1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#10 Tanvi Mishra

Based in New Delhi, India, Tanvi Mishra works with images as a photo editor, curator, and writer. Among her interests are South Asian visual histories, representation within image-making as well as the notion of fiction in photography, particularly in the current political landscape.

Until recently, she was the Creative Director of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture published out of Delhi. She is part of the photo-editorial team of PIX and works as an independent curator forming part of the curatorial teams of Photo KathmanduDelhi Photo Festival as well as the upcoming BredaPhoto Biennial in 2022. She has served on multiple juries, including World Press Photo, Chennai Photo Biennale Photo Awards and the Catchlight Global Fellowship. She has also been a mentor for the Women Photograph programme and is part of the first international advisory committee of World Press Photo.

Some of her recent writing includes Viral Images: The role of photography in documenting India’s COVID-19 disaster (The Caravan magazine; 2021); Photography in Crisis: Repurposing the Medium for Solidarity and Action (FOAM Magazine, 2020); The New Era of South Asian Photography Festivals; (Aperture, 2021); Archive as Companion: text accompanying Priya Kambli’s work ‘Buttons for Eyes’ (PIX Vol. 18 Passages; 2022); The Great Upheaval: Can the digital revolution potentially shift the power dynamic in photography? (Viewbook Transformations; 2017). She has also contributed to books including WHY EXHIBIT: Positions on exhibiting photographies (FW: Books, 2018) and exhibition catalogues such as Taxed to the Max (Noordelicht International Photography Festival, 2020).

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

A little more than a decade ago, I was invited to join the team of PIX, an editorial and curatorial practice aimed at building an archive of contemporary photography in South Asia. For the publication, PIX solicits lens-based works, and pairs them with writing that responds to the images. At this point, I was establishing my photographic practice, and negotiating my relationship with the medium. I thought of myself as solely a photographer, and believed that the core of the practice was animated by those who made images. My work at PIX signified my first professional interaction with the work of others, no longer as just a viewer, but as an interlocutor, an editor and a collaborator. The sustained engagement with other makers and their practices played a crucial role in the evolution of my own practice as well. Through this process I was introduced, or rather coerced, into writing. 

I have always found it easier to speak with photographs. Through many years of crafting visual stories, initially as a photographer but largely as an editor, I have become, somewhat, attuned to the rhythms of weaving images into compelling narratives. The trajectory of arriving at this point of “ease” has been somewhat predictable, and regularly working the muscle has made the photo-editing process feel more natural. I approached writing with a greater reluctance – my relationship with it continues to be complicated, but it has helped me give shape and voice to the ideas marinating in my mind. In my earliest published piece, for instance, in 2012, in writing about the artists featured in a volume of PIX, I was forced to articulate my photo-editorial choices into words. This was the first time that I crystallised the process of editing images, inherently abstract and intuitive, into concrete sentences. Since then, this connection – between my practice of writing and editing of photographs – has been constantly reinforced, and one has continued to inform and enrich the other.

Over the years, my writing on the work of photographers has ranged from conversational essays to commentary and analytical pieces. As my practice developed, the work that I was commissioned for became more wide-ranging. I was invited to comment on larger questions looming over the visual medium, reflecting on its theoretical and conceptual framework, as well as examining the contours of the industry and the fault lines that continued to plague it. Since I work primarily as an editor of images, these “prompts” that came my way in the form of writing assignments shaped the trajectory of my writing practice.

During my years at The Caravan, a long-form journal of politics and culture, my writing was heavily influenced by the magazine and its editorial process. It is here that the prompts shifted – from premises assigned by others – to my own responses to themes we were engaging with in the newsroom. While my interests are medium-specific, I am drawn now to the intersection of the image with politics, culture and society. In how images circulate within larger publics, and how that affects our ways of being as citizens in this world.

What is your writing process?

My process is often marked by tedium – it can be terribly slow, frustrating and one that mandates constant revision.

I rarely ever write “for myself”, though that is a direction I wish to desperately move towards. Most of my writing is done on a fairly urgent timeline – either in response to a commission or to an unfolding event. My experience in journalism instilled the belief that getting a piece published at the right moment is as crucial to its reception and circulation, as chiselling it to “perfection”. Since writing is the part of my practice, I am least confident and most unsure about, if left to myself, I can continue to endlessly tweak and tighten, in an attempt to reach the best possible conclusion. Even though the lack of time can feel constraining at the time of shaping a piece, it is also an immensely powerful impetus in releasing my writing out into the world. I am learning to get comfortable with the idea that some of the most compelling writing does not necessarily present normative resolutions or answers, but it offers instead, a space to question, stir debate and generate ideas.

The physical act of writing feels burdened with procrastination. I inevitably delay the start till the last possible moment, perhaps because of the potent anxiety I continue to experience on encountering an empty page. However, the process of writing begins much earlier. In the days leading up to putting words to paper (or a Word document!), I make my way through the premise and arguments in response to the prompt. A lot of this thinking happens in the unlikeliest of places – on a walk, in the shower, while cooking – and rarely at my work desk. On the days when I am actually writing, I am fairly chaotic. I have many books and multiple tabs open, because I comb through references fairly extensively. Most of these are texts I have read before, and that have offered insights that resonate with the idea I am working through. Other sources of inspiration tend to be authors or thinkers whose words help me when I arrive at an impasse. I find myself to be both heavily distracted, fielding multiple influences at the same time and intensely concentrated, in that I cannot pursue any other intellectual task during those days.

My writing process is quite similar to my photo-editing practice: with a large set of images for instance, the beginning can often feel quite scattered, and the ideas and arguments fairly disconnected. It is somewhere at the half-way mark of the process that the links and connections begin to emerge in the loose structure, revealing a possible outcome where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, the emergence of this clarity can hasten the process, and the remaining puzzle is solved at an accelerated pace. Just as with an edit on images, writing benefits with some resting time, allowing the words to sit next to each other, revealing meanings that were perhaps not as visible the first time around.

I wonder if you might expand on the “prompt” as you describe it: it seems to be a catalyst and a beginning, of course, but I wonder if in some ways, it is also for you a sign of writing’s contingency, something which describes how, as a writer, you are always in dialogue from the very beginning. Does your attention to the “prompt” describe something of your writing practice and your attention to writings relationships?

I see the “prompt” as an impetus, one that pushes me to act. Those of us who choose to think of ourselves as political beings respond to change in our environment. Our craft is one way to channel this response.

The dialogue you speak of is ongoing, and inevitable. We use the tools we have at hand to articulate our concerns. For me, writing may fill in for the inadequacies, or limitations for response, within photography, or it may be used to activate different audiences.

I consider myself fortunate to be able to engage with the image in varied forms. This engagement is what I see as the dialogue – at times collaborating with image-makers, their work and archives and in other instances, using writing as a possible instrument of inquiry. I find this response to be contingent, and writing as one form of that contingency.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Most of what motivates my writing is what motivates my work with images. These concerns shift with time, in response to unfolding events and my evolving personal politics. I see writing as a way to distil the varied questions and ideas that emerge during my primary practice of working as a photo editor and curator.

Currently, one of the biggest questions I am wrestling with in photography is to do with the process by which images make their way into the world, and the manner in which their circulation shapes discourse – within the image economy, but particularly outside it, in society. I am interested in how the surplus of imagery affects our psychological being and how the consumption of these images moulds our reception to social, political or cultural realities.

Having worked in journalism, particularly on the photo and multimedia desks, I have witnessed the impacts of such circulation first hand. The choices we made had the potential to shape public opinion. This was both a potent instrument, as well as a heavy responsibility. While it may sound staid as a concept in the space of photo discourse, I am interested in the image as evidence in today’s media landscape. Where does such evidence hold value, when courts themselves look away? How is media, and the narratives it is composed of, used as information warfare, both by those in power and those opposing it? How does the image need to be packaged to be consumed as truth or propaganda? How do we read political photographic fiction in today’s image world? How do we decide to trust a certain image, or the sources it is disseminated through, and what governs this psychological response? When does image circulation, particularly on social media, trigger a near immediate reaction, whether by the general public or by organised troll armies? It is this response that I’m interested in examining: is it genuine or manufactured; how does it measure “truth”; how do these images change in their meaning as they further circulate in the digital realm?

Another concern that consumes much of my thinking is around the politics of representation – specifically, whether it is possible to ever circumvent the hierarchies and power dynamics embedded within photography. While, earlier, I was curious about how the “democratisation” of the medium impacted this balance, I am no longer as interested in the pervasiveness of and access to the medium, but more so in where this conversation around representation – “who gets to tell whose story” – leads us. The push towards local and “insider” narratives is one that is now, rightfully so, valued. This reorientation is the long-due reparation of the historically skewed representation of many communities and issues, which was a direct outcome of the privilege of either the coloniser’s lens or the “outsider’s” festishistic gaze.

However, I question the notion of this “insider” and how we arrive at its definition. Is there an ideal insider? Is she always best positioned to tell that story? Aren’t we all insiders, truly, only to our own stories? And yet, autobiographical narratives are only a part of how we learn about the world, and how we choose to produce or consume media. Lived experience is a crucial component, in that it brings to the fore a gaze that is less essentialist than what has existed largely in narrative storytelling. We are, often, better placed to access communities or issues that we have engaged with otherwise, outside of the “professional” demand; those that we resonate or connect with as individuals or citizens, not necessarily only when tasked with representing them. Does this mean that there is a possibility for an honest engagement, that may well be “imperfect”, with a narrative outside of the lived-experience paradigm? Is authentic storytelling a function of provenance? Is identity an absolute construct, or does it shift in response to the subject and landscape? I am interested in how the intersection of various markers like gender, caste, class, region, religion as well as traits such as lived experience and personal politics guide the making of this definition, complicate notions of identity and affect the proposition of narratives distinct from historically dominant perspectives. These intersections often guide the choices of artists I write about, and that writing is an important conduit that enables the development of my own understanding of the concerns regarding authorship and narrativising.

Recently, I have been interested in reflecting on the positionality of image-makers, and how their own identity impacts the work they put out into the world. The term “identity” here is not to be seen as synonymous with nationalistic definitions – defined by borders and passports – but more by their position as citizens in the world social order, and in relation to the narratives they construct. Whether it is even possible for works to reckon with aspects of the makers’ identities and if so, whether photographic works are as much about the authors as they are about those who are photographed?

Within this realm lies one of my biggest concerns of late – photography’s inability, or limited ability, to shift the gaze towards the perpetrator, the oppressor, the coloniser. These definitions are not in relation to the conventional binaries of the West/East, urban/rural etc., but with reference to where the author of a work is placed when she is representing someone other than herself. While contemporary discourse has compelled narratives to shift, from unidimensional perspectives of suffering and impact, to include a broader spectrum of human emotion and experience, photography has been limited in visualising those other than the victims or survivors. There has been an inherent difficulty in exhibiting structures of supremacy, of complicity.

My own position as a dominant caste individual from India makes this particularly pertinent for me. The need to pass the lens, and so the power, into the hands of the oppressed and marginalised to build their own narratives – of both joy and suffering – to self-represent their own communities is urgent. But, alongside, authors, especially from majoritarian or dominant identities, need to apply a more critical gaze to their own communities – those, for instance, that have historically oppressed others by way of privilege afforded by the caste system, a discriminatory social order of hierarchy prevalent across the subcontinent. The capacity of visual narratives to critique these systems of power, and not merely display them as “documentation”, is rare in our image world. I am interested in these limitations and in examining whether photography truly has the ability to upend historical narratives, which have inevitably been authored by the very dominant systems and lenses it has failed to effectively illustrate.

Apart from these conceptual interests, a lot of my writing is motivated by visual works emanating from South Asia, particularly when their vocabularies are distinct from mainstream photographic canons. Since most references within photography are from Western histories and contexts, I am drawn to artists and works that attempt to break this trajectory in form and language. I usually engage with the artists in an editorial or curatorial capacity, and the writing emerges from these collaborations.

Your description of the image as evidence feels important, in that it gives an equal weight to how the image is made and also put to use, how it acts and impacts, alongside what it shows. Do you think this process of exploring positionalities leads us in some ways towards images being understood as assemblages, and truth as something that cannot be reduced down to one essentialising characteristic?

The relationship between the photograph and “truth” has been a complicated one. Ambiguous by nature, the image has always been open to a subjective interpretation, even in its use as a document. As an editor, I particularly appreciate the transformation of an image and its meaning, when it interacts with another image, or with text; how it is re-casted depending on where it is placed, how it is disseminated and so on. The notion of “truth” has always been defined by multiple forces, at times by a collection of images, at times by other interactions and factors. What an assemblage may do, particularly in the case of evidentiary images, is to make a particular truth harder to deny. While an “iconic image”, a term I find to be redundant now, may evince a particular truth about a situation by a singular author, the streams of images generated may help reiterate its evidentiary value.

