Paper on Susan Meiselas Kurdistan

Paper on Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan

Creating Kurdistan: The Role of Photography as Discursive Documents

Liam Devlin 2010

This paper seeks to use Susan Meiselas’ engagement in the problematic construction of Kurdistan to discuss the relational qualities of photography when activated and considered as discursive documents. While the Kurdistan project is disseminated through the three different formats of book publication, website and exhibition, I will focus on the particular construction of the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (2008) and the website To explore the relationship between art and politics that is at the heart of this presentation I will use the writings of the philosopher Jacques Rancière, primarily his theory of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ from his book Aesthetics and politics (2000) and in particular his writings on The Emancipated Spectator (2009), which will help us to more usefully consider the production, dissemination and reception of Meiselas’ herculean project.

Photographic technologies of capture, manipulation and dissemination have become increasingly ubiquitous, operating within and across a plethora of different discourses, from eye witnessing events to community and individual construction of identity. Cameras have become increasingly and immediately available, to the point that many people have a camera now, even if they don’t have ‘a camera’, as our narcissistic tendencies have conflated digital cameras and mobile phones. Photographic images circulate around the globe at an unquantifiable pace and quantity and regardless of the insightful and timely critiques of representation that have dominated a photographic discourse since the 1970’s, the majority of these images circulate as visual documents. While these critiques have upset the myth of photographic objectivity, photography still has an evidential currency in the social order.

For Ranciere the social order (or as he terms it ‘The police order) is a set of implicit rules and conventions, which determine the distribution of roles in a given community and the forms of exclusion, which operate within it. This order is founded on what Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’. Here he is referring to the way in which roles and modes of participation in a common social world are determined by establishing possible modes of perception. Thus the distribution of the sensible sets the divisions between what is visible and invisible, ‘sayable’ and un-sayable, audible and inaudible.  According to Rancière therefore by default, aesthetics is central to politics.

The notion of a visual and aesthetic aspect to political debate is of course a founding rationale for the role of documentary or concerned photographic practice, relying initially on the images supposed veracity. Susan Meiselas’ own career can be read as a series of exemplary examples of the transformations that documentary photography, have witnessed over the past thirty years. As we can trace how Meiselas’ projects have evolved and transformed from the role of ‘bearing witness’ photographically from within conflicts such as Nicaragua in the late 1970’s to the collection and construction of a living growing archive of imagery and personal testimony for the non-existent state of Kurdistan.

The critiques of the politics of representation that questioned the assumed objectivity and authority of the photographic medium, essentially accused documentary practice of creating a spectacle of suffering, that reinforced the systems of oppression and inequality. One of the most articulate critiques of documentary practice came from Martha Rosler in her essay In around and afterthoughts on Documentary Photography (1985). For Rosler, within a neo-liberal ideological climate of self interest, traditional documentary loses its naïve claims to working for social reform to become a spectacle of suffering produced by careerist photographers. In her own words, “Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these to save us the trouble”. (Rosler 1985 p. 309). For Rosler therefore, in calling for charity or sympathy, traditional liberal documentary preserves the oppressive structures of the status quo, while denying the underprivileged or oppressed a voice and does just enough to pacify the potentially more revolutionary outcome of self-organisation.

Now while Meiselas’ early career could be seen to embody Rosler’s critique, her commitment to the issues she has explored and photographed is an exception that perhaps proves the rule. Importantly Meiselas also understood the dilemmas of traditional photographic documentary, as she states:

“The price of collecting information or news is at the cost of living like a human being. On the other hand, the price of becoming involved is that you may not be seen as a reliable witness. Sometimes I think that a photograph is instead of a relationship, and yet a photograph is a relationship” (Meiselas, 2008, p. 231).

