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)

Hoda Afshar

Speak The Wind

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani considers Hoda Afshar’s use of magical realism as a strategy which seeks to redeem documentary photography from its propensity for an Orientalist discourse.


Is photography redeemable? What I mean by that is: is it able to be recovered or saved from its past faults? More specifically, is documentary photography redeemable? As a photo historian, I regularly ask myself these questions, and, as a lens-based artist, Hoda Afshar has been centring these inquiries into her practice – especially since 2014, when she started her series In the exodus, I love you more, which marked her return to the documentary form. Born in Tehran in 1983 and now based in Naarm (Melbourne), Afshar pursues her investigations into the potentialities and limits of the medium with her newest editorial project entitled Speak The Wind, published by MACK. Historically, photography, and particularly documentary photography, has been a powerful imperial language, one of the many colonial tools facilitating, in particular, visual constructions of East/West and South/North dichotomies. In 1978, Edward Saïd wrote that the “Orient” and the “Occident” were man-made, and I would add that they have been perpetuated by man-made photographs in which the Other became a character of a Western narrative.

In her practice, Afshar wishes to “embrace the limitations of photography”, and, by doing so, proposes a tale of dismantlement, decentring and restructuring. It is from the locus of liminality that she takes apart her medium, challenging representation from within. The first and last images that frame Speak The Wind are a colour and a black-and-white photograph of the same wind-carved feature taken from two opposite perspectives. Through this structuring, Afshar seems to suggest that her creative documentary practice is embedded within a flux of change. As Trinh T. Minh-ha wrote: ‘To create is not so much to make something new as to shift’ (1991). Speak The Wind does not offer objects or characters to gaze at, but an articulation of images to consider, an assemblage of enunciations.

Here, Afshar roams several islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Located on the southern coast of Iran, in the Persian Gulf, the islands have been a cornerstone of international trade since Antiquity and is still today a hotbed of geopolitics. Every day, the islands’ inhabitants can watch hundreds of oil tankers passing by and observe their natural resources – such as ochre, iron and copper – being exported. Beyond these economic realities, minerals moulded the islands and shaped their landscapes. In 2015, for her first trip, Afshar arrived as “the Iranian” – the non-insular, the Outsider – and set foot for the first time on the black sand of Hormuz’s beaches, walked on its red soil and witnessed its ochre horizon. Having learned of local shamanic curing practices, Afshar did not expect to experience the magical gusts. During her many trips to the island, not worried about being afflicted by zār ­­­(the local, “harmful wind” believed to cause discomfort or illness), Afshar pursued her creative negotiation and critical engagement with the medium. Little by little, her visits transformed her participant observation into an observing participation. Rather than forging a typology, like an ethnographer might do, the photographer started crafting a topography – as understood by Chela Sandoval as a feminist oppositional consciousness (1956) – tied to the specificity of Hormuz as a contact zone, a multi-layered territory and a crossroads of realities and fictions.

In Speak The Wind, Afshar has conceived the renditions of her practice and journey methodically, and, as such, the book echoes Nancy Fraser’s theory of ‘participatory parity’ (2005): the subjects are not only spoken about but speak themselves. Indeed, the book includes anthropomorphic drawings of the winds made by the islanders and interviews conducted by Afshar about the experience of being possessed by zār. Through this polyphony, the photographer developed an alternative vision, a conscious third eye, to take up Fatimah Tobing Rony’s notion (1995): a hybrid gaze, between heart and brain; a bodily experience generating ‘pensive images’, as considered by Trinh (1991): ‘The image is subversive, not through violence and aggression, but through duration and intensity. The eye that gazes with passion and acuteness is one that induces us vaguely to think – as the object it sees is an object that speaks. The image that speaks and speaks volumes for what it is not supposed to say – the pensive image – is one that does not facilitate consumption and challenges the mainstream.’

Afshar’s ‘pensive images’ are a subversion of the medium’s propensity for an Orientalist discourse, in particular through her choice of addressing “non-rational” elements. Her images work as a transformation of states: from gaseous to solid, from ungraspable winds to tangible photographs. And so, I ask myself, can magical realism – current in literature and in paintings ­– play a role in the development of a truly multicultural and decolonial photographic sensibility? Can Afshar use magical realism’s subversiveness as a strategy to (partly) redeem photography? Can she reconcile the distinction suggested by Martha Rosler when she wrote: ‘photography is something you do; magic is an ineffable something that happens’ (2004). In texts, magical realism serves marginal voices, submerged traditions and stories driven by local knowledge: all three elements are included in Afshar’s book. There are no literary works that are wholly conceived out of magical realism, but rather passages, yet the effect of these moments affects our entire reading. In the same way, the photographer offers moments of pure magic as well as other moments when the images are aware of their own artifice, thus maintaining a flow between fact and fiction. A red cloud in green water. Glittering black sand enabling us to walk on a starlit ground. The red waves of a bleeding sea. The marvellous grows organically out of the ordinary, “abating” Cartesian distinctions. In Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road (1991), the tales of the adventures of Azaro, the child narrator – who exists between the real and the spirit worlds – says: “The wind of several lives blew into my eyes.” With Speak The Wind, Afshar shares with us a magical gaze dialoguing with unseen winds.♦

Images courtesy the artist and MACK © Hoda Afshar

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.

