Invisible Violence

Enframing an Invisible Violence

Writer and curator Cora Fisher contributes with her thoughts on the Woodstock launch of Invisible Violence, held in conjunction with a conversation with Judy Ditner, Thomas Keenan and Liz Park.

The last of the four talks under the Invisible Violence umbrella, which was held at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, considers distancing and framing as critical operations in the production, reception, and circulation of representations of violence. The panel, with media and literary theorist Thomas Keenan (who also directs Bard College’s Human Rights Project), photo-scholar Judy Ditner, and Invisible Violence Curator Liz Park, dilates into and out of focus on the strategies employed by the four artists in the project: Rebecca Belmore, Ken Gonzalez-Day, Francisco-Fernando Granados, and Louise Noguchi.

We begin, fittingly, by riffling through the postcard-size images of the Invisible Violence publication. We pull them out of their grey sleeve and inspect both sides of each card. With the exception of Granados’ series, the standard graphic delineations one would customarily find on the back of a postcard for note and address have been emptied. In their place, there is only a blanket of white, leaving intact the size and verso-recto logic of the postcard format.

How each artist plays with the standard apparatus of the form has everything to do with the representability of violence in their imagery. Granados exploits the postcard format by leaving the front face of the card, rather than the back, blank. What we see pictured, then, are three communiqués from Toronto, Canada describing the artist’s personal discovery of the case of Canadian National Omar Khadr, a fifteen-year old child combatant captured in Afghanistan in 2002 who was forced to spend his youth in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. Granados erases names in each letter, and makes reference to an unseen image of Khadr, a figure whose image became an emblem for competing rights claims and political interests. Such plays on anonymity and notoriety thread ominously through hand-written notes—information redacted via whiteout. Among these, a petition card sent to Prime Minister of Canada asks for Khadr to be brought home. Just as the image of Khadr is referenced but left unseen, the artist, detainee, and government official unnamed in the work belong to a performative economy of images enacting sympathies, claiming human rights, and off-setting an image economy that criminalizes a figure like Khadr.

The act of flipping through the cards and the discussion following, therefore, stem from the desire to trouble the notion of passive spectatorship and the metaphor of distance that has typically been used to sort out the entwined questions of ethics, artistic criticality, and affect. Park leads with a technical term borrowed from optometry, the concept of the least distance of distinct vision. This is the minimum comfortable range of distance or focal length with which the human eyes can see. What range do we need to achieve critical distance in viewing an image of violence, one that would allow us to question its very representabilty?

Keenan responds to the metaphorical figure of distance in the discourse of photographic violence—specifically, in those ethical dilemmas bound up with images of Guantanamo. Paraphrasing Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, the three speakers discuss how frames are operations of power, following the assertion that a “critique of violence must begin in representability of life itself.”1 With regard to the Abu Ghraib photos that leaked online and circulated in news media, where framing is so important, Butler makes the case that photos were intrinsically bound up with violence—not merely documents but extensions of acts of aggression and torture. There is no distance, it seems, that is far enough to establish comfort with such images.

The human relations marked through the withdrawal of the image as I described in looking at Granados’ series, therefore, speak precisely to the performative dimension of photography. This is a dimension found in the works of the four artists, interlaced with the postcard format, and activated by our time spent together flipping through the images and being in discussion. Media theorist Ariella Azoulay’s notion of the event of photography—distinct from the photographing of an event—is central here. It holds that the photographic document is more than a purely indexical or descriptive trace of past events with fixed epistemological authority. Rather, Azoulay’s actor-driven notion of an enactive situation of photography reminds us that images are stirred alive and re-negotiated, time and time again, by producers, interlocutors, and viewers. Viewership is, within this network of relations, a form of active participation. Resonant with discourses around performance and documentation of the live, Azoulay’s so-called civil contract of photography agitates the awareness of human agency in the production of an image event space, where no one can be a passive sender or receiver. We interpret and speak on behalf of the images, even when they rely on partial disclosures. And this theory of the event of photography is being actualized here in the room as we consider the white space of each card.

To the event of photography, Rebecca Belmore’s images help elaborate on conditions of production. In them we see an indigenous woman—Park reveals it’s the artist’s sister—wrapped, mummy-like into contortions with a continuous cloth, in front of a white wall. These pictures enact the performativity of violence within the staging of subjects for the camera. An interesting remark on Belmore’s images, in the context of psychological and formal distancing, is their play on scale. Whereas Granados’ letters are designed with the apparatus of the postcard from the outset, Belmore had reduced the size of her images for the Invisible Violence publication.2 From nearly human-scale dimensions that play on the visceral, anthropomorphic, and identificatory relationship of the photographed body to the viewer, her pictures have been shrunk to a format that stresses their connection to a tradition of museological curios found in the gift shop. They reveal the postcard as the ultimate portable cultural token, unloosed from the museum into the world beyond it.

