since no way remains to me
To regain my love!”
    - Takahashi, Manyōshū.

  • As if to foreshadow.
    Digital C-Print.

    “As if to foreshadow
That the world will be vain,
    This bright moon waxes and wanes!”
    – Anonymous, Manyoshu

  • I hear the twang of the mid-string.
    Digital C-Print.

    “[…] Though men go in noisy multitudes
Like flights of teal over the mountain edge,
    To me-oh what loneliness,
Since you are absent whom I love.

    By the Toko Mountain in Omi
There flows the Isaya, River of Doubt.
    I doubt whether now-a-days
You, too, still think of me?”
    – Empress Kōgyoku, Manyoshu

  • On the sea of heaven.
    Digital C-Print.

    “On the sea of heaven the waves of cloud arise,
    And the moon's ship is seen sailing
    To hide in a forest of stars.”
    – On the sky, Hitomaro Collection, Manyoshu. Digital C-Print.