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Activestills: Documentary Photography as Political Activism

It is becoming clear that photography is undergoing a paradigm shift.  Many things will remain the same, and perhaps look the same at first glance, but assumptions, attitudes, and ideas are nonetheless changing.  So John Lucaites and I argue in The Public Image, and one of the most recent examples to come to hand is a book that was published at the same time as ours.  Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel presents some of the work of the Activestills photography collective along with short essays, interviews, and statements to provide personal, historical, and theoretical context for the project.

The collective is a group of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers who are dedicated to supporting progressive social and political change in Palestine/Israel.  Their work focuses on “various topics, including the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, rights of women, LGTBQ, migrants and asylum-seekers, public housing, and the struggle against economic oppression.”  They work as documentary photographers, but on behalf of justice rather than press neutrality.  They distribute their work through mainstream, alternative, and social media, and as free exhibitions in those places where the photos were taken.  They sign their work collectively, maintain long-term relationships with the communities where they bear witness, and strive to “shape public attitudes and raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse.”

The collective also is attempting to open up the visual field to create new public encounters.  In place of showing victims, they feature agency.  Instead of trying to capture the decisive moment, they track the slower, more insidious forms of violence.  Rather than rely on icons, they develop an archive, and foregoing much of the iconography of protest (except on the book’s cover), they follow the odd, often chaotic angles of intimacy amid conflict and its devastating aftermath.  And rather than rely on the supposed power of the image to compel moral response, they assume that it has to work within complicated processes of interpretation.

The result is not eye candy, but it’s not another set of atrocity photos, either.  Alternating between two-page single image displays and many, many smaller images–often seven to a page–the viewing experience can be frustrating.  Even the large images are immersive: tightly copped, or with any background indistinct due to tear gas or desert topography, you may not know where you are unless you read the fine print.  The small images seem to call for a connoisseur, except that the optic is fundamentally banal–ordinary people, places, things, lighting–and the fact that time and again these are scenes of violence, destruction, and loss.

Activestills does not make spectatorship easy, but it is made worthwhile.  By working through the volume, one’s sense of inside and outside begins to shift.  Not to create the illusion that “you are there,” but to realize that violence extends beyond spasms of direct conflict to become a system of domination pressed into the fabric of life.  Likewise, instead of looking for one image or signature event,  you begin to appreciate the weight of the archive, the judgment of history, the profound need to work day after day, person by person, until justice and solidarity prevail.

This commitment is echoed in the essays in the volume, which also make direct contributions to revising the discourse on photography.  The break with conventional wisdom and implications for the future of photography are sketched deftly in Miki Kratsman’s Foreward and in the Introduction by the editors, Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.  Ariella Azoulay identifies how Activestills is developing a civil language of photography to counter the imperial discourse of differential distributions.  Haggai Matar and Ramzy Baroud outline the project’s relationship to the media environment and the political environment, while Simon Faulkner discusses the role of the exhibitions on the street.  Vered Maimon explicates the shift in modality from representation to performance, from the indexicality of the image to the collective production of belief and affective community.  Ruthie Ginsberg and Meir Wigoder identify key shifts in temporality, i.e., from “what was there, then,” to “being there now” and signifying potential futures.  Sharon Sliwinski identifies the damning potential of spectatorship to reinforce the condition of standing “before the law”–as in Kafka’s tale, forever locked out of the institution of justice–but she does so to reaffirm the role of the public image in imagining a just political community.

These ideas acquire personal texture in the interviews and statements by photographers and other activists, whose understanding of their work, individually and collectively, reminds us of what may be the most important lesson of all: whatever the technology,  artistry, or means of distribution, photography at its heart is an encounter with the world.  And even, perhaps, one means for achieving a better world.

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Announcement:  Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Robert Hariman, Northwestern University and John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University
A National Communication Association Seminar
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown
November 9, 2016
9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

nyc-street

Since its inception photography has been understood as a fundamentally democratic technology, but throughout the past century it has been dogged by an iconoclastic attitude—a hermeneutics of suspicion—that has treated it as a problematic medium and mode of representation that undermines political awareness and public deliberation.  The tide seems to be slowly turning in recent years with increasing attention to the role that photography might play in animating civic imagination and engagement. This seminar explores some of the questions, assumptions, and arguments that can move scholarly and public discussions of photography beyond the older paradigm and toward more engaged civic spectatorship.  These issues include rethinking the relationship between analog and digital technologies, the role that de- and re-contextualization plays in interpreting and thinking with photographs, and the relationship between realism and imagination.  The seminar will be divided between exploring (a) a robust conception of photography as a public art in the 21st century, and (b) two topics that are central to photography’s history and critical potential: modernity and war.  Throughout the focus will be on the development of interpretive practices and ethical norms for civic spectatorship

Requirements: Applicants should submit a 250 word statement that indicates their interest in the study of visual media and spectatorship, as well as a brief description of one of their research projects that might benefit from and contribute to the themes of the seminar.  Applications should be sent as a pdf file to John Lucaites (Lucaites@indiana.edu) no later than September 16, 2016. Those selected to be in the seminar will be notified no later than October 1, 2016.  Subsequently a few common texts and images will be distributed for study prior to meeting at the convention.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.

