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Monday, 30 April 2018

The Arab Image Foundation: Dinner is Served!


all images the Arab Image Foundation

Here's a short interview with Charbel Saad for the Activating the Archive symposium in Bristol on
May 5th

Charbel Saad works for the Arab Image Foundation, an organisation  that works with some brilliant archives from North Africa and the Middle East, archives that include beauty, humour, and bemusement in equal measure. Get a taste of the work they do here.

What has led to your involvement with archival material?

Growing up in Beirut, amidst the demolitions and reconstructions that followed the Lebanese Civil War, I didn’t have many clues of my Lebanese and Arab identities, especially that education of Lebanese history in local schools concludes, even until today, with the country’s independence in 1943. 

When I came across the collections of the Arab Image Foundation, I was fascinated with the subjects, locations and everyday lifestyles portrayed in the photographs, which offered a wider perspective and a more familiar narrative than the images I grew up with. Joining the Arab Image Foundation in 2013 offered me a first hand experience with these intimate photographs from my region’s past, and an opportunity to contribute to the institution’s mission in digitisation, using the skills I acquired throughout my undergraduate studies in graphic design.


Stereoscopic autochrome, 13 x 6 cm
Aziz Zabbal

How does the Arab Image Foundation activate, and present, the material it collects?


The Arab Image Foundation has presented its work to the public over the past 20 years through exhibitions, publications, videos and public events, in partnership with international museums, galleries, cultural institutions and schools. These productions were not conventionally curated or edited endeavours, but rather artist-driven initiatives that build on the research projects being carried out by members of the AIF. Since 2015, the AIF has taken on a more focused mission of digitising its photographic collections, covering over 600,000 items in various formats, in preparation for the launch of its new online database in September 2018, to be accompanied by the re-opening of its public space in Beirut.

Beirut's old Airport Road in 1975
Photo Naltchayan
Jean-Pierre and Yasmina Zahar collection

In a post-digital world, what role do physical archives play?


Over the past years, our archivists put a tremendous amount of work in cleaning, numbering and storing our collections in conditions appropriate to their physical state. Without their contributions in organising the archive, digitisation cannot possibly be a sustainable activity. We believe that the physical collections will always remain the primary source of information. Our objective therefore, through digitisation, is to capture as many layers of information from the original material as we can, a process that is heavily dependent on the imaging guidelines we defined for ourselves, and the equipment we use, whether it was a flatbed scanners or camera reproduction stands. For even though we strive on producing long-lasting digital images, we understand that they are not here to replace the original material, but to facilitate its access and use.


Laure Skeels at the AV store in Beirut that
she ran with her husband Frank


Briefly, what can we expect from your talk?


For those who are not already familiar with our work, my talk will shed light on the unique nature of the Arab Image Foundation as an institution, explaining the involvement of artists and scholars in constructing the collections and studying them through their personal practices and narratives. I will take the chance to highlight a few subjects within the collections, among whom amateur, professional and anonymous photographers, as well as families and collectors who entrusted us with their photographs. I will also give an inside look into our work today, and the various efforts we are taking in the digitisation of our photographic collections.

Charbel Saad will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.
It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Francesca Seravalle and the hidden language of the archive





all images from Until Proven Otherwise

Here's a short interview with Francesca Seravalle for the Activating the Archive symposium in Bristol on
May 5th

Francesca Seravalle created Until Proven Otherwise: The First Photos, a project that looks at the first photos of all kinds (the first photo, the first digital photo, the first image of the moon...). Francesca also does amazing installations of the work. Get a taste of the work she does here.

What has led to your involvement with archival material?

When I applied to University my intention was to become an archaeologist. For the first year I studied Latin, the History of archaeology, and Ancient History. I even did excavation workshops in the Venetian Lagoon and though this I’ve learnt that History is the ability of man to rebuild memories by collages of archaeological finds and texts. 



