Now, Previously, and Afterwards

Hailey Holl-Valdez
Received January 1 2021
Citation: Holl-Valdez, Hailey. 2021. ‘Now, Previously, and Afterwards’ Epoiesen http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2021.2
Creative Commons License

Hailey Holl-Valdez is a community worker and social practice artist. (haileyghv@gmail.com). ORCID: 0000-0001-9851-2589

Before We Begin

I want you to explore some photos.

Drawing on the prompts provided &/or any individual practices, you are invited to notice what intuition, reveries, curiosities, memories, or other kinds of ‘knowings’ are evoked. You may choose to journal, draw, make music, dance or respond another way to what arises; you might even use the annotation layer here by highlighting the text. In turn you are invited to form part of a wider, affected narrative-creation surrounding the events depicted (whether you choose to share your response or keep it private).

You are invited to take a deep breath, perhaps placing your hands on your chest or belly. Notice the rise and fall, the length of your breath, whether it is deep or shallow, and any accompanying thoughts or sensations. If you feel stuck or disconnected during your reading, you may come back to your breath as a tool to remain present and connected to your body.

(CW: human remains)



As you view the imagery, what figures, items & environments stand out to you?




What ‘information’ do you gather from what you can see?




What textures are present?




What might they feel like to touch?




Are there particular sounds you associate with the figures, items or environments you note?




How might it feel in your body to hear those sounds?





What smells may be present, based on the different figures, items, or environments displayed within the images?




What memories and associations do you have with those smells?




How might your body move through these spaces?




What sensations occur in your body in response to these prompts?


Introduction

Through this photo-essay you have engaged with the theme of “atrocity”, in perhaps a novel way. With curiosity and non-judgement, take a moment to note what may be occurring for you on an embodied, emotional, and mental level right now. When you think further about the theme of “atrocity” what additional imagery, sensations, emotions or thoughts occur? In what ways has your previous engagement with this theme been different or similar to what you just experienced?

A central tenet to this piece is the belief that we are impacted by a phenomenon of disembodiment and desensitisation from the affect of violence (especially violence to ‘others’), and that this shows up in our relationship to photographs of atrocity. Discourse on this subject amongst scholars is prevalent, with an ever-growing body of photographs to analyse; it has been identified that multiple layers of isolation occur in the production of this imagery, creating distance from its affect on us. These points are touched on further in my piece Affective Violence? Engaging with Photographs of Atrocity in their Taking, Subject-Making, and Dissemination (forthcoming); I adopt an archaeological lens with which to analyse various stages within the lifecycle of atrocity photography - exploring the limited narrative created under the ‘dominant’ framework of production and presentation of such imagery. Often missing in the scholarly commentary and wider societal discourse on these themes are questions such as: how do we as individuals participate in these complex dynamics? And, what alternative modes of narrative creation exist? This piece seeks to explore these questions.

The Relationship Between Archaeology & Photography

Modernist archaeology and photography partook of a novel, Western conception of the body and of the sensuous self, one that was grounded on Cartesian dualism, and on the prioritization of an autonomous and disembodied sense of vision… (Hamilakis, 2009: 285).

Archaeology and Photography come together through a series of smaller relationships. These are made between a variety of shifting elements: the camera and light, the landscape past and present, the archaeologist as excavator and as photographer, and so on. These different actors are involved even when they cannot be seen in the image… (Gomes, 2020: 111-112).

…[T]he archaeologizing vision of photography… in which the photograph is valued not so much for capturing or transcribing, as for going beyond (or beneath) an artifact’s superficial appearance in order to capture what is deemed most valuable in it. (Bohrer, 2005: 183).

I am curious about the intersections of these viewpoints; treating archaeology & photography as evolving disciplines, rooted in an interconnected history and approach. Both developed in the Nineteenth Century - when cultural discourse promoted the severing/separation of the mind from the body, the individual from its community, and the European from the ‘other’; a tactic employed to facilitate the exploitation and oppression of the colonial agenda. So, the “archaeologizing” (Ibid: 183) mode of inquiry via photography has a distinctly violent legacy that directly informs the disembodied and desensitised relationship that we have to atrocity and imagery to this day.

Some ways I believe this shows up in the ‘dominant’ framework of the production and presentation of this imagery (which I explore more in Affective Violence? Engaging with Photographs of Atrocity in their Taking, Subject-Making and Dissemination) include: that it is predominantly Eurocentric photographers and voices engaging in this narrative creation, re-creating potentially exploitative power dynamics; that subject-bodies are often stripped of agency, made victim and dehumanised in the process of being photographed; that contexts of engagement can facilitate greater distance and decontextualisation of the violence. The way it may show up for you most personally as a viewer/reader is: that it is easier to look away or rationalise violence onto ‘others’ if you perceive yourself to be disconnected from them, or if you shut off from the sensations, emotions, and thoughts your body may produce in response to knowing about that violence. I invite you to notice what sensations, emotions and thoughts occur as you hear this. We cannot explore alternative modes of narrative creation around the theme of atrocity without first acknowledging the history and ‘dominant’ framework that exists; by centralising this history here I hope to contribute to the disruption of this violent legacy.