However she also understood that this relationship is only critically and effectively activated when the artist/activist/author involves the image back into its historical contest of meaning.  For example Meiselas ‘returned’ the photographs she took of the revolution back to Nicaragua 25 years later to act as a catalyst for debate around what had happened in 1979 and of its legacy. While in her notes made during the preparation of Voyages, 1983, she wrote;

What was important – to me – was… That the longest living dictatorship was defeated – by the people… Somewhere in the face of that, journalism seems – what’s the word – not silly but in the face of that commitment journalism seems crass – cruel and superficial. I mean its like we pretend we know more than what we know. Well, connected with that is that I think making a revolution is more important than making a story about a revolution. But that’s not to say that I don’t think there’s a function for the photographer in the making of a revolution…. Something about photographs – that photographs – both for the people there and myself – they’re like souvenirs or landmarks… So its not so much what they are –  but where they lead you.[1]

The responses to challenges to the ideological framework that supports a documentary practice have however, primarily resulted in the dicussion around photographic communication focusing almost exculisvely on the ambiguity of photographic imagery. The spectacle has remained but has been tamed into a manifestation of the formal, visual sophistication of the author.

The critique of the spectacle, for Rancière has its origins in Plato’s denouncement of the memesis of theatre as place where the spectator is “invited to see people suffering, as a spectacle of pathos… through the opitical machinery that prepares the the gaze for illusion and passivity.” (Rancière 2009 p. 3).

Therefore “What is required is a theatre without spectators, where those in attendance learn from as opposed to being seduced by images: where they become active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs”. (Rancière 2009 p. 4).

However the multiple attempts to  challenge the spectacle, as exemplefied by thinkers/artists such as Berthold Brecht, Guy Debord and Martha Rosler, are based on a set of assumed oppositions between (for example) the image and living reality, viewing and knowing, speaker and spectator which, for Rancière forms an “intricate dramaturgy of sin and redemption.,” (Rancière 2009 p. 7) that does not challenge the a priori logic of intellectual inequality that these oppositions are derived from. (Rancière 2009 p. 12)  Instead he calls for an intellectual emancipation that is based on an equality of intelligence. It asserts that intelligence is not a position to be held but one that ventures “into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think they have seen, to verify it and to have it verified.” (Rancière 2009 p 11), an activity that Rancière refers to as  ‘the poetic labour of translation’.

Susan Meiselas’ original involvement in the Kurdish region began in 1991 when she travelled there on behalf of Human Rights Watch to document the unearthing of mass graves created by Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq in the 1980’s. She writes of her first impression.

“In all my work in Latin America, in all my photographing of war, I never saw destruction that was so systematic and so complete. I was trying to be thorough while documenting the destroyed villages; the problem was there was so little left, sometimes there was nothing to photograph except piles of rubble. And no way to distinguish what had been there before”. (Meiselas 2008 p. 241)

Her anxiety about the lack of any physical indicators of the anfal campaign highlighted her own ignorance of the Kurdish region not to mention the historical struggle of the Kurdish people to self-determination. Meiselas’s acknowledgement of her own ignorance of the region, moved her too abandon her position as authoritative witness and instead focused on the important and subversive role that photographs played in ‘the forest of things and signs’ within Kurdish culture, not only as memorial tokens of lost loved ones but also as a subversive affirmation of cultural autonomy. As Meiselas writes in the introduction to the book:

“What interested me was the intersection and interplay between those who shaped Kurdish life and the lives of the chroniclers who pictured them. The photographers and those photographed, the points of cultural exchange, how the various protagonists crossed one another’s paths.” (Meiselas, 2008, p. xvi)

The Kurdistan project has gone on to collect an eclectic mix of photographic imagery that ranges from 19th Century quasi-anthropological postcards through studio and snapshot family photographs, to police and journalistic images of the many and bloody conflicts for Kurdish independence. Importantly these images are used in conjunction with a variety other documents such as official government records, news stories and personal testimony. The splash page of AKAKurdistan opens with this text:

This site, a borderless space, provides the opportunity to build a collective memory with a people who have no national archive.

This introduction distills the simple and aspirational function of Meiselas’ involvement with the region. However in creating the various manifestations of this project, she has created a powerful tool to aid the political act of imagining the community of Kurdistan. For example, the website is mostly made up of a chronological timeline that can be accessed at any point, however on either side of the time line is the image of a map, which was presented at the San Francisco Conference by the Kurdish League Delegation on March 30th 1945. Making this map visible, using this aesthetic manifestation of a political/cultural aspiration aptly illustrates the antagonistic nature of this project. For within the we can see the Kurdish territorial claims straddled Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, illustrating what would seem the foundation of deeply volatile situation.

