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photographer/social anthropologist


Presence in photographic representation through absence

The visual sounding board for this exploratory discussion of presence and absence in photographic representation, is my still on-going project Houses/Homes, which followed my transgression as a trained photographer from the field of art to social anthropology in the late 1990s. Since anthropology (at least temporarily) had been shaken by the crisis of representation, this opened a window for thinking photography anew (an issue largely overlooked in anthropology, but not within art). Rather than developing a different way of photographing that might have been considered more ‘scientific’, I used my knowledge from art practice (and its renouncing of photographic ‘truth’) to push on the boundaries of the visual in anthropology, not only in terms of representation as such, but also since visual anthropology today commonly means film, rather than still images. The way forward suggested here is to incorporate, not only what is observably present in the photograph, but also the effect on interpretation, and hence on knowledge production, of what is not immediately observable in the image.

The challenge to anthropological authority posed by the inherent ambiguity of photographic images rests on the fact that what can be seen continues to form the underlying, if implicit, positivist premise for visual knowledge production in anthropology. For example, observational film, which is based on shooting and presenting the event in its entirety without imposing a filmic, or narrative structure, under-communicates, according to Paul Henly, the ‘guilty secret’ (Henley 2006: 377), that this proposed non-structure is a western-based aesthetic device that continues to feed into positivist notions of knowledge production. Despite Anna Grimshaw’s (2013) emphasis on distinguishing between observation and objectivity, ethnographic films can, based on what Henley terms their ‘empirical rhetoric’ (Henly 2006: 378), continue to conceal their constructedness. While Marilyn Strathern has reminded us that textual ethnographies have ‘always been composed of cut-outs, bits extracted from context, brought together in analysis and narrative’ (Strathern 1994: 213; see also Høgel 2013), what continues to form a premise in visual anthropology is, to follow Henly, that ‘the minimum of structuring would somehow afford the maximum of truth’ (Henley 2006: 396). Dai Vaughan has also reminded us that ‘the anthithesis of the structured is not the truthful, nor even the objective, but quite simply the random’ (Vaughan 1992, in Henly 2006: 396).

While art has thrived on what Elizabeth Edwards (1997) has called the ‘ambiguities of the realist paradigm’ of a photographic medium that, according to Mary Warner Marien, simultaneously confirms and denies truth while emphasising the appearance of accuracy (Marien 2002: 234), it seems that taking the consequence of this realisation in anthropology still threatens to undermine the very discipline – as science. Edward’s assertion that the more ambiguous the photographic image is, ‘the more incisive it can become in its revelatory possibilities’ (Edwards 1997: 55, italics added), can, furthermore, shed light on the limited understanding that ethnographic films based on objectivist principles generated in Wilton Martinez (1992) study of students’ spectorship. In fact, these films tended to leave its audience, not only bored but with reinforced stereotypical perceptions of the ‘Other’. Drawing on Umberto Eco’s (1979) distinction between ‘open’ works (or ‘work in movement’) as opposed to ‘closed’ works, Martinez found that the ‘open’ films, which used narrative, experimental or reflexive styles allowing the viewers ‘space to negotiate meaning in a more dialogic, interactive way of reading, generally resulted in more complex interpretations’ (Martinez 1992: 136). As Edwards asserts:

Photography can communicate about culture, people’s lives, experiences and beliefs, not at the level of surface description but as a visual metaphor which bridges that space between the visible and invisible, which communicates not through the realist paradigm, but through a lyrical expressiveness [utilised within art photography] (Edwards 1997: 58).

Rather than attempting to bridge that space between the visible and the invisible, Rane Willerslev and Christian Suhr’s (2013) focus on the revelatory power of the very ‘gaps’ or ‘extras’ themselves, which the practice of montage produces; as an interphase where the invisible can emerge as absence of visibility. These authors assert: ‘It is precisely from within the cracks [or gaps] of such unfinished, discordant knowledge-in-the-making that the invisible ground of human existence is most forcefully evoked’ (ibid: 13). The above authors implicitly include imagination in their perspectives but do not address it as something that needs to be problematized. With Karl Heider’s imperative of ‘holism’ in ethnographic filmmaking that required the inclusion of ‘whole bodies’, ‘whole people’, ‘whole interaction’ and ‘whole acts’ (Heider 2006 [1976]: 5) still haunting visual anthropology, I will, however, approach the issue of imagination from yet another perspective: the inherent fragmental character of photographic images. Precisely because photographic images are realist fragments in time and space, they always point to something outside the frame; indicating an unruly beyondness which is present by being absent.