However, as I write this, I find exceptions emerge to this proposition. Take the recent pull-out of the US from Afghanistan or the current war in Ukraine. What we see, despite the surfeit of images generated, is largely a singular perspective. A singular truth? The collections that emerge are predominantly authored by Western image-makers, or for Western publications. This repetition leads to a redundancy, with most photographers creating work that reaches the same conclusion. Rarely do we come across the deployment of the image in critiquing the systems that led to these conflicts, to look at the complicity of Western nations and modern-day cycles of imperialism.

In the case of positionalities, I am not so concerned with this notion of “truth” but more with the aspect of authenticity, of honesty. Exploring an author’s position in their work helps us parse through their motivations. Self-reflexivity can serve as an anchor, from which we construct our truths and reveal why we reach the conclusions we do.

What kind of reader are you? 

Sporadic and unstructured. I now read mostly for work, which fortunately for me is around themes that genuinely interest me and enrich both my writing and image editing. Much of it is triggered through prompts – figuring my way through a writing invitation, working through an edit or deconstructing a premise someone may have posed. Often, reading offers me an articulation of a politics that I find difficult to put into words myself.

During my tenure at The Caravan, my role required extended reading from a wide spectrum of contributors spanning a range of topics. A lot of my writing education has been from observing their first drafts take shape into finessed final pieces. I was privy to the writer-editor dynamic and the tense tug of the relationship. I would pore over the comments from editors to the writers, and witness the evolution of these drafts, as they were refined over time, through intervention and exchange.

I always have a list of pending readings – which seems to grow at a much faster pace than the rate at which I consume them – and I’m constantly dreaming of a reading residency that may give me the time to catch up!

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

My engagement with the medium began as an image-maker. While my role may have changed significantly over the years, my understanding of photography is largely shaped through a practitioner’s lens. I have never had any formal training in photographic education, and theory has never been a core component of my work with images.

That being said, I do consume some theoretical texts, particularly those that break away from being dense and opaque – the most common obstacle of this genre of writing. I do wrestle with the codification that theory brings with it, particularly for culture, and a medium as inherently ambiguous as photography. I have regard for theory and academia, for its rigour of thought and deep, sustained engagement. However, I am interested in working at the cusp of academia and practice. For this, theory needs to be activated into accessible forms and for academics to invest in dissemination across channels beyond their own structures. To quote from scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore: ‘to think theoretically, but speak practically.’ I am drawn to artists/practitioners who comment on or respond to theory in their works, building additional channels of circulation and deconstruction.

As for histories of photography, I consume them to keep pace and build context to certain discussions or texts I come across. However, I approach these with some degree of caution, given that no history is definitive and mainstream versions have, largely, been authored by dominant perspectives. I am also constantly trying to strengthen these muscles of criticality, in order to allow an evolution of these definitions of who/what constitutes a dominant/mainstream or oppressed/fringe perspective, and that these can shift depending on relational dynamics. Largely, histories of photography – inevitably mimicking social histories – are rooted in Western canons and colonial perspectives. While they help build structures to understand one linear progression of the medium, they carry with them significant erasures, by missing out on or misrepresenting large populations and perspectives. I do advocate that some of them be read so as to have a framing, from which to subvert. Ariella Aisha Azoullay’s recent publication Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019) is one such proposition for subversion, offering the possibility of an alternate reading of photography through historical time. Tina M. Campt’s Listening to Images (2017) proposes using sound and haptics as a register to re-read images that have historically carried different meanings. I also consider micro-histories or personal histories as potent historical documents, if collated and contextualised within a historical timeline.

Then, it is predictable that my personal view of curation is not dependant on theories and histories of photography. I have always found them to be separate fields, that at some points may collide or intersect, and at others may run parallel or even be entirely removed from one another. I think the choice depends on the curator and/or the institution, depending on how they perceive a “valid” curatorial practice.

I consider curation to be as open-ended as an artist’s practice – some may interpret it through a reliance on pedagogy, others may be influenced by theory without deploying it consciously in the building of work and even others may entirely reject it, dismissing it as didactic to build a curatorial premise on an entirely different tenor.

So, to answer the question, I don’t find the link between theory, histories and curation to always be very direct or consistent to comment on how the supposed amplification of one impacts the other.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Accessibility, and the ability to weave complex ideas into simple sentences.

Brevity, precision, and narrative clarity.

An ability to be self-reflexive.

Personality, colour and texture in writing without deploying complicated language or purple prose.

What texts have influenced you the most?

I don’t think I can name texts, because I associate more with authors and their trajectories of thought, than a particular iteration. It is simpler for me to list writers who have had some form of influence or provided inspiration, either to my politics or my practice. The connection is as intuitive as the one between multiple images during an editing exercise.

Listing them in no particular order: Tina M. Campt, Ariella Aisha Azoullay, Mark Sealy, B. R. Ambedkar, Frantz Fanon, Kajri Jain, Maaza Mengiste, Teju Cole, Alana Hunt, David Campany, bell hooks, Amitava Kumar, Aveek Sen, Allan Sekula, Stuart Hall, Gayatri Gopinath, Audrey Lorde, Joan Didion, Joan Fontcuberta, Eyal Weizman.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Significant.

I do think that many texts in photography, are about images or descriptive writing. A lot of my own writing also falls within this definition, particularly when I am focusing on a specific artist’s practice. While I am in favour of using writing to deconstruct image-making for a general public, and offer them a vocabulary with which to enter the work, I do not believe that a text must decode or lay bare the entire work to the audience. This would be an injustice to the image, to rob it of the ambiguity that makes it universal, in the way in which it connects to each individual.

Critical writing, however, allows an engagement that has the potential to “expand out of” the artists’ practice, using it as a trigger to deconstruct an imposed premise or to weigh it against its own claims. It could also be used as a springboard to speak about larger themes – the image as a sociological study, or more formal, medium-centric concerns. I imagine the act of critical writing to be radical, one that can activate the political imagination. It helps us envision alternate readings and possibilities within a work. Unfortunately, criticality is often seen as an effort to diminish or “cancel” works, and not as a channel to foster debate.

What if criticality were built around the politics of care? For me, this would embody an accountability to our fellow citizens, not just those who are in the role of spectators and subjects, but also to our industry peers, as image-makers and thinkers. This “care” could be embodied in thinking about and building images, reflecting rigorously on how we see and what or whom we show, demanding more out of the practice and building a collective conscience towards questioning the conclusions we reach (or don’t) with photographic narratives. In my practice, since I work mostly with images that are inevitably oriented towards the human experience and society, rather than form-based or conceptual experiments, these concerns have reverberations beyond our own industry.

This grounding in care could be a potent ingredient for criticality – in so much as we view it as collective learning, and as an instrument to dismantle the hierarchies that may emerge in the process. The critic, the image-author, the viewer as well as the practice itself stand to be enriched if we were to build systems that nurture criticality as well as the response to it. While there is no dearth of critical thinking, there are very few platforms that champion this kind of writing. Perhaps for criticality to thrive, it needs to exist outside of a capitalist structure, seen more through a discursive lens as an intellectual pursuit.

Perhaps this existing outside of capitalist structure brings us back to your desire to write for yourself? Have you found tactics for writing which allow you to construct a space where writing functions in its own or in your own time?

What I mean by existing outside of a capitalist structure is that knowledge production cannot be beholden to profit. However, it requires institutional support to sustain itself, functioning akin to the academy but allowing a more fluid exchange with those outside of it. Those that have resources could (should?) divert them to this end, investing in a return far greater than any financial gain.

What stops me from writing for myself is time. The kind of writing I currently pursue does not pay commensurate to the labour it involves. For most of us, we are already functioning outside of this realm of profit-making, and the desire to write stems from a need to respond and engage. If support was extended to foster deeper engagement and thought, it could help in wrestling time away from other pursuits, and to move away from the need to constantly “produce”.

Before I embark on the process of writing for myself, I need to drown out the noise, and listen. To “take in” more than I “put out in the world”. Reading is a necessary precursor and an integral part of this process. For years, I have felt, that as grateful as I am for the writing invitations, I am compelled to respond immediately. While this works a different muscle, writing for myself involves a longer, more sustained engagement with a theme, one that perhaps assimilates many of my influences and experiences.

So the answer to your question is no, I haven’t managed to construct this space, but I am hopeful that it will emerge as my practice evolves, or when someone reading this is compelled to help create it!♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).

Images:

1-Tanvi Mishra © Aditya Kapoor 

2-Opening spread of Viral Images, an essay on the role of photography in reporting on COVID-19, first published in The Caravan

3- Issues of PIX since 2011. PIX is a South Asian publication and display practice looking to archive contemporary photography in the region. Over the last ten years, PIX volumes have addressed various thematics and also produced country specific works on photography from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka

4-Opening spread of The Great Upheaval, an essay on the impact of the digital revolution on photography and whether it has the capacity to shift the power dynamic in photography. The piece was published in Transformations, Exploring Changes in and Around Photography, a project to explore changes and support photography in a digitally connected world

David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz

ANTICAMERA

Exhibition review by Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge on an exhibition at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, that unites works by two artists exploring different realities involved in image production: one as captured by the camera and another comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented.


For the camera and its program, which sets out to record the world, there exists only the visible and the invisible: that which presents itself readily to be seen, and those things which become visible under the specific modes of observation that the photographic apparatus brings forth; at the other pole, there is that which escapes vision, either because they are difficult to observe as they are, or because their specific mode of appearance goes against the camera and its programming. What can be seen and what falls out of view has a strange relationship to what we believe is possible: it may be of surprise to note, as Kaja Silverman has revealed in her research on Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in The Miracle of Analogy (2015), that the elusive human figure in early photography led to proposals that the camera should be directed only towards those things which do not move. If humans could not be recorded, it was suggested, photographs should be directed only towards the inanimate. Nature and architecture were cited without irony as examples of good subjects for photography to pursue.

Such proposals, absurd as they might now appear, reveal that we are quick to accept and work within the limits of our devices, and this is as true today as it was at photography’s outset. Technology is configured towards enabling an ever-greater visibility and mapping, but is shaped by automation and presets that conceal as much as they reveal. Take, for example, the dialectic between the still and the moving, where the majority of images are both fixed and moving at one and the same time, mechanical and chemical realities being equal to the appearance of stasis. Complexity here is discouraged, and a discourse of arrestedness prevails.

In our culture of automated black box computation, the quantity of images dominates, but we are scarcely cognisant of this turn: on the one hand, we continue to feel bombarded, or overwhelmed – we see a lot of images every day: we have little time for videos of more than a few seconds. But contemporary photographic technology also uses this quantity in another way, stacking and amalgamating multiple images to produce sharp, stable and impossibly balanced exposures, at the same time as producing banks of data for the analysis of machine learning and its development. The sharpening of images, the three-dimensional and four-dimensional mapping of the world and programming of machine learning are interconnected, and deviating from this automation is increasingly complicated. Yet if we query the horizons of appearance and disappearance that take place in our technological processes, we quickly encounter complex realities: an amalgam of movements and a multiplicity of positions which offer compelling possibilities for thinking and acting through images.

In 1981, for a Hungarian exhibition Dokumentum, the painter Ákos Birkás wrote a text Anticamera, stating that two realities were possible: the first was one as captured by the camera, whilst the other would be comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented. Birkás might have wished to critique the dominance of photographic depiction and leave a space for painting attached to the imagination and the possible, but his proposition – to examine that which falls outside of the camera’s view – drew attention to a logic continuous in the age of technical images: a choice between what László Moholy-Nagy would call production and reproduction, or continuation and invention. Photography presents this to us as in the starkest of possible terms: how would you like your reality: as we show it to you, or as a process of your own action and discovery?

David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz’s ANTICAMERA, at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, places these questions and divergent strategies of image production into a dynamic view. Claerbout’s slow-moving, frame-by-frame assemblies of complex spatial environments, built in the black box of editing and rendering softwares, are brought into dialogue with Ösz’s structural examinations of light and projection, where motorised structures for film projection, and an inversion of the camera obscura, give the photographic apparatus a reflexive centrality. In ANTICAMERA, a tension between the technological and material encounter with the image takes place – ‘is our future mineral or computational?’, we might ask in another dialectical framing – but central to the exhibition becomes the role of image in not only representing but giving form to thought.

