Feeling Photography

Submitted by Paula Cameron

On October 16th and 17th, 2009, I was fortunate to attend Feeling Photography, an international, interdisciplinary conference about emotions and photography held at the University of Toronto’s Monk Centre for International Studies. This is the first in a series of articles about the talks I attended.

The event was anchored by keynote lectures from David Eng, American scholar of critical race theory, queer studies, and visual culture, and Diana Taylor, Canadian-born but New York based artist and scholar within the fields of feminist theatre and performance and trauma studies. Both presented pieces concerned with trauma, testimony, and memory, highlighting the role of photography within artistic accounts of World War II Japanese internment camps (Eng) and an Argentinean torture camp in the “dirty war” era in the late 1970s and 1980s (Taylor). These talks illustrate the possibilities for art as popular education, fusing aesthetic experience with a concern for political justice that can be seen in many feminist artworks around the world. Though not highlighted in the content of the talks, both Eng and Taylor bring longstanding commitments to queer and gender activism to their work that I suspect informed their nuanced understanding and concern for historical trauma.

Eng focused on Japanese American artist Rea Tajiri’s short documentary History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), a lyrical and enigmatic study of the absences and silences haunting her family history on account of its traumatic disruption by internment in work camps in the American desert. Considering the film as a “documentary of affect”, or of the experience of lived emotions, Eng explored Tajiri’s creative strategies in representing the forgotten and unspoken grief—a kind of an archaeology of absence that commemorates the difficult and creates embodied empathy in the viewer. Naming the interplay of film, still images, and text as a key aspect of her strategy, Eng explores the emotional effects of these three overlapping but never quite aligned formal elements. He paid particular attention to the link between image and language, noting that though emotion and language are often depicted as non-reconcilable opposites, Tajiri employs text and image collectively to transform our readings of history and repair family ties. (For a clip of this piece, see http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$tapedetail?HISTORYAND)

In her talk Trauma in the Archive, Diana Taylor examined the ties between photograph and performance in her tour of an Argentinean torture memorial. Taking an embodied and activist approach to her topic, Taylor focused on her photos of the tour guided by Pedro Matta, a survivor of the torture camp, and on the tour itself as a performance of memory. Tracing the path and content of the tour, she questioned the line between personal testimony and archival distance. She pointed out that trauma lives in the body, not in language or historical records, and placed her belief in the promise of memory through the embodied performance enacted daily by Matta. In her activist and artistic practice, Taylor has chosen to explore and protect collective remembering through bringing the body back into currently two-dimensional accounts of historical failures of justice. “Forgetting is full of memory,” she pointed out, emphasizing the importance of embodied enactment of trauma to the preservation of traumatic memories into the future, a future that was made impossible for those Argentinean civilians and left-wing guerillas shattered by torture in Argentina’s dirty war. Like Eng, Taylor considered photography as important, but only part, of a collective, multi-media remembering through film, text, and performance.

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~ by artpoped on October 20, 2009.

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