Ming Smith

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani contemplates the ways in which Ming Smith’s self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – constitute a practice of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world.


Several years ago, in the hope of discovering early photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, I opened, for the first time, the pages of The Black Photographers Annual (1973). While Moutoussamy-Ashe’s work does not appear in the first volume – but only from the second – starting my reading with the first issue meant I came across the name of Ming Smith and what was apparently her very first publication. Launched in 1973, on the initiative of the Kamoinge Workshop, the periodical operated as a unique space for African-American photographers to determine independently both the content and conditions of publication and give them control over words and images: something that had been denied to the vast majority of them up until then. In her Aperture monograph (2020), Smith – who was the first female member of the collective – recalled: “this group of Black male photographers wanted to take control of their own images – their humanity.” The empowering agency necessary for the implementation of such an editorial project is an effective way for photographers to come into existence as authors of their images. In the introduction to the first volume, Clayton Riley suggested that The Black Photographers Annual enabled an “awareness of self”. At the time, I understood this phrase in line with consciousness-raising practices in the broader political context of 1970s America and its possible links with the affirmation of the African-American photographers’ “photographic identity”.

Of the forty-nine photographers published in The Black Photographers Annual, I remember being struck by Smith’s portfolio. More specifically, the second photograph piqued my interest when I realised that the silhouette in the lower left corner could be the reflection of the photographer holding her camera with both hands. Through a game of reflections, that can sometimes make us lose our spatial cues, the figure of – what I still hope is – Smith comes into being. The relationship between the photographic process and that of the construction of an identity was asserted by Smith as early as 1973 as quoted in her bio from The Black Photographers Annual: “My photographs attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.” A passage Smith would take throughout her career, making her self-portraits some of the most interesting aspects of her work. Seeing herself, beyond imposed images.

As Neelika Jayawardane wrote: “When Smith picks up her camera and photographs the intimacy of her face and body in a multitude of situations and places, it is a response to her own beautiful aliveness, her situatedness within a moving world.” Framing herself at the bottom of the picture is something she would do again in the 1989 self-portrait with her Canon camera, where, against the backdrop of a floral wallpaper, she contorts her torso in order to aim at a mirror, the reflected image revealing the upper part of her face, the skin of her back and her hand, once again, holding her camera. This image ought to be considered in line with the long and popular tradition of women photographers’ self-portraits-with-their-cameras, as exemplified by one of Smith’s friends and influences, Lisette Model – from the 1955 half-naked bathroom picture to the 1982 Paris hotel room photograph.

In one of the interviews published in her monograph, Smith stated: “being a photographer was a journey that was about my conversation with my camera.” Smith’s photographic practice is undoubtedly marked by experimentation, offering several departures and different arrivals around her identity as a photographer, a woman, an African-American, a dancer, a music-lover, etc. – an idea echoed by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red (1991): “Since identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity, heterologies of knowledge give all practices of the self a festively vertiginous dimension.” Time and time again, Smith dared to turn her lens towards herself because of the urgency of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world. For being the first African-American female photographer to be collected by MoMA did not, according to her, make much of a difference in her life, and certainly did not interrupt the process of her own recognition and self-affirmation as a photographer.

As a model, dancer and jazz-enthusiast, performativity played a central role in Smith’s self-portraits, as exemplified in Me as Marilyn (1991) or Self-Portrait as Josephine (1986), the latter serving as a clear homage to Josephine Baker but perhaps also to Katherine Dunham, whose “Technique” Smith learnt when she arrived in New York from Ohio. In his book In the Break (2003), Fred Moten pointed out that “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus – invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.” A quality we can also easily find in Smith’s 1990s Ellen Gallagher-esque collage of a 1972 self-portrait. The multitude of her self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – work as an emancipatory practice. Not published in the book, and yet essential in the construction of the self through the image, is her 1986 self-portrait as she is breast-feeding her son – an image taken ten years after Deborah Willis’ triptych, I Made Space for a Good Man (1975-76), entitled after a Philadelphia College of Art professor told then-art student Willis that “a good man could have been in [her] seat.” Performing maternity for their cameras states something about female photographic experiences, disobeying traditional considerations about the constructed image of The Photographer as male and White. As bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind (1995): “to transgress we must return to the body.” We could also mention Diane Arbus’ 1945 self-portrait with her daughter, Doon, where, once again, the maternal body is at the centre of an experimentation with the photographic medium and still asserts desire and reflexivity.

