Touching the Distance, Thinking in Relation: Photography as a Practice of Seeing
European thought has tended to conceive of identity less in terms of mutual belonging (co-belonging)to a common world than in terms of a relation between similar beings—of being itself emerging and manifesting itself in its own state, or its own mirror.Achille Mbembe
I blame photography, because it became an exercise of a shutter, while it should be the practice of seeing. It should be a language of seeing. From My Personal Note
The way we see ourselves, others, and reality has an impact on how we understand, relate, and act towards each other and the outside world. Needless to say, how or what we see – and ultimately what we don’t see – remains more of a construct than an unbiased activity. Or, as bell hooks puts it, the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle. The gaze is shaped by various experiences, patterns, positions, but might – although not necessarily – transform with time, vital events, or contexts. The politics of representation suggests that cultures, societies, communities, groups, and individuals do not exist outside of how they are represented. Does this mean that photography as a medium can serve as a mirror, tool, witness, register of how we see, connect, and relate to others and the world? To some extent yes, but with one important remark: “the idea of a universal right to see is a fraud.” Photography is also about what is suppressed (A.Azoulay).
Fotobokfestival Oslo 2021 focuses on such relations and researches the subtle links between being, seeing, and representing as well as the role of photography within them. Touching the Distance is partially a direct response to the (post) pandemic world that deprived many of us of contact with our closest surroundings, but it also relates to the very condition of a disconnected contemporary world facing various crises. As long as current movements and theories – such as decolonization strategies; issues of race, class, and gender; labor inequalities; postcolonial ecologies; and animal rights – serve as a vital background and make up points of reference, our focus is to talk about them through what is personal and particular. Touching the Distance not only analyzes contemporary images, but also carefully re-reads the idea that history has the potential to influence our current sense of place (M. Sealy).
The outbreak of the global pandemic and lockdown literally stopped time, forcing us to reflect on where we are in macro and micro scales. It thus allowed us to clearly see contemporary quandaries: the effects of climate change and a long list of social and political inequalities. Many people found themselves confronted with various losses and forms of grief. Many questioned their personal surroundings: closeness, care, intimacy, love, friendships. Our ways of seeing, our practices, our activities, and our relations with others have been fundamentally challenged. Those ‘perceptive and practical shifts’ are not always so global and apparent; they might function in more specific contexts that remain vital for given localities, particularities, communities, or individuals. However, the world without connections or – to put it differently – made up of misunderstood relations and a deprived sense of belonging, existed long before the pandemic. And the term ‘social distance’ only expresses an already-existing pattern.
This focus on relations asks us to consider photography not as a medium of sight, but as a medium of seeing, and ultimately the image as a point of reference for shifting meanings and interpretations. Photography is situated far away from neutrality, but it is neither guilty nor innocent; it occupies an awkward space that combines unequal degrees of fluidity, blurriness, power, vulnerability, appearance, and complexity. This focus on relations is a means to reflect on images of the past and present not as signs of artistic expressions, as documents, as historical records, etc., but rather across, through and within them. As long as what and why remain vital for a basic understanding of the image and its context, priority should be given to relations and connections.
A photographic focus on relations is also a formal undertaking. Firstly, Fotobokfestival Oslo 2021 will serve as an occasion to gather Oslo’s vital photo institutions and initiatives in order to show the strength and variety of the Norwegian photography scene within the international context of the festival. Secondly, it will initiate discussions and events, emphasizing the interdisciplinarity of the photographic medium and its connection with other forms of visual arts as well as literature, architecture, theater, music, etc.
Curator & texts: Zofia Cielatkowska
Zofia Cielatkowska is an independent researcher, philosopher, curator, and art critic focusing mostly on social issues in art and culture, as well as on contemporary problems of power, exclusions, and marginalization. She holds a Ph.D./doctorate in Philosophy (2013). She lives in Oslo. more/contact: zofiacielatkowska.com
If everything collapsed, what is left?
Be like a rock, you said,to get the quality of rockness.By the mere feeling you're in touchwith something else's center.The seed moves in its originaldarkness, hoarding light.And past what's evident,begins to breatheIn Touch, Shirley Kaufman
You don’t remember because you don’t care….You don’t know because you don’t care. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine
The text was ready. In the middle of the pandemicoutside reality felt suspended and disconnected writing felt like applying an old pattern to a world that didn’t exist anymorePerhaps the piece was even pretty good, for sure good enough to make everyone happy – the art project in its predictable form of introducing contemporary contexts, names theories, and phrases. Clear and concise. Catchy and witty. The expected art jargon (some of the sentences could very likely have appeared in copy-paste press-releases and social-media channels).
but time has stopped.