Inspiration & Method

The images presented above are World War One archival photographs from the British Imperial War Museum. I chose this scope due to the availability of a large body of imagery, with the intention not to appropriate a narrative too far removed from my individual frame of identity (I am a White, British & American woman).

The presentation of multiple images was inspired by Berger and Mohr’s (1995) photo-essay If Each Time… in which 150 un-captioned photographs depict a peasant woman from the Alps, and the life around her. Under their belief, if thoughtfully placed within a wider context of engagement, imagery may invite a certain level of ‘understanding’ and reduce some desensitisation (Ibid: 87-88). Understanding may be taken both from the range of imagery provided, and from wider coherences that each viewer has of the events depicted. Therefore viewers appropriate the material into their own living context, and contribute to a co-creation of meaning.

Going further, James Thompson (2009) advocates for an ‘affective turn’ in response to suffering. Affect is “linked to the self-feeling of being alive” (Clough, 2007: 2, referenced by Thompson, 2009: 119). It is a bodily response and experience; we are invited to enter into a causal relationship - with the world, with material culture, with one another - where we have the power to affect and be affected (Hardt 2007: ix). If we lean into this role, upon viewing this imagery - rather than turning away in shock or disassociating from the trauma depicted - we may engage in a form of ‘reading’ (Azoulay, referenced by Miller, 2012: 147-148) and more carefully attend to what is being evoked (Hamilakis et al., 2009: 289; see also Mitchell, 2002). The prompts provided above aim to facilitate a centring of the embodied self in the context of engaging with the imagery - challenging the disembodied mode of viewing, and shifting towards a mutually affected and affective practice (Thompson, 2009: 170-171) in response to trauma.

Alternative contexts of production and engagement with such imagery have been explored which I am inspired by - ones that promote a relationship of greater accountability between viewer and subject-body. Examples include: public workshops given in Argentinian Clandestine Detention Centres (active during the 1976 - 1983 dictatorship), which prompted visitors to think “‘[t]his is also me’, ‘[t]his could be me’, ‘could it be me?’” (Testimony of Piero in Compañy et al., 2011: 240), and participatory-based storytelling and research which centralise the voices of those connected to the story being told (e.g. Photo Voice, Insight Share, and WetheYeah). These approaches may have more success in reducing some dehumanisation that occurs and inviting more identification with those who have experienced trauma, thus promoting a relationship of greater accountability between viewer and subject-body - both participants involved in sociopolitical dynamics.

This piece also adopts an archaeological engagement with photographs themselves - seeing them as “‘participants’ in the creation of affective links” (Harvey et al., 2014: 107; see also Hamilakis, et al. 2009). Photographs not only make visible certain figures, scenes, etc. that we then interpret through our unique cultural lens, but they are also themselves objects which, placed within different contexts, signify specific messaging (for more on this semiotic approach, see Saussure referenced by Hall, 1997: 31). Therefore your engagement with the imagery above would inevitably be different if experienced within other contexts (such as: a gallery, a printed book, or a social media platform, where the materiality of the imagery and your embodied positionality would vary greatly).

Concluding Thoughts

This piece aimed to contribute to the disruption of the violent legacy of colonialism as it shows up in the disciplines of archaeology & photography, in specific application to the theme of atrocity. It aimed to invite viewers to reflect on how we as individuals participate in these complex dynamics, and offered an alternative mode of narrative creation to the ‘dominant’ framework. It’s possible that this commentary has brought up some sensations, emotions and thoughts that may inspire a more present, embodied and accountable, engagement with atrocity imagery in future; each person engaging with this participates in a ripple effect that may have profound impact on future engagement with this subject.

Acknowledgements

Gratitude for family members and friends who have sat in conversation with me as I passionately explored this subject. Gratitude for Dr. Melanie Giles who encouraged me to pursue this piece of work, and Dr. Elizabeth Minor who read drafts and gave me feedback throughout the process of writing. Gratitude for the wisdom, creativity and intelligence of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour identified storytellers, activists and leaders who have been creating non-colonial narratives and knowledge since the start of time. Wishes of peace, power, equity and justice for all those who have endured atrocity. Wishes for safe embodiment, gentle witnessing, and human connection for all in the future.

