First of all, thank you for accepting this exchange. After doubting what our theme and the core focus of our letters should be, I think it’d be best for us to look at the role of photography in the new ways of perceiving political action. More specifically, at what photography can do to improve this world of ours without yielding to the temptation of humanism, which has dominated such a large part of its history. Political imagination needs photography, but not in its current form.
Your contributions in this regard have been essential. The publication of your work The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), shifted the goalposts of the debate. Ever since, it has been impossible to conceive of photography as something limited merely to the images it produces. The radical vision forged in your book suggests that photography has, from its very inception, infiltrated the body politic. The presentation of its invention by Dominique François Arago on 10 August 1839 to France’s Chamber of Deputies, before men of state and of science, demonstrates the fact.
This is why the most immediate interest in this new technology would not be exclusively aesthetic in nature. Photography would rapidly be seen as the perfect ally for the extractivism that was the hallmark of the 19th century. Some imagined it as a kind of scanner, able to capture the world, store it and transport it – the ideal tool for accelerating the expropriation of the discoveries of the material world and, subsequently, those of the lived world, too.
The critical spirit that has grown as a result of the current pandemic has led to a call for urgent repair of the world we have been inhabiting, including many of the premises and institutions making it up. You most recent book provides a cogent contribution to this, highlighting the role of photography as a core factor in the policies that govern our relationship with history and the spaces created by capitalism. Museums, the objects making up their collections, the documents and the experts accessing them… are all under suspicion.
“The formal innovation that has done so much to mark the history of photography is of no use to us now.”
With the appearance of this new work (Potential History. Unlearning Imperialism, Verso, 2019) towards the end of last year, some critics may have thought that you shifted from analysing photography to criticising the persistence of a colonial regime. A regime whose influence still lingers on, even if we do not always admit the fact. However, as you yourself have said, to decolonialise the museum, we first need to repair the world.
The formal innovation that has done so much to mark the history of photography is of no use to us now.The changes we seek to bring about are much more far-reaching. We wish to know what role photography has played in shaping this world, a world we also now allow ourselves to place in quarantine. A world you don’t hesitate to describe as being under the yoke of a violent, imperial regime. The day you published the first entry on the Fotomuseum Winterthur blog you made a proposal so radical as to imagine that the origins of photography should be traced all the way back to 1492. The earthquake unleashed by this statement caused the toppling of pillars hitherto regarded as unshakeable.
So, the photographic device is no longer limited to the mechanical appliance used to capture the images in question. It acquires a new dimension that transforms the small world of photography that first saw the light of day in the 19th century. This new dimension brings with it a potential history of photography, and with it photos that are “not taken”, “unshowable” or “inaccessible”.
Although, recently, you have applied this arsenal of resources to the history of colonial enterprises, it might be advisable to warn our readers that these notions do not simply spring from a mere intellectual whim. They are the product of having lived and worked in the context of an Israel that has for decades imposed a de facto apartheid on the Palestinian community.
It has become a perverse regime with its own logic and dynamics. Each and every day, the international news pages feature articles reminding us of this “exceptional situation”, one whose consequences are not limited to the occupied territories.
Your essays, both written and visual, extrapolate the effects of the region’s conflict to embrace a global regime that perpetuates the forms of colonial government. Reading your texts gives us the impression that photography was not born in France, but rather forged with the humanitarian disaster afflicting the Palestinians.
I remember the time you showed me your project Act of State. Palestine-Israel (1967-2007). Going through the more than 800 images that comprise it, we paused in front of one.
You asked me what I saw. I answered that I saw some kids running along an unpaved road opposite an Israeli soldier. You then confessed to me that you had the image sitting on your desk for a long time until, one day, you realised that there was something odd about it. The distance between those kids, who seemed to have just come out of school, was greater than one might expect. The law prohibiting gatherings in public spaces would also be applicable, without distinction, to the children living in the occupied territories.
These kinds of observation, the ones you don’t find on the flip side of press photos, allowed you to display the catalogue of gestures that mark the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. A series of contacts marked by the refusal of one side to acknowledge the citizenship of the other. However, to identify this kind of injustice, the evidence provided by the practice of photojournalism is simply insufficient. When what is under attack is a fully fledged civil society, albeit one that is not recognised as a state, another kind of evidence is called for. In this regard, the photographic evidence based on what the camera has seen becomes obsolete.
“How many times have photographs been used to claim the opposite of what actually happened?”
Martha Rosler often says that the documentary aesthetic turns those viewing art into citizens. But the fact is that the document, the product of these practices, is attracting more and more criticism.
Susan Meiselas, a frequent collaborator of yours, experienced a similar crisis when she found herself faced with the task of shedding light on domestic violence. She simply couldn’t do it. Instead, she resorted to images taken by the San Francisco Police Department to convey the language of the institution that, up to that point, had to deal with this very specific form of violence.
She believed that it made no sense to photograph, one by one, the bodies exhumed from the mass graves, as she herself had witnessed. The crime so exceeded the scale of an “everyday” murder committed against a specific number of individuals: it was a crime against Kurdish society as a whole.
“So what kind of photograph was called for to depict the exact magnitude of an outrage against what we call civil society?”
The scale of the savagery required a new means of conveying the evidence. We have found that the promise of seeing, documenting and exhibiting it all no longer meets the political demands of our times. You denounce these expectations, inherent in democratic societies, as a privilege associated with an abuse of power stemming from the rights implanted and guaranteed by an imperial regime. We know that these regimes of visibility, apparently so comprehensive, exhaustive and sometimes scientific and academic in nature, leave the question of responsibility out of shot. We have separated the knowledge arising from our progress from its inherent culpability. The asymmetry is outrageous.
But things have been like this for a long time. So much so that we have developed a capacity for systematic forgetfulness… and this brings to mind filmmaker Michael Haneke. A short while ago, you yourself showed a frame from Caché (2005) on your Facebook page.
We immediately started discussing its exasperating ambiguity, and this encouraged me to take a fresh look at the film. It begins with some mysterious videos that Georges, the main character, receives from parties unknown. He is suddenly struck by a childhood memory. When he finds out who might be behind the videos, his doubts become nightmares. One irrefutable fact lies behind this story: the violent death of 200 Algerians drowned in the Seine after the repression of a demonstration on the streets of Paris on 17 October 1961. In the DVD’s extras, Haneke does not hide his horror. In response to the interviewer’s questions as to the film’s theme, the director responds without hesitation: “The question is whether we will accept that we are guilty”.
Correspondence is an online project that aims to reflect upon the relevance that photography has had in contemporary society and the visual culture of our times. The program will be extended throughout the year following three conversations that will be published weekly. Read more
In collaboration with
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more
Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman. Read more
Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova. Read more
Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés. Read more
Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Read more
Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés, Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova, Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more