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). 


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)

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019

Top five festival highlights

Selected by Tim Clark

The fiftieth edition of the highly-esteemed Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival is now underway. It’s a vast, sprawling affair set across the evocative Roman town in the south of France with something for all tastes, despite a lingering fascination with the traditional. Yet there is always much to praise. Below is a rundown of five standout exhibitions from the memorable golden anniversary year – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark.

In association with Spectrum.

1. The Saga Of Inventions
From The Gas Mask To The Washing Machine, CNRS Archives


One of a number of exhibitions from the festival section brought together under the title The Other Photography – “a tribune to hoarders and obsessive people” – The Saga Of Inventions exemplifies the guest-curated shows centred on archival photographic practices that Les Rencontres d’Arles does so well. Under the expert supervision of historian Luce Lebart, images from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) have been assembled from a collection of thousands that were produced in France between 1915 and 1938 as part of the governmental initiative to foster scientific and industrial research. A cogent portrait of innovation, visitors can revel in the visual rigour of numerous brilliant inventions, moving from those born out of war and national defence efforts to others designed for the domestic and civil realm, a duality reflected in the exhibition’s two-fold structure. Administrative images of trench trumpets, flame protection masks and hoods, artificial clouds, myriaphones, washing machines and ‘life-saving’ taxis are but a few from the cornucopia in which the inanimate is awakened.

At the heart of The Saga Of Inventions a poster enlargement of the studio set-up offers a rare backstage image to actively insert self-reflexivity within the exhibition, providing a behind-the-scenes view into the photographic theatre where countless images from the archive were made. We are privy to both the object, in this case part of a machine gun, and the cameraman contextualising it, whose dramatic pose and extravagant costume add an air of what Lebart has imaginatively dubbed “a poetic-military-burlesque aesthetic.” It embodies the spirit of The Saga Of Inventions; a compelling and at times absurd exhibition that bristles with insight into the institution and archival gems, treated with great flourishes of offbeat humour.

2. Mohamed Bourouissa
Free Trade


Upstairs from the Monoprix supermarket near the train station is a vast space that aptly plays host to Free Trade, a survey showcasing fifteen years of creative output from Algerian-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa. His work examines the value and visibility of marginalised and economically bereft members of society, as well as productions of knowledge, exchange and structures of power. Video, painting, sculpture, installation and, of course, photography are all put to powerful use. So too is an impressive range of imagery that encompasses staged scenes, surveillance footage and even stolen smartphones. Though perhaps counter to this experimental vision Bourouissa is still best known for his breakthrough series Périphérique (2005-09), reflecting on the discrepancies through re-enactment and narrative tableaux between the lives of Parisian youth and their limited depiction by right-wing mainstream press and politicians.

Curated by festival director Sam Stourdzé, it’s a challenging and disparate exhibition, staged in an open-plan format to create a complex visual and aural environment. Ideas come into focus and vibrate against one another, laying bare some of the terrible realities and injustices of late capitalism, all the while questioning the means of an image and politics of representing the other. There’s also an exhibition within the exhibition involving a collaboration with Monoprix employees and photographer Jacques Windenberger, in what became democratic practices where subjects were actors in information-participation photographic projects – “a kind of community visual memory.” Bourouissa’s originality as a conceptually-driven documentary photographer consists not just in what he represents but how he represents it. As such Free Trade feels sharp, sobering, confounding, mysterious, critical and intelligible on its own political terms.

3. Libuše Jarcovjáková

L’église Saint-Étienne

In the My Body Is A Weapon constellation of exhibitions veteran Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková turns it up a notch with Evokativ in collaboration with curator Lucie Černá. Raw, emotive and visceral, her photographs are far from picture-perfect but that’s not the point. Taken between 1970 and 1989 in communist Czechoslovakia they are vessels of pain and poetry from a dark period of totalitarian rule, a diaristic record of life, love, work, drink, sex and depression splayed out before the camera. Hers is an unflinching and brutally honest account of the immediate world around her, from the confines of the bedroom to the theatre of the street, resolving into a compelling portrait of the artist as a young woman. What emerges from these monochromatic worlds is a mood piece positing reckless abandon and hedonism as an act of resistance.