Claerbout’s poetic interest in the encounter that the slow-moving image retains a virtuosic assembly. He stretches the capability of the lens as a seeing device. The Quiet Shore (2011) collects images across what seems to be a single moment on the beach in Dinard, Brittany, where figures assemble on the beach and at the threshold of land and water. Viewed from multiple positions and weaved together in a splicing of positions possessing a stillness, the work moves between frames in a slow cinematic pacing that Erika Balsom has remarked is reminiscent of Chris Marker whilst focusing solely upon a single moment against the passing of narrative time. Wildfire (A Meditation on Fire) (2019­­–20) seeks a similarly impossible recording, representing the transformation of a forest, engulfed over time by smoke and flames, as the view traces the circumference of a spreading fire. Clearly not a document in any conventional sense, the work hovers between constructedness and its recorded materials which cannot be staged. Whilst The Quiet Shore subtly disrupts with bleached spaces, almost imperceptible movement and the layering of figures who interact across the montage, Wildfire replaces the intensity of the blaze with the movements of a rendered scene, tracing an accumulation of static images into a four-dimensional encounter. The virtual camera circles and pans, revealing momentary concretions of the fast-moving fire, with subtle ripples and motions amongst the arrest of the images’ terror.

With the complexity of its computational composition, the extended durations of Claerbout’s installations allow the viewer to consider the space of the filmic encounter, and to note that Claerbout’s elaborate construction is contained, made into a single screen projection with a singular source, its labour placed largely out of view. This is a sharp, animating contrast in the work of Ösz, whose works foreground the devices of camera and projector in order to construct a reflexive and site-sensitive meditation on time and place. Drawing one of the exhibition’s fault lines, the foregrounding or negation of the apparatus describes subtly the agencies of image-maker and image-viewer. Whilst Claerbout is interested in the black box and its vampiric capacity to construct a world without shadows, Ösz shows we are bound to complex physical phenomena of which we are rarely fully conscious.

Ösz’s Passive Movements (2021) are works in which a free-standing, motorised projector displays its own image and space onto a parallel wall. The projectors – here there are three in the room – are moving: one rotates in a continuous 360-degree clockwise motion, whilst two are fixed together, moving back and forth on a small dolly along a short track. In this second configuration, the projectors are directed towards different walls, so that one is panning whilst projecting across a parallel wall, and the other projects onto a wall whilst the dolly moves towards it before retreating to its other limit. In each projected image, the position of the projector stays exactly where it is: in the work moving side to side, edges of the frame appear to move left and right until they bump up against the end of the projector in view. Moving back and forth towards the wall, the projector scales big and small, and autofocuses, whilst the projector stays squarely in its original position.

Passive Movements constructs the appearance of stasis in a reflection on the condition of images ongoing movement and transformation, its active and consequential capacities. Although Ösz works regularly with the moving image, the photograph is invoked and examined (here perhaps is another contrast with Claerbout, who uses still images as material to construct sequences of time-based works). We desire stillness and the arrested image, just as we seek the passivity and objective condition of the lens for our understanding and claims to truth. Ösz shows this to be an inversion: we construct elaborate fictions, placing ourselves at the centre of an imagined oasis, with our stasis in the midst of continuous motion. The 360-degree rotating image is especially potent here, enabling not only a visceral mixture of stillness and movement, but also the possibility of thinking, something as large as planetary motion and the horizons of our conscious experience of the world. Drawing us towards physical phenomena at the same time as revealing reflexive conditions of the image places the technological image in its proper context of constructing and maintaining worlds.

This pivoting of position is something that is explored also in the last work in the exhibition, Image of Light (2022), in which Ösz inverts the model of the camera obscura so that light emerges and constructs an image from the inside, towards a room in a state of darkness. Several small box chambers in the space emit this light and the lightbulb contained within, which is caught on a sheet of translucent paper, receiving its focused image on the outside through the aperture. A shift in our physical position, and a switch in perception constructs a radical inversion of our capacity to think from the particular towards the planetary or what Édouard Glissant would call mondialité or worldliness, a being in and with the world.

ANTICAMERA, curated by Zsolt Petrányi and Emese Mucsi, suggests with a precision and economy that we find ourselves drawn between complex trajectories, in which the computational and physical (or mineral) experience of the world needs urgently to be apprehended to encounter the world in its full detail. Beyond polarities, there are competing directions and passages, emphases and urgencies. What is at stake is not only what is shown, but what is made visible or placed out of view: this is the condition of the struggle of images, which Ösz’s rotating projection encapsulates in its prompt to think not only of the image, but of its making and its consequent position in and with the world.♦

All images courtesy the artists and the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest © David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz

Installation views of ANTICAMERA – An exhibition of David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest from 16 February – 3 April 2022.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist and writer. He is Course Leader for the MA in Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and is the author of To Be Determined: Photography and the Future, published by SPBH Editions. 

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#9 Wu Hung

Wu Hung holds the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professorship at the Department of Art History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, US, where he is also the director of the Center for the Art of East Asia and the Adjunct Curator at the Smart Museum. An elected member of the American Academy of Art and Science and awarded with an Honorary Degree from Harvard University, he sits on many international committees including Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Council, and chairs the Academic Committee of the OCAT Museum Group. Wu Hung has received many awards for his publications and academic services, including the 2018 Distinguished Scholar Award and the 2022 Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, both from the College Art Association of America (CAA).

Wu Hung’s research interests include both traditional and contemporary art, and he has published many books and curated many exhibitions in these two fields. His interdisciplinary interests have led him to experiment with different ways to tell stories about Chinese art, as exemplified by Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (1995); The Double Screen: Medium and Representation of Chinese Pictorial Art (1996); Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square: the Creation of a Political Space (2005); A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012) and Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016).

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I started writing about photographs quite late in my career, in the late 1990s after I had received tenure. I was trained as an historian of Chinese art. The books I published before 1996 all dealt with pre-modern art – ritual vessels, monuments and pictorial medium and representation. Photography attracted me via two paths. First, when I started curating exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art and writing about this art in the late ’90s, I discovered that photography was one of the most dynamic branches in this art and deeply enmeshed with painting, performance art, Body Art, Conceptual Art, and so on. Secondly, when I began working on a book about “ruins” in Chinese art and visual culture, I realised that the introduction of photography in the 19th century radically changed how Chinese people and artists perceived and represented the world. At that point, I also began to develop other research projects on historical photographs along two intertwining lines, which I call “Chinese photography” and “photography in China”. The former is an integral component of modern Chinese visual culture, while the latter, though produced in China and featuring Chinese subjects, served external agendas.

What is your writing process?

With contemporary photography, most of the time I’m first captured by particular images in exhibitions and publications, which lead me to their creators. I interview them, befriend them and conduct research on their entire corpus of works, before I sit down to write about them.

With historical photography, my interests are typically aroused by archival materials that pose unanswered questions. One example is my study of Milton Miller’s Chinese portraits which he made in Hong Kong around 1860. I was intrigued by these photos when I studied them in the Getty Research Institute because they confronted me with many questions which I couldn’t answer: Who are the anonymous sitters in the pictures? Are these images really “portraits” in a conventional sense? Why did Miller make these photos in the first place? I spent several years to find the answers to these questions.

In your writing on Miller and on early photography, you advocate for a form of intense looking and reading. How does this meet the writing process for you?

Although looking at old photographs and writing about them are not the same thing, they are certainly related to each other. For one thing, both unfold in time. Intense looking is a temporal process through which the researcher “enters” into the picture and tries to see it from within – to discover significant details from a historical point of view. Writing translates this visual undertaking – if it is successful – into a written form. But the sense of discovery can still help animate the written words and bring readers on an exploratory visual journey.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

One set of problems is concerned with the history, status, motivation and function of contemporary Chinese “experimental” photography, which developed into a strong trend in China from the 1980s onward. Instead of perceiving and interpreting this trend as an anonymous movement, I’m more interested in discovering the experiences and experiments of individual photographic artists. To me, the differences between these artists, rather than their commonalities, should remain at the centre of investigation and presentation.

Another set of questions is related to the historical relationship between photography and Chinese art and visual culture. In particular, how did this modern technology change people’s perception of the world and of themselves, as revealed by the emergence of new kinds of images in the second half of the 19th century and later. For example, images of architectural ruins emerged for the first time in Chinese art; new types of portraiture and self-portraiture also appeared (such as inscribed photos I have termed “I-Portraits”). These new images often coincided with seminal historical events.

A third set of problems is even broader and focuses on the general relationship between photography, painting and objects. This is the central thread of my forthcoming book The Full-length Mirror: A Global Visual History (the 2021 Chinese version is titled Object · Painting · Photography: A Global History of the Full-length Mirror). A photograph is both an image and a material construct, and it represents objects in specific ways. While photography and painting are similar in this respect, they also differ in ontology and in the correlation between image and material. Moreover, a more complex story about the relationship of photography, painting and objects begins to emerge when we observe this relationship in a global context.

What kind of reader are you? 

I read mainly around specific research/writing projects. Since I usually conduct two, three or even four projects simultaneously, more often than not I read books and articles on unrelated subjects at the same time. This also means that I read more for work than for pleasure. I don’t consider this an enviable habit.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I am, by training, an historian of images, and my writing and curatorial projects usually have strong historical frameworks. Even for those on contemporary art, including photography, I feel that I need to understand and present historical contexts, which can be artistic, intellectual, cultural and political, and to have a firm grasp of how a photographer’s artistic development is interwoven with their life experiences. In a broad sense all of these can be called “historical”.

In terms of theory, I prefer not to rely on preconceived theories, understood as self-sustaining discourses with their own intellectual context, in developing curatorial and writing projects. To me, “concepts” are more productive because these projects always need certain conceptual frameworks. Four years ago, my colleagues and I at Beijing’s OCAT Institute started an annual competition called “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects”, encouraging young curators to organise exhibitions that combine serious research and theoretical thinking. There have been a good number of successful examples. But many submissions fall back on well-known (Western) theories as preexisting parameters, either applying them to interpreting artworks or illustrating them with selected examples. The “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects” programme tries to counter this tendency which has become widespread in the field.

In your interest in early photographs of China, you seem to be looking for a meaning beyond the informational or descriptive, and something of this seems to be at work in your “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects”. Is this process of researching – whether it is written or curated, a creative exercise? And are writing and curating one and the same as far as this is concerned?

Yes, an historical photograph is never transparent and displays its “meaning” on the surface because of its inevitable dehistoricisation: it has lost its original associations with its time, place and people. In other words, it has “survived” history to become something else. Verbal description of the image alone can tell us little about its historical meaning. But sensitive observations are crucial for a researcher to discover problems, which then stimulate further investigations. I consider this process of finding, observing, describing and investigating a combined creative exercise, regardless whether it can produce a definite conclusion. My writing and curatorial projects more or less follow this logic, but curatorial projects naturally also demand taking into consideration the logic and functionality of the exhibition space.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Real understanding of the subject. Clarity. Being engaging. Passion. An interest in new ways of telling a story.

Do writings from beyond photography also influence how you think about the photographic image? Approaching photography from an oblique angle can also be a revealing strategy.

In thinking about photography? It should be Camera Lucida (1980), like with many of us. I also want to mention Benjamin’s “The Little History of Photography” (1931), which says that a photograph has something in it which ‘goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art.’ In saying this, Benjamin means those things which a photograph doesn’t display on the surface but which are nevertheless there, arousing curiosity or even fantasy. I feel that this is especially true for historical photographs, which always go “beyond” the images themselves, compelling historians to pursue the missing information.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I take “criticality” as reflections – through either words or images – on photography itself. As such, criticality is always important to photography writing, although it doesn’t have to be externalised as the sole or main purpose. In my mind, the best photography writing – or writing on any type of image – should simultaneously expose hidden meanings of images and articulate new ways of arriving at such meanings. Camera Lucida again provides a supreme example.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).