Roland Barthes’ (1993) reflections on photography provide a link to this beyondness of photographic representation. The connotative level which Barthes calls punctum, has – by way of personal attraction or distress, even pain – the potential to move the viewer’s imagination beyond what the image actually depicts. Barthes asserts that it is implicit in the punctum a power of expansion which is often metonymic (Barthes 1993: 45). He continues, “[t]he punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see” (ibid: 59, italics in original). Time is the other punctum that Barthes asserts is contained as an undercurrent in all photographs as a painful realisation. Precisely because the photograph is a fragment in time – it points to Time (Barthes 1993: 96) creating a metonymic connection with a now of the viewer of the image and a that-has-been; reminding us, not only of the time that has passed since the photograph was taken, but of death.

This metonymic indication and evocation of reality in the viewer’s imagination beyond the frame of the actual image has a parallel in what is termed amodal perception, and which implies that we include in our perceptions of an object those parts which are not visible (e.g. Nanay 2010). While we can only see a house from maximum three sides at the same time, this fact does not make us conclude that the house has only three sides. Rather, the ‘missing’ parts are filled in based on prior experience and sometimes even belief. While the relationship between imagination and perception continues to be contested as to whether imagining is dependent on an actually perceived object to produce a mental image, amodal perception does presuppose imagination. The cognitive theory of connectionism (which has some resemblance with montage), assumes, furthermore, that instead of predefined concepts, our thought-processes involves a linking of fragmental building blocks into loosely defined ‘scripts’ or ‘schemata’ (e.g. Block 1994, Strauss & Quinn 1994). As Maurice Block notes,

the concept of house is not a list of essential features (roof, door, walls, and so on) which have to be checked off before deciding whether or not it is a house. If that were so we would have no idea that a house which has lost its roof is still a house. It is rather that we consider something ‘a house’ by comparing it to a loosely associated group of ‘houselike’ features, no one of which is essential, but which are linked by a general idea of what a typical house is (Bloch 1994: 277).

Also from a connectionist perspective there is, therefore, no reason to underestimate the viewers’ ability to fill in the gaps and imagine the ‘whole’. Again, however, none of these perspectives problematize the role of imagination. Rather, it is the absence of a problematizing scrutiny of imagination (if mentioned at all) that becomes more and more glaring. Despite Emmanuel Kant suggestion in his Critique of Pure Reason from 1790 that, ‘[w]e must inquire for example, whether or not imagination (connected with consciousness), memory, wit, and analysis are not merely different forms [or manifestations] of understanding and reason’ (Kant 1899 [1790]: 481), little is still known about imagination beyond the common assumptions that it has a pivotal role in making sense of perception, and that it is at the base of human cognition. The fact that imagination has now been found to reside in the neo-cortex and thalamus of our brains together with sensory perception, motor commands and spatial reasoning, consciousness (of which we seem to know equally little) and abstract thought, with a mutual influence presumed between imagination and memory, does not necessarily tell us more about what imagination actually is. Nigel Tomas notes the scientific neglect of imagination as a topic, and refers to Eva Brann’s assertion that ‘imagination has been a “missing mystery” virtually throughout Western philosophical history, implicitly assigned crucial cognitive and epistemological functions, but rarely (and never satisfactorily) explained’ (Brann 1991, in Thomas 2003: 79). Thomas (1997) also notes the slippages in the term imagination itself when including ‘suppose,’ ‘believe’ ‘pretend’ and ‘visualize,’ and the disagreement on whether or not imagination always involve mental imagery or imaging. He suggests the following definition of imagination:

Imagination is what makes our sensory experience meaningful, enabling us to interpret and make sense of it, whether from a conventional perspective or from a fresh, original, individual one. It is what makes perception more than the mere physical stimulation of sense organs. It also produces mental imagery, visual and otherwise, which is what makes it possible for us to think outside the confines of our present perceptual reality, to consider memories of the past and possibilities for the future, and to weigh alternatives against one another. Thus, imagination makes possible all our thinking about what is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be (Thomas nd).

At issue here is also the general uneasiness attached to imagination in the field of science. Lorraine Daston (1998), who has analysed imagination’s role in art and science from the 17th Century onwards, asserts:

Successful art could and did emulate scientific standards of truth to nature, and successful science could emulate artistic standards of imaginative beauty. But whereas in the eighteenth century both artists and scientists had seen no conflict in embracing both standards simultaneously, the chasm that had been opened between the categories of objectivity and subjectivity in the middle decades of the nineteenth century (…) forced an either/or choice. (…) At the crossroads of the choice between objective and subjective modes stood the imagination (ibid: 86).