Evokativ flows freely around its impressive church setting, with a partially-enclosed area in the centre of the space. It functions almost as a confessional zone, perhaps delivering the exhibition’s most revealing and affecting moment: “Abortion. I arrived at the hospital in the middle of the night with a high fever. I was bleeding and longed for it to end. I had no desire for a baby whatsoever,” the artist recalls by way of an extended handwritten caption to images of luminous jugs full of liquid. “The doctors were of a different opinion and instructed me to lie quietly in bed. I crept silently to the toilet. Jugs full of the urine of pregnant women gleamed on the windowsill. They were wonderful. I took photos of them and did some squats. In the end I miscarried. All that remained were the jugs.”

4. Home Sweet Home
1970-2018: The British Home, A Political History
Maisone des Peintres

Within the intimate confines of Maisone des Peintres lies Home Sweet Home, 1970-2018: The British Home, A Political History. Meandering through the rooms and set across two floors, this exhibition explores what curator Isabelle Bonnet refers to as “the link between the well-being of soul and body and the domestic interior.” Taking its cues and logic from the English language invention of words such as ‘comfort’ and ‘comfortable’ the focus is on anatomising everyday life in Britain from the 1970s to the present day. Via a multi-generational artist axis it features key works by Anna Fox, David Moore, Martin Parr and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen alongside artists such as Andy Sewell, Natasha Caruana and Juno Calypso. Collectively, their vignettes collectively reveal the dynamics and complexities of family life allied to the pleasures, comforts and even terrors of domesticity. Indeed, one curious variant on theme points to issues of seclusion and confinement courtesy of an installation by Edmund Clark’s Control Order House (2011) comprised of interior snapshots of a place where an individual under house arrest lived, having been suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Clare Strand and Eva Stenram follow in the next room in The Poetics of Space section with strong contributions via their narrative constructions and staged photographs.

As is the case with any show with the level of ambition to survey constructions of national identity, omissions seem as striking as what’s included. Bodies of work from the canon by Richard Billingham, Nigel Shafran and Nick Waplington are notably absent. Still, Home Sweet Home is a well-articulated, buoyant show drawing out shared histories and dialogues, if slightly tethered to an overall vision of the British as eccentric and unable to break out of their old insularity. Nonetheless it remains a valid document along a timeline of how people look and behave in their places of refuge.

5. Eve Arnold, Abigail Heyman and Susan Meisalas
Unretouched Woman

Espace Van Gogh

There was in part a retroactive feminist turn to Les Rencontres d’Arles this year and nowhere does this come more to the fore than in Unretouched Woman. Shining a spotlight on Eve Arnold, Abigail Heyman and Susan Meiselas, three American photographers working and fighting to create certain degrees of freedom for themselves, and who all produced pioneering books to lend tangible form to their fundamental experiences of being embodied, the exhibition has been instigated by Clara Bouveresse through Les Rencontres d’Arles’ curatorial research fellowship.

Susan Meiselas’ masterpiece Carnival Strippers (1976) prevails for its frank portrayal of dancers both on and off-stage at small town carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina though photographs and interviews. Still-to-be-better-appreciated is the utterly magical Abigail Heyman, the first woman to be invited into the Magnum collective, whose book Growing Up Female (1974) subverted traditional codes and assumptions about what it means – or can mean – to be female, distilled through a unique combination of photo-reportage and personal urgency. Privacy is continually turned inside out.

Evidently the festival organisers have taken heed of the feedback and pressure that was applied in protest of the gender imbalance from 2018 – as voiced in an open letter published in the Libération newspaper last year. As such, they have taken steps to redress this by bringing those traditionally underrepresented from the periphery to the centre, and, clearly, without compensating on quality or talent. For the famed Susan Meisalas alone, it’s yet another accolade to an already impressive year, in which she has won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, Kraszna-Krausz Fellowship and now the Women in Motion Award, a newly-established prize from Les Rencontres d’Arles granted to female photographers recognised for their contribution to the field. Hopefully it paves the way for the celebration and recognition of the many other hugely-deserving artists to follow, without the need to play catch-up through resurrectionist narratives.

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019 runs until September 22nd.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and lecturer. Since 2008, has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words. 


