Photoworks on Eastern Europe and Historical Memory
Ultimately, photography is subversive...when it is pensive, when it thinks. —Roland Barthes
The documentary idiom is paradoxically photography's most accessible and also most complex tradition. It treats photographs as irreducibly social objects, joining the viewer to that which is viewed, and implicating both in a shared world. Documentary images simultaneously record and comment on social actuality, and do so within a wide range of artistic inventiveness. They function simultaneously as informational repositories, and narrative prompts for the imagination of issues, times and places.
The complexity of documentary has emerged additively and in phases over the past century. From its origins in campaigns for social and political reform in the Progressive Era, through its incorporation into mainstream media and government propaganda by the 1930s, to its evolution as a modernist “artistic” practice after the 1950s, to the important critiques brought to bear on it since the 1970s, the main reason for documentary’s survival, as I see it, is not that its predicating terms are especially well fastened, but the opposite. Documentary’s terms are intrinsically unstable, and so form an active ground of irresolution on which to approach social experience. Documentary today is a charged field of difference between informational specificity, aesthetic venture, narrative construct and social use.
Though very much concerned with the particularities of histories, communities and places, my projects in this and the other sections of this website also attempt a larger answer to what viable documentary practices might become. Approaching photography as a multi-disciplinary practice drawing on history, literature, politics, philosophy, cinema and art, I have sought to locate documentary meaning within an openly searching conception of testimony. The way forward for documentary, as I see it, lies in the witting use of photographs to circulate social meaning, not (merely) to certify what photographs show, or to treat issues of style and personal vision as cultic values that transcend rather than mediate social insight through photographs.
In my works on the Holocuast and the problems of historical memory in particular, instead of using photography to “capture” social meaning (to use the most common metaphor for the photographic act), I use photographs to do what I believe they are usually better suited for: to release social meaning, to relay it from site to site, observation to observation, predicament to predicament. Many of my projects seek to direct the contingency of the photographic image toward those varieties of social and historical experience that are themselves constitutively unstable, indeterminate, and traumatic.