Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014

(P10)

Engaging Disaster: Photography on Unsettled Ground

Location Sackler A
Date and Start Time 30 May, 2014 at 14:00

Convenors

Richard Vokes (University of Western Australia)  email
Fuyubi Nakamura (University of British Columbia)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel engages debates about 'disaster photography'. It examines how a comparative ethnographic perspective may extend our understanding of the politics, ethics, and affective force of this genre specifically, and of the position of photography in socio-cultural contexts of disaster in general.

Long Abstract

Photographic scholars have long recognized a genre of 'disaster photography', which is characterized by a predominant use of portraiture, especially of children, a focus on the traumatized body, and a repetition of key symbols denoting an unsettled landscape (be this a 'natural' landscape or a built environment). Debates have focussed on how and why the 'visual-economies' of this genre so frequently result in images of individual lived experience becoming iconic of entire disaster events, even of 'human suffering' in general? They have engaged the ethics of this imagery, and asked what emotional impact, or affective force it has upon it viewers who in the contemporary age of global media are often far removed from the disaster context itself.

This panel aims to examine how a comparative ethnographic perspective may extend our understanding of the politics, ethics, and affective force of disaster photography. We are particularly interested in how the production, circulation, reception and materiality of such photographs may be alternatively shaped by such factors as different cultural sensibilities, political ideologies and alternative collective historical memories. We want to go beyond questions of 'disaster photography' per se, to look at the position of photography in socio-cultural contexts of disaster more broadly. How and why do pre-existing images and image-objects also become reworked following a disaster, through new practices of advertizing, archiving, display, memorialisation and preservation? How and why do other photographic practices and genres - those of family photography, tourist imagery and ethnographic photography - become changed following a disaster?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Seeing and Not Seeing the Christchurch Earthquake of February 2011

Author: Richard Vokes (University of Western Australia) email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the visual economy of the Christchurch earthquake of 22nd February 2011.

Long Abstract

On 4th September 2010, a series of powerful earthquakes began in New Zealand's second largest city of Christchurch. At 12.51pm on 22nd February 2011, one of these seismic events ripped through the central and eastern city, killing 185 people, and causing massive damage to the built environment. In the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake, the New Zealand government declared a state of emergency, and deployed both the New Zealand Defence Force, and urban search and rescue teams flown in from all over the world.

Based on participant-observation carried out through the disaster period, this paper argues that one unforeseen outcome of the state of emergency was to confer upon the authorities a high degree of control over what images could be taken of the main disaster sites, both by private citizens, and by media professionals. The paper examines how and why this level of control emerged, and the effect that it had in producing a remarkably well defined set of visual narratives about the February earthquake and its aftermaths.

However, drawing on Azoulay's insights into statecraft, photography and citizenship in disaster contexts, the paper also goes on to show just how unstable these 'official' constructs of the event were. In particular, it shows how these narratives were constantly undermined by ordinary citizens' production of, and their circulation of, alternative forms of vernacular photographs, which served to challenge both the iconography of, the elisions of, and - most importantly of all - the temporality of, the 'official line'.

"You seen the fridge in the tree?": How local and media representations of Hurricane Katrina differ

Author: Seumas Bates (University of Glasgow) email

Short Abstract

By reflecting upon particular subjects that local residents suggested I photograph ‘for my study’, this paper critiques the visual representations of Hurricane Katrina in the mainstream media, and offers an alternative representation of the aftermath of this disaster.

Long Abstract

This paper critiques the visual representations of Hurricane Katrina in the mainstream media, and offers an alternative representation of the aftermath of this disaster. Using photography for ethnographic enquiry, it discusses why particular subjects were recommended by the local residents to be photographed during my research.

The representation of disaster in the media can be crucial in establishing such events within both national consciousness and collective history. In the case of Katrina the over-arching narrative portrayed was one centered within the ruined city of New Orleans as it was overwhelmed by not only forces of nature, but also violence, looting and unrest. Authors such as Campbell (2010) and Garfield (2013) have demonstrated how this particular narrative, constructed by the media, was not only false, but actually exacerbated an already tragic event.

During my ethnographic fieldwork in Buras, a rural, coastal community approximately 70 miles south-east of New Orleans, I was on several occasions, advised to photograph a particular object, building, or event 'for my study'. Taken together, these recommendations reflect a desire for a visual representation of this post-disaster community which is locally meaningful. Analysing the subject matters of these photographs sheds light on key dynamics in the on-going experience and recovery of Hurricane Katrina in this context.

A future for memory through photographs: In the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami

Author: Fuyubi Nakamura (University of British Columbia) email

Short Abstract

I reflect on the relief activities that I was involved with in the aftermath of the 3/11 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. By focussing on rescuing 'objects of memory', especially photographs, from the debris, I consider the relationship between objects, images, and memory.

Long Abstract

What would we look for if our hometown were swept away? Memory in material form? The tsunami—triggered by the massive earthquake that hit north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011—ruthlessly swallowed up several towns along the costal line, taking away the lives of numerous people. In the aftermath of the disaster, various kinds of local residents' possessions—if they were deemed 'valuable'—were rescued from the debris. These recovered items were often called omoide no shina or 'objects of memory', which included family albums and photographs. The items were then cleaned by volunteers and later displayed with the hope of reconnecting them with their owners, or their family or friends.

I reflect on the relief activities that I was involved with in Utatsu in Minamisanriku, Miyagi, northeastern Japan, from late May until late August 2011, in the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Minamisanriku was one of the towns swept away by the tsunami. I focus on one of the relief activities - that of rescuing 'objects of memory', especially photographs. Although damaged or fragmented, images in photographic prints survived because they are material objects, whereas digital images—stored on hard disks, CDs or memory sticks—were damaged in the water. Because of their materiality, photographic prints became not only objects and traces of memory but also serve as relics. I consider the relationship between objects, images, and memory when people have lost virtually everything, as they did in this disaster.