How to change repetitive routines and expectations?
I could have sent it, but this time I shuddered.It would have been a lie.As a philosopher, it is effortlessly easy for me to play with concepts and words, but as a poet, I’m deadly serious.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.Once broken they are impossiblethings to repairAnne Sexton
Det føles umulig å skrive skjønnlitteratur,å skape fortellinger, når man selv står midt oppe i en.Jeg har lukket romandokumentet, og vet ikke når jeg igjen klarer å åpne det.It feels impossible to write fiction,to create stories, when you yourself are in the middle of it.I have closed the document with a novel, and I don't know when I will be able to open it again.Maja Lunde, Fire dager i 2020
Time has stopped.It has been a spring it has been a summer of missed birthdays, missed meetings,missed touch, missed closeness,missed laughs,missed spontaneity.
It has been a spring it has been a summer of not being here and of not being there,and at the same time of being too much, and too close, and too intense.the autumn is coming, the winter is coming.
During a radical shift, when it becomes entirely evident that the ‘old’ world does not exist anymore, but the ‘new’ one has not yet been created, some cling even more dramatically to ‘old’ habits as if denying reality;
quantity, quantity, quantity and acceleration – whispers the ‘old’ world.
Repeat.If reality breaks, language has to break too. Language grounds our shared ability to make sense of the world; we need it. Today even more than ever. Masha Giessen reminds us; when something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality. Poetry grasps those changes faster or more accurately, but how much time do we have left?
Poesien vinner til slutt. Men hvor lang tid vil det ta? Poesien vinner fordi den ber deg stole på en kombinasjon av hode og hjerte. Sinn, kropp, sjel. Å lese mellom linje, men også lese linjene. Poesien belønner den måten å tenke på. Den vinner, men den vinner ikke på den glamorøse, bombastiske og til syvende og sist voldelige måten Trump bruker språk på nå.
Poetry wins in the end. But how long will it take? Poetry wins because it asks you to trust a combination of head and heart. Mind, body, soul. To read between lines, but also to read the lines. Poetry rewards that way of thinking. It wins, but it does not win in the glamorous, bombastic and ultimately violent way Trump uses language now.Terrance Hayes, Bokmagasinet, Klassekampen, 29 August 2020
The disconnected world suspended touch within an unforeseen future, but has the world ever really been connected?
On the 5th of June, Oslo was witnessing one of its biggest demonstrations in recent years, a protest against racism in support of Black Lives Matter.
It was touching to go through the facemasked crowd hearing “No Justice, No Peace”. It was touching to see such a numerous WE.
The experience of being present matters.Being present matters.
The next day the main text devoted to the protest at the NRK was mostly focused on the health risks of spreading the virus.Deadly virus. In the past few months of strict and less strict lockdowns, my friend died of cancer,my grandma died, there was a suicide behind the nearest walls, and when my ex wrote to me about the death of a dog the other day I just felt empty.
Grief experienced through closeness and directness is tough, but at least when it is touchable, it feels embodied, grounded, or real.Then it can pass, or it can transform with time.
De meste av det jeg leser som handler om rå sorg og klage, er fragmentert. Det er kaotisk, ikke kunstferdig. Ofte orker ikke den som skriver, å skrive versaler etter punktum.Naja Marie Aidt, Har døden tatt noe fra deg så gi det tilbake
Grief experienced through a screen feels immoral. Grief experience through a screen is immoral.There is no picture that would enable justice for this experience.There is no picture that would enable justice for this presence.One could say that grief is both intimately personal and universal, but I felt that my grief was mostly political. Or more that politics appropriated my grief. Some deaths are predictable, some are not.If I really wanted to, I could have tried to travel just to say goodbye, but what the pandemic suddenly made more evident were borders, colors of passports, places of birth, citizenship,and rights to stay. In the middle of the pandemic I found myself not in Norway, but in Nowhere. According to the Norwegian state – and I quote a lady from the UDI office – an independent art critic and curator is not a real job. Therefore my status has been perpetually renewed as 'temporary'. And so my rights to stay, regardless of the fact of being here more than a year with paid taxes, have not been granted. And since I don’t really plan to change my unreal job for a real one, it seems I’m stuck in this temporary purgatory. At least for a while. I could have gone to say goodbye, but most likely I wouldn’t have been able to come back, and then where should I stay? Where should I go? Where does my passport indicate I belong? The place I don’t belong to at all?
I look in the mirror:I’m white, I’m educated, I have an EU passport.In many ways, I can say that I’m privileged.
Borders tightened in the pandemic. Air travel stopped. Not entirely though.