1-National Scientific and Industrial Research and Inventions Office, Georges Mabboux’s acoustic horns to locate aircraft, May 31, 1935. CNRS collection, A_3264. (The Saga of Inventions exhibition)

2-National Scientific and Industrial Research and Inventions Office, Louis Lapicque’s visual field shutter goggles, December 1926. CNRS collection, B_6127. (The Saga of Inventions exhibition)

3-Mohamed Bourouissa, L’impasse, from the Périphérique series, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and galerie kamel mennour, Paris/London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. ADAGP (Paris) 2019.

4-Mohamed Bourouissa, Bracelet électronique, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and galerie kamel mennour, Paris/London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. ADAGP (Paris) 2019.

5-Libuše Jarcovjáková, David, Prague, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.

6-Libuše Jarcovjáková, From the T-club series, Prague, 1980s. Courtesy of the artist.

7-Andy Sewell, Untitled, from the series Something like a Nest, 2014 (Home Sweet Home exhibition).

8-Ken Grant, Lisa and Tracy’s sister, Birkenhead, 1990 (Home Sweet Home exhibition).

9-Susan Meiselas, Debbie and Renee, Rockland, Maine, USA, 1972. Courtesy of Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos.

10-Abigail Heyman, Supermarket, 1971.

Alys Tomlinson


Essay by Caroline Molloy

We know a pilgrimage to be a journey of moral or spiritual significance undertaken as an act of religious devotion. British photographer Alys Tomlinson’s latest body of work Ex-Voto examines the practice of pilgrimage via a multi-locational study concurrently looking at three Christian pilgrimage sites; Lourdes in France, Ballyvourney in Ireland and Grabarka in Poland. The series of photographs intentionally avoid the spectacle of the pilgrimage and the objectification of the pilgrim, instead focussing on quieter, reflective moments of contemplation to include formal portraits of the chaperones and professional helpers that support the pilgrims, landscape views of the sites of pilgrimage, and, of course, the sacred ex-voto offerings that are left behind at the pilgrimage site, such as candles, crosses, notes and photographs (the term Ex-Voto is normally associated with the Christian faith).

Tomlinson recognises that there is a contrast between the hustle of the pilgrimage sites and the quiet serenity of her images for she is ultimately interested in the interconnected relationship between the mythical sites and the people that visit them. Through Tomlinson’s enquiry, the two are connected. Her landscapes are ethereal and the ex-voto offerings add a grounding context to the narrative forming a backdrop against which Tomlinson makes her portraits, with each sitter photographed individually with a direct gaze to the camera, and, by extension, us as viewers. An example of this is portrait #Untitled 1 2016-2018. It is impossible not to be enchanted by this face. In this portrait, the participants body and hair are covered, this removes all social and cultural signifiers from the image. Furthermore, the depth of focus of the camera lens is shallow inevitably meaning any background detail to the image falls away, thus isolating and emphasising the subject’s face. The individual is penetrating in her gaze, staring straight into the camera, captivating for the viewer. Indeed, there is an engaging intensity to all of Tomlinson’s portraits, which are reminiscent of the mid-20th century formal black and white portraits of August Sander. Yet these evocative portraits also appear discordant with the hegemonic method of contemporary social documentary portraiture, which is more usually associated with rapidly made environmental digital portraiture. Conversely, Tomlinson’s images are highly considered and do not appear to belong to this time, or at least seem to exist outside of it. Shot on a large format plate camera, with 5×4 inch negatives, the images are slow to create, this ritualistic process of image-making invites an interlude of time, this pause gives the viewer space to reflect on the meditative images.

Five years in the making, this work has taken time to evolve since clearly it is well researched and meticulously conceived. And although Tomlinson claims she is not religious, underpinning her work is an ongoing interest in the architecture of religious artefacts found in places of worship and practices of the sacred. Similarly, this tendency can be found in her earlier bodies of work, Lourdes, a colour documentary project that looks at pilgrims and the social environment of Lourdes, and the commissioned series Lourdes St Marie-Frai, a black and white project that focuses on relationships between the pilgrims, helpers and the church in the famed town in southwestern France. This curiosity is obviously informed too by her MA studies at SOAS, University of London, in the Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage.

We can understand practices of the sacred to happen outside of the normalcy of everyday life, visible in the liminal spaces of rituals, such as practices of pilgrimage. There is a delicate balance to be realised when documenting such activity and robust arguments for and against depicting these practices from an insider/outsider perspective. Among others, this is highlighted succinctly by Abigail Solomon-Godeau when reflecting about the complex issue of the representation of the other. She writes: “Inside or out, one remains confronted with the ethical and political issues posed by Sontag and Rosler, where it is a question of the representation of the other, where the analysis depends on notions of voyeurism and objectification, tourism or imperialism.”