I could write many more words on Smith’s self-portraits; I could also write about Smith’s photographic walks into the night, her spirituality, the blurs, the paint, the poetic titles, the light and the darkness, the phonic substance and the auratic nature of her photographs – and a lot of people have been very good at doing just that. But when reading the interviews Smith gave about her practice, I am struck by the lexicon of sensuality used by the photographer to describe her relationship to image-making. The inexpressible in the expressed. Smith often states that she “follow[s] [her] impulses”, or that photographic discovery is “a turn-on for [her]”. Yxta Maya Murray even wrote that “she picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover.”

So I wonder, should we not start considering Smith through the prism of the erotic? Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1966) and Trinh (1991) argued for “an erotics of art”; Moten too, speaking of Duke Ellington’s music (2003), spoke of an “erotics of the cut”. As such, should we not consider an erotics of Smith’s practice? After all, the cover of Smith’s monograph is her photograph entitled Male Nude, New York (1977). But what inspires me the most to make this point is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, published in Sister Outsider (1984). For the African-American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, the erotic needs to be understood as a creative power: “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” And she added: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Perhaps all that is left here for me is to invite you to have a look at Smith’s monograph, as an introduction to her work and an invitation to read between the lines, with Lorde’s words in mind.♦

Images courtesy the artist and Aperture © Ming Smith

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.

Kalen Na’il Roach

My Dad Without Everybody Else

Essay by Taous R. Dahmani

Looking at Kalen Na’il Roach’s images is an engaging and intriguing experience. At first, they appear like humble bits and pieces of photography, mundane family photographs displaying the proudest moments in life: sport and school achievements, games with friends and family gatherings. Beyond these initial thoughts, their materiality and complex texture indicate wilful acts of vandalism; conscious scrapes and iterative scratches, scribbles in a diary. Jacqueline Woodson’s 1995 publication Autobiography of a Family Photo (and its nifty title) then comes to mind and seems to perfectly condense Na’il Roach’s endeavour. Born in 1992 in Washington, DC, in a split up family, a partial only child” as he phrases it, Kalen Na’il Roach started using family archival imagery — found in the bag of the Polaroid 600 SE his dad gave him — for his series This Is and This Isn’t My Family. He eventually continued to gather photographs from different family members that then became his source material.

Ineluctably, Kalen Na’il Roach’s work falls within a long legacy of conceptualising how we should think about the relationship between family and photography in African American communities as embodied by the writings of Tina M. Campt or Christina Sharpe. Within this context, photography then becomes central, as stated by Gloria Jean Watkins — better known by her pen name bell hooks — in her essay In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life: “Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images.” In the same text, the author used a photograph of her father, Veodis Watkins, to initiate an in-depth investigation of the links between family photography and its place within African American culture. She described the unique bond to an image of a father that she only half-recognised; the attachment to certain photographs according to one’s place in the family and the mixed feelings these pictorial genealogies can generate beyond the moments pictured. In turn, Kalen Na’il Roach uses his family’s photographic archives as a way of telling his family’s story from his own vantage point, going as far as inserting himself in the narration through appropriation and alteration. Photographs then become tangible bases for the creation of personal histories, and Na’il Roach admits to his critical intervention as “acts of protection, adornment, desecration, correction, concealment, exposition, and so on.”