Images:

1-Wu Hung, 2022

2-Book cover of A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012)

3-Book cover of Wu Hung, Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016)

4-Book cover of Wu Hung, Photography and East Asian Art (2021)

5-Wu Hung, Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993–1998 (2003)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#8 Max Houghton

Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics, law and human rights. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she organises regular public talks, symposia and exhibitions. Her writing has appeared in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and the Barbican, London, as well as in the international arts press, including Foam, 1000 Words, Photoworks and Granta. With Fiona Rogers, she is co-author of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames & Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay on Mary Ellen Mark will be published in 2022 (Steidl). She is a Laws faculty scholarship doctoral candidate at University College London. With David Birkin, she is co-founder of research hub Visible Justice.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I had just finished the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course in 2001, and was researching (more than writing) for a Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, when Jon Levy, who’d I’d met through a mutual friend, asked if I’d write for his new website for photojournalists, Foto8. He sent me a set of photographs taken in Vietnam by an American photographer called Les Stone, which documented the ongoing transgenerational effects of Agent Orange. It was a fascinating exercise, because immediately I felt a responsibility to the overall subject matter of the Vietnam War, to the photographer and to the people in the pictures who I would never meet. Also, my question was: am I writing about the images or about the subject matter? These concerns endure. Six years later, I began an MA in critical theory (I didn’t have a first degree) to help me think them through. Foto8 grew from being a kind of dotcom start up to a published magazine, which eventually, along with Lauren Heinz, I edited. My bottom-line excitement, in staying with photographs for so long, is the idea that what we see never resides in what we say… It is an infinite relation, as Michel Foucault wrote. I’m always skipping from one register to the other, and back again.

What is your writing process?

My writing process is essentially reading, listening, editing, running and sleeping. I think that if we let it, our ‘back brain’ (please don’t ask me for the science!) works it all out while we’re doing other things. I can only understand something if I’ve written about it, or if I’ve been lucky enough to have a proper dialogic conversation on the subject. I’m not a hugely opinionated person, so it’s important to afford very close attention to the work, and indeed to spend time with it, in order to find out what it might be that I think, or that the work emits.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I’m interested in the idea of being able to write with photographs, which I hope might be a practice underpinned by an ethics of care. I think this is an originally feminist term, which resists patriarchal injustices… And while, of course, that is part of my intention, I also mean to use the term in relation to the root of the word ‘curate’ – cura – which is a specific way of paying attention. If I am asked to write with an artist’s images, it is important to me to impart the same kind of care in my writing as the photographer did in the original images. I don’t tend to write about work that doesn’t move me; in that sense I’m not a critic at all, though I know there is useful place for such writing. I’m also motivated by what (photographic) images might do in the world, and in how, as technical images (as Vilém Flusser described them), they combine with other images in the world to stimulate thought processes. The image brings a different form of knowledge, which is different again when combined with text. It’s fair to say the image-text is the underlying question that motivates my writing. As well as this, I’m always interested in what moves me; what connects me to actual feeling, and, as a logical extension of that, what might move others. At best, I hope my words might sometimes connect people to emotion. I think we can all exist very superficially. If we take time to notice how we feel, and when we feel, and manage not judge those feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we may be able to spend a little longer thinking about what matters. Finally, I continue to seek an inclusive practice, and my desire to challenge and refuse brutal, dangerous and often dominant power structures that shape our world remains potent.

What kind of reader are you? 

Oh, reading. I don’t know who or what or how I’d be without it. I wish I could read everything I want to read, but then I wouldn’t live. It’s simply how I understand the world; it’s been my way of being in it all my life. I guess I’m that kind of reader!

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I’m not sure one precludes the other? I’m very glad to see how curatorial practice is expanding to unpick those questions that theories or histories might more traditionally cover, but surely they are all interwoven as discourses? Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 documenta would offer a very significant example of such weaving for me, for example. I wonder if I fully understand the question? I certainly see how curation is influencing future theories and histories, even in terms of whose histories are being made visible. It’s also an aspect of my way of being with photographs that recently I’ve been able to pursue, but this is not an isolated or removed practice… On the contrary…

What is the role or currency of the idea of documentary in your writing? In Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (2017), the book that you co-wrote with Fiona Rogers, both your photographer selections and the written project introductions propose exciting new terrain for documentary practice. It is practically a manifesto for expanded documentary.

Fiona’s wonderful Firecracker platform rightly foregrounds the individual work of the artists, and I guess we were not seeking to make such a statement. I’m grateful for your phrasing; it’s absolutely documentary that grounds me, but not in any kind of limited way. I see documentary as a desire to gain evidence of something vital, something that needs to be seen, shared and understood; afforded attention. Its methods can and indeed must be as expansive as possible. The kind of work that understands how documentary images have been used to categorise and control; the kind of work that has ingested some of the world’s trillions of other images; the kind of work that seeks; the kind of work that may never even be finished… This is what interests me.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Clarity, (emotional) honesty, generosity, nuance, wit, precision, creating images through words, humility, mystery, playfulness (not necessarily all at once)… The same qualities I admire in other humans(!).

What texts have influenced you the most?

All works by W. G. Sebald, without question (though of course there ought always to be questions). T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1941). Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016), Patricia J. Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Roy de Carava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), bell hooks’ Teaching to transgress (1994), Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1980), “To See and Not See” (1993) by Oliver Sacks, “You’re” (1960) by Sylvia Plath… I could go on…♦

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Central, isn’t it? Like always?

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).

Images:

1-Max Houghton © Stephanie Smith

2-Max Houghton, ‘Aesthetic Justice Tower’

4-Max Houghton, ‘Holiday Tower’

5-Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#7 Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis, PhD, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, US. She is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (NYU Press, 2021) and Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009), amongst others. 

Professor Willis’ curated exhibitions include Framing Moments: Photography from the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (Michigan, US, 2021); Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art (Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, US, 2020); Reframing Beauty: Intimate Moments (Indiana University, Bloomington, US, 2016)Out [o] Fashion Photography: Framing Beauty (Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, Washington, US, 2013) and Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits (International Center of Photography, New York, 2007).

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I was introduced to photography at an early age because my dad was obsessed with his Rolleiflex camera and photographed the family often. My mother also had a beauty shop in our house. We had several picture magazines such as Ebony, LOOK, LIFE and JET. I think the epiphany was the culmination of all – family photographs, magazine images and discovery storytelling through photographs and I started writing as an undergraduate student at the Philadelphia College of the Arts in the mid-1970s.

What is your writing process?

No formal process that I see easy to reflect on, but I write in the mornings at daylight and through the afternoon. If I am writing about an artist or photographer, I research online and often connect through interviewing on the telephone. I read reference books that relate to the photographer’s work and, if I am writing about my own work or an archive, I look closely at the works and reflect from memory or an event.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I love aspects of storytelling that are personal that respond to joy. As a student, I missed stories that depicted the beauty of black culture and diverse stories of women and work. Ever the student of photography, I continued to notice gaps in relationship to women and their interests in the practice of photography and began asking questions about the multiple identities women and girls perform as they play and work. These are the experiences that motivate me to look at a photograph and begin to read the image from the subject in the foreground to the background… if it is a street scene or images on a wall, I am curious who ‘curated’ the home to allow it to appear safe or welcoming.

Can you say something about your use of different modes of writing and what they have been able to activate within the field, from academic art history to the first-person narratives of Picturing Us (1994)?

Memoir, fiction, historical fiction and free-flow narrative writing are all inspiring to me. What I enjoyed about contacting the diverse group of writers for Picturing Us was the ability to write a cohesive story that reimagined an image on page. It was magical to edit the works and feel the enthusiasm of each contributor as they reconsidered the importance of the visual experiences.

What kind of reader are you? 

I am open to all – biographies and mysteries are foremost. I love reading Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Danielle Steele and Agatha Christie all use historical narratives to tell their versions of fictions and aspects of truths.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I continue to be inspired by the writings of Stuart Hall and his theories on visual culture. Liz Wells is central to my teaching and remains a go-to source for me as well as art historian Kellie Jones. I am inspired by the way Tina Campt has introduced a theory on ‘listening’ to images and Mark Sealy’s ‘decolonising’ images. These experiences open up a plethora of ways in which one can bear witness to an image or experience. Photography has had a major impact on exposing the racially motivated murders in the 19th to the 21st centuries, the pandemic caused deaths and illnesses and activists striving for change here in the US and globally. Witnessing world events has become a process of self-reflection for me and having the opportunity to consider new photographic narratives about fashion, desire and loss in art journals and international magazines has been the most rewarding experience during the last 18 months.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Visualising a moment and translating the experience cogently onto the page. That excites me because it allows me to feel the magic of writing inspired by the imagination.

What texts have influenced you the most?

Toni Morrison wrote: ‘I am a storyteller and therefore an optimist, a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart… from my point of view, your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.’ I connected to this phrase when I read Morrison and Baldwin. Works by Maaza Mengiste, Robin Kelley, Edwidge Danticat, Okwui Enwezor, Carrie Mae Weems and Gordon Parks continue to influence me.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

The impact of criticality is central to writing on photography at a time when migration, border crossings, memory and identities are being challenged and photographers are processing all these moments and writers are asking questions about notions of home and the significant ways black visual narratives respond to culture, politics and intimacy. The framework of criticality enables us to both reflect and imagine.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).

Images:

1-Deborah Willis © Jody Rogac

2-Book cover of Deborah Willis, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (NYU Press, 2021)

3-Book cover of Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2000)

4-Book cover of Deborah Willis, Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (New Press, 1994)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#6 Daniel C. Blight

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London and Lecturer in Photography (Historical & Critical Studies) at University of Brighton. Recent work includes “Ways of Seeing Whiteness” in George Yancy: A Critical Introduction, eds. Kimberley Ducey, Joe R. Feagin and Clevis Headley (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (SPBH Editions/Art on the Underground 2019). He is currently working on a monograph, Photography’s White Racial Frame (Bloomsbury 2024), and slowly completing a PhD in the faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London. In April 2022, he will be Visiting Scholar, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I developed an interest in photography via post-rock and “electronica” album covers. The cityscape on the front of Fugazi’s End Hits (1998), the obliquely angled road sign on Hoover’s The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 (1994), or the pixelated “terrain” on the cover of Autechre’s Incunabula (1993) LP, which I took to be extra-terrestrial Swindon as I walked its streets, mashed at night, strangely under-stimulated. 20 years ago in that place, I made digital photographs and electronic music as part of a photography foundation course at Swindon College because, having quit my A Levels to become a pizza chef, it was the only route to university, an overdraft and a student loan.

My work then involved software editing digital photographs into CD artwork for the glitchy music I was making. I recorded the mechanical sounds of analogue camera shutters, cutting them up and sequencing them into drumbeats, and then manipulating tonally-inverted photographs of lightning to visually represent the glitches. It was as bad as it sounds. One of the compositions I completed then was titled Just take the fucking photo. This was the first time I wrote about photographs – or should that be “photography”? – eventually repeating the phrase into a microphone and layering the recorded voice track over camera shutter rhythms constructed in Fruity Loops, an audio sequencer of sorts.

My first experience of writing about photography is a species of repetitive song lyric: “Just take the fucking photo”, I wrote aggressively, over and over, on a piece of note paper in my teenage bedroom. In a sense, all my writing about photography since then has been born from the frustration captured in that phrase. Although I like to think I’m able to work with more “complex” forms of writing nowadays, there is a large part of me that appreciates teenage quotidian writing, an adolescent poetic writing, a writing apart from the perceived maturity of scholarly aptitude and normative citation practices.

On reflection, I feel there is something to learn from my frustration. What if my writing is frustration? What if I was supposed to be a writer not because I had anything interesting to say, but so that I could enjoy all the other things I do because my frustrations were absorbed by and confined to my writing? I count myself lucky that I have figured out how to confine frustration. I’ve sealed it into a sort of literary defeat.

What is your writing process?

‘Process’ sounds like such a clinical and serious word to describe how I write, although I like the sound of one of the word’s synonyms — ‘unfolding’. A procrastinatory unfolding. I enjoy reducing myself to a state of under-stimulation over a period of two or three days. Eventually, boredom compels me to write. At that point the smallest thing feels new, wakes me up and gets me excited again. Often cooking, or fixating on a particular image in a book.  

I spend most of my time not writing. I find this a necessary part of the process leading up to the act itself (which is both a struggle and a performance to myself – can I do it? Should I do it? Will it work?). Things don’t unfold this way deliberately. Most of the time, I just can’t write. It seems too hard, too difficult. I think coming to terms with this is the most important part of my writing in a philosophical sense. I like the idea, more and more, of slow writing, and of selective writing.

The rest is practical: reading, mostly on a screen, apart from poetry which I tend to read on paper. Looking at pictures in printed books. Making mental notes. Forgetting things. Then eventually I write something when I feel I can. I collect quotations when I’m reading. When I’m writing essays, I often use these to structure text. I write before them, after them, in the middle of them to disrupt them, and to see what happens. I largely write in incoherent, broken fragments which I call paragraphs. I can’t always be clear because I don’t really know what I mean. I call this writerly honesty. I’m trying to describe a feeling using words that are always wrong.

