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Conference Paper Call: Humanising Photography

Humanising Photography

Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS)
Durham University, UK
25-27 September 2009

In the early twenty-first century, the still photographic image continues to be one of the central visual technologies of humanitarianism: from the all-too familiar images documenting successive waves of famine and disease, through those that bear witness to the action and destruction of war, to the photo ops staged in the arena of struggles for human rights. Disseminated across a range of media and spanning geographical distances and cultural divides, photographic images are presented for everyday consumption, produced by practitioners often working explicitly in the name of ‘humanity’ and testifying to acts of injustice and states of destitution and abjection.

And yet: this humanitarian deployment of photography has been vigorously attacked from a variety of angles. The contemporary moment is plagued by anxieties concerning an oversaturated visual sphere and attendant compassion fatigue, a state of anaesthesia said to blunt the photograph’s political and ethical efficacy. Humanitarian photography is predicated on humanist principles even after more than half a century spent interrogating and deconstructing the discourses of humanism. Within photography theory, not only have there been sustained attempts to dismantle ontological notions of photographic reference, but documentary has been pilloried as a practice that is profoundly implicated in the perpetuation of liberal capitalism. Despite all this, however, the fact that photographic images of human suffering, deprivation and also resilience continue to circulate and be deployed suggests an ongoing belief in their power to affect and ultimately to effect change.

‘Humanising photography’ is a single-track conference that aims to establish a creative forum in which to reflect on the political, ethical, historical, and aesthetic questions thrown up by the persistent presence of such images in the context of humanitarian discourses. It will bring practitioners into dialogue with scholars working in the academic fields of visual culture studies broadly construed and representatives from humanitarian organizations. Whilst we welcome papers exploring salient contemporary issues and case studies, we especially encourage those that examine other contexts and histories that have been occluded in the contemporary geopolitical moment, in addition to theoretically-oriented reflections.

Possible areas for consideration might include, but are not restricted to:

What modes of humanist photography might still be valid in the twenty-first century?
What are the histories of humanist photography?
What are the tropes, figures and other rhetorical devices at play in such photography and what are their effects?
What is the political and emotional work that is done by this mode of photographic display and does it work?
What are the modes of appeal of such images, whom do they address and on what terms?
How do the modes of circulation and display impact on modalities of affect and effectivity?

Instructions for submission of abstracts
Please send 500-word abstracts for 30-minute conference presentations and a brief biographical note (maximum 5 lines), together with affiliation and contact details to: photo.group@dur.ac.uk.

Deadline for abstract submission: 19 December 2008.

Notification: by 5 January 2009.


Conference Paper Call: Humanising Photography


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