While many photographers have been involved in projects related to genealogy and filiation — one could think of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family, to name but one — I would like to argue that we are now witnessing in current, family related, photographic practices a haptic turn”, that is the physical transformation inflicted on family photographs, leaving the rough and beautiful modifications, to be seen by all. Therefore, it is the adoption and amendment of photographs of family members which particularly interests me in this essay. How, from a few images found in boxes, in dusty albums or on the walls of grandparents, artists and photographers decide to tell their story. The development of a DIY aesthetic, a cut and mix materiality, the alteration of the photographic surface — like an updated resurgence of 19th century Pictorialism — creates a very intimate and direct relationship, firstly between the family archive and the author, then between the final crafted photograph and the spectator. The manipulation of the image strengthens the awareness of touch, a sense of confidentiality and intimacy, multiplying its haptic specificity. I am, for example thinking, of Lebohang Kganye’s 2016 Reconstruction of a Family, Priya Kambli’s series started in 2015 and ongoing project Mami (Uncle’s Wife) and Karl Ohiri’s 2013 How to Mend A Broken Heart. In his series, My Dad Without Everybody Else Kalen Na’il Roach draws, scratches, drip paints, blackens, smudges photographs of his father as a child, a boy and a young man. By doing this Na’il Roach covers up backgrounds and other individuals depicted, highlighting a dedication to the photographic representation of his father. My Dad Without Everybody Else was born out of a process of reconciliation between a loving father, who inspired his son even if away from the household and generated by the messy phenomenon of getting to know a parent as an individual. As Na’il Roach’s father passed away in 2017, the meaning of the series inevitably got changed and seem now to also address grief. Kalen Na’il Roach’s haptic practice resonates as a personal ‘‘contact zone’’ to quote Mary Louise Pratt, an encounter between a charismatic father and a son in need of appreciation. Therefore Kalen Na’il Roach’s work turns into an exercise of power over family histories. Na’il Roach’s appropriation of these ‘‘home made photographs’’, as Richard Chalfen outs it, makes them become objects of self-study or even therapy.

Na’il Roach grew up in an artistic family, his mother’s father was a painter and his father a creative wage earner who used photography to earn an honest penny, and it seems that these resourceful and imaginative role models somehow enabled Na’il Roach to subvert assumed norms. My Dad Without Everybody Else is a poetic dialogue that goes against hegemonic understanding of fatherhood and masculinity. In her 2003 book We Real Cool, Black Men & Masculinity, bell hooks wrote: “Like all men, black men in patriarchal culture have not been raised to be intimate.” Kalen Na’il Roach countered such assumptions as he displayed wounds, pains and fears in order to create a body of work embedded in an alternative perspective and a deconstructed monolithic masculinity.

Beyond such considerations, My Dad Without Everybody Else encloses multiple layers of hidden context that so-called “happy images” such as family photographs don’t care to narrate. Concealed within family stories, dramas are often looked at unknowingly by the spectator.  Twice in the series, Na’il Roach uses the same photograph of his father, as a young teenager, playing basketball and going for a layup. Over and over again team-mates are obliterated, their identity hidden. For an outsider to the family, joy and carelessness emanate from the photograph, for an insider, Lorton Prison in Virginia and its basketball court on family day can be identified. The only one of the brothers not to go to prison, this photograph simultaneously becomes highly painful and highly political. Such a tale unlocks other layers of understanding. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, today, people of colour make up 37% of the U.S population but 67% of the prison population. If political bias does not seem to be at the heart of Na’il Roach’s work, it undeniably hovers over some of his images. Born in the early 1960s, Na’il Roach’s father grew up in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when some men fought against stigma and racism by paying particular attention to their looks. Decades later, his apparel and by extension Na’il Roach’s project emphasise the complexity of North American society: one the one hand embodying the American Dream through wearing sport jerseys and baseball glove while on the other embodying the codes of Black Dandyism via a white fur coat and a dapper, striped suit.

Images courtesy the artist. © Kalen Na’il Roach

My Dad Without Everybody Else will be on display in the exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery from 20 February 2020 – 17 May 2020. The exhibition will then tour to Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles from 29 June – 20 September 2020 and Gropius-Bau, Berlin from 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021. Prestel publish Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, edited by Alona Pardo, to accompany the exhibition.


Taous R. Dahmani
 is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.

Liz Johnson Artur

If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble

Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

If I say “black female street photographer” who do you think of? There is a good chance that you will hesitate for a moment and then finally recognise that no or almost no names come to mind. Then, most likely, you will ask yourself: why? Is it due to a real lack of activity or that of omission and failure within the history of photography and its institutional actors. Perhaps though, in 2016, you were lucky enough to come across Liz Johnson Artur’s eponymous book of photographs, published by Bierke, which revealed in almost 130 pages what she had been photographing for the previous thirty years: hundreds of images that constitute her Black Balloon Archive. Maybe you even saw her exhibition Dusha at the Brooklyn Museum this summer or If you Know the Beginning, the End is No Trouble at South London Gallery. Then, Liz Johnson Artur’s name might have crossed your mind. Thus, it’s worth discussing two aspects of this question that largely remain unanswered to put forward an argument for the need of a twofold mapping: that of a circuit, or an inclusive history of photography – despite lost, hidden, or worse, dismissed, evidence and traces – and that, undertaken by black female photographers when they pick up their cameras possessed by the urgency of representation.