As Park asserts in the talk, the operations of distancing, de- and re-contextualizing, or denuding images of their informational support might prepare the way for risk-taking as prompted by the artists who see and question the epistemological frames which produce representations of violence. Risk, however, also means that the images with which artists aim to address stories of violence might potentially inflict a secondary violence in their attempt to reinscribe the source image with a new narrative.

In light of risks taken in the field of visuality, Keenan highlights Ken Gonzalez-Day’s treatment of American histories of spectacular violence from his series, Searching for California’s Hang Tree (2002-7). Keenan finds the series interestingly counter-intuitive for its tactics of erasure, becoming “an object lesson of “re-invisiblizing” the original lynching images.” The time-elapsed capture of sites of violence in the series begins with a current-day colour photograph of a tree in a sunny field. Next: a sepia tinged long-exposure of what appears to be the same tree at night; a sinister feeling encroaches. The third included picture is totally desaturated and points clearly to the historical referent: a scene of white people surrounding a tall tree at night. A man with upturned head clues us into the seamless erasure of the hanging body. Yet even the bare signifiers—tree, crowd, night—convey enough of the story to get the picture.

Counter to the anxieties around digital post-production techniques in the fabrication of news stories, sometimes it is precisely when artists obfuscate, edit out, or digitally manipulate public images of violence that we can re-sensitize our vision or step back far enough to perceive the ideological grid work behind the production, reception, and circulation. Retracing the steps to the source, from the seemingly innocent site of historical trauma, obviates the frame of the image production. In Gonzalez-Day’s work, the original photograph is surely ensnared in the ethical dilemmas of photographic participation and bystanding. We are led back to rediscover the originary violence of and in the image, whether they are documentary images manipulated, or taken from digital commons.

As Ditner points out in order to widen the scope of the discussion, photojournalism is most often the object of ethical critique and of the question of how to give structural violence visibility. Why remain interested in photojournalism? Keenan responds that it provides a different sense of what it means to report: “Run back through the machinery of photojournalism, one can retell a fantastic history of documentation.” Images that take risks will also confront a general structure of faith photojournalism—a structure based on the falsehood of certainties that should not be left intact. He points out that even forensic science does not believe in 100% truth and asserts that we need a new language to negotiate images of violence.

Keenan’s exhibition project Anti-Photojournalism (2010), organized with Carles Guerra at La Virreina Centre de l’Imatge in Barcelona, Spain, provides a useful corollary to Invisible Violence. In Anti-Photojournalism, Keenan adopted a strategy of revealing the frames of image production and positioning. Artist Allan Sekula’s involvement in Seattle’s World Trade Organization protests, in which he refused to use a zoom or flash—the prosthetics of contemporary photojournalism—was a gesture of critical negativity; other artists fit into this rubric of critical negativity in one form or another. Structural problems in the production of images and frames were explored in: Paul Lowe’s photos of Bosnia, in which he took pictures of other people taking war pictures; Susan Meiselas recovering Kurdish identity and a history of separatism from an archive; Adam Chanarin and Oliver Broomberg embedding themselves in British military corps in Afghanistan to take long exposures of people stopped at checkpoints. The latter photographic event produced black images with all of the indexicality of the photographic event, but none of the representational indicators.

In reconciling the event of photography with the machinery of photojournalism, we now distrust a meaningful or direct connection between photographer and event. As Azoulay points out, the presence of photographers makes things happen. Sometimes, even, victims and perpetrators are eager to appear in images to become part of an evidentiary claim. Similarly, we see the works of the artists in Invisible Violence complicate the seamlessness of an image or its facile consumption, showing instead traumatic echoes, the behind-the-scenes apparatus, and a richly textured surface of photographic manipulation that pokes holes in the possibility of straightforward vision. To return briefly to Park’s metaphor of least distance of distinct vision, (the minimum distance for comfortable viewing), these artistic techniques have implications not so distant from the questions of photojournalistic presence and action in the unfolding of violent events. The key difference is one of immediacy—locational and temporal.

A different set of ethical blurring emerges. The artists in Invisible Violence retain personal investments in the images used, but choose to impose a formal distance, achieved by troubling the surface of the photo and frames. Louise Noguchi’s physically interwoven grids in Compilation Portraits are a good example. Two portraits are merged into the latticework: a self-portrait of the artist with the countenance of a murderer or murder victim, plucked from swirl of news media. Once again, the images take on agency by obviating the construction of the image. The question, finally posed, is: what do you see? These pictures and the discussions that surround them allow us to see how violence forms vision.

The speakers agree that the artists retain a commitment to visibility; they don’t simply render their subjects invisible. Some part of an image is targeted for erasure, and this strategic intervention undercuts the photographer’s fantasy of the decisive moment. By contrast, their means to re-contextualize and mediate subjects are slower and more involved in producing alienation effects.

1. Judith Butler, Frames of War (New York: Verso, 2009), 51.
2. Louise Noguchi and Ken Gonzales-Day also reduced the size of their work for the publication of Invisible Violence.

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