Citizens of Photography online conference

A series of six conversations September 15-17th, 2021


View below for our virtual conversations with leading practitioners and thinkers in global photography. We have pursued questions about how visual representation relates to political representation, which images have political efficacy and why, and thinking about how different practices and genres of photography might be similar or different. These also offer a glimpse into the findings from our recent ethnographic research.

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Conversation 1: Image events
Karen Strassler: “Resonating images: George Floyd in Papua”

Taking up the concept of the “image-event” as developed in Demanding Images (Strassler 2020), in this paper I will examine how images of the killing of George Floyd reverberated and resonated in West Papua, a restive region of Indonesia that has been the site of a longstanding separatist movement. I will critically examine a celebratory media discourse that sees the US-based Black Lives Matter movement as expanding outwards to spark similar movements elsewhere, a logic that reiterates longstanding colonialist narratives that figure places like Papua as backwaters belatedly receiving and imitatively taking up ideas that flow from the metropole outward. While questioning the superficiality of such assumptions, I will nevertheless suggest that the unfolding of image-events can both challenge and reveal the ways that longstanding global asymmetries affect the flow of images and the course of political action.

Elizabeth Edwards: “What do people want photographs to be – for them?”

Various commentators in recent years have pointed to the limits of visual theory and the entrenched epistemic tendencies of photographic analysis. These latter have deflected attention from what people want photographs to do for them – the ontological and visceral scream of photography – it was there, they were there, and by implication, we are here, with all that entails as a political statement. I argue that it is necessary to find categories of analysis that can be simultaneously incisive and critical and which take account of what people need photographs to be.

Konstantinos Kalantzis: “Image events: from the hospitable gaze to accusatory memory”

Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Greece, I will explore how different practices of looking at photographs create spaces of exchange and conflict with powerful Others. Situated in the post-2010 EU/IMF bailout-program period marked by suspicion of German tutelage in Greece, the paper unpacks two kinds of photographic events focused on ancestors’ portraits. On the one hand, images of “traditional” old men and women gifted back to their descendants by German tourists who first visited Crete in the 1960s. On the other hand, black-and-white photographs of victims of atrocities perpetrated by German troops in the 1940s in two mainland Greek towns (Kalavryta and Distomo). These events speak to different possibilities of “citizenship” between the parties involved and the subjects they anticipate: tourists and locals; hosts and guests; perpetrators and victims; nation states of the center and the periphery. They further sketch how images can complement but also destabilize experiences of sovereignty and alterity through their enmeshment in Realpolitik imaginaries and the dynamics of hospitality.

Conversation 2: Politics of dissemination
Shahidul Alam: “Does photojournalism still matter?”

“Show me” is still the way people want to be convinced. Photojournalists are still primary witnesses, and their photographs attest that they were there when it happened. Despite Photoshop, despite AI, despite the abundance of fake news, there is little that gains our trust as much as a news photograph. But it is not merely the new digital tools that shake this confidence. With the global rise of autocracy. With trolls and bots at the disposal of the tyrant. With officially sanctioned misinformation campaigns, can photojournalism still retain its position as the ultimate stamp of authenticity? In my talk, I’ll be discussing the role of photojournalism in this new environment. I’ll also be looking at the role played by small local studios in Bangladesh, our attempt to archive the work, and some of the discoveries we’ve made.

Lucie Ryzova: “Photography and self-writing in Cairo”

One of the key themes of the conversations concerns the relationship between representation through image and representation through politics. This presentation explores the emergence of identities and practices that made this possible in colonial Egypt. Personal photographic practices emerged and became widespread in Egypt at the same point that novel political imaginaries emerged (i.e. politics as “representation”, implying nominal equals). Personal photographic practices, alongside new forms of self-writing were central to this process, forging new notions of selfhood and personhood that fed directly into political action.