My interest for the sources continued even when later I studied Contemporary Art with a thesis on “The first photographic gallery in Europe” where I spent a year in archives to collect information. After I did my first work in an Italian photographic archive CRAFT, cataloguing magazines from the 70s and correspondences between artists and art dealers. I then received a fellowship with Magnum Photos in Paris during the first digitalization of their archives. 

My first approach with archival material was more as an archivist, and then it changed with my different work experience as an assistant of Ando Gilardi (one of the most important historians of photography who wrote before all about the “wanted photography” about Lombroso’s studies and about the history of pornography) and in the production of exhibitions and of books of photography with Magnum. 

In London, I worked in many archives improving different skills, as the international account manager for a stock library, and as a researcher for the Archive of Modern Conflict on a book curated with Erik Kessels, Shining in Absence, where my goal was to find photographs representing absence. As an independent researcher, I was already working catching failing images for Erik Kessels and curating the exhibition and book Dalston Anatomy by Lorenzo Vitturi and Alex & Me by James Pfaff which is now on show at Street Level for Glasgow International. 


As a curator, I’m used to working with images made by others with personal and public archives, analogical, concrete and digital. This is now the period where I’ve started to show my personal research about the First Photos. As well, I’ve become the Coordinator of the Archival and Curatorial department at Fabrica. I try not to create images, I prefer to investigate and give new visions to old archives, to discover stories. I’ve never been interested in becoming a photographer.




How do you activate the material that you gather, and why is this important?

The activation of an archive starts with a question that occurs to my mind when I look at a photo, or an archive. It’s important to understand if an archive has something special, sometimes catching what makes it unique, especially a current mistake. 

When I find the right question, sometimes accidentally, the simplest as possible, I start to expand the question to 360° in an obsessive way. For example, now I’ve collected about 230 images beginning with the simple question “which is the first photo uploaded to the web?” and then I’ve multiplied the question about the first photos. 

To activate an archive means to create an energetic or poetic vision from the correspondences of two or more images. For me this is possible if I inspire the vision of the spectator in front of a photo, if after shocking him/her with an obsessive question he/she begins to question himself/herself spontaneously about the first of everything, or to spend time looking at small details in photographs apparently without image, or considering the pixel as a quantum element. 

I try to animate the viewer’s memory and imagination suggesting an aware use of the photographic medium, and the festival of photography with the history of photography.

Materials become answers or elements of a theory. I try to create “encyclopaedic research by images” with a new order: composing an atlas of images – if we want to speak as Aby Warburg – or multiscreen, as by metonymic and iconological relations. Images, when juxtaposed and then placed in atlas, could foster immediate, synoptic insights and strives to make the ineffable process of historical change and recurrence, immanent and comprehensible.

The research, including collecting the items, is an incredible creative process, an important phase between the other curatorial phase when I draw the installation and I write the texts. Every phase is important.



In a post-digital world, what role do physical archives play?

When you are researching, right from your computer at home, in an open source digital library, you feel comfortable and happy to accede to all the information from your desk. However, when you do research in a physical archive and you have one of the seventeen original copies of the work of the first photobook, by Anna Atkins, or in the personal journal of Roger Fenton and you read the sentences handwritten by him about the Valley of the death – the first war photographer, you feel the pleasure of an archaeologist or an inventor, the pleasure to really see for the first time a “phenomenon”, a discovery. 


In a physical archive, you can find elements fundamental to your question, and those that are yet to be transcribed by the cataloguers because they were not fitting to the normal criteria. The original support and print are fundamentals, especially now, when we take thousands of photos and don’t print any of them. In front of a daguerreotype there is a kind of reverential respect, like in front of an ancient icon, especially if we know we have in our hands the only copy of probably the only portrait of an old lady from the 1850s, on a mirror glass support in a velvet and golden case. Even contemporary archives are important, like the ones at Magnum, especially if we can research in the contact sheets, looking between the rejected photos and rebuilding the hidden stories of the reportage. 

