This weekend I’m in country Victoria to catch the tail end of the Ballarat International Foto Bienalle (about which I’ll write a bit more later). Driving across the border from South Australia means a change in speed limit, the landscape shifting from being a flat brown to a more wooded green, and something I’d not seen before: billboards saying “This is why you’re photographed when you speed”, accompanied with a couple of family snaps of a young woman blowing candles out and looking at the camera. This seemed a little cryptic, though its placement by the highway suggested some kind of road safety message (we photograph/use speed cameras so that you can live to enjoy your twenty-first birthday?).

The mystery was solved a few hours later in the rental apartment though, with the TV on and ads flowing past. One caught my eye. It started with a shot of some family photos on a wall and in other empty rooms. It was quiet and deliberate, with a touch of handheld camera movement, but trying, it seemed, not to be too loud and ad-like. It cut to a succession of ordinary-looking people–a woman in a suburban front yard, a truckie in his cabin, a man in a lounge room–who were looking at or holding a photograph. The subdued music and sombre expressions soon made it clear that the photographs were those of people who were dead. Then the ad cut to closer shots of the people in the photographs, with their names and dates of death. This seemed too specific to be fiction. These must be real people who’ve really lost loved ones (surely whatever agency commissioning the ad would not toy with our emotions so, to actually name someone in full and not have it be true?) Then, the text to close the ad from the roadside billboard. This TV ad is a documentary, I realised.

I can remember a road safety ad years ago which featured a man in a pub having a drink that ended with the final-shot kicker showing him in a wheelchair. It was controversial because it was an actor playing the role. There was nothing telling that audience that it was an actual road accident victim, but people felt cheated that it wasn’t somehow. This current ad depends on this expectation of truthfulness and by giving us the victims’ names it reassures us that our emotional attention to these tragedies is grounded in reality. It also depends on our understanding of photographs as stand-ins for the dead. Photographs aren’t always the only tokens of the departed, but in this case, they serve as an economical way to signal absence and loss. It’s not simply photographs as photographs that do this here–the music and sombre expressions and even tears strongly suggest this, prior to the even stronger confirmations of the names. (I can imagine an ad with a photograph held by a smiling woman, for example, which might indicate a child overseas–when Barthes says photographs hint of death, he’s right, but not always.)

The safety campaign has a website which provides more context, telling us that a handful of families volunteered their stories. These stories, not an abstract set of road safety guidelines, are the main feature of the site. The centrality of the photographs to this campaign is clear: it’s called ‘picturesofyou‘.