Sokphea Young: “Citizen photojournalism and activism in Cambodia: the boomerang of image”

This talk will explore how photographic and other visual representations shape photo citizen-journalism, activism, citizenship and political surveillance in Cambodia. It argues that Cambodia’s visual representations have transformed across space and time: from scarcity to atrocity, from atrocity to abundance, and towards the ostensible emancipation of citizens in the era of digital and social media. Cambodia’s visual representational history has been an uncertain one characterised by interruptions. The Khmer Rouge regime was very much against what it viewed as visual embourgeoisement: photographic reproduction and print media were “symptoms” of wealthy and middle-class people. Photographs of the everyday were hence potentially incriminating and the regime used photography, as a weapon, to punish its citizens. The democratisation of the camera through affordable smartphones and social network sites have accelerated liquid photography’s (re-)production and circulation. These have encouraged notions of freedom through visibility, and of performative citizenship, the enactment of one’s rights to be seen or heard, and to embrace the photograph. Social media photographic platforms, however, are double-edged swords in the view of many ordinary citizens and activists: striving for emancipation involves exposing and submitting identities to state surveillance.

Conversation 3: Images, politics, and audiences
Susan Meiselas: “Engaging through Zoom”

Susan Meiselas will share a recent project generated during covid in collaboration with the Afro-descendent community in Porto, Portugal.

Ileana L. Selejan: “Expanded vision: photography and protest in Nicaragua”

The anti-government protests that swept through Nicaragua in 2018 were
repressed through disproportionate force by the governing regime,
leading to a prolonged human rights crisis. This presentation reflects
upon the ways in which photography was mobilized in that context as a
key means for citizens to express their grievances and demands. On the
streets and on social media sites, an image-environment emerged upon a
background of dissent that invoked Nicaragua’s revolutionary past.
Photography helped bring about divergent political imaginaries, ones
that reconstituted the legacies from the past and articulated
possibilities about the future.

Nestan Nijaradze: “Hidden archives: what we learn from politically incorrect imagery of the Soviet period”

The Soviet occupation has dramatically defined new vectors of political life in the young state of Georgia since the third year of its first short-term independence (1918 – 1921). For the following 70 years, the social and cultural development of the country was dramatically influenced by the Soviet regime. For almost 7 decades, the medium of photography (as in all other arts) has been used as a propaganda, agitational, and educational tool to multiply the “canonic” and “politically correct” photographic imagery that was supposed to reveal the most powerful country – USSR with the most powerful economy driven by Soviet workers. Thus, the Georgian photographic heritage of the Soviet period is mostly rich in propagandistic imagery and not in photography d’auteur. Only 3 important collections/archives – revealed by accident about 15 years ago – can be considered as real bodies of work of “propaganda free” photography of Soviet period and the rarest examples of Soviet Georgian photography d’auteur. These archives – attributed to the rather eclectic group of artists cover the period of Soviet occupation till the late 80s of the 20th century. My presentation will focus on: Gigo Gabashvili (1862 – 1936), Shava Alkhaanidze (1927 – 1987), and Rezo Kezeli (1925 – 1988).

Conversation 4: The domestic, the civil, and the political
Taslima Akhter: “Collectivities and the new reality: photographic activism in a time of COVID”

I will share my experiences as an individual freelancer in Dhaka and my learning from the community I photographed. My focus will be on how image making, documenting, and archiving benefits from collective effort and practices. Images become more powerful through collective effort. In the new reality of covid 19 and lock down we experience constraints and limits. But this opened another window. We realized there is no alternative to unity. During this period of COVID, I have collected images from workers and their family members who previously never had time to use their smartphones. They documented their own struggle, life, joy, and sorrow. Working class people have become more familiar with social media platforms and have been using their smartphones to document nd communicate their reality. In my presentation I will talk about my journey through collectivities and the new reality of COVID.

Oksana Sarkisova: “What’s in a frame: image-practices and material lives of family photographs in Russia”

Analogue photographic prints from the Soviet era can be found in most Russian families, even if only a small portion of the family photo archive makes it onto the family albums’ pages. The range of photographs is not limited to the family circle, even in the most extended sense of the term; for the most part, the collections reference multiple social contexts, and combine snapshots of family members with images of multiple collectivities. Approaching family photographs as material objects and communicative acts, I discuss how they are actualized as flexible, situational options of self-presentation.