A flashback is essential. In the mid-1980s, Liz Johnson Artur, then in her early twenties, was given a camera for the first time and took it onto the streets of Brooklyn. She continued this practice when she moved to London in 1991, turning it into a career working with magazines, while still carrying on as a street photographer in Peckham and beyond. At this time, the limits of a certain kind of photojournalism were becoming obvious and discussions about representation were emerging. Photography’s theoretical progression and the study of the power of the gaze were happening at the same time as decisive events for the Black populations of the United States and England. In 1980, the Miami uprisings broke out following the death of an African American salesman and former Marine followed by Los Angeles experiencing major unrest in 1992 as a result of the LAPD aggression against Rodney King and the acquittal of his attackers. On the other side of the Atlantic, in England, in 1981 and again in 1985, social and economic living conditions, racial discrimination and the relationship between communities and the police in inner cities led, in quick succession, to upheavals by the Black British population.

It was also in this period that women photographers, in the United States and in England, decided to write their herstory. In 1986, North American photographer and photographic historian, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe published Viewfinders – Black Women Photographers – developing the work started by Deborah Willis and Valencia Hollins Coar. Positing an inventory of the photographic production of African-American women since the beginnings of photography in the 19th century  going back to true pioneers such as Mary E. Flenoy  Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe pin-pointed the crux of the problem in her introduction: ‘Significant contributions of hundreds of black women have been lost to history  their works, papers, photographs  as the eleventh-hour attempt to fill in the gaps and document their roles begins.’ At the same time, in London, the exhibition and the publication Testimony – Three Black Women Photographers brought together the work of Black British photographers Brenda Agard, Ingrid Pollard and Maud Sulter. Lubaina Himid, Testimony’s curator, stated in the catalogue the need to be both artists and organisers since ‘as women we organise together to challenge our triple burden of racism, sexism and economic oppression.’ The year after, in 1987, Chila Kumari Burman published her essay There Have Always Been Great Blackwomen Artists where she continued, once again, the work of asserting and insisting on the importance of an inclusive history of art. Legacy, transmission and the history of photography exist only by the acts that implement them and it is important to unfold and explain these issues in order to understand the need for a shift of paradigm.

Therefore the work of Liz Johnson Artur needs to be placed in a historical and transatlantic continuum: on the arc alongside Elaine Tomlin, official photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  a leading civil rights organisation of the 1960s  who covered racial and social upheavals and together with Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe who in 1982 published, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay, a photobook on the lives of the remaining Gullah-speaking black inhabitants of South Carolina. It is the richness of this heritage and the diversity of this history that allows us to capture the singularity and uniqueness of Liz Johnson Artur’s photographic work. Guided by the greatest women photographers of the post-war period, Johnson Artur transformed the old idea of the “flâneur photographer” into an empowering and complex photographic practice by starting in the streets, documenting an atlas of faces and recording the diversity of the communities she lived in. In spite of an urban world designed by and for white men, the photographer surveyed the streets of the biggest cities, particularly New York and London, in search of the individuals that make up the African diaspora and transnational youth. Today, at a time of rampant nationalisms, her diasporic perspective seems more relevant than ever. In the 1980s, it was a pan-African vision that brought photographer Armet Francis to gather, in similar projects, photographs from Africa, the Caribbean, New York and London. Published respectively in 1983 and 1988, The Black Triangle and Children of the Black Triangle converge toward Johnson Artur’s mapping project. As Aby Warburg did with his Mnemosyne Atlas, Liz Johnson Artur juxtaposed and sequenced photographs that fostered immediate, synoptic insights into transnational identities. In her recent London exhibition, she presented her work on a bamboo cane structure, allowing her Black Balloon Archive to float, and to some extent, mirror the cloud-like image composition made by Warburg in the 1920s. The lack of captions or detailed information turns Johnson Artur’s images into a representational system of transnational cultures.

No doubt the artistic landscape is currently being transformed, but we must insist on continuity in order to carry on celebrating individual paths and anchor them in collective roots, which will, in time, usher in a cohesive history of black photography  quilting as an art of stitching together photographs, linking the past and the present, making it whole. And, as such, reminiscing and stressing the importance of Toni Morrison’s 1987 statement in Beloved as Sixo remembers the Thirty-Mile Woman: ‘The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ A genealogy of photographers intertwined, looking out for the new generation in the images of Rhianne Clarke and Adama Jalloh. This is also what Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu have done with the publication of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora (2018), a reference book that aims to establish and represent the diversity of contemporary photographic proposals of the African diaspora. 

All images courtesy of the artist and South London Gallery. © Liz Johnson Artur

Installation views of Liz Johnson Artur: If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble at South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Andy Stagg


Taous R. Dahmani
is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.