Of Witnessing and Vulgarity: Anxieties of the photograph of violence

In beginning to think about photographs today, one is compelled to ask – has the photographic image become inherently unknowable? Evading categorisation, the ‘medium’ of photography – if it can even be referred to as such anymore – commands ingenuity in the words and vocabularies we accord to it. As our collective and cultural experiences continue to be shaped not by events but by images of those events, we are finding ourselves in an ongoing series of confrontational encounters with the photographic. Occupying increasingly complex positions as spectators within rapidly growing networks of dissemination, it makes sense for us to question the knowability of the visual inundation of the ‘real’ through photographic encounters.

Our present moment is overwhelmed by visuals of violence, matched in their intensity by our anxiety to remain awake and indignant, investing in socio-political eloquence on what we are witnessing and so fervently trying to remember. Incorporating the extraordinary as well as the mundane within its ambit, this is a witnessing of a fragmentation that spans the collapse of the familiar, across public and private spheres of our lives. Agitating at the crossroads of visual transience, moral righteousness, convenient access and proliferation, this remembering grows more and more ungraspable in its multiplicity. It remains fuelled by the fleeting nature of public memory and outrage as well as the erasures sustained by the state of governance. The witnessing we undertake and submit to then – both collectively and individually – is layered and deeply situated in circuits of mass visibility and manufactured response.

In its most threadbare association, a photograph is a fallible record of a very specific encounter with a landscape. This errancy expands beyond its material existence, residing as well in the interpretative possibilities that surround it. It is undeniable that our preoccupation in the moment is to ensure remembrance in the face of undeterred violence, an endeavour assumed with great urgency. It is only fitting that our keenest mode of memorialising the affect of this flammability is the photographic. However, the photograph of violence has slipped into a dangerous rhetoric of appropriation that prescribes distant condemnation, avoiding any engaged transmission of trauma. This makes the production of affect in a photograph a perpetual entanglement of sorts – outsourced by medium, maker and subject through multiple acts of (dis)balancing that are drawn across orality, tactility and even haptic response. Even so, understanding the extent to which affect is embedded in our world of objects and social relations thus becomes a heavy burden for anyone to bear. But how does this come to intersect with our capacities as spectators to violent, murderous upheaval?

Marianne Hirsch in her seminal work on postmemory and the Holocaust writes of a rupture – a ‘radical interruption,’ – a before and after of ‘seeing’ a photograph of violence that is traceable in the generation that survived the Holocaust and also the generation that followed it. Though images of survivors, perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust number in the millions across state and national archives, Hirsch highlights an archival repetition in the inheritance of trauma that persists in the photographs that came to be emblematically identified with the event. Transformed into icons of the event in their material and memorial prominence, these symbols of a violent, traumatic past place at stake a ‘guardianship’ of the same. Examining what appears to be a contradictory logic in this obsessive repetition of the same set of photographs, she notes a duality in the afterlives of these images for the second generation. The most obvious result of such repetition was of course the cultivation of a banality in representations of the Holocaust, but at the same, this also stimulated a (re)production of affect that allowed for a transmission of inherited trauma in a way that it could be processed and redeployed in new contexts of reintegration and remembrance. This second generation – the postmemorial one, as Hirsch terms it – attempts to gauge a coexistence alongside these photographs of violence, while at the same time seeking new avenues to reenvision and redirect their persevering ‘mortifying gaze.’

Continuing along this route, one is led to wonder about the dynamics of our own contemporary witnessings. Catapulted beyond what was previously a limited understanding of its material existence, the contemporary photograph of violence now exists across modalities of repetition and surplus, where either volume is harnessed in and through virtual accessibility and multi-media that have possibly subsumed the outreach of print. Across genre and category, role and usage, the photograph of violence is expansive in its connotations, and more often than not, serves a variety of negotiations with manifestations of vulgarity. Keeping with the tone of critical speculation that occupies most of our waking hours, it becomes necessary to think about our processes of navigating the obscenities that occupy the intertwinings of subjecthood and gaze, immediate context and subsequent retelling.