The invisible disaster: Fukushima and infra-visual photography

Author: Chihiro Minato (Tama Art University) email

Short Abstract

How can we photograph a disaster that cannot be captured visually? Through my experience of photographing in Fukushima in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, this paper considers how this invisible disaster has changed the significance of photographic practices.

Long Abstract

How can we photograph a disaster that cannot be captured visually? Radiation fears have gripped Japan and beyond following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant triggered by the 3/11 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. While the damaged power plant has been photographed numerous times, such images only show the forces of the nuclear explosions, but not the ongoing disaster itself. Disasters such as radioactivity and nuclear leaks are barely visible, if not invisible, despite the visible fears they induce. The invisible disaster has not only changed the landscape of Japan but the psychology of its people.

Through my experience of photographing in Fukushima, especially in the evacuation zone, in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, this paper explores how this invisible disaster has changed the significance of photographic practices. It also reconsiders the meanings of everyday objects and images such as family photo albums from the perspectives of the evacuees from Iitate village, located 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Between Photography and Anthropological - Historical Interpretation: McCullin and "Comparative Ethnographic Disaster Photography"

Author: Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool University ) email

Short Abstract

This presentation uses aspects of the method and most influential works of the photo-journalist, Donald McCullin to explore contributions that considering such topics (as well as recent innovations in the ways they are interpreted and addressed) can make to key aims of the panel.

Long Abstract

The impacts of photography on painting and sculpture since the 19th century have not only been extensively studied. Starting already in the early 20th century, claims that the social roles of art had reached the 'end of the road' when photography created a 'crises' for art's functions of representation - and, especially, historical representation - have been deeply enmeshed in disputes over utopic and dystopic characterisations of modernity. For Weibel (2002), throughout the latter half of the 20th century, "critiques of the aesthetic practices of modernity and of the object status of the work of art" ran "parallel to political critiques" of "the exploitation of the third world" and critical reflection on traumatic recent historical relationships between art and politics. For some, key tenets of strongly anti anti - redemptive paradigms have been seen as providing the only satisfactory responses to 'crises over representation' of modern times, and the traumas of recent and contemporary history. This presentation uses aspects of the method and most influential works of the photo-journalist, Donald McCullin to explore contributions that considering such topics (as well as recent innovations in the ways they are interpreted and addressed) can make to key aims of the panel.

A Man and a Map: "Disaster photography" and Kurdish Nationalism

Author: Lana Askari (University of Manchester) email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the different methods of re-production and circulation of an iconic photograph of a deceased man holding his twin babies after the chemical attacks in the city of Halabja (Iraqi Kurdistan – 1988) within the context of Kurdish nationalism.

Long Abstract

Of the chemical attacks that took place in Iraq under the Ba'ath regime, especially the case of Halabja (1988) became well documented by journalists.

The photograph of a deceased man holding his dead children under his arms, baker Omer Xawer and his newborns, became the token "disaster" picture in the Halabja- and other chemical attack cases in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time.

As Kurds gained more independence from the Iraqi government, nationalistic pride and identity was shown more openly in social life and photography through the use of traditional dress, national flag colours etc.

It will be argued that this particular photograph, which became widely circulated when the internet gained ground, became especially important in furthering the Kurdish nationalistic cause when it became reproduced within a format where the body of the man is laid out as fitting into the greater Kurdistan map. At this point, the collective trauma of the chemical attacks became directly linked towards the nationalist ideal of a pan-Kurdish state and in recent years it has become part of one of the installations of Tragedy hall in the Halabja Memorial Museum in Iraqi Kurdistan. More importantly, the development of the specific area of Halabja has become a high-profile case within Kurdish politics.

Thus, this paper will engage with the re-production and circulation of "disaster" photography, nationalism, collective memory and memorialisation within the context of an unstable political system.

The Killing Fields of Late Ottoman Macedonia. Competing local and international uses of photography for the ownership of circulating images of atrocity 1903-1914

Author: Elizabeth Gertsakis (University of Melbourne) email

Short Abstract

The ‘Macedonian Problem’ of 190314 engaged major political powers, reportage and photography. Popular publishing was active in photography of atrocities. Atrocity photography were used as evidence for injustice, but in a digital age the photograph can no longer be a self-evident ethical truth.

Long Abstract

The 'Macedonian Problem' of 1903-12 was the most written about and photographed pre- Great War event of ethnic blood-letting in Europe. Although the use of photography in the Balkans was early, it was the political and territorial struggles that attracted the first mass entry and reportage engaging with photography in the region of the southern Balkans. Competing political and diplomatic intent and hunger for sensational 'news' created a global audience for images (illustrated and photographic) of disaster and horror. Photographs were produced, circulated and converted into columns in newspapers, periodicals and journals as well as books of anthropology and ethnographic researches. Alongside reportage, there was a market which welcomed exploitation of atrocity photographs as propaganda as military and souvenir materials. American, British and European companies made an instant transition from stereoscope images of exotic people and scenic views into genres of massacre and narratives of a primitive and violent 'unevolved' Balkan world.

Atrocity photographs as affective objects of the 'Macedonian Problem' became part of official history as documents of possession despite unclear aetiology. They remain the material of national and ethnic conflict. The question of who owns the atrocity of the photograph is a source of triumph over injustice as well as a revelation of guilt and transgression. The photographic archives of the historical 'Macedonian Problem' can no longer rely on an incontestable possession of the meaning of the photograph. In the digital reality of the present, the photograph can no longer sustain an abstract truth for self-evidence.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.