Physical archives will always be treasures for students, researchers, artists and curators. Sometimes physical archives need digital support, for the communication, for creating interest around them, and for approaching a more general-public without reverential distance. The physical archive will always have a special value, especially as we have more years of experience with the conservation of the physical archive, than the digital archive.

Francesca Seravalle will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Vicki Bennett, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.






Friday, 27 April 2018

Thomas Sauvin: A Man with an Accent!




above image from a collaboration with Cari van der Yacht

Here's a short interview by Thomas Sauvin for the Activating the Archive symposium in Bristol on
May 5th

Thomas Sauvin is the man in charge of the Beijing Silvermine, an archive of images found in piles of
negatives that were bound for recycling for silver until Sauvin saved them.

He recycles these images in collaborations, in exhibitions and in books. Below is Xian, an absurdly
beautiful cabinet of curiosities in book form. You can see more images here to uncover the mystery of
the book's construction.

Thomas Sauvin - 线 / Xian from Eltonprod on Vimeo.



1. What has led to your involvement with archive material?

During the twelve years I lived in China, I was surrounded by neglected images and quite naturally felt the need to rescue them. I ended up amassing over a million photos and equally felt the need to share them.


2. How do you activate the material that you gather and why is this important?


I suppose the most crucial step is the process of constantly observing the material, until something unexpected and hopefully meaningful emerges almost organically from it. Collecting and observing would be rather useless if the fruits of these investigations where not to be shared with the world, in my case the photobook proved to be the perfect tool to do so.


3. In post digital world, what role do physical archive play?

Possibly the same role that the digital archives we’re building today will play in twenty years of time: They allow us to dive in the past in a magical way, often giving us wonderful insights of what the human race is capable of, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.


4. Briefly, what can we expect from your talk?

Hopefully a good laugh, maybe a few tears, and most certainly a
very thick French accent.


Thomas Sauvin will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.
It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Defaced Portrait




One of the most interesting things about archives for me is how the marks on an image tell as much of a story as the image itself.  

You can see it in political and religious contexts, you can see it in personal albums where former lovers violate the image of their ex. 

Possibly the most powerful erasure (and there is a whole sub-genre of erasure studies which I wrote about a while back. I do think it's fascinating) is in this image of 'Mrs Baqari' 

Mrs Baqari had her picture taken at Hashen el-Madani's Studio Shehrazade in Saida, Lebanon. But it was against her husband's wishes. When he found out, he ran to the studio in fury and had the negatives defaced by scratching. Years later, after Mrs Baqari had burnt herself to death (the subtext being that she killed herself to escape the misery of being married to either an abusive husband or a religious fanatic - or both. Or perhaps she hadn't burnt herself.  

The husband came back to the studio heartbroken. The only thing that could console him, that could help him remember his beloved wife who he had treated so badly (we presume) were the images that he had had destroyed years before. 

And so he had enlargements made and took the images home. Yet there, on the surface were the scratches he had made, an indexical mark of how he had treated his wife. Or how we imagine he had treated his wife. 

It's an image of violence then, but also one filled with a complex emotional power. One of heartbreak, of jealousy, of guilt? We simply don't know - or should I say I simply don't know. 

One of the speakers at the Activating the Archive symposium will be Charbel Saad from the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut who will be talking about this image, this collection, and much much more. 




There is a similar defacing of this passport photo from Amak Mahmoodian's Shenasnameh project. A shenasnameh is an Iranian passport picture that must be renewed every ten years. And for the document to be renewed, a passport photo must be submitted. If the passport does not meet official approval, then it will be returned, mutilated by pen strokes, rendered blind, or dumb, a woman turned into a hairless being with no eyes to see with, no lips to speak with. 

Here there is little emotion, just stone-cold misogyny that is addressed through the violence of these pen strokes. 


Charbel Saad and Amak Mahmoodian will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Francesca Seravalle, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a series of talks that looks both to the past but also to the future, seeing how archival works can be deconstructed, reconstructed and recontextualised with reference both to the past as well as the future. 