Since 2013, I’ve been making visual cues to aid my writing. I call these Image Reconstructions and they are collages comprised of visual symbols that summarise the subjects of texts I am working on. I collect images in folders as I research and read: the QAnon “logo”, a photograph of some weed, a Creative Commons image of oil burning on the surface of the sea, a .png of a pizza held up by a white hand. I then group them together into meaningful compositions (see the image nug, 2021). The rest is a weird form of visualisation in which images come to life through speculation, appropriation, trying things out to visually represent meaning. Sometimes I can’t finish the essay, or the poem, and it instead becomes an image reconstructed from the practice of writing. Sometimes I can’t finish the image. Most of the time nothing is finished, and nothing gets made, and that’s OK too.  

It sounds a cliché – and I hate the empty verbosity of the conceptual framing – but I prefer to write with photographs rather than about or, in the oft-repeated phrase, on them. I produce an essay plan using images and quotations in close and strange juxtapositions. I look for resonances, contradictions, parallels. My habits have been reformed by The Virus and by family life, particularly children. I no longer feel a need to write all the time. Most of the time I just don’t want to. I’d rather read or listen. I write towards happiness and in the direction of freedom. I’m much more comfortable with that cliché.

Can you expand on what draws you to slow writing? Is there an act of refusal, a determination to take time, in this? You’ve begun to focus much more on longer form writing over the short form.

In a sense, this isn’t true because I write many more short poems than I do long essays. Perhaps a poem a month, and two or three essays a year? I politely decline most invitations to write short form for magazines and newspapers nowadays. There are other people much better placed to comment on new projects and exhibitions than I am. There are certain spaces I don’t wish to occupy any longer. I am also disillusioned with the way badly paid short form essay writing for magazines and newspapers forces me to focus on some specious idea of right now, responding to “current practice”. Slow writing is something that the world of photography magazines can’t contend with, but they need it badly. Slow writing is a needed practice in academia too, in which scholars are forced to produce at pace to satisfy the various “excellence frameworks” they are compelled to adhere to. How many journal articles do I need to get a promotion? Are we talking 10 mediocre articles, or one bad boy one? Who gets to decide whether I’m any good or not?

If “right now” is both a fashionable position culturally speaking, and a global catastrophe unfolding in strikingly visual terms (images of the sea on fire, shamanic QAnon fascists storming the Capitol, Boris Johnson talking shit on the BBC), I’m looking to respond more slowly certainly. Part of what capitalism’s recently rejuvenated intersection with fascism requires of us is that we keep up. Move fast and stay relevant! I’m not the first person to say we should refuse that. I want to go back to a time when I could walk the streets stoned at night slowly with nowhere to be. I want to make pizzas for minimum wage again. But this time they’re texts, and I get to bake them for longer than four minutes. Unfortunately weed makes me puke now, so I can’t smoke, and I earned more money working as a waiter at Pizza Express than I do as an academic.

Slow writing is a form of epistemic protest. It says to me: stop producing knowledge habitually until you understand your own epistemic standpoint. Or: work to produce a kind of counter-knowledge that supports other people. Slowing down is me trying to be less selfish. Perhaps the “knowledge” I possess is a form of what Charles W. Mills called ‘white ignorance’ before he recently passed. I have thought about this in more detail in a chapter for a new book on the philosopher George Yancy. In that essay, I consider his work, his excellence, and myself, as I am.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to edge away from the disappointment of my social self. To be white, and to be a man, is in two interlinked ways to be a problem. Therefore, the superficial problem of my work is me, and by extension the fundamental problems are white supremacy and the elite white male dominance system. I write in the hope that I can become someone else, someone better. I am in my own way, tripping over my own feet. This is a process of discovery in which my social self is cracked open; breached to form a sort of aperture. I want to write despite myself. I have come to understand this more recently as a willingness on my part to become vulnerable, to fail publicly, to not care about the consequences of doing so. It’s only through a kind of risk that anything meaningful can come of my writing. The trouble is risk is predominantly about failure. My process is just that, then: attempt to escape myself; fail. A strangely productive failure.

Isn’t it true that writers can’t name themselves? My writing began with frustration, and its continuation now involves wondering whether what I write next will result in another “race traitor!” death threat via email. Yet, with this violence in mind, how can I not name myself? I am a white writer coming to terms with what it’s like to unravel in words. I think all white writers should try this. This is not a melancholy unfolding though, and it is not one that requires any emotional sympathy, nor undue attention. I am deeply happy. I am filled with love for other people’s writing, other people’s poetry, other people – for the first time in a long time.

What kind of reader are you? 

I read long essays quickly and short poems slowly. Then I read the same essays slowly and have no time left to read poems. I read with admiration, curiosity, frustration. I read searching for something I never find.

What do you go looking for in your reading?

I look for a mix of deep exegesis and personal reflection. Often one leads to the other. It’s sort of like asking what I go looking for in food. How much time do I have? Am I in the mood to cook? Do I have a Tesco lasagne I can put in the microwave, squirt extra ketchup on top of, and dip chunks of garlic bread into? Or am I in a Michelin Star pub for my birthday rinsing it hard on my credit card? When I read, I gorge uncertainly, and its often done in such a way that makes me feel I’m avoiding rather than looking for things. I’m avoiding writers like me. I do think “What do I want to read?” before I read sometimes, but it’s not like I always have much choice when one article takes me via a hyperlink to another, over and over again. I’ve read so much, partially. I keep trying to read in print again, and then I start missing all the hyperlinks, the distractions on Wikipedia, the stopping and searching for things I don’t understand in journal articles on the University of Brighton’s online library.

I enjoy reading my student’s essays. They teach me how to read and they teach me how to write. It’s a wonderful thing, teaching. I used to conceptualise it as something I did to feed myself so I could concentrate on my writing, but now it’s a thing I do to actively learn. I read with pleasure in a community of student-scholars. This year, I will work with students to encounter racial whiteness in reading photographs. This is a process in which we “let go” of the white logic and white racist visual foundations that underpin the western colonial history of photography and instead turn our attention to forms of white uncertainty. Irrespective of our individual racial identifications, we all work together in a white university. In a white space. In white complicity pedagogy, this involves de-centring forms of “knowing” and instead centres notions of white humility (“I do not know”/”I am not sure”) and white listening – learning to listen while giving up on needing to feel like a “good” white scholar. I take my lead here from educators such as Barbara Applebaum, Stephen Brookefield and Zeus Leonardo.

Reading should always be paired with writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean essay writing, but perhaps a simpler form of writing notes, questions or incomplete fragments. I encourage students to read in such a way that excites them to produce fragments of text, as roughly as they like. We then work through those texts together and make sense of them in critical relation to scholarly conventions. What results is a form of photo-textual essay practice; a manner of writing with photographs in order to produce literary essays that respond both to a history of the essay form in photographic cultures, and importantly, embodied, reflexive and phenomenological approaches to images derived from methods in visual sociology. It sounds technical, but it’s exciting, in practice, in the classroom.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

The sort of canonical history of photography taught in British Higher Education is undergirded by the white logic of European settler colonialism. This isn’t discussed nearly enough, and it has a huge impact on what is often falsely named the history of photography and how we theorise its structures and meanings (in this way history and theory go hand in hand). We desperately need new historical and theoretical frameworks because the European invention of photography from the 1830s – which is not the first invention of photography, but rather the most convenient white inauguration – is founded upon the same intellectual traditions that justify the genocide of Indigenous, Black and Brown people the world over. After Gerald Horne, let’s call this tradition the apocalypse of settler colonialism, and, after Charles W. Mills, let’s call it the white ignorance of epistemological individualism in the historical project of racial liberalism. In short, white supremacy continues to govern the world at large, and all cultural phenomena including photography falls within its scope and power.

More precisely, the European invention of photography, which is to say the “fixing” of images by such figures as William Henry Fox Talbot in the middle of the 19th century (some 200 years after the invention of racial whiteness), is a visual project that inherits the social dynamics of what Joe R. Feagin calls the white racial frame and extends this into particular types of “image-schema”. This image-schema, which I am theorising in a new book, Photography’s White Racial Frame, can be described in several ways. It is first and foremost a mental frame, or what has been described differently as the colonial gaze by Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. More precisely, this mental frame is named white scopophilia by George Yancy, and a regime of seeing by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. These concepts share a common truth: that with the invention of racial whiteness came what might be called a psychology of colonial picturing. This is a form of white imaginary, which is of course etymologically to say white imagery. We white people look at the world through what Stuart Hall called a white eye, and we do so full of an often-unconscious desire for power, wealth and knowledge. Photography is the great inheritor of this perceptual frame, this image-schema and its false narrative of white violence then and white innocence now. Thus, I theorise the European history of photography as a white racist visual dynamic full of emancipatory potential in the hands of those artists that choose to work against it. Like racial whiteness, photography can be abolished.

Understanding the significant violence of this visual framework should result in nothing less than seeing the world in an entirely new way, and as I have contended, seeing one’s white self in an entirely new way. If curation is the care and organisation of cultural phenomena, then in a white supremacist world it either stands within or without the white racial frame. The practice of curating is an historical and theoretical positioning which takes place in relation to the history of the western museum defined as (what Dan Hicks calls) ‘white infrastructure’. So, the question becomes, why is curating now so prominent? And for me, the answer has to do with the false choices racial whiteness continues to offer curators (remember, everyone is a curator, but it is most often white people that declare themselves so or who are awarded the title institutionally). To curate is first to possess knowledge, and then to make choices based on that knowledge resulting in some objects getting attention and others not. Possession is privilege. Knowledge is racialised, gendered, made bodily. Which curatorial bodies are most prominent? Ones like mine. Like racial whiteness, white curators can be abolished too.

Your book The Image of Whiteness, examining photography’s construction and perpetuation of racialised hierarchy, felt like it could have been an exhibition, but existed in book form. Was that a choice you made, or does it reveal something about the spaces of writing and display?

The Image of Whiteness is visually intrusive and conceptually shocking for lots of white people – certainly if encountered as an exhibition, in a public museum space (white infrastructure). I owe this to the artists featured. They have done the work and I have brought it together. I think it would be interesting if there was an accompanying events programme in which people could thrash out some of the ideas in the project. George Yancy might deliver the keynote on the question of symbolic white death – he’s an excellent public speaker – and I could be available as white visitors feel more and more uncomfortable, just like I do every day as I try to learn about my white self. I would be there to care for them (the curator’s role), not to make them feel good but to make them understand that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and confused by something we are only just coming to understand: that being white is to embody a violent lie; that the exhibition is teaching us that we have been lied to, and that we are upholding that lie and that what we need do is look, and then see differently, and listen attentively. That’s what I hope The Image of Whiteness is about: rendering white people uncomfortable so that we can be challenged and then learn. We white people need to learn to feel – to racially empathise – and then to self-disclose. I’m not interested in books or exhibitions that revive whiteness or make it “good”. That is an impossibility. A paradoxical space of both white projection and display.

White self-disclosure starts from the position that there is ‘no contradiction in whites working as anti-racists and their being racist,’ as Stephen Brookefield writes. So, I start from that position in my own work, and when I encounter white denialists – those individuals socialised white that have unfortunately still not realised their racial whiteness has very little to do with their skin colour – I seek to help them through a form of creative care. Imagine if that could be communicated to an exhibition audience? This is not to say white viewers should be told they are racist upon entry to the museum, but that they will surely come to realise to be white is to be racist by the time they leave. The exhibition becomes a form of white abolitionist narrative disclosure in which white people are prompted to learn through a process of looking and seeing differently.

Whatever The Image of Whiteness is, I hope it is not a mere anti-racist declaration. I am interested in avoiding spaces of epistemic comfort for myself and other white people. I want to create thankful spaces in which abolitionist practice is uncomfortable and ongoing. An anti-white social ontology requires a complex theory of practice that understands the space between white agency and white social structure as a fissure in which a series of epistemic possibilities might be revealed. My writing, and any exhibition making that follows it, is about revealing in this way. I reject error avoidance as I will make errors as I go. In a sense to be white is to be a human error, so what would it be like to accept that glitch in the social matrix from the get-go? What if instead of conceptualising my work as “good” I call it an error – which is different from a mistake – and brings me all the way back to where I started: frustration, erratum, not writing until I have something to say, or rather, something to do.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

I admire anyone who has the courage to write against themselves.    

What texts have influenced you the most?