No doubt informed by her anthropological background, Tomlinson demonstrates great sensitivity in navigating this dilemma. She is reflexive in positioning herself as an outsider to the ritual of pilgrimage, yet engaged as a participant observer. Examining her portraits, it is apparent there is an intimacy which could only have been achieved in dialogue with her portrait participants given these are not images that could be achieved with any sense of speed or flippancy. According to Tomlinson this method of making portraits, slow-portraiture, enables her connect with the people she photographs but not reveal too much about them. Despite the fact that in conversation Tomlinson shares anecdotal information about the portrait participants and the pilgrimage sites, in the exhibition and in the book, the people are unnamed. In addition, the specific landscapes and ex-voto offerings are not located to any one site of pilgrimage. In doing this, connections between the pilgrim helpers and the geography of the natural landscape such as water, stone and forestry can be made. Tomlinson thus offers the viewer a sense of place of pilgrimage without specifically situating each image to open up a discourse with the sacred, one that suggests without describing a specific experience of pilgrimage.

The film that accompanies the Ex-Voto images is a vignette portrayal of Vera, one of Tomlinson’s portrait participants, an orthodox Christian of the Saint Elizabeth Covent in Belarus. It is a compelling observational film, in which Tomlinson gives insight into the rhythms of Vera’s monastic life and its daily tasks such as prayers and caring for and maintaining a stable of horses. The audience is given time to observe the mesmerising sequence of Vera’s modest existence as this lyrical film reveals an unseen world, far away from the bustle of the trappings of contemporary society. The film is due to be premiered at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019 this July, as part of the Discovery Award in association with London’s HackelBury Fine Art gallery.

One might conclude by referring to one of the key points from Professor John Eade, in his contextual essay published in Ex Voto, wherein he reminds the reader that the experience of pilgrimage extends beyond a religious experience. He suggests it can be felt through a number of material engagements, such as touching a rock face in a grotto, responding to the shock of cold spring water and of course in moments of contemplation. As such Tomlinson’s images respond to this broad notion of pilgrimage and offer an experience of pilgrimage for believers and non-believers alike.

All images courtesy of the artist and HackelBury Fine Art. © Alys Tomlinson.

Caroline Molloy is an artist, academic and writer. She holds an MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art and an MA in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths. She is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at Coventry University, alongside of which she is PhD candidate at the Centre for Photographic History at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Mathieu Pernot

Les Gorgan 1995-2015

Essay by Natasha Christia

A highlight of this year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles, Mathieu Pernot’s Les Gorgan 1995-2015 welcomed visitors with respectful silence. Hosted under the high ceilings of la maison des peintres, a new venue located near the calm premises of the village cemetery, the exhibition is presented as a multi-layered narrative comprising ten murals each dedicated to members of the Gorgan, a small Roma family from Arles living along the shores of Rhône. Spanning over two decades, it told the story of their individual destinies, and through it, the journey of photographic imagery that has accompanied them.

Importantly, Pernot’s gorgansiene universe created a precise and honest statement beyond visual and conceptual effects. In comparison to the noisy theatricality of Roger Bailen’s installation in the adjacent space wherein photography was unceasingly striving to find its place in the misty waters of contemporaneity, there was nothing redundant or unnecessary in it. Stretching exclusively across photography’s genres and practices – black and white portraiture, mug shots, Polaroids, iPhone and vernacular images – it was in many ways a slap in the face. A straightforward confrontation with photography and its evolution over the last twenty years, a prosaic testing of its normative modes, and, above all, an involuntary and yet consistently ruthless reminder of what straight images can do.

It was back in 1995, while still a student at L’École supérieure de la photographie d’Arles, when Mathieu Pernot first came across a group of gypsy kids in the area surrounding the village’s railway station. Pretty much everything has happened since his introduction to the whole family and the debut show of The Tsiganes (1995-1997) at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 1997. Seasons have alternated, kids have become teenagers, teenagers parents and former adults grandparents. Life has bestowed upon the Gorgan joys, farewells and irretrievable losses. Likewise, he ‘who once met those people as a photographer’ has found himself involved in a long-lasting relationship with them. By 2001, when Pernot left Arles for Paris, he had become godfather to their children, had inquired into the family history that extends over one century, and had funded Yuk, an association committed to the education and integration of gypsy children in the local community.