NRK, 26 JuniFra Vietnam for å plukke jordbær i ØstfoldDe har fløyet halve jorda rundt for å plukke bær i Norge. Det er lenge siden polakkene tok over for norsk ungdom på jordbæråkrene i Østfold. Og nå kommer vietnameserne.
From Vietnam to pick strawberries in ØstfoldThey have flown halfway around the world to pick berries in Norway. It has been a long time since the Poles took over for the Norwegian youth in the Østfold strawberry fields. And now the Vietnamese have come.
It seems that picking strawberries is a real job, or – to be more precise – in the neoliberal labor market, inclusion is regulated by a subtle network of exceptions. And a not so subtle network of rejections.
On Monday the 29th of July I picked up Klassekampen from my door and suddenly I felt like a part of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. But this time ‘the boy’ was saluting me.
chaque objet du monde peut passer d'une existence fermée, muette, à un état oral, ouvert à l'appropriation de la société.
[each object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to the appropriation of society.]
Appropriations are not abstract concepts; they hurt, and they insult very concrete individuals. The title says:
Bare en av tre mottatt støtte fra NAV:POLAKKER RAMMES HARDEST
The last three words take up most of the cover. I’m not reading a tabloid. I’m reading a newspaper that ironically means ‘class struggle’. I read it again. And in a way I’m not surprised; whenever I have to say where I’m from (and Hvor er du fra? is asked in Norway obsessively) most of the time, at best, I have to experience micro-aggressions, if not pure contempt. In language, and ultimately in people’s imaginations, polakker became shorthand for physical worker. Needless to say: temporary means cheap physical worker. There is nothing humiliating neither in a physical job nor in a nationality; what is humiliating is how easily an economically privileged society expresses its ‘norms’ through the common phrase of ‘alt på stell’ labor and how economic status becomes a site for ‘othering’. In fact, the question Hvor er du fra? or Hvor er du egentlig fra? is not a question; it is a statement that says: Du hører ikke hjemme. I understand that very well, but at least: Can I ask you to change your language and imagination?Can the state take away the politics of my grief and bring me back the personal and the intimate?
I could begin this text as Azoulay begins her Potential History:
I would have loved to have been a part of an identity group. I wish I could have been able to say that I belong to “my community”. But there is no community to which I truly belong.
But I cannot give you any proof.Or my proof would be different.The pandemic loudly expressed what has already been a norm for a long time. The pandemic popularized and coined the term of how we have been thinking, behaving, and acting in the world thus far: we were SOCIAL DISTANCING. It couldn’t have been named better. What is really needed in the pandemic is in fact: SPACIAL DISTANCING or PHYSICAL DISTANCING, but for sure not social distancing.
For photography spacial distance serves as an essential condition of seeing, and in this sense, photography might be understood as a specific form of creating, registering, or reproducing distances.
Even, or precisely, if you are told that we are all united, the practice of seeing should be even more vigilant.
You will be told that society is united in a communal effort, that you are all in the same boat. It will be true. This experience will change for good how you perceive yourself as an individual part of a larger whole. Class, however, will make all the difference. Being locked up in a house with a pretty garden or in an overcrowded housing project will not be the same. Nor is being able to keep on working from home or seeing your job disappear. That boat in which you’ll be sailing in order to defeat the epidemic will not look the same to everyone nor is it actually the same for everyone: it never was.A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future Francesca Melandri, Fri 27 Mar 2020, The Guardian
The history of photography could be read as a history of distances.
In these strange days, when everything moves towards collapsing, and when issues of race, racism, and an endless list of inequalities together with ecological apocalypse cannot be left in silence, I’m thinking about one particular photo that got stuck in my mind and keeps coming back: Marian Anderson singing to a mixed gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
March on Washington 2020: Protesters Hope to Rekindle Spirit of 1963Thousands gathered for a protest on Friday aiming to recall the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.28 August 2020, The New York Times
There are a few photos documenting Anderson’s performance, but I’m thinking about the particular one taken by Robert S. Scurlock. Marian is pictured in profile, standing in her coat, putting on her costume in front of a row of microphones. With her eyes closed, she is entirely devoted to the performance. At the back are the recognizable stairs of the memorial and some people from the audience, but the endless crowd on the field is not visible from this angle. The photo was taken in exactly the same place where a couple years later, Martin Luther King give his famous I have a dream speech.I look at the photo and it contains a lie – her costume was wildly orange. I cannot see it in this black and white frame. But I also don’t understand: how has this photo not become iconic? How is it possible that only a few people recognize it? I blame history. And ultimately I blame the present. I blame language, because it tends to repeat words like they are concepts while they are realities, lives, experiences, and oxygen. I blame photography, because it became an exercise of a shutter, while it should be the practice of seeing. It should be a language of seeing.