Here’s what is influencing me this week: Simple Men (2019) by Rachael Allen; To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing (2016) by Diane Williams; White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does it Feel to Be a White Problem? (2014), edited by George Yancy; Weird Fucks (1980) by Lynne Tillman; Black Bodies, White Gold (2021) by Anna Arabindan-Kesson.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Criticism gets me in trouble. Always with white people in positions of power, which is reason enough to keep getting in trouble.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Portrait of Daniel C. Blight. © Idris Khan OBE

2-Book cover of Daniel C. Blight, The Image of Whiteness (SPBH Editions and Art on the Underground, 2019)

3-Daniel C. Blight, 010 (After Julia Margaret Cameron, The Echo, 1868 (2021), from A selection of white people’s expressions from the great period of realism organised into a grid and positioned in such a way that they can smell a lemon. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

4-Daniel C. Blight, nug (2021), from Image Reconstructions. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

5-LP cover of Autechre, Incunabula (1993) © Warp Records

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#5 David Campany

David Campany is a curator, writer and educator. His books include Indeterminacy: thoughts on Time, the Image and Race(ism), co-authored with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (MACK, 2022); On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020); Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013); Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008) and Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003). His curatorial projects include #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (2020), The Lives and Loves of Images (2020) and A Handful of Dust (2015).

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

‘About’ is a complicated word. I first started to write during my undergraduate years. I was on a wildly ambitious 50/50 programme, half image-making, half writing, informed by a number of disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, theories of institutions and ideology, aesthetics, phenomenology and film theory. Reading preceded any writing. Lots of it. I was struck early on by the difference between writings that began from the particular – this or that image – and writings that began with a theoretical abstraction, and deployed photographs as illustrations or examples. Both have their merit, of course, and I wrote in both ways at that time. Seven or eight years later, opportunities came my way to write for magazines and books, and I had to figure out if I could do something. By then, I had already been teaching for a few years. I suspect the daily practice of getting complex ideas into sentences comprehensible to students shaped how I began to write. As the years passed, I became somewhat averse to writing ‘about’ photographs, preferring to write around them, off them, in parallel, leaving the image as something for the reader to consider for themself. This came from the realisation of how little words can do in the face of the image, and to pretend otherwise was folly. That ‘little’ is vitally important, but it is little.

What is your writing process?

Everyone has their own creative rhythms and must accept them, because they cannot really be altered. I’m not all that productive but I don’t waste time. I usually work on two texts at once because I get stuck so often, and instead of doing nothing I can switch.

Most often, I write in order to find out what I think about things, and I try to write in a way that will carry me and the reader through that thinking. That means that the form of the writing is always in play, and cannot be taken for granted. I never know if a piece of writing is going to work out.

Occasionally, I’ve written polemics, and polemical writing was certainly the strongest kind I encountered as a student. I still relish reading strident texts, past and present. They do help to clarify. But I discovered I was temperamentally unsuited to that mode, which is premeditated and programmatic. Writing to discover what you think is quite different. It is speculative, risky, uncharted. Against that, I enjoy the parameter of the word count. If there’s no limit, my writing gets baggy. Not always, but often. (Maybe that’s why I’ve never blogged.) Interesting writing can be any length. A hundred words, a thousand, ten thousand.

What opened me up was the realisation that I could include images alongside my words. The richest experiences I’d had as a reader were with writings that included images, mainly in books on cinema. I liked it when the choice and sequence of images threaded through a text seemed almost like a form of writing. My own writing is done this way wherever possible. If I can get the ‘image track’ to feel interesting, to me at least, I can then begin to write. I don’t know of many other writers who do this. My interest in this approach is why I also became a curator and an editor of photographic books. There are parallels. I have often encouraged students to write this way, beginning with the choice of images. I’ve noticed it can work wonders for smart students who thought they had no chance of writing well, or in a way that they might enjoy and benefit from. If you fear the blank page, put an image on it. (Having the image on the page for the reader to look at for themselves is also a great discipline for a writer.)

I rewrite a lot. Partly, this is because my first drafts are lousy, but I’m trying to get my words to work well on the ear. I’m sure that comes from teaching, but also from the fact that I’ve always been impressed by good public speaking. If my words are dead to the ear, I know I need to rewrite. That’s not a rule for all writing. It just works for me.

The invitation plays a key part. I am fortunate in that institutions, publishers and image-makers often ask me to write. That element of surprise is really useful, as is the feeling of confidence one gets when someone likes your work and thinks you could do something worthwhile. I’m as likely to write for a little-known artist as for a major institution. Follow the work, not the reputation.

Sometimes I would rather not produce a text on my own, feeling I have more interesting things to discuss than to write. In these situations, I’m likely to suggest a conversation or written exchange, rather than an essay. Some of my published conversations – with Jeff Wall, Anastasia Samoylova, Stephen Shore, Sophie Rickett, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Daniel Blaufuks, for example – are among my favourite writings. I should say here that these conversations really are conversations. They are open-ended, speculative, responsive and all about the exchange of ideas. I know this project has the word ‘Conversations’ in its title, but it doesn’t really contain conversations. What I’m writing here is a response to a questionnaire: an efficient way to solicit formatted ‘content’. That’s why the questionnaire is such a dominant form these days. A conversation is the opposite.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Mixed feelings are the best motivation for me as a writer, and as a viewer. If my feelings are too clear to begin with, then there’s little in it for me. As for problems, I think the largest one has been the growing gap between writing that takes place in the academy (universities) and writing that takes place outside. I think this is worrying for a society. When I became a writer, having worked in a university for a while, that gap was already becoming very real, and I could see it had political consequences. The smart stuff wasn’t getting into the world, and when it did, it was not often understood. As neo-liberal capitalism marched its violent way onwards, the academy retreated from the public square, making its critiques and presenting its alternatives to its peer group, in ways its peer group appreciated. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. As an emerging writer, I had to face that in a very immediate way. I made the decision, for good or bad, to publish outside of the academy. I’ve written very few “peer-reviewed” essays for academic journals, for example. (Seriously, who wants to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me. Sure, I want my brain surgeon to have read the right journals. Culture is different.) The essays I have written for academic journals were to see if I could do it on those terms, as an exercise. Once I’d ticked that box, I wanted other challenges, other audiences, which I didn’t know existed but I had a feeling they might. (I’m always fascinated to see how people who write about photography describe themselves. ‘Theorist’. ‘Art historian’. ‘Critic’. ‘Academic’. The aversion to the term ‘Writer’ says a lot.)

There is such anxiety around images. Rightly so, and for a lot of reasons. But there is a tendency for writing, for writers on the visual arts, to step in and overwrite, to attempt to supply the ‘script for looking’, to take away the anxiety the image produces and stabilise things. More often than not, this is prejudice and preference masquerading as reason. One sees this in everything from museum wall texts, to reviews, blogs and critiques. Images get ‘explained’ in terms of authorial intention, biography, strategy, what we ‘ought’ to be thinking, and so forth. This runs the risk of diminishing us all as viewers, patronising us while pretending to enlighten. Moreover, it refuses the essential ambiguity of images. There are forms of writing that don’t do this, that keep the door open, however awkward and painful that can be. Ambiguity, the openness of the image, can be an anxious problem… But it is the only way out, so we ought to embrace it.

The other problems that motivate my writing are self-imposed. They involve finding new relations between image, thought and language. 

What kind of reader are you? 

Pretty voracious and wide-ranging. I am also a re-reader. Texts can be returned to, in order to figure out how they were written, and as a way of measuring one’s own intellectual and emotional development. There are novels and philosophical essays I make an effort to reread every few years. They stay the same. I change.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I had no idea curation was so prominent. Nevertheless, writing is writing and curation is curation. They share some concerns and approaches, of course, but, as a writer and a curator, I’m interested in the differences.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Unimprovable sentences. The ability to get paid. (As far as I know, we’re all doing this project for nothing.)

What texts have influenced you the most?

Influence is largely unconscious, so don’t ask me. I am not being flippant. The answers we give about our influences are merely the answers we are able to give. Among my conscious answers, the ones that come readily to mind are the writings of Roland Barthes (on almost anything other than photography), Susan Sontag (same), Jacques Derrida, Fred Moten, Susan Stewart, Fredric Jameson, Raul Ruiz, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Victor Burgin, Frantz Fanon, Adam Phillips, George Orwell, Lydia Davis, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf. I would give a different answer tomorrow, I’m sure. Between what we know and what we don’t, there are hunches and intuitions. I have a hunch that the texts influencing me most profoundly were, and are, song lyrics. Words as sung. I cannot memorise a line of poetry, even if it means the world to me. I remember songs without even trying. I cannot imagine this has not had an effect, but I am not sure I could define it.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

There are many places. It’s good to be mindful of this.

The space of critical refusal interests me. For example, how would discussions about identity take shape if one considered the possibility that the most interesting and profound things about identity do not offer themselves to the camera, to visibility? Or, what do we do about the fact that the narrowly consensual categories of both the mass media and art world demand certain conformities? At what points and in what situations might a commitment to photography be a walking away from it, and a turning towards something else, either as a maker, writer or viewer? There are photographers who face these questions and find other ways. And there are writers who have advocated for this too. The endless ‘commitment’ to photography, the presumption that all things of value can and must be available to its often-crushing and limiting embrace, is a very real issue. This should be faced as a matter of some urgency. (I don’t feel committed to photography at all costs, merely fascinated by it, and life beyond it is rich.) Critical refusal ought to be a vital part of the way photography is thought, discussed, taught and written. It should always be on the table. There are many positive signs that this is happening.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Campany

2-Book cover of David Campany, On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

3Book cover of David Campany, The Lives and Loves of Images (Kehrer Verlag, 2020)

4-Book cover of David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013)

5-Book cover of David Campany, #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (G Editions, 2021)

 

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#4 Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani is a historian of photography, researcher and writer based between London and Marseille, France. She is currently writing a PhD on the relationship between political actions and photographic gestures. Dahmani is also editor and content advisor at The Eyes, a trustee of the Photo Oxford Festival and on the editorial board of MAI: Visual Culture and Feminism.

Recent writings include “Heeding time: reviewing and rereading Périphérique” in Mohamed Bourouissa, Périphérique (Loose Joints, 2021); “A meeting between the thought of Stuart Hall and the films of John Akomfrah” in Penser avec Stuart Hall (La Dispute, 2021); “Racism and anti-racist struggles in 1970s London: When the walls speak, placards respond!” in Le phototexte engagé – Une culture visuelle du militantisme au XXe siècle (Les Presses du réel, 2021); “From a space of resistance, to the institution’s place: the history of Autograph ABP, between 1988 and 2007” in Marges #33 (2021) and “Bharti Parmar’s True Stories: Against the grain of Sir Benjamin Stone’s Photographic Collection” in PhotoResearcher #30 (2018).

In 2022, Dahmani will contribute a chapter about Polareyes, a magazine by and for Black British women photographers, in Resist, Organize, Build (SUNY Press, 2022), and serve as the curator of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

The very first time I wrote about a photograph was eight years ago in a university exam for my history of photography course. We had three hours to write a “dissertation” – a methodology-heavy French way of writing a “paper”. And it was actually the last time I wrote anything with a pen. I only vaguely remember that I wrote about a Bill Owens photograph and its relation to capitalism. But I vividly remember my eagerness and nascent aspiration.

Fast forward slightly less than a decade and I’m now writing up my PhD as the end product of my journey in French academia. Looking back, this education – its numerous rules and regulations – was a process of acculturation. One way of writing, to perpetuate one way of thinking. On scholarly work, Edward Saïd wrote that it is an ‘on-going activity within an already constituted field of discourse.’ It exists only to be perpetuated as it is.

In 2019, when Tim Clark, Editor in Chief of 1000 Words, invited me to write about a photobook, I welcomed the invitation as a breath of fresh air. I also welcomed the proposal as an opportunity to transcribe, for a wider readership – a conscious reasoning – the accumulation of knowledge and experience that has shaped me as a researcher. This experience started my interest in non-academic writing – its forms and meanings – and its potential for accessibility. As such, this experience was another “first time”.

Today, I feel like I’m playing a tug of war with myself: one team trying to follow presiding ways of writing a PhD thesis; the other exploring the freedom of essay writing. At the end of a long and laborious project such as a PhD thesis, I am embracing the feeling of re-starting, re-becoming an apprentice writer. Originating from the French verb “essayer” (to try), “the essay” is a great form for critical thinking, and I will attempt to weave my academic background into this new form in the future – asking myself, as Daniel C. Blight asked himself a few years ago: ‘What is the politics of essay writing on photography?’ Blending disciplinary disregard and acute consideration for this form.

What is your writing process?

[I’ll answer this question for essay writing only.]

