Writings"Photographic Engagements, Belonging and Affective Encounters in Contemporary Photography"

By Author Erika Larsson, Doctor of Philosophy, Valand School of Fine Art, Gothenburg, Sweden

Excerpt from book, available to download (here)

Published in 2018, Makadam, SE

Chapter 3: The Photograph in Migratory Aesthetics
In contrast to the circumstances described above, I look at a number of works that I argue reveal the situated, affective and embodied aspects of migration and diaspora on the borders of Europe. In the project Migrant Documents, Danish artist Tina Enghoff investigates the negotiations involved in living as an undocumented migrant in Copenhagen in 2012. In the project, which is presented as a book and as an exhibition, Enghoff presents her own photographs as well as images taken by a group of undocumented North African migrants who take shelter in a park in Copenhagen. The series taken by the migrants is called The Unknown is Not a Memory. Presenting them with a camera, she offers them the opportunity to photograph the Danish capital from their own viewpoint.155 Each collaborator took a series of images showing what they wanted to document in the city where they live. The series was then printed as postcards and distributed freely around the city, including the age and country of origin of the person who took it on the back of each image. The book also includes excerpts from conversations with three migrants from Ghana. In much of her practice, Enghoff works with outreach projects where she uses the camera to collaborate with people in different kinds of marginalised positions in society. (In chapter four,I return to some of these projects in a discussion about photography’s potential for action and change.)
As Wolthers describes in a text also accompanying Migrant Documents, the project can be seen to engage with “the negotiations involved in being an undocumented migrant in an otherwise minutely registered Scandinavian nation”.157 In one way, the undocumented migrants can be seen as living outside the network of control that guides the community that they live amongst, and which grants the members the privileges of belonging. At the same time, the migrants are the target of an intense surveillance system whose purpose is to register and document them, to mark them as outsiders and in turn force them to leave. In another part of the project called Positions, Enghoff focuses on Folkets park (People’s park) in Copenhagen, where homeless migrants often sleep. She uses surveillance camera to record the area during three mornings and three evenings in January 2012. The grainy black and white images show the silhouettes of people walking in the snow-covered park, a dog trailing behind, someone sitting on a bench apparently looking out across the dark park in the night, and, in at least two of the images, someone in a sleeping bag on one of the benches. (fig.25) The grainy surveillance images of the snowy park generate an eerie sensation, as if their purpose is to reveal some violent crime taking place in the area. The crime that they do reveal, however, is less overtly violent than what one might first expect. It is connected to the slow realisation that the blurry shapes on the park benches are people sleeping rough in the snow-clad park in January.
To reiterate, what this series records, like the rest of Migrant Documents, is not the migrants’ position within the system, but, on the contrary, precisely their physical existence and material circumstances as they navigate this system avoiding registration. In chapter five, in relation to a number of other works, I go deeper into a discussion around how a different view of materiality in relation to the question of belonging is able to emerge through particular photographs. I suggest a possibility of perceiving materiality beyond language and beyond the conceptual divisions between man and nature or culture and matter. The works to be discussed in chapter five include little or no words or conceptual framework and are often rooted in personal experience. Enghoff ’s practice, in contrast, is deeply grounded within a particular political context. The focus is on the group of individuals that she works with and the specific political situation that they navigate. As such, and has already been mentioned, the series can be understood as an engagement with the negotiations involved within this situation. At the same time, however, what emerges from the photographs themselves is the extent to which these negotiations are always and inevitably grounded in materiality; a materiality which, as I will explore further, is not to be perceived as separate from the political situation, but intimately and intrinsically connected to it.
Chapter 4: Photography and Participation
In the previous chapter, I explored Tina Enghoff ’s collaboration with undocumented migrants in Copenhagen. I mentioned how Enghoff often works with outreach projects and spends much time reflecting on the power relations between her and the people that she works with. She describes how the camera is particularly powerful in these kinds of projects since, unlike other art forms such as writing or drawing, it is possible to use a camera without any previous training. Whilst the results may vary greatly between photographs taken by a trained photographer and amateur, the fact remains that in photography it is the technology that takes care of the actual image making. Putting the camera in the hands of others can be seen as one way of bypassing the risk of enacting some kind of “secondary violence” through photographing. At the same time, it is clear that handing the camera over to others in a collaborative project never bypasses entirely the question of power in relation to image-making, especially when working with people already in marginalised positions. In one of her projects, Part of Valby, made between 2012 and 2015, Enghoff worked with groups of children and teenagers in Folehaven, Hornemanns Vænge and Valbyejendommene, which are all socially marginalised areas outside Copenhagen. In the project, Enghoff made three videos together with the children and teenagers, which were then projected around the neighborhood as well as shown at the yearly art video festival in Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center.232 One of the videos, The Lie Detector (2013), is made by a group of boys from the area. They came up with the idea of exploring lie detection because of their own experience of being made suspects whenever something bad happens in the area. The short edited film (approx. nine minutes) is made up of moving and still images shot by the boys themselves together with Enghoff. It consists of four parts, which are interspersed with still images that in different ways relate to the accounts told, and reflections given, in each part.
Conclusion: Looking Back and a Call to Continue
Furthermore, in relation to these works, another significant aspect of the role of contemporary photography in relation to the question of belonging was explored; namely that of the complex ways in which photographs and photographic projects are able to (or at times not) act as agents of change. Directly related to this is the question of power relations and the role that photographic technologies play both in reinforcing, rearranging or contesting them. I described how Aral and Zaya, as well as Enghoff, reflect on the dynamics involved in the position of being a photojournalist, a photographer, and/or an artist. In relation to another of Enghoff ’s many outreach projects, I deliberated on what it means to explore one’s surroundings with camera in hand. Consideration was given to the particular situated experiences of being a migrant in Denmark, specifically the experience of being a producer rather than merely a passive participant or product. In relation to another project by Taycan, I discussed the act of engaging with the politically charged situation of Istanbul’s drastic urbanisation plans with camera in hand. Furthermore, I also temporarily moved beyond the art world in my discussion, by looking at the role that photography played in the Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2013 and 2014, as well as one of Susan Meiselas’ online projects around Kurdish identity. In relation to these situations and projects, my argument was that their function is less perceivable through a representative logic and more effectively engaged with through an ontological model, which takes them on precisely as affective and embodied acts.
About the author:
Erika Larsson obtained her doctorate in Art History and Visual Culture at Lund University, Sweden, with a thesis exploring the notion of belonging in contemporary photography from an affective, embodied and non-representational perspective.