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Why Spectators Matter: The Resolution of the Suspect

Kratsman:Azoulay

Radius Books, in conjunction with Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press, has released The Resolution of the Suspect, a collection of photographs by Miki Kratsman with accompanying text by Ariella Azoulay.  The work draws on decades of documentary engagement in Palestine to expose the operations and effects of the Israeli occupation.

Prepare to be disappointed: if, that is, you want to see searing moments of human drama, striking images evoking strong emotions, and compelling indictments of political leaders.  Such photographs have their place, but to show how oppression eats into the bones of all who are involved–victims and perpetrators and spectators–one has to give up drama for banality.

Aware of both the moral capacities and the limitations of texts and images, Kratsman and Azoulay refocus conventional documentary practices to explore how power shapes the act of seeing.  They expose the dominant gaze of military occupation, but more as well.  Across the terrain of power, they trace the countless gestures, silences, concessions, commitments, and sheer persistence that make up a politics of presence for those who are denied the status of citizens.  The result is a slow, disruptive look into a place where everyday life is lived–and degraded–under the twined optics of nonrecognition and surveillance.

What is most distinctive, and  perhaps astonishing, is how Kratsman and Azoulay call for the active participation of the spectator.  “Active participation here means to resist the assumption that the insecurity of the lives of those photographed is unrelated to your own status and mode of being as a citizen of a given political regime”; it  is to understand instead how “the constitution of your own citizenship is what keeps them vulnerable and exposed to disaster” (28).  Nor is this a simple scolding; instead, “We are encouraged to harness our imagination” in order to recognize how we already are being harmed by the illusions of non-participation, and how we have forgotten our right not to be complicit with the perpetrators, and how we, too, can become subject to forces of degradation and destruction.

In place of drama and strong emotional identification with the victims, we are offered a long view and photography’s “civil contract” whereby all who are governed can experience an egalitarian solidarity across the arbitrary restrictions of sovereignty.  That contract is available every time you look at a photograph.  It becomes a political resource as you allow the photo to prompt and guide your civil imagination.  Only then can you enter into what really is happening on the ground while considering what could and should be otherwise.

What you can’t do is see it all.  That incapacity is fundamental to Resolution, which offers a collection of fragments that suggest instead how low-level violence can tear, gouge, and distort reality; how it breaks continuities of trust and vision; how sharper resolution is but the ironic echo of an inchoate abyss.

That said, the book is strangely hopeful.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps the authors know that cynicism only perpetuates the status quo.  I also suspect that they believe in the spectator.  However hard it may be to believe, they believe in you.

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Paper Call: Viscom 2015

29th Annual Visual Communication Conference

Cannon Beach Viscom
Tolavana Inn, Cannon Beach, Oregon

 June 24-28, 2015

The organizers of the 29th Annual Visual Communication Conference invite faculty and students to submit research and creative presentations from the varied and emergent field of visual communication. Topics may include, but are not limited to, graphic design, visual aesthetics, visual rhetoric, semiotics, still and motion photography, documentary and feature films, visual literacy, visual ethics, multimedia and new communication technologies, visual culture, and pedagogy in visual communication. While the range of topics and presentation modes is varied, authors and creators of all accepted submissions must present their work in a visual way.  In addition, video presentations of research will be considered creative work and reserved for the “creative work sessions.”

VisCom brings together a community of visual communication scholars and creative practitioners passionate about the visual. It is a plenary conference where everyone presents to everyone, and presenters are encouraged to stay for the entire time. The sessions take place in a visually stimulating environment with an afternoon off to enjoy the scenery. Works-in-progress are welcome and presenters can anticipate an environment that encourages lively discussion and helpful feedback. Finished papers are encouraged. The conference organizers will accept only one submission per person.

Additional information is here.  The submission deadline is March 15, 2015.

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Azoulay, Luski, and Horizontal Photography

Ariella Azoulay will be delivering a series of lectures next week in Leuven, Brussels, and Amsterdam regarding her new book, Aïm Deüelle Lüski and Horizontal Photography.