On good days:

  1. I place my phone behind my computer screen – on airplane mode – and have a cuppa to hand.
  2. I put on my earphones with the curious “focus music” which populates YouTube and which helps me create a sort of “concentration bubble”.
  3. I read something: either from the digital pile of PDFs under my “research” folder or from an article I have received in one of the many newsletters that arrive every day in my inbox. Reading gets me focused but reading also produces two things: quotations and ideas.
  4. I jot down reflections about a selected quote. In her book In the Wake (2016), Christina Sharpe points out that: ‘thinking needs care.’ I consider quotations a profound demonstration of care for thinkers and their ideas: they are “thank-yous” to the people who produced knowledge before us. They are also invitations for curious readers: footnotes open never-ending “reading pathways”.
  5. The accumulation of quotes and notes – and sometimes interviews with photographers – form my “base”. When I’m not rushed by a deadline I let the reading, the note taking and the “base creation” percolate. The longer the better, the essay will “live” and “evolve” in my mind, creating new possible directions.
  6. When the deadline is approaching, I start a new Word document and write a first draft “from scratch”. The first sentence takes courage, the second trust. I can’t start writing an essay if I don’t have a clear orientation – often found during the “percolating period”. I tend to think that essays need to make a point, be a demonstration not a decoration. But, might not the best one be precisely both?
  7. I go back to my “base” to “feed” the first draft of the essay. I add precision. Because of which kind of photographs/photographers I am writing about, I am wary of ambiguity or obscurity. I make sure any complex ideas mentioned are mobilised in an intelligible way: I want to make sure they are accessible and in accordance with the assumed readership.
  8. I think and write in French and English. Early drafts of most of my texts are written in both languages which ultimately leads to me feeling sorry for myself when something “comes out” fine in one language but doesn’t translate well. Often, this kickstarts a process where I juggle between a French-English dictionary and a Thesaurus. Another challenge of writing in both these languages is having to navigate different levels of “discourse acceptance”: concepts and ideas are not similarly established in different countries; references and words might need to be explained differently (especially in the fields of critical race theory and postcolonial studies).
  9. I remove the earphones to read the paragraph written out loud, I correct and I rectify. I repeat the process as many times as there are paragraphs. This list was read at least five times.

On bad days:

I generally love listening to podcasts or watching interviews of people who talk in detail about their craft and practice. So, on bad days, I turn to writers who have written about writing. I often think of this Marguerite Duras quote: ‘One cannot write without bodily strength. One must be stronger than oneself to approach writing; one must be stronger than what one is writing.’

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

The last five years of my life have been dedicated to my doctoral research. My thesis is articulated, in a nutshell, around the photographic representation of struggles and the struggle for photographic representation in England from the end of the 1960s to the end of the ’80s. Most of my essays, so far, have been more or less inspired by my ongoing obsession with image-making and political action whether expressed in iconographies or ecosystems (or ‘worlds’ to reference Howard S. Becker).

That said, most of my essays have been dedicated to very contemporary artists/photographers and, as such, most of them have tried to “respond” to image-makers that ‘create dangerously’ to quote Edwidge Danticat, who describes that process as such: ‘[It] is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.’ I’m motivated by disobedient artists-photographers. I’m driven by the problems defiant image-makers highlight. Their insubordination can be found in their craft or form, in their practice or discourse. They are oppositional in their way of behaving with, around or against photography. Their rebellion can be loud or whispered – I’ll listen.

What kind of reader are you? 

As a doctoral researcher, reading is a great part of my day-to-day work. As such, libraries become toolboxes and books instruments towards the completion of a project. The Stakhanovic nature of a PhD means that I rarely re-read books – with the significant exception of bell hooks whom I could read every day. If I re-read an article, it is often in order to “double check” or “make sure”.

However, the first lockdown taught me the power of re-reading and reading several books at the same time: realising that, often, as with a person, you need the “right time” to truly discover a book’s content. To take an example, I had always “used” Roland Barthes’ theories (and taught Camera Lucida (1980) in exactly the same way it had been passed down by my professor), but, with my recent dive into essay writing, I started paying attention to the confidentiality, familiarity and sensitive nature of his work: making him a thousand times more interesting.

So, as I’m trying to become another kind of writer, I’m becoming another kind of reader: trying to find the route towards an embodied strategy of narration that exists at the meeting place of gut (biography) and brain (history/theory). A delicate balance between decency and intelligibility. I have to say that I have come a long way: French academic education forbids expressions of subjectivity or opinion – or more exactly, uses objectivity to hide the dominants’ point of views. The first time I wrote “I” to start a sentence I felt a blast of freedom on my keyboard. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), Johanna Russ wrote: ‘Although crammed with facts and references, [women’s writing] has the wrong style; it is personal and sounds unscholarly, a charge often levelled at modern feminist writing. That is, the tone is not impersonal, detached, and dry enough – in short, not patriarchal enough – to produce belief.” As you can imagine, reading beacons such as Saidiya V. Hartman, Sharpe and Tina M. Campt for the first time was extremely arresting.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I struggle with this question. For me, one can only compare similar elements and the contrast between the experience of reading and the experience of visiting an exhibition is too dissimilar: providing disparate bodily and intellectual experiences. Being a reader and being a viewer/spectator are two distinct positions. However, I guess we could maybe examine the knowledge produced by catalogues vs. magazines, journals and other sorts of publications. Such an investigation might quickly lead us back to accessibility (price, printed/online, language, themes, etc.). The performative aspect of exhibitions – if the work of going through the doors of a gallery/museum is achieved – makes it probably more approachable. In the age of social media, we face very different ethics of attention and, as a result, disparate receptions/reactions/effects.

That said, if I really have to answer the question, I would say that the “prominent” status of exhibitions over theories/histories that you seem to detect is probably only the result of radical and forward-thinking theorists and historians. Good exhibitions are made by curators (and artists) who read. I have a hard time imagining the act of thinking – or giving shape to ideas – without writing, so I’m guessing curation is another form of writing. Curating can then become a translation and even a visual/embodied comment on theories/histories. Exhibitions can be powerful rhetorical demonstrations. Yet, the limitations of exhibition-making are much more real than the limits of words on paper (publication aside). For me, the main question is who writes and who curates and which platforms these people are given. How we know what we know and who is allowed to share what they know?

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

This is an extremely hard question. But to answer, I would say 1. their politics 2. their attention to detail 3. their humanity.

  1. Marguerite Duras wrote that writing is: ‘Screaming without sound’. When I read Hartman, Hannah Arendt, Ariella Aïcha Azoulay, Etel Adnan and Trinh T. Minh-ha, I hear their screams. If anger is pain with nowhere to go, writing then becomes a sort of socially accepted “place”. Political anger translated into words is definitely something I admire in these writers. I would also like to mention a young generation of badass writers such as Legacy Russell and her Glitch Feminism manifesto (2020) or Durga Chew-Bose’s singular writing in Too Much and Not the Mood (2017).
  2. A focus on a detail, such as a cup of coffee let’s say, can be a powerful rhetorical node, as revealed beautifully by Mahmoud Darwish in Memory for Forgetfulness (1982). I’m not a very patient person, and struggle with the exercise of description, so, recently, when I read A Black Gaze (2021) by Campt, I was quite mesmerised by the attention she seems to give to descriptions of the art works she mobilises (the same consideration/scrutiny can be found in Listening to Images (2017) for example). A detail can also be an anecdote that becomes a compelling argument. In the same book, Campt explains the effect of the weather on her experience of an exhibition: this opened many threads of thought.
  3. I’m a big reader of autobiographies and in-depth interviews because of the possibility of hearing the artists’ voices. But, the ability of writers such as Olivia Laing, for example, to emphasise her own and artists’ human experiences is definitely something I admire. I never thought I would care so much about someone like Andy Warhol until I read The Lonely City (2016). I also love artists such as Coco Fusco who write about other artists – they tend to reveal a very distinctive perspective on the artworks they write about. I like books that are accounts of being and guides for becoming. I also like writers, who are not “writers” as such: recently I read a text written by a photographer, for the first time, wrote about a decade of work. Vasantha Yogananthan’s essay, in his latest photobook Amma (2021), moved me greatly because of his bravery in writing about his journey as a photographer with the most generous vulnerability.

What texts have influenced you the most?

[Influence seems like a big word, but, off the top of my head, here is a non-exhaustive list of names, in no particular order, with endless recognition for carrying me through years of doctoral research.]

Edwidge Danticat Jacques Rancière Gayatri Spivak Marie-José Mondzain Allan Sekula Frantz Fanon W.J.T Mitchell Fred Moten James Baldwin Shawn Michelle Smith John Berger Paul Ricoeur Susan Sontag Sara Ahmed Stuart Hall Judith Burtler Simon de Beauvoir Eric Hazan Julia Kristeva Angela Y. Davis Adrienne Rich Nicholas Mirzoeff Edouard Glissant Christina Sharpe Elsa Tamara Trodd Dorlin Jo Spence Sarah Lewis Victor Burgin Kobena Mercer Laura Mulvey Chris Kraus Steve Edwards Lucy R. Lippard Val Williams Elvan Zabunyan Mieke Bal Jacqueline Bobo Hazel V. Carby Eddie Chambers Patricia Hill Collins Sandra Harding Elizabeth Edwards Anna Backman Rogers Siona Wilson Harriet Riches Paul Gilroy bell hooks Heidi Safia Mirza Griselda Pollock Rozsika Parker Liz Wells Deborah Willis Pratibha Parmar David A. Bailey Roshini Kempadoo Sarat Maharaj Gilane Tawados Ambalavaner Sivanandan Maurice Berger John Tagg Albert Memmi Saul Alinsky Antonio Gramsci Audre Lorde C.L.R. James Edward Saïd Homi K. Bhabha Fatima Mernissi Walter Rodney Achille Mbembe Frieda Ekotto Derek Walcott Patrick Chamoiseau Mahmoud Darwish Paul B. Preciado Tina M. Campt Saidiya Hartman Hannah Arendt Ariella Aïcha Azoulay Etel Adnan Aruna D’Souza Teju Cole Trinh T. Minh-ha and many others that I’ll regret not naming once this interview is published.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I am tempted to give a somewhat literal answer to this question: addressing geography and platforms. The hegemony of the English language and concomitantly the predominance of the global North in knowledge dissemination (not production) questions “the place of criticality in photography writing now”. Published and widely circulated criticality in photography is not diverse or inclusive enough. However, the recent publication of Dark Mirrors (2021) by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is an inspiring step for critical writing.

Then comes the question of where does one find critical thinking (as opposed to journalism) in photography today? A few online platforms (in English) exist, a couple of publishers defend it – that’s it (in France, outside academia, it’s almost non-existent for example). Critical consciousness certainly exists, the lack of platforms to express it is, for me, an important aspect today. Without sounding boards, it is difficult to develop true debate and exchange or create space for a diversity of equal voices to express themselves.

Lastly, I feel like the place of criticality in photography writing now is in complexifying “recently acknowledged” notions/ideas/struggles. Lately, oppositions around photographer Deana Lawson’s iconography are for me fascinating “places” of criticality, for example. Debate is probably one of the greatest signs of the recognition of a multi-layered artist and a complex body of work.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Taous R. Dahmani © Lynn S.K

2-Book cover of Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983)

3-Book cover of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake – On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#3 Joanna Zylinska

Joanna Zylinska is an artist, writer, curator and Professor of Media Philosophy + Critical Digital Practice at King’s College London. She is an author of a number of books, including AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams (Open Humanities Press, 2020) and Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017). She also co-edited open-access works, Photomediations: An Open Book and Photomediations: A Reader, as part of the Europeana Space project funded by the European Commission. Her art practice involves experimenting with different kinds of image-based media. In 2013, she was Artistic Director of Transitio_MX05 Biomediations, the biggest Latin American new media festival, which took place in Mexico City. She is currently researching perception and cognition as boundary zones between human and machine intelligence, whilst trying to answer the question: ‘Does photography have a future?’.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I came to writing about photography (rather than just photographs) relatively late in my career. I had been working as a media academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching the philosophical and cultural aspects of digital media for many years. I had also had an active research interest in art, particularly new media art. But photography had been my secret love, something I had practiced “on the side”, so to speak, but that I hadn’t brought into any of my more “proper” academic work. It all changed in 2007, when, still working at Goldsmiths, I decided to enrol on a practice-based MA in photography at the University of Westminster. I did that a little bit in secret too! Doing that MA changed everything. It encouraged me to start incorporating practice into my written work, to change the way I write and to address photography more comprehensively as a key medium of our times. It also led me to develop a new philosophy of photography, culminating in my book, Nonhuman Photography (2017). (Analysing photographs that were not of, by or for the human, that book looked at the photographic medium across the scale of so-called ‘deep time’. It positioned various ‘impressioning’ practices, from fossils through to tanning, as forms of photographic practice, alongside its more conventional forms such as photograms, analogue film frames or digital snapshots.)

What is your writing process?

Because I try to maintain that dual track of having an image-based practice as well as working on photography philosophically, I am very mindful that writing about photography shouldn’t use photographs just as illustrations. Rather, in recognition of photography’s agency, I would say that I write with photographs. Often these will be projects by other people (artworks, social media practices) or social and technical networks in which photographs play an active role (Internet search engines, image databases for training AI algorithms). But I also try to develop some aspects of my theoretical argument from photographic practice. So I often start with an idea and a project – like with Active Perceptual Systems, where I wore a necklace-like Autographer camera for two years whilst writing about nonhuman vision, or when I hired workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk labour platform to take a photo from the window of the room they were in with a view to creating a collective portrait of invisible ‘undigital’ global workforce, as part of my work on AI and art. So, in my work, I try to get writing and image-based practice to speak to each other, to push each other and then also, inevitably, to converge.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

The primary concern of my work over the years has been the constitution of the human as both a species and a historical subject. Adopting this geological probe of ‘deep time’ mentioned earlier, I have looked at the emergence of the human in conjunction with the surrounding technologies, such as tools and other artefacts but also communication in its various modes – be it everyday language, storytelling, ethics, art and, last but not least, photography. In an attempt to challenge human exceptionalism without giving up on my own curiosity about my phylogenetic kin (i.e., other people), in my writing, I zoom in on the signal points of the human such as intelligence, consciousness and perception. With this, I aim to explore the entanglements of human and nonhuman forms of intelligence, including the promises and threats offered by AI and machine vision. Currently, I am working on perception as arguably the key mode of engagement with the world in different species. This project involves looking at the reconfiguration of ‘the eye’ in the digital age and at the humanist blind spot in machine vision. As part of this work, I am investigating the role played by images, especially mechanically-produced images such as photographs, in human becoming. Looking at the transformation of photography by computation – and the transformation of human perception by algorithmically-driven images, from CGI to AI – I am also trying to figure out what it means to live surrounded by image flows and machine eyes. This radical transformation of the photographic medium is currently leading me to explore a question which is also a provocation: ‘Does photography have a future?’

Does your concern for writing about positions beyond anthropocentrism impact on how you write? Is there a way to write beyond our human positionality?

My work is produced from within the theoretical standpoint recognised as critical posthumanism, a position that does not mean any straightforward overcoming of the human (were such a thing even possible), but that rather involves a rewriting or re-enactment of the human under the conditions of the planetary crisis resulting from the nexus of colonialism, globalisation, technoscience, late capitalism and climate change. You could say that I’m trying to write myself out of the conceptual and political strictures of humanism, with its constitutive forms of violence. I’m trying to accomplish this both in the content of my writings and in its style – which is often hesitant, minimal as well as ironic. This attempt also involves mixing different genres, different modes of enquiry and different media. At the same time, I’m aware that, even though many animals are known to leave traces – i.e. surface marks which could be seen as forms of inscription – grammatological writing is a specifically human practice; a practice that both makes sense to and is valued by humans. So, I’m also writing in full recognition of writing being a species-specific behaviour to which we humans have assigned a particular cultural value (a value which I of course also hold dear).

What is the role of writing in relation to what you have described as photography’s proximity to extinction, to climate transformation? Is this, in part, a recognition that photography’s industrial conditions feed into extinction whilst representing it?

My work, both written and image-based, is indeed produced within the horizon of extinction, which represents the awareness of the eventual expiration of the human species and other species alongside us, and of our planet as a whole. But it’s also driven by a sense of urgency prompted by the foreshortening of this horizon as a result of the destructive human impact on planet Earth. Photography has of course been part of this impact – from the extraction of minerals needed to produce cameras and the use of harmful photochemical materials through to photography’s participation in the extractive data economy which is extremely resource-heavy (even if it’s sold to us through images of immaterial flows and clouds). Yet photography, as you point out, has also been used to represent, record and challenge practices leading to this accelerated extinction. Last but not least, there’s an existential dimension to photography for me. Photography, a par excellence practice of imaging and imagination (i.e. a practice of copying, making likenesses, mapping, making mental pictures and ideating), can serve as a conduit for asking bigger questions about our own ‘thrownness’ in the world – of which we are only temporary inhabitants – and of imagining different futures for ourselves and our planet. This future-oriented horizon of extinction, beyond the death of singular humans (be it that of Roland Barthes’ mother or our own), makes photography into what Swedish philosopher Amanda Lagerkvist has called ‘an existential medium’.

What kind of reader are you?

Committed, engaged, playful – but also forgetful. You could say that I read for an experience of an idea rather than for the purpose of constructing world systems out of the previously existing ideas.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

My previous answer might signify that I don’t care much about historical unfoldings and coherent linear trajectories. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. I recognise that meaningful photographic curation requires expertise, which needs to involve familiarity with theories and histories of photography. We also have to remember that these theories and histories are already forms of curation – and that they can be rewritten, restaged, rearranged.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

A mixture of rigour and vitality and a desire to say something interesting and new about the world. I appreciate writers who have an awareness of their own writerly task – and who take this task (but not necessarily themselves, under the guise of ‘Here I Am as a Great Writer Speaking to You My Dear Reader’) seriously. My ideal writerly voice would be Roland Barthes from A Lover’s Discourse (1977) – but not, for the love of God, Camera Lucida (1980) – hybridised with Donna Haraway and Rebecca Solnit, and then remixed through some postcolonial epistemologies and affects, such as those coming from Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

What texts have influenced you the most?

There are so many – from texts on photography by writers such as Vilém Flusser, Geoffrey Batchen and Tina M. Campt, through to those whose authors have shown me the way with words and concepts: Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Tim Ingold, Juhani Pallasmaa, Stanisław Lem. The book I wish I had written myself is Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy After Photography (2014) by Joan Fontcuberta.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

We now live in image flows – we are surrounded by photographs on screens large and small, and are mediating our relationships with others through images. Photographs and other images form a transparent layer through which we see the world. I am increasingly concerned about the fact that this layer remains largely unseen. So, for me, the function of criticality in photography writing would consist in drawing attention to that seemingly transparent photographic layer, to see it for what it is, for what it’s made of and for how it’s made. This would need to involve going beyond semiotic readings of individual images – although I believe there is still need for developing an image literacy of an interpretative kind. But it would also need to involve developing an understanding of image infrastructures and of the way those infrastructures are involved in shaping our socio-political reality today. With this, we could perhaps go so far as to argue not only that photography writing needs to include criticality but also that any form of critical theory and critical writing today needs to engage, seriously and profoundly, with photography.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Joanna Zylinska

2-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017)

3-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014)

4-Joanna Zylinska, Planetary Exhalation, 2021

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#2 David Levi Strauss

David Levi Strauss is the author of Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020, and in an Italian edition by Johan & Levi, 2021)Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014)In Case Something Different Happens in the Future: Joseph Beuys and 9/11 (Documenta 13, 2012); From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010)Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture, 2003, 2012 and in an Italian edition by Postmedia Books, 2007) and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia, 1999 and 2010)

He has also co-edited To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, with Michael Taussig, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Dilar Dirik (Autonomedia, 2016, and in an Italian edition by Elèuthera, 2017) and The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, with Strauss, Taussig and Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020). From 2007–21, Strauss directed the graduate programme in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York, US.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

In 1975, when I was a 22-year-old poet, I went to study photography with Nathan Lyons at Visual Studies Workshop, which, at that time, was the best photography school in the US. MIT Press had just published Nathan’s landmark book of photographs, Notations in Passing (1971). When I first attended Nathan’s seminar, I handed him a handwritten copy of an essay I’d written in response to Notations in Passing, titled “The Ontology of the Eye, or A Stall of Cows, A Stall of Images”. It began this way: ‘The eye cannot be separated from the brain or memory. Visual data, like all sensory data, are immediately plugged into the complex mega-memory of the brain/soul.’ The other students in the seminar thought this was the most impertinent act they’d ever witnessed, but Nathan liked the piece. That was the beginning.

What is your writing process?

My process is ridiculously labour intensive and inefficient. I write 50 pages to get a page. I first produce an unwieldly mass of language, and then carve it down. It takes an incredibly long time. It’s a sculptural process, from the inside-out. I use montage and magic. The first sentence usually comes last.

It feels like there is something very photographic about this, the quantity of writing and the carefully selected final outcome, its compulsive recording and intensive editing. In the same way that a photographer develops a series of strategies, shortcuts and go-tos, are there tools or strategies that facilitate your final montage? How do you know that writing reaches the stage where you can write that first sentence?

I’ve never thought about my writing process having a correlative in photography, but I think you’re right. It is a process of selection. Each word is chosen from a very large number of possibilities, and, when each word is chosen, it affects every other word around it. The larger currents that determine form are rhythm and rhyme, at the level of phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph. If you get too attached to the individual words, you lose the music, and, if you lose the music, you lose the reader.

In the end, you’ve got to be able to separate yourself from the writing, and look at it as if someone else wrote it. Only then can you get to that level of absolute ruthlessness that is necessary in rewriting.

For me, the process is endless. At a certain point, someone takes it away from me and then it’s done. Like Duke Ellington said: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to find out what I think about things. I try to focus on the persistent questions: Why are we here? What does it mean? How and why do we believe technical images the way we do? How do these images actually work? Who benefits from this?

Right now, I’m trying to write about the End of the World, and the first question is: What is the world? This puts me immediately back at the image of the world. Most of the questions I deal with send me back to the image.

Something really distinctive in your recent writing is the way that images not only record the world but are informing it, producing it even. And your writing, dialogically, seems to want to change the image in turn. Do you write in order to challenge, and even change what the image might be?

Yes, absolutely. I want to change the image of the world, in however limited a way I can, through enactment and persuasion. One of the biggest problems in our time is that we no longer have a viable social image of the world.

What kind of reader are you? 

I’ve been a driven, voracious reader since I first learned to read, before starting grade school, and that has never changed. I read to live. When I was a child, my father discouraged me from reading, and sometimes punished me for it, thinking that it was an excuse not to work. So, I read in secret, sometimes literally in the closet and under the sheets. The act of reading always felt illicit to me, and this feeling never really went away. When I began to be encouraged to read in school, I always thought someone, surely, would realise that what I was doing was wrong, that I could go anywhere and be anyone when I read, and those in charge would realise how dangerous this was and stop me, but no one ever did.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

More significant than ever, I think. Photographic images are a significant part of the mechanism of social control in the world today, and we need to understand how they work and where they came from in order to resist this control.

I taught from 2001–05 at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York, and I became dismayed by the prevalence of what I came to call “curatorial rhetoric”; writing that borrowed terms and concepts from various specialised languages and used this jargon to protect the writer, and the reader, from experiencing the art in question. When I despaired of getting curators to abandon this kind of prophylactic rhetoric, I began to encourage them to hire outside writers, instead, to write catalogue essays.

You were Chair of the School of Visual Arts in New York’s celebrated Art Writing programme until very recently, overlapping with your time at Bard. In what ways did teaching writing inform your own practice?

By the time I became Chair of the Art Writing programme, I had been writing seriously for over 30 years, and had already gone through many transformations. But teaching certainly made me more aware of the difficulties and the dilemmas of writing in the present, as experienced by my younger students.

Teaching is a fundamentally optimistic act, like writing. In both, you’re imagining your reader/student into existence – imagining the very best of them. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many of my students join in this mutually transformative act.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Courage, honesty, generosity, risk and kindness.

What texts have influenced you the most?

The writings of John Berger, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Paul Virilio, Vilém Flusser, Jacques Ellul, Edward Said, Aimé Césaire, Albert Camus, Paul Valéry, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Marsilio Ficino, Leo Steinberg, Leon Golub, Jimmie Durham, Amiri Baraka, Linda Nochlin, Lucy Lippard, Elena Poniatowska, Guy Davenport, James Baldwin, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Michael Taussig, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

And the poetry and prose of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, John Keats, William Blake, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Diane di Prima and many others in this lineage.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

The more pressing question is: What is the place of criticality, or critical thinking, in the social realm today? Our current communications environment has reduced critical thinking to personal preferences and opinions, and amplified anger and fear, and that has made it difficult to engage difficult questions in the larger social frame with criticality. We need to find new ways to talk about important things.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Levi Strauss © Sterrett Smith

2-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)

3-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020)

4-Book cover of The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, eds. David Levi Strauss, Michael Taussig and Peter Lamborn Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020)