Book Review: Where Will You Spend Eternity ?

Where Will You Spend Eternity ?, by Sylvia de Swaan

De Swaan’s photobook contains poetry, an essay, an artist’s statement and an account from a couple who visited Utica, New York and stayed with de Swaan. The book is a meditation on her adopted hometown, a small post-industrial city in Upstate New York.

The 84 photos included are subtle, building as a body of work, a visual poem.

Take this extended sequence: an image of a snow-covered back yard leads to a picture of a snow-covered statue of Jesus, then a picture of a yellow ribbon in a wintry yard. Next we see a pattern of snow on paving stones — broken very faintly by one person’s footsteps. The series continues with a snowy scene of a house with a large peace symbol spray-painted on its door, and the word “peace” written on the front of the house.

De Swaan continues this riff with an image of a garage painted with the words “world peace in the streets.” Someone has spray-painted a thin black line through the phrase — still leaving it entirely legible. On the facing page is a bullet hole in a window. Turn the page and see blacktop with two figures painted onto it, appearing to walk toward each other. The final image in this series is a boarded-up house with the words “peace in the streets” painted on it. This time none of the words are crossed out.

While many of the photos portray a gloomy rust-belt landscape, de Swaan includes signs of hope: the Cambodian Buddhist procession, the painted wall with an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., the freight train with the words “No Remorse !” painted onto it. She also creates humor, as when she pairs a trailer with an image of a slumbering woman opposite a shot of a McDonald’s sign urging us to “Wake up Happy.”

De Swaan’s book title asks about eternity, but the photographer is fascinated by the details of the here and now — how we live out our days — whether at war or at peace, in wealth or poverty, alone or together.

Where Will You Spend Eternity ? was self-published, and is available through Blurb.

— Willson Cummer