Thinking aloud, Hirsch wonders if we are truly past our points of saturation as Susan Sontag initially posited with regard to seeing and internalising such images, or whether there is a actually a possibility for these photographs to maintain and disseminate an ethical, expansive remembrance in the aftermath of such violence. However, the specificity of our spectatorial condition could be understood as two-toned, encompassing a complicity in convenient silences but also a determined unwillingness to not let the resilience of our collectivity be co-opted by institutionalised, state-sponsored regimes and/or colonially narrow spaces of remembrance.

In ‘The Civil Contract of Photography,’ Ariella Azoulay demonstrates the role of photography as a key political instrument of emancipation in zones of conflict, focusing on the regions of Israel and Palestine. Observing the development of photographic practices in and around such zones, she theorizes the creation of conditions of inclusivity, responsibility and action outside of the regulatory surveillance of the governing state that have been catalysed by the political arena of visibility and reclamation enabled by photography. Grounded in a shared civic space of relations created by photography and its networks of circulation, Azoulay’s discussion of photographs of violence establishes the possibilities within meaning-making and remembrance to overturn what is seen and accepted within a frame.

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie in ‘When Is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words?’ writes of her encounters with the ethnographic Native American subject, documented as a stereotype, frozen in a foreign gaze and inside the ‘expert narrative’ of anthropology. She invites us to consider complexity in the ‘photographic sovereignty’ of a subject, receiving the gift of context as she does through an aboriginally-based, indigenous perspective. She cites philosophies and beliefs that she grounds in her Native culture, reiterating a non-conformity to allegedly ‘objective’ processes of observation that glorify, simplify and exoticise aboriginal uniqueness.

Photographs of violence that document the death and massacre of Native American spiritual leaders rarely coincide with evidentiary retellings that further reiterate the reality of the violence itself. She looks upon an image of the leader Big Foot killed at Wounded Knee, lying frozen in the snow – a photograph of violence, remembered through an archival veil of hopelessness. Reading perseverance into Native American spirit and the power of their survival, Tsinhnahjinnie’s chosen grammar of encountering such photographs of violence transgresses the realm of literal translatability that simplifies the deeply spiritual realities of Native American society. Taking her meaning-making to a space which is familiar to her – into dreams and their implicit meanings – she writes to evoke a specificity of indigenous religion and existence that shuns the seemingly rational readings of such acts of violence. Acknowledging callous misrecognition in the anthropological archive, Tsinhnahjinnie performs her space of remembrance outside of the delimits of isolation and imperial fixity, calling instead for the mutability of vocabularies in the reading of such photographs of violence.

However, the photograph of violence has slipped into a dangerous rhetoric of appropriation that prescribes distant condemnation, avoiding any engaged transmission of trauma. This makes the production of affect in a photograph a perpetual entanglement of sorts – outsourced by medium, maker and subject through multiple acts of (dis)balancing that are drawn across orality, tactility and even haptic response.

Drawing attention to the weapon-like violence of the apparatus, Teju Cole writes that in speaking of “shooting” with a camera, we are acknowledging the kinship of photography and violence. In combating the manipulations within the colonial, imperial gaze and its implications of the violence of extraction and erasure, we are urged to think of what remains in the aftermath of a photograph: possibly the vulgarity of audacity, of encoded yet unacknowledged power relations. To think outside this imperial understanding is, as Azoulay says, to “not let the photograph, a contingent product, overshadow the complex nature of the encounter out of which it was taken nor to blur the inequalities, the patterns of exploitation, and the incommensurable expectations, aspirations, and modalities of participation inherent in a photographic event.”

Is it possible then to envision a potentially adaptive vocabulary for the photographic, thinking of a ‘tendency’ instead of an arbitrary and absolute fixation on category? Our witnessing and its deployment of photography demands a willingness of words and meanings to accommodate fluid occupancies, hazards, possibilities and domains of the photographic image of violence in all of its unknowability today. Taking into cognizance the many historical trajectories of the photographic – its imperial and non-imperial potential – our present moment calls for a more intuitive stance towards it, inviting and identifying its fluid, evolving capacities and its conflations with a series of violence.