In the years that followed up until to the present, Les Gorgan has been continually revisited and naturally reflects how Pernot’s conceptual approach and strategies has evolved. The development of the project incorporated various chapters, distinct ideological and symbolic layers and diverse points of view. Over the course of two decades, the artist published different bodies of work in the form of seemingly disconnected series, yet all parts of the same puzzle. Unconsciously he was building a cartography, a universe, a whole.

The current assemblage, as displayed in Arles, is a remixed version after Pernot’s reunion with the family in 2012, a programmatic dismantling of the preexistent bodies of work that have been reedited and shaped anew. Many different projects and years have been spliced together in a new formulation. From the early children portraits in Tsiganes (1995-1997) – fusing a documentary approach at the crossroads with humanist photography and the detached observational documentalism akin to Walker Evans – to correspondent mug shots in Photo booths (1995-1997) in the tradition of anthropometric portraits; from their penitentiary choir, as teenagers, outside the prison of Avignon in The Shouters (2001-2004), to the whole family watching the deceased Rocco’s caravan burning in Fire (2013), photography here appears closely attached to a changing liquid reality.

Similarly, from the early Gorgan posing timidly before the camera to determining their self-representation in snapshots photographs of births, family gatherings, lazy afternoons that have been extracted out of their own albums and mobile phones into the sacred realm of the gallery space to Pernot’s fine art photography being re-appropriated by the Gorgan and serving as post-mortems on their family graves, these images reveal an infinity of uses, practices and dynamic relations between the subject and the photographer.

This sustained demystification of the photographic image, which both recovers its status as an extinct amulet and quotidian object bestows on the work an unforeseen authenticity. It is a level of authenticity achieved not out of fascination nor by means of attempting to build a bridge with the ethnographic ‘other’, but naturally, in an unhindered way. Here photography is actually about and for something.

As noted by both Clément Chéroux and Johanne Lindskog in essays from the accompanying publication by Xavier Barral, Les Gorgan project transgresses with wit the boundaries of the ethnographic, the cultural and the anthropologic. For those who wish to detect in the project folkloric clichés and ethnographic archetypes, gypsy matriarchy and palm reading, it is indeed all there. And yet crucially and suddenly the Gorgan turn from characters to people. Expanding idly on the surface of the image, their bodies are humanised under the weight of time and human destiny. At the same time, they are infused with an awareness of the confined territory they occupy between the lens and the world.

Beyond the personal, the familiar and various trappings of the photo community or art world, Les Gorgan resonates with history. While accessing the Camargue local archives as a historian for an exhibition in 1998, by chance he came across hundreds of police identification files of former Saliers gypsy camp inmates under the Vichy regime. He also discovered that Bietschika Gorgan, the patriarch of the family, was deported to Buchenwald in 1944. In this knowledge, the formidable face and side portraits of the children in Photo booths can inevitably be seen under a novel, dark perspective. They involuntarily awake memories of seclusion, deportation and extermination of these minorities during World War II. Likewise, they speak eloquently of the implementation of photography as an authority and means of control. In fact, they still do given the recent evictions of Roma migrants from France in 2009, turning the whole work into a cumulus of embedded history, memory and trauma.

Silence in Les Gorgan is suggestive. For the story remains untold and is crude and partial. The gaze is distance, and the ‘other’ a fabricated construct to accommodate it. Visually exuberant at first glance, Pernot’s narrative gradually reveals itself as a complex object of relations among subjects, gazes and modes of representation. By abolishing hierarchies between the artistic, the quotidian and the banal, and by dissolving the status of narration and voices, ‘it recreates’, in Pernot’s words, ‘the circumstances of each member of the family, and recounts the story that he and the Gorgans wrote together; face to face, then side by side’. As such, it daringly takes a stance to reconstruct the dialogical structure of history from the viewpoint of the ones who have not written it, recovering and ultimately surpassing the proper experience of photography.

All images courtesy of the artist and Xavier Barral. © Mathieu Pernot

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona.