New Ways of Seeing, or: Old Hopes Revived

New Ways of Seeing, or: Old Hopes Revived

New Ways of Seeing, or: Old Hopes Revived

A Response to ‘Creating Kurdistan: The Role of Photographs as Discursive Documents’

Annebella Pollen, July 2011

Liam Devlin’s writing on the subject of Susan Meiselas’s photographic work, interpreted through the lens of the theories of Jacques Ranciere, is a persuasive and provocative read. As Devlin argues, Meiselas is certainly a telling case study for understanding shifts in documentary photography from a ‘concerned’ practice predicated on ‘bearing witness’ and bringing the unseen to visibility (with all the critiques of heroism and spectacle that such practice carries in its wake) through to her innovative Nicaragua project, where the emotional affect, political consequences and social afterlives of now ‘iconic’ photographs become reflexively re-incorporated into the work. It is Meiselas’s ongoing Kurdistan project, however, that is Devlin’s particular focus for examination in his paper, and this complex and multifaceted work is indeed worthy of close scrutiny with its ambitious intentions to create, through photography, new national archives, collective memories and a compensatory virtual ‘space’ for a dispossessed people.

Through the website, Meiselas aims to provide the opportunity for a re-imagined community to write its own history through the contribution and interpretation of personal and political material, from government reports and maps to postcards and family photos. This in itself would be a significant political undertaking, but as Devlin points out, the further political challenge lies in the way that photographic documents, in particular, are discursively sited and are allowed to retain their mobility of meaning. Subjectivities of experience and visual reinterpretations are encouraged through the project, in support of Meiselas’s belief in the photograph as ‘a relationship’. The dynamics of this approach, which considers photographs beyond tropes of surveillance, allows for a more nuanced engagement in the changing ways that photographs can be re-seen in different spaces and times. Additionally, it opens up possibilities for new meanings that do not simply posit the spectator as passive ‘voyeur’, or the photographed as ‘victim’, but offer new dimensions for interrelationship around the multidimensional site of the photographic encounter.

While Devlin’s utilisation of Ranciere’s writings on political aesthetics are a fitting framework for understanding the emancipatory value of such projects, it is also irresistible to position Meiselas’s material in relation to other writers, from Nicholas Bourriard’s concept of postproduction (2002) to Ariella Azoulay’s notion of photography’s ‘civil contract’ (2008). Certainly, Azoulay has argued for the central repositioning of ‘the photographed’ in the formerly dualistic political relations of photographer and spectator, suggesting that each be considered as active participants in the community of photography and therefore in the contest of photographic meaning. Additionally, Azoulay’s dictum – that it is necessary to ‘watch’ rather than simply ‘look at’ photographs – takes into account their open-ended and morphological nature, encapsulated in Devlin’s suggestion that re-articulated photographs are living objects, and in Meiselas’s statement that photographs matter not so much for ‘what they are – but where they lead you’. Devlin’s utilisation of Elizabeth Edwards’s anthropological approach to the material dimension of photographs, as not simply images but as active ‘things’, also suggests that the range of participants in the photographic encounter can be further broadened out to include, if controversially, the agency of the photograph itself. Photographs in what Devlin calls the ‘relational archive’ of could thus be described as embodied objects, sites of interaction, opportunities for dissent and projection, and the symbolic means of self-determination, as well as the ‘little tools of history’.

But might not these approaches and these projects altogether expect too much of photographs? Azoulay, for example, in recent writing, argues passionately that photography can act as a weapon and a tool, even claiming that it, ‘at times, is the only civic refuge at the disposal of those robbed of citizenship’. She finds emancipatory political activism inherent in photographic practice, arguing that it ‘provides modern citizens with an instrument enabling them to develop and sustain civilian skills that are not entirely subordinate to governmental power and allows them to exercise partnership with others not under the control of this power or acting as the extension of this power’s operations and goals.’ This would seem entirely resonant with Meiselas’s objectives (and even the language she uses) on In some of the more recent and nuanced discussions about the nature of the image (including Devlin’s), whether these approaches come from aesthetics or anthropology, the multiplicity of contradictions, ambiguities and contingencies inherent in photographs when utilised as historic and political documents can be convincingly reconsidered as opportunities for debate rather than as limitations in veracity. Yet despite the changing frame of the debates, the issue remains that what photographs are expected to ‘do’ remains very heavily freighted. Can photographs ever truly support the emancipatory hopes pinned to them? The belief that photographs have a supreme moral force seems not to have diminished even as debates about documentary have shifted, and Meiselas’s project, for all of its freshness and political value, ultimately pursues a very familiar aim, even if executed and debated in different terms.

Devlin mentions the organisational strategy of montage (used by Meiselas in her Kurdistan book) as a way of productively disrupting fixed historical narratives but while this may well open up valuable spaces for what Meiselas calls ‘intercultural debate’, montage, it seems to me, suffers from some of the overinflated claims made for the related term ‘appropriation’. Acts of image repositioning, for all their radical intent, can never be politically equivalent to the redistribution of land, for example, even if they are charged in similar tones of ‘reclamation’. Similarly, Bourriaudian notions of ‘relational’ arts practice may, in their internet-based or museum-safe ‘micro-utopias’, offer symbolic spaces for reimagining and revisioning social formations but whether they can be sustained and followed through in ways that exceed the symbolic remains a pertinent question, and one that cannot yet be answered in relation to Kurdistan. Critic Marcus Verhagen (2004) has concluded that, at its best, ‘relational art brings viewers together in temporary configurations that buck the trend towards fractured communities and regimented social dealings.’ As he argues, such practice ‘may not shake the foundations of the present order, but at least it chips away at the noxious conviction that there is no alternative to it – and that is a start.’ As a ‘living archive’, the effects of Meiselas’s Kurdistan project are still in the making and the photographs should thus be ‘watched’ with interest.

Azoulay, A. (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books.

Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics Dijon: Les Presses du Reel.

Verhagen, M. (2004). Micro-Utopianism. Art Monthly, 272.

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