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

How to Mount a Picture in the Sea with Rocks and Seaweed






The pictures above are from Francesca Seravalle's brilliant Until Proven Otherwise, the First Photos.

They show the first photoshopped image, the first photobook and the first picture of the sun.

These images were found from various archives, both virtual and real, but the real step is their on-site exhibition.

If you've ever tried mounting a picture on a beach using rocks and seaweed, (because where else are you going to put the first colour picture of a fish taken underwater - in 1926) you'll know it's not an easy thing to do.



Francesca Seravalle will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.













Saturday, 21 April 2018

What is Photography?



What is an archive? Who knows?

What is a photo? These are some of the answers from Francesca Seravalle's The First Photos: Until Proven Otherwise, speaker at the Activating the Archive symposium on May 5th in Bristol. This brilliant series is a trawl through a variety of archives both virtual and 'real' in search of a series of first photos; the first photograph, the first photobook, the first instant photo, the first picture of a birthday party and so on.

It's a brilliant project that also raises the question of what exactly is a photo. These are some of the answers that Francesca gives and there could be a whole lot more. The more you think about it, the bigger the answer gets. And the bigger the answer gets, the less important your own particular photography fetish becomes...



Photography is the pencil of nature
...is the mirror of contemporary society
...is evidence
...is denial
...is positive
...is negative
...is irreproducible
...is a copy
...is permanent 
...is fading
...is chemical reaction
...is a scan
...is made by a camera
...is direct contact on paper
...is  a print
...is virtual creation by a computer
...is made by a phone
...is production of the human mind
...is pixels
...is blow up
...is compression
...is scientific
...is art
...is pornography
...is a snapshot
...is a flux of images
...is digital
...is a cyanotype
...is stereography
...is a daguerrotype
...is polaroid
...is a slide
...is three-dimensional
...is a screenshot
...is a landscape
...is autochrome
...is colour
...is black and white
...is a document
...is projection
...is light
...is shadow
...is remembrance
...is media
...is a souvenir
...is a shared moment
...is objective
...is subjective
...is the relationship with the other
...is recording only one moment
...is the portrait that keeps love alive
...is memento mori.


Francesca Seravalle will be talking about all this and much more on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including  Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Andrew Jackson and the denial of history again and again and again...


Images by Andrew Jackson

A very politically relevant exhibition on show in the UK next month is From a Small Island by Andrew Jackson ( opening at the Midland Arts Centre in Birmingham on 4 May – 8 July 2018).

'The show commemorates the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and explores the psychological impacts of migration through first, second and third generations of migrants from Jamaica and asks questions such as

What happens when migrants stay and don't leave?




What are the consequences?




What is the impact of migration from one small island to another?




Jackson’s parents migrated from Jamaica to Britain in 1956, and their story opens connections to history, space and notions of belonging. The exhibition showcases photographs produced both in England and Jamaica, where Jackson has explored how the connection to the island has been shaped by the mythologies of his family and the legacy of colonialism.'



At the heart of the project is another question, which is...

What happens when narratives and home are denied through the legacy of post-colonialism?




part of that legacy is the denial that there is a legacy. Denial is at the heart of everything it seems. We're all living in denial.



That denial is politically relevant right now and has a direct effect right now because  members of  the Windrush generation are being subject to the most hostile and unpleasant  persecution, ranging from denial of healthcare, denial of working rights to forced removal - despite having been in the country for over 50 years. You can read more about it here.



And denial begets denial. As these horror stories were publicised, responsibility was denied. The government pretends that it was an accident, that it has nothing to do with consistent policies on harassing people out of homes, out of jobs, out of the country - all of which have happened. The UK government is currently pretending to appear shocked at this, but it is worth remembering that they have as their leader a woman who, back in 2013, thought it fit to have this van parading the streets of London.






Anyway, never mind all that, the good news is that finally the payments promised to slave owners following the Slave Abolition Act in 1833 have finally been completed. No compensation to slaves was ever made, but compensation to slave owners was provided to the equivalent of £300 billion in today's money.