Vindhya Buthpitiya: “Went to nothings: photography and absence in northern Sri Lanka”

My presentation explores the interweaving of photography and absence among the Tamil community in northern Sri Lanka. I consider both the absences of photographs caused by a long durée of conflict and the ways in which photography is wielded to address the grievances bound to myriad absences in the postwar. From the destruction of personal photographs to their mobilization within acts of civilian protest, I discuss the relationship between photography, war and loss and what it might suggest about the imaginings of a Tamil political future.

Conversation 5: Images in transit
George Agbo: “New appropriations of a colonial photo collection in Nigeria”

I examine new appropriations of the photographs N. W. Thomas took in Nigeria during his colonial anthropological surveys of 1909 to 1913. Through digital colour editing, the descendants of the subjects of the photographs alter the temporality of the black and white portraits of their ancestors and bring them back to life. The edited images are inserted into the family album, a reintegration that demonstrates new understanding of photography as reincarnation. This practice constitutes a novel kind of family photography that allows for exploitation of colonial past to advance family histories and make political claims. On the other side are those whose ancestors were not pictured in the Thomas archive. They bemoan that absence because it challenges their rootedness in the land.

Jorge Moreno Andres: “Mourning revealed: the social life of family pictures in the Franco regime”

How do family photographs move in the domestic space? What happens when those pictures belong to victims of Franco’s regime? I examine the inter-generational uses and displacements of these photographs, enabling us to determine both the transmission and silencing of familiar memories within a traumatic context.

Naluwembe Binaisa: “Missing photographs, missing histories: conflict denial and the national imaginary”

Conflict, a word synonymous with Nigeria’s post-independence era, is markedly absent from the visual lexicon of the public and private sphere. There is a scarcity of atrocity images despite decades of violence and insecurity, including the Biafra war more than fifty years ago, the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the North, secessionist agitations in the East, the so-called “farmers and herdsmen” conflict, and generalised violence and insecurity throughout the country due to the increase in kidnappings. I explore the absence of these conflict image-events as iterations of self-censorship, erasure and imposed silence, despite the hypermobility of these images in social media within the country and the diaspora. I consider the phenomenon of what I term “missing photographs” on the one hand as the at times violent struggle to reinstate or reinforce “missing histories”. On the other hand, as an awareness of the power that imbues image-events when filtered through indigenous cosmologies that challenge these simple binaries. Instead what is evoked is a coeval sentient landscape that exceeds a national imaginary based on politicised colonial identities. The borderless zone proposed by a citizenry of photography offers space to consider enduring agentic modes of care and mitigation around image-events, whose suppression on first sight seems a crude act of self-censorship.

Conversation 6: The event of photography
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “He is my ancestor, Lanier argues, not a museum asset”

The daguerreotype of Renty and Deliah, stored in the archives of the Peabody museum, are held there as precious objects, rare high-value historical images taken during the time of slavery. Tamara Lanier’s lawsuit questions the until-now-not-yet-challenged-imperial-right of the archive to continue to hold and claim property over the daguerreotype seized from her great grandfather and his daughter, and claims their restitution. The daguerreotype of Lanier’s ancestors were seized in the same photographic session during which similar images were seized from five other enslaved in the US south and whose images continue to be held by the same institutions that participated in their enslavement and in the transformation of the outcome of imperial technologies of violence into their private property. Harvard’s efforts to ignore Lanier and dismiss her claim manifest what Lanier contends in the lawsuit – slavery’s institutions were not yet abolished. This lecture explores Lanier’s lawsuit not only as restitution claim of individual items, but also as part of an abolitionist imagination, mobilized against the otherwise smooth operation of imperial technologies and infra-structures, premised on the massive accumulation of visual wealth seized from and used against people from whom it was expropriated and their descendants.