There is of course a danger for Meiselas in creating this imaginary Kurdistan. There must be a temptation for the Kurdish political movements to create an unproblematic narrative of Kurdish oppression and subsequent heroic struggle for freedom; using the images Meiselas has collected to illustrate this alternative but equally rigid ‘distribution of the sensible’. Using Rancière’s call for an intellectual emancipation we can see that Meiselas has avoided this by creating an equivalence or ‘equality of intelligence’ across all the historical records, whether they are family photographs or government documents, while also forwarding the material, fragile human quality of these ‘little tools of history’.

This pointing towards the fragmentary nature of historical narrative is, equivalent to the representational practice of montage. I don’t want to discuss montage as a stylistic approach but as a conceptual framework that most successfully negotiates the potential these pitfalls. According to Ben Highmore in his book Everyday Life and Cultural Theory (2002), “… there is a huge potential for montage to generate critical forms of reading, by making contradictions and antagonisms explicit within the social realm.” As an artistic practice there is “the refusal of montage to subsume these diverse elements into a homogeneous whole. Instead of accumulating these elements into a resolved and meaningful unity, collage offers a bombardment of materials that resist narrative resolution… collage allows its condition as an articulation to be made evident: the relationships between elements are denaturalized, suggesting that they can always be re-articulated in different arrangements.” (Highmore, 2002, p. 90-91)

This re-evaluation of intelligence and communication that invites Rancière’s ‘poetic labour of translation’, has the useful effect of demolishing the authority of the documentary image as a statement of fact and allows for a reconsideration of the work as a catalyst for debate, becoming in the process reflexively political. This is aptly illustrated by the website’s Unknown Image Archive section where there are images without provenance that are put up for identification. For example a Danish photographer sent Meiselas a photograph (see above) with the following note.

“Dear Susan,

This old photo was in our archive. We never use it. Nobody ever asks for it. I don’t know where the original comes from and I don’t know how we got it. But, I will offer it to you if you can use it for your project.


The image is of a large group of men on their knees bent over so their foreheads touch the ground and their hands are clasped behind their heads while military personnel and vehicles surround them. The image was uploaded with an invitation for anyone with any knowledge of the images original context to comment.  Importantly there is a strap line to this section of the website that states:

The act of memory unlocks the life within each photograph and reclaims its place in history.

The purpose of this section of the website is obviously an effort to secure an accurate account of the images content, to rescue the image from semantic oblivion, suggesting that a photography is ‘dead’ without an accurate caption. Importantly however the various responses to the images are unedited and it makes visible the debates around what each image shows, which for me indicates that an image is alive, not when its correct caption is secured, but within its contest of meaning. This contest does not occur within the image itself but outside the frame by those who encounter and engage with the image. A selection of just two responses to the content of this image can illustrate its antagonistic existence, that Rancière calls dissenus. The first comment suggestes, “his photo show to the whole world how racist Turkish government was against innocent Kurdish people in the past”. This is immediately followed by… “Captured terorists or future terorists who are probly in Europe now helping other terorists. They are little lucky that they are not taken somewhere in Kuba and have fair trial.”

The structure of this website that opens out the debate around what certain images depict, that in this instance has so far failed to acquire a definitive description, has not failed to take its place in history. These various forms of remembering and understanding upsets the supposed hierarchies of knowledge and exposes the official documentation as an act of suppression rather than definition. Instead the images illustrate the subjectivity of history leaving space for alternative readings.  As Elizabeth Edwards writes:

Photographs remain dangerous things- they are never simply archival but active in the relations between people and people, and people and the weight of their pasts in the present. (Edwards 2008 p.341)

The photographs that Meiselas uses do act as documents but are pulled into the story of Kurdistan. Importantly this is not a clear and definitive narrative, but a fractured and contested montage of personal memory, oppression and political activism. It is a relational archive that acknowledges and encourages the contest of meaning, shifting the distribution of the sensible, of what is sayable or unsayable, visible or invisible. Through an understanding of the historical relations generated through this material, Meiselas has created an archive of a nation had not been permitted to exist… yet now seems at least possible.

[1] These words are part of Meiselas’ reflections on her work in Nicaragua, from the documentary Voyages, produced with director Marc Karlin in 1985. See the Transcription of this project in Kristen Lubben (ed.), Susan Meiselas: In History, ICP & Steidl, 2008, p. 231.

Meiselas paper

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