Photo archives: silence and blindness

Jürg Schneider (University of Basel)
David Zeitlyn (University of Oxford)
Social Anthropology
Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.05
Thursday 13 June, 8:45-10:30

Short abstract:

The visual parallel to archival silence is blindness. Can the empty spaces in photo archives become an opportunity for alternative viewings, drawing productive power from the contents, no matter how perceived?

Long abstract:

We will explore parallels in the relationship between an external reality and both archives and photographs. Both have little natural connection and/or directly reflecting external reality. Both show traces of their becoming but must be read beyond the frame of their materiality and the connections between order and meaning must be disentangled in order to gain and reveal significance. However, the archival order always contains several voids - deliberate and unintended - that are due to the process of the archives' emergence in changing contexts. Thus, various types of silences and blindness constitute the archive order. How can these silences be broken or made to resonate? What happens when we are no longer able to grasp them with the simplifying gaze of habit? How can connections and disruptions that emerge from archives' silences and blindness be used fruitfully by scholars working with and in photo archives? Trouillot talks of archival silence, the Comaroffs of reading across and Stoler along the archival grain. The visual parallel to silence is blindness. How can research on photo archives find a white stick or an archival equivalent to braille? Those with macular degeneration must use peripheral vision, peeking sideways. What sort of archival research might this inspire? This panel will examine various possibilities of working with photo archives that do not see empty (negative) spaces as a deficit, but on the contrary as an opportunity for alternative viewings of the archive, drawing productive power precisely from the contents, no matter how perceived.