The payments to these slave owners was completed in 2015, a fact that only came to public attention in a tweet a few weeks ago from the UK Treasury.

~"Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you have helped end the slave trade through your taxes. Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”



Money was still being paid to the corporate descendants of banks from whom money was borrowed to 'compensate slave owners for the crimes of their ancestors. Who are these people/banks that money was being paid to?  The linked article shows some of the names in the past and this is a larger database here from the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership site , but who were the more contemporary payments made to?

Who was the last payment made to? Who was paid compensation/interest in 2015? Or 2014, or anytime in the last 30 years say. It would be really interesting to know this, to see the names of the banks publicised, to see what the response is to the receipt of this money, to see how this money was used? Is somebody researching this? Is this information in the public domain? Do let me know in the comments if it is.

The upshot of this is that people who came to help rebuild the UK in the 1940s and 1950s are being forcibly returned home due to 'lack of documentation' while banks which profitted from lending money to pay compensation to people whose ancestors owned slaves were still profitting in 2015.

This is the economic denial of history, or worse the justification of history, a justification of the slave trade. You have holocaust denial, and that essentially is what this is, the only difference being that nobody is paying the relatives of Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, Heydrich, Goebbels or the shareholders of IG Farben, Bayer or Siemens compensation for messing with their genocidal profits.

The denial of history is something you can see in the United States where contemporary history books have confused slaves with workers, or describe how some slaves were actually quite happy with their lot.

Read more about the denial of Slavery here.



And Sunday 22nd April is the 25th anniversary since the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Above is the Daily Mail's finest hour (perhaps their only finest hour), pictures of some of the people who did it complete with a front page accusation. Below is the incredible press photograph of the five men walking away at the end of the Macpherson Enquiry. What's missing are the pictures of the police who let the murderers walk away to destroy their incriminating evidence. If you are in the UK, watch the excellent but heart-breaking Stephen Lawrence documentary here.

And here's the Macpherson Enquiry report on the murder and police and institutional racism. As the BBC documentary shows, the positive aspects of the Macpherson Enquiry have not been accepted by everybody, including the police. Denial of the past has many facets.









Wednesday, 18 April 2018

How to Secure a Country When the Past is ahead of us



It was very enjoyable talking to Salvatore Vitale, a man who knows how to talk, about his project How to Secure a Country for the current edition of the BJP.

It's a project about the overlap between the history of Switzerland, geography of Switzerland, the way tmanifests itself in the Swiss national identity, and the way that in turn has spawned systems of surveillance, security and control that in turn feed back into the geography, the economics and the politics of the country to become almost a self-sustaining ideology that has is both a system of control of the outside world (because in this way of thinking Switzerland is a haven of safety and security) but also of itself. If you are in this system, you are subject to its control.

For his project, Vitale photographed the country's systems of control, and as he did so he found himself internalising its mentality. What is also interesting is that he was photographing systems of control while very much subject to those systems; in terms of permissions, access, time, and content.

Vitale was aware of this and that's what makes the project so interesting. It's images of control that are part of that control.

All photography is part of a system of a control though. Everything that follows the broad brushstrokes of the large format, plain background, deadpan, grid, horizontal plane/vertical view, mapping structures of photography is part of that system of control. Foreground any of those elements and we are essentially adopting the language of fascism, colonialism, scientific fascism, eugenics, land control, and the mentality of consumption without responsibility.

Which ultimately is what Liz Orton's ideas on the medical gaze and Lourdes Delgado article on the politics of the mugshot are talking about. Images of the past inundate the present. They affect how we see the world, how we understand people and they work, for all their scientific control, at an emotional level which it is almost impossible to resist.

There's the idea of the past (if it exists at all) being something that is behind us as we stride into the future. But the archive teaches us that it might be that it's the past that is ahead of us and the future that is behind. Which then messes up our whole linguistic idea of memory, images and the linear nature of time with the future ahead of us. And then where would we be? 



