Tatum Dooley on the urge to recreate images of a doomed couple.
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Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy is haunting my social media. Instagram accounts dedicated to archiving the numerous paparazzi photos of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr.—the post-a-day chronicling a testament to the relentless surveillance of their lives—circulate like a relentless in memoriam slideshow. The people running these accounts are collectors, finding and archiving rare photographs of the couple, unseen angles, noting the brand of each article of clothing (and then buying them) and how to style your hair like Carolyn. It isn’t enough to present the images of Carolyn, they want to push their lives up against hers.
Once I start looking I can’t stop. I sink hours scrolling through accounts like @carolynbessette @carolynbessettehd @carolyn_iconic. I take note of the outfit credits, absorbing style lessons. In photos of Carolyn where she appears annoyed, I recall being annoyed. When she screams at JFK Jr. in a park, I’m reminded of my own unbecoming actions in public. Through images of her, I have an idea of myself that other people see. Without saying anything, Carolyn cycles through phases of sorrow, happiness, anger, boredom, annoyance—all captured in her eyes by paparazzi photographers that she hated. She detested the attention so much that it’s often cited as causing a rift in her marriage. At one point, she stopped leaving the house to avoid the parasitic paparazzi, who would scream insults at her in an attempt to evoke a reaction.
In 1993, Jacques Derrida coined the term hauntology in Specters of Marx. The term puts forth the idea that ghosts of the past are unknowable—unable to be fully articulated—and yet are paradoxically still present, influencing and co-existing alongside the present and possible futures. The finite number of images of the couple, photogenic in Yohji Yamamoto and Prada (CBK), well-tailored suits and athleisure (JFK Jr.), creates an environment ripe for projection. We don’t know much of anything about Carolyn. Everything that’s been written about her is pure speculation; she barely spoke on camera. But the photographic inheritance allows for a continuation: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy can be anyone one you want her to be, even you. Not only a ghost, but a spirit that possesses.
In 2017, Mr. Magazine published a photo shoot of re-enactments of the couple. “He had the name, the looks, and the love of his life but sadly it was just a brief shining moment…” the copy reads. Thanks to the magazine’s spread of milquetoast doppelgängers, the shining couple avoids brevity, is re-made in perpetuity. The couple lives on in fashion ad nauseam. An ode to the paparazzi photos of them was made again in the 2019/2020 collection by Roberto Verino (“which recreates the nineties today and pays special tribute to a truly memorable ‘influencer’ couple.”). And then again in Classy Japan in 2020, followed by a Saks Potts campaign, also in 2020. I don’t need to tell you that none of these re-enactments come close to the real thing
Social media has taken this trend a step further. People are reconstructing the medium of CBK and JFK Jr.’s unsuspecting paparazzi shots to create the #paparazzichallenge on TikTok. A paparazzi cosplay, people pose in faux-annoyance, arm raised in a shield, don’t-look-at-me-look-at-me reverse psychology. The photos allow the subjects to see themselves from the vantage point of the other, and in doing so, allows them to feel the desire of being looked at. Not only looked at, but reproduced. The photographs of CBK and JFK Jr. are flattened online into content—their accidental beauty begets recreations.
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people,” writes Elaine Scarry in the first lines of her book On Beauty, published in 1999. “Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resembles and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable,” she continues. Scarry gives insight into the desire to replicate Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy by performing the image of her, in the only way we know how: through the eye of the paparazzi. It also explains a tendency to duplicate ourselves on social media: don’t we all want to be thought of as beautiful?
I am haunted by images of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. I want to be Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. After hours of scrolling, pulled in like a siren call, I find myself standing in a Yohji skirt at a local boutique, similar to the one Carolyn wore (“Function in honour of Jacqueline Onassis, October 4, 1998.”). A photo of me and my boyfriend that I didn’t know was being taken was posted to Instagram. The momentary shock of being perceived wore into relief. We looked good. I was wearing Issey Miyake. — By Tatum Dooley