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Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reinventing archives: The Past isn't fixed and nor is the Present

                      image from Amak Mahmoodian

My latest post on World Press Photo Witness is Remembering the Past, Remembering the Present. It looks at how archival images are redirected, remodelled and reinvented, at the idea that images are never fixed.

Their meaning changes and as their meaning changes so does our understanding of history. You can see this in her reinvention of 19th century Iranian photography where Qajar women, women confined to a harem living under the gaze of the camera-wielding sultan, are given a life that is renewed in her masked interventions.

image by Amak Mahmoodian

And you can see it in the work of Andres Orjuela, who uses Colombian press images of petty criminals and drug dealers to deglamourise the drug cartels, to act as a small brake on the Netflix-fuelled celebration of Escobar.

I like that idea of the past not being fixed, of something redemptive being found in photographs, in images being used etrospectively to build a story and add character, shape and nuance to something that is so often represented as fixed in stereotyped meanings.

I think both Mahmoodian and Orjuela do that in their work. I think you can also see older images being reinvented and gaining new shades and depths. It's when images are set in stone that they die a little, when their maker fails to change and engage with the times and the ways in which they were made and bring out new dialogues from those engagements. I think that's what I like about the Through the Lens of History exhibition that is also mentioned in the piece - it was quite a simple exhibition of historic and truly iconic original press images, but there was also the start of an examination of where they came from and how they were made, both in photojournalistic and physical terms. And as a whole the exhibition gave an overview of the changing imperatives of press photography. I think that's interesting.

You can read the whole article here. 

Here's a snippet from Andres Orjuela from his Archivo Muerto work. You can buy the book (and it's a great book) here. 

image by Andres Orjuela

“The tension is focused on the violence in this image” says Orjuela, “we empathise with the criminal as we put ourselves at the moment of pain of this person who is going to be the victim of a brutal police beating.”
In Archivo Muerto, the criminal becomes the loser, the state the oppressor, and the popular press is a tool of the state; and so a different social nuance is brought to the affairs. And that is the point of the project: the idea that beneath the superficial use of images, there are darker stories waiting to be revealed, stories where drugs, terror and the CIA overlap, where the notion of the state fighting crime is simplistic and absurd. What happens when the state is the criminal, and the archive upholds that view? This is what Orjuela is trying to counteract in his work.
“What is absent in this selection is triumphalism,” says Orjuela, “the mythical criminal or raised to the level of superstar as nowadays is done with criminals like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman with international series and films.”

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