T
These and many other issues will be talked about on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within the

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Crime, Nazis and the Fabulous Mugshot

images from My German Family Album

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.

................................................................................................................................................


A solitary image cannot testify to what is revealed through it, but must be attached to another image, another piece of information, another assertion or description, another grievance or piece of evidence, another broadcast, another transmitter. An image is only ever another statement in a regime of statements.


So said Ariella Azoulay (and many others in varying ways) in The Civil Contract of Photography. It's the idea that an image does not stand alone as a discrete piece of information but is subject to a flux of images, ideas and associations that have little to do with the image in and of itself; mostly because you cannot have an image in and of itself. That's not the way things work. 




Laurence Binet had this as the central dilemma in his brilliant novel/diary of a novel, HHhH. This started out as a novel that attempted to tell the story of the assassination of Heinrich Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. The only problem was the story had been told so many times, the conventions of dialogue and narrative voices so worn out and infected by tropes from war movies, histories and comic books, that it was impossible to tell the story as a novel. So instead it became a meta-novel, the story of how it was impossible to write the novel. 




The same thing happens with images. My mother is German and I have a series of German family albums that run from the 1920s through to the 1940s, in film terms from White Ribbon through to The Tin Drum, why not.




In these albums, there are personal family stories; there is unrequited love, there is heartbreak, there is poverty, there is neglect, there is suicide. Mixed in with that there are the symbols of Nazism; swastikas, Sieg Heils, and the Hitler Youth. There is Nazism. It's Germany in the 1930s! Throw a few of those symbols in and nothing is what it seems anymore, concealed meanings are brought to the surface so that an oak tree is not an oak tree anymore, a goods train not a goods train. Group gymnastics becomes something sinister (which isn't too difficult) and reading a book becomes a symbol of resistance. 




I simply cannot avoid this. An image does not stand alone, it's not an isolated item in a visual lexicon, it's far more fluid than that. Different images have different social, psychological and political significances and these combine together in multiple ways. The dilemma is how to combine them in a manner that recognises interferences that are more physical than lingual, that are more like patterns of interference, ripples on the water's surface with undercurrents that run below, than patterns of language. Images are first and foremost emotional and unconscious, that is their power base. The question is how to recognise this, and how understand it, and then how to use it.




The emotional unconscious power of images is apparent in the most formal forms of photography. It's central in the work of people like Liz Orton or Jo Spence who work with themes connecting to the medical gaze. It's also there in forensic and crime scene photography. 

In the current issue of Photographies, Lourdes Delgado writes about this in her piece on the bias of mugshots, and the way in which the functionality of the mugshot imposes a pre-supposed guilt onto the person photographed; the very act of photographing somebody in a mugshot makes them guilty in other words. As a result photography is responsible for a huge number of innocent people imprisoned in the USA each year (a very conservative 2.3% - 5% according to the Innocence Project organisation). 


 Image of Thomas Byrnes, the man with the third-degree


This is something that really matters in other words, this is where photography (just as with medical photography) is a matter of life, death, and freedom. 

Delgado writes about how mugshots and 'Rogues Galleries' developed in New York as a flipside to the celebrity portraiture of photographers like Matthew Brady.

She also traces the mugshot back to the standardised portraiture of Bertillon (which in turn you can trace back to medical illustration, emphasising the links between the medical and the criminal), concluding that while in the Rogues Gallery, it is the context of the gallery that provides the criminal element (remove the image from the gallery and the stigma is no longer there), with the mugshot it is the standardisation that creates the stigma. 

The question is how to remove this stigma, and the Innocence Project has come up with various models which involve removing information and mixing up the standardised format of the Bertillon and sub-Bertillon models. 

But for mugshots that subvert the mugshot form, I wonder if the Sydney Police Archive model isn't the way to go. They are still mugshots of course, but they are Fabulous Mugshots. Here they are again.