Daston notes that by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, psychologists who investigated creativity, distinguished, as a matter of routine, between different species of imagination that included a differentiation between artistic and scientific imagination. Whereas the former was plastic and free to invent, the scientific imagination was constrained by, ‘rational necessities that regulate the development of the creative faculty’ (Ribot 1900, in Daston 1998: 87). While it is accepted that ground-braking scientific enquiry requires imagination, it continues, nevertheless, to be imperative that imagination does not tamper with the scientific ‘facts’. Daston suggests that in an Enlightenment environment where subjective art endured and objective science proved more and more fallible, the best hope for permanence in scientific achievement was to protect the sacred boundary of pure facts from being polluted by imagination. In his book on ethnographic film from the 1970s (reprinted as late as 2006), Heider reinforces this view of imagination which originated one and a half century ago when stating: ‘The creativity and imagination essential to good science, here including ethnographic film, are significantly different from the creativity and imagination essential to good art, here including most other uses of film’ (Heider 2006 [1976]: 81). However, if imagination is an inherent faculty of how we perceive and think, this distinction is spurious. Daston’s discussion also suggests that the reason for separating artistic and scientific imagination reached beyond a scientific enquiry to the politics of science itself to secure its position as science; considerations that continue to be important for anthropology today.

As a trained art photographer I understood early that I can never rely on that simply pointing my camera on an object in a ‘neutral’ way would reveal what that object or event was about. At least since the crisis of representation it has been accepted that correspondence between reality (or realities) and representation is fraught with uncertainty also in the case of photography. However, what tends to be forgotten is that correspondence between a recording of an event and a viewer’s perception of the recording of this event, or said differently, between encoding and decoding (e.g. Martinez 1992), cannot be secured either. These transitions are always dependent on, as recognised within art, imaginative leaps. It is these imaginative leaps that tend to be literally overlooked in visual anthropology, when a ‘neutral’ recording of an event is taken to be the best representational strategy for communicating the data. It might be useful to remember here that the premise in art for getting a message through, which is ‘true’ to human experience, is neither objectivity nor realism as such, but rather a skilful utilisation and manipulation of aesthetic conventions as well as epistemological assumptions to direct the viewer’s perception in a specific direction (real or not).

My concern in the project Houses/Homes is neither with reproducing reality in photographic images, nor denying a link to a specific reality, but to utilise the notion of photographic realism and the ambiguities implied to bring about a leap in the viewer’s imagination that might disrupt preconceived ideas about ourselves and others. By not including ‘whole’ houses, the aesthetic strategy that emphasises the fragmental character of the photographic image is made explicit, rather than denied. By way of a consistent absence of the inhabitants of these houses their presence is attempted evoked by way of objects outside, a window or door left open and well-kept gardens, which point to the fact that somebody actually live in these houses. Furthermore, the fencing around these mostly middle-class homes in different parts of the world, ranging from symbolic to more massive fences, is central here. This visual strategy of including the fencing around these houses indicates also that someone is standing outside the fence looking in. This specific positionality of the photographer, that also becomes the positioning of the viewer of these images, is, in addition to an uneasy voyeurism (or even surveillance), to evoke a feeling of exclusion from these homely spheres. In my case, to be a trained art photographer means to work with the specific technicalities of a particular camera, and a strategic utilisation of photographic conventions, to trigger the viewers’ imagination in a certain direction. The actual fragment is chosen when I take these pictures, together with depth of field and where the focus lies, which is decisive to lead the viewer’s gaze over the fence. Photographed (mostly) on sunny days, the enhancing of colour and contrast is important here to re-create the idyllic aura attached to the idea of the middle-class home. However, rather than neutral documentation of houses and fences around peoples’ homes, what emerges through the middle-class practice of demarcating privacy represented here, and which is relevant for an anthropological enquiry, is the need for different degrees of protection that in some contexts includes armed response.

If imagination is an inherent faculty of how we perceive and think, whether in art or science, this releases us from the remnants of a positivist paradigm in visual anthropology and opens the possibility for experimentation with photographic representation that extends what the photograph represents from what can be seen, to what can be imagined. Furthermore, the consequence of imagination being an inherent faculty of how we perceive and think is that imagination has epistemological implications even when its role is not made transparent (or, is right-out denied). However, while the photographic image as fragment can evoke presence by what is absent, in the case of making present the ‘guilty secret’ of imagination’s constitutive role in knowledge production, imagination continues to be simply that; it is absent.

©Thera Mjaaland. Paper presented to the RAI conference Anthropology and Photography, in the panel Reasserting presence: reclamation, recognition and photographic desire, British Museum, London 20-31 May 2014.


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