Horizontal Photography cover

This book is the product of a unique collaboration between Israeli artist and philosopher Aïm Deüelle Lüski and visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay. In their longstanding working relationship, they research how to theorize the structure of the contemporary scopic regime and open a space for its civil transformation. On this occasion, Azoulay interprets a particular series of cameras built by Deüelle Lüski, along with photographs taken by these cameras. Unlike conventional cameras and their vertical photography, Deüelle Lüski’s cameras seek to generate new sets of relations between the camera and the world. Azoulay’s text unfolds four different ‘short histories’ of problems in photography, each of which deconstructs what otherwise might appear as a coherent photographic regime, yet which is shown to be based solely on principles of sovereignty and possession. Through and with Deüelle Lüski’s project Azoulay seeks to ‘potentialize’ the history of photography, that is, to recover long forgotten, un-materialized possibilities. The book contains 100 images and a conversation between the author and the artist.

The lectures are listed here, here, and here.

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Wendy Kozol’s Distant Wars Visible

Kozol cover

Congratulations to Wendy Kozol for the release of her new book from the University of Minnesota Press.  The Amazon.com link is here.

The bio will tell you that Wendy Kozol is professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin College.  She is the author of Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism and has coedited two anthologies (with Wendy S. Hesford): Haunting Violations: Feminist Criticism and the Crisis of the “Real” and Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminism, and the Politics of Representation.

We know her as one of the original sources of inspiration for our work, and as an engaged colleague who continues to advance understanding of how photography can be a vital medium for understanding war, human rights, and the obligations of seeing.

 

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Catastrophic Reflections: Depression Era Greece and Beyond

Fysakis, Nea Helvetia

The Depression Era project inhabits the urban and social landscapes of the crisis. It begins as a collective experiment, picturing the Greek city and its outer regions, the private lives of outcasts, the collapse of public systems and snapshots of the everyday in order to understand the social, economical and historical transformation currently taking place in Greece. It seeks to do so with as clear a gaze as possible. It understands, in its double meaning, that entropy, disaster, uncertainty and insolvency are also states of mind, ushering us to an era where the notion of progress, the idea of growth and the reflex of looking forward to a future are no longer dominant modes of perceiving and creating in the world.

The Depression Era project brings together 30+ artists, photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. It seeks to stand outside the media montage and white noise of current public discourse by creating its own mosaic of images and texts. Its immediate goals are the broadcast and dynamic exploration of this mosaic on an online platform, a series of international exhibitions and publications. Its long-term goals include an open call to young artists, the eventual creation of an artistic archive of the crisis and through it, a new digital and physical Commons, an ‘anti-screen’ and ‘sidewalk museum’ that would return its mosaic of gazes back to their places of origin.

The Depression Era collective agrees that its images and texts are not Greek, but European, viewports to the shape of things to come, straddling the red line and offering an alternative, unofficial story to the Crisis.

Work is displayed at the link above, and exhibitions currently are on display via Central Dupon Images in Paris and the Benaki Museum in Athens.

Photograph by Pavlos Fysakis.

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Symposium on Securing the Image

Symposium on Visual Rhetoric

Securing the Image: Surveillance, Verification, and Global Violence

TSA panels

Northwestern University

Annie May Swift Hall

November 1, 2014

Somewhere between the worldwide adoption of digital imaging technologies and the Global War on Terror, photographic documentation became both highly suspect and increasingly important. Questions regarding surveillance, manipulation, and other factors in image production have become occasions for inquiry into some of the most basic assumptions about visual media and public culture. These questions acquire additional significance when visual practices are intertwined with violence done in the name of national security. At the same time, they offer new vantages for rethinking the nature of the image and its aesthetic and political possibilities. The symposium on Securing the Image includes two public lectures devoted to reconsidering key issues in visual surveillance and verification:

9:00 a.m.  David Campbell, “Manipulation, Scraping, and Verification: Securing the Integrity of Visual Representations of Political Violence”

10:30 a.m.  Rachel Hall, “Asymmetrical Transparency: The Global Politics of Risk Management”

David Campbell is the A. Lindsay O’Connor Professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Colgate University. He is the author of six books and more than 60 articles, and has produced visual projects on the Bosnian War, imaging famine, and the visual economy of HIV-AIDS. As a research consultant to World Press Photo he directed their 2012-13 Multimedia Research Project and a 2014 project on “The Integrity of the Image.” He is also Secretary to the World Press Photo Contest. David produces multimedia and video projects, and all his work can be seen at www.david-campbell.org.

Rachel Hall is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. Her publications included Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture (University of Virginia Press, 2009), The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security (Duke University Press, 2015), and articles in Performance Research, Women’s Studies Quarterly, The Communication Review, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies, and Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy.

Sponsored by the Center for Global Culture and Communication and the Department of Communication Studies/Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture.  For additional information contact symposium organizer Robert Hariman (r-hariman2@northwestern.edu) or administrative assistant Dakota Brown (jdakotabrown@u.northwestern.edu).

 

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