References

Berger, J. & Mohr, J. 1995. Another Way of Telling, First Vintage International (Vintage International Books, New York)

Bohrer, F.N. 2005. Chapter 9 ‘Photography and Archaeology: The Image as Object’, in Smiles, S. & Moser, S. (Eds.) 2005. Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 180-191

Compañy, G., González, G., Ovando, L. & Rossetto, D. 2011. ‘A Political Archaeology of Latin America’s Recent Past: A Bridge Towards our History’ in Myers, A., & Moshenska, G. (Eds.) 2011. Archaeologies of Internment, One World Archaeology, Springer, pp. 229-244

Gomes, S. 2020. ‘Archaeology, Photography and Poetics’, in McFadyen, L., & Hicks, D. (Eds.) 2020. Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, pp. 109-116

Hall, S. (Ed.) 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, SAGE Publications

Hamilakis, Y., Anagnostopoulos, A., Ifantidis, F. 2009. ‘Postcards from the Edge of Time: Archaeology, Photography, Archaeological Ethnography (A Photo-Essay)’, in Public Archaeology, Vol 8, No. 2-3, pp. 289-309

Hardt, M. 2007. ‘Foreword: What Affects are Good For’, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (Eds.) 2007. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Duke University Press, ix-xii

Harvey, P., Casella, E.C., Evans, G., Knox, H., McLean, C., Silva M E.B., Thoburn, N., Woodward, K. (Eds.) 2014. Objects & Materials, Routledge

Miller, N.K. 2012. ‘The Girl in the Photograph: The Visual Legacies of War’, in Batchen, G., Gidley, M., Miller, N.K. & Prosser, J. (Eds.) 2012. Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, Reaktion Books Ltd., pp. 147-154

Mitchell, W.J.T. 2002. ‘Showing Seeing: a critique of visual culture’, in Journal of Visual Culture, Vol 1(2), pp. 165-181

Thompson, J. 2009. Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect, Palgrave Macmillan

Images

Images from the Imperial War Museum collections are used under the provisions of its non-commerical license.

Q 540 ‘Stokes mortar shell bursting at a Trench Mortar School. Reninghelst, near Ypres, April 1916.’

Q 579 ‘Troops of the 2nd Australian Division in a front line trench at Croix du Bac, near Armentieres, May 1916.’

Q 3178 ‘Trees cut down by the Germans across a road near Havrincourt to hinder the British advance.’

Q 1208 ‘The Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The dawn sky is lit by the bombardment before the assault on Thiepval, 15th September 1916.’

Q 4491 ‘The goat mascot of the Royal Scots, Amiens-Albert Road, November 1916.’’

Q 5935 ‘Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Stretcher bearers struggle in mud up to their knees to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe, 1 August 1917.’

Q 9333 ‘Battle of Canal du Nord. A 60pdr. firing in the dawn barrage, dimly seen field batteries go forward on the right, part of the British advance near Moeuvres, 27th September 1918’

Q 11538 ‘Battle of Epehy. British wounded and German prisoner sharing a cigarette at an advanced dressing station near Epehy’

Q 11657 ‘Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. Storming of Zonnebeke by 3rd Division, 20th September 1917.’

Q 27895 ‘Women workers having a meal in the canteen, Woolwich Arsenal, May 1918.’

Q 30452 ‘The face of a patient is covered with plaster by Captain Francis Derwent Wood so as to make a mask which would conceal his injuries, 3rd London General Hospital.’

Q 30460 ‘A selection of items used to conceal facial injuries during the early development of plastic surgery, 3rd London General Hospital.’

Q 32407 ‘A woman moving to another village taking with her the bones of her dead son, decorated with marigolds, the native mourning flower, Balkan Front, June 1916.’

Q 53416 ‘Grave of a Belgian soldier somewhere on the Western Front, a decomposing hand can be seen protruding from the earth, 20 November 1914.’

Q 53431 ‘Senegalese Tirailleurs (French colonial infantry) serving with the French Army at Dunkirk, November 1914.’

Q 53472 ‘Soldiers of the 9th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) leaving Hyde Park on a route march, December 1914.’

Q 54242 ‘School boys make micrometers at a workshop in Chiswick, November 1917’

Q 54607 ‘A member of the Women’s Land Army operating a single-furrow plough on a British farm.’

Q 71651 ‘Charged hand grenades at the Hand Grenade Foundry at Bethune, 27 May 1916’

Q 77408 ‘A dead soldier covered in snow.’

Q 78957 ‘Ruins of the church at Lihons, 12 September 1916’

Cover Image Imperial War Museum, ‘Stokes mortar shell bursting at a Trench Mortar School. Reninghelst, near Ypres, April 1916.’ IMW Q540

Masthead Image Imperial War Museum, ‘Troops of the 2nd Australian Division in a front line trench at Croix du Bac, near Armentieres, May 1916. One of the them is reading a newspaper while the other is using a trench periscope.’ IMW Q579