Most of the violence that we are witnessing and will eventually continue to remember so vividly, are encounters that have already shaped our political consciousness in some way or the other. Moulding our future ability to respond, react and contribute, this shaping offers a preemptive mediation of experiences yet to occur. However, this does not imply an easing of intensity or affect – instead, this anticipatory quality complicates the either/or dynamic of traumatic continuity and rupture. How do we begin to comprehend the dimensions of our own desensitisation against the relentless nature of what surrounds and implicates us?

Photojournalistic reportage contains the free-flowing ability to incite as well as execute, where photographs of violence wield opinions, whetting and dampening public outcry. We can find examples of this in the profanities of war and murder garlanded by state-sponsored violence in our national capital and in the coupling of visual and textual vocabularies that cite the framing of a brutal police state at the precipice of genocide. Despite our privileged political conspicuities, Cole states, “…photography implicitly serves the powers that be.” The greater good is a tangible delusion that contemporary photographic practice often leans towards especially in its documentary tendencies; our rememberings of these violent events, documented in the photographic should not merely aspire towards an archival remembrance that will underline their centrality to our moment. They should also serve as reminders of how photography continues to be mobilized, racialised, fetishised against certain communities.

Writing on black futurity, Tina M Campt highlights the refrain that remains at the core of black feminist activism today that is in throes of losing a generation of youth to state-sponsored disposability. This forfeiture, as she calls it, veils the future but is also deeply affective to the present. Our encounters with photographs of violence are constantly being transfigured because of the uncomfortable continuities that we are witnessing between our immediate present-becoming-past and a shifting future that is spiralling out of hand, away from any semblance of predictability. Acts of amplification that harness the divisibility and sheer expanse of media must remain vigilant, not dullened by momentary placations or tempted by sensationalism. The power of the photographic to interpellate must not and should not be underestimated and overlooked; instead by utilising this capacity, we must equip our spaces and acts of remembering with flexibility and sensitivity. Recognising the efficacy of ‘tendencies’ in meaning-making, to foster fluctuation over rigid, reifying fixation. Inclinations, leanings, impulses – willing to acknowledge lacunas, willing to pause and reconsider, incorporating divergent genealogies of meaning over authoritative, absolute definition. Resisting the vulgarity of scale, of spectacle and of ignorant complicity, to be met with refusals that persist through a solidarity in remembering self-reflexively.

Where do we place the aftermath in a temporal logic that resists sequence? What remains? What does this remnant do to the archival tendencies of the photographic, of any such documents of violence? How radical must our reimagining be of both the act of archiving and the archival space of remembrance itself? How do we begin to conceive of such spaces to ensure we eschew tautologies of relevance and superior narrative? With violence that threatens to overwhelm sensorially, emotionally and physically, the inadequacies of our failing vocabularies of definition and description call for a much needed overthrowing of archaisms between word and image.

An evolving spectatorship could entail a redefinition of the site and syntax of the ‘gaze,’ especially in the ways in which it is directed at photographs of violence. By aiming to destabilise in part the cultural determination that structures our gestural reactions to violence, we would, as Margaret Olin writes, be able to elicit a much-needed subversion of perspective in order to subvert the gaze. Having historically limited our readings of photographs to the detached virtuosity of a singular sensory register, we are still hesitant to recognise what we behold, and the intensity of what it evokes in us and our witnessings. To imagine proclivities of responses within our estrangement to and our rootedness in multiple realities and their simultaneous occurrences, would it help to try and reevaluate the encounter theorized as the ‘gaze’ in its own capacity to elicit sentience?

We might realise it necessary to pause now and acknowledge that in our acts of seeing, looking, watching and listening to the photograph of violence, we are also witnessing each other in the throes of coincident anxieties. Ours is a witnessing angled towards hopeful, creative emancipation, a fierce yearning to coalesce, converge, collect in the foreground of a temporally evasive before and after.

The poet Wallace Stevens writes,

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things.

The question is, will we?

Authors Bio:

Annalisa Mansukhani studies histories of photography and notions of the archive in contemporary curatorial and research practices. She is currently fascinated by evolving vocabularies of imaging trauma across mediums in art. As a Programmes Manager for the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art in Delhi, she works to establish frameworks and activate resources around art and education, spaces of exhibition, critical writing and public programming.


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