Gabrielle Moser: “When photographs fail, when monuments fall: photography and reparations in Canada”

Photography was an instrumental tool in Canada’s Indian Residential School system throughout the first half of the twentieth century, used by the government to promote, obscure, reveal, and conceal the violence directed at Indigenous children in state care. Though these static images, designed to contain their subjects, failed to rouse civic intervention at the time, they are being revisited in the present as documents of a settler colonial past that needs to be redressed. Reading several of these archival school photographs against contemporary images of the recent toppling of a statue of Edgerton Ryerson, one of the architects of the Indian Residential School system, at a university in Toronto that bears his name, this paper considers the reparative work photographs, as events, can perform in the civic imaginary.

Chris Pinney: “From the photographic event to the event of photography”

Provoked by Ariella Azoulay’s writing, this presentation starts by considering the contingency of the “photographic event” and its underwriting of photographic “exorbitance”.  Photography’s future orientation, its escape from the singular moment of the event into the Not-Yet-Become, is then explored through the animating role of memorial portraiture in both central India and the Kathmandu Valley. The suggestion is then made that camerawork might be best conceptualized via the gerund “photographing”. Finally, what Azoulay calls the “event of photography” is considered through demands that photographs should exist (an insistence on a limitless “photographability”), regardless of whether they do or not.

Participant Bios

Karen Strassler

Karen Strassler is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Queens College and the Graduate Centre, City University of New York. She is the author of Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java (Duke 2010; winner of the Gregory Bateson and John Collier Prize in Visual Anthropology) and Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia (Duke 2020)

Elizabeth Edwards FBA

Elizabeth Edwards FBA is Professor Emerita in Photographic History at De Montfort University, Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor, V&A Research Institute, and Honorary Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCL. She is the author of Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology, and Museums (Berg 2001) and the Camera as Historian (Duke, 2012). In 2014 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Visual Anthropology (American Anthropological Association).

Konstantinos Kalantzis

Konstantinos Kalantzis researched photography in Greece for PhotoDemos. He is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Thessaly. He works on the intersections of visual culture and political imagination and has extensive fieldwork experience in rural and urban Greece in which he incorporates visual practices. He is the author of Tradition in the Frame (Indiana 2019) and director of the ethnographic film Dowsing the Past (2014). His work has appeared in journals including Comparative Studies in Society and History and American Ethnologist. He is a recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s 2019 JB Donne Essay Prize on the Anthropology of Art.

Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam is a renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist, curator, and activist. He founded Drik Picture Library in 1989, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in 1998, and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival in 1999. His books include My Journey as a Witness (Skira 2011) and The Tide Must Turn (Steidl 2020). In 2018 he was arrested and detained for over 100 days following a live interview with Al Jazeera. He was subsequently recognized with the Humanitarian Award from the Lucie Awards and named Timemagazine’s Person of the Year.

Lucie Ryzova

Lucie Ryzova is Senior Lecturer in Middle East History at the University of Birmingham. She is a social and cultural historian of modern Egypt, with particular interest in Egyptian popular culture and vernacular modernity. Her research interests include the ethnography of reading and writing in late colonial Egypt, the production and consumption of print, and the history of print design. She is the author of The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford 2014).

Sokphea Young

Sokphea Young researched photography and politics in Cambodia for PhotoDemos. He obtained a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Melbourne, Australia. His research interests cover the areas of activism, civil society, visual media and politics in Southeast Asia. His research has been published in journals including South East Asia ResearchMedia AsiaJournal of Civil SocietyContemporary Southeast Asia, Asian Journal of Social Science, and Asian Politics & Policies, and as book chapters and working papers. He is the author of Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia (2021).

Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas is a documentary photographer who lives and works in New York. She is the author of Carnival Strippers (1976), Nicaragua (1981), Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History(1997), Pandora’s Box (2001), Encounters with the Dani (2003) Prince Street Girls (2016), A Room Of Their Own (2017) and Tar Beach (2020). Meiselas is celebrated for her documentation of human rights issues in Latin America. Her photographs are included in North American and international collections. In 1992 she was made a MacArthur Fellow, received a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), and most recently the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (2019) and the first Women in Motion Award from Kering and the Rencontres d’Arles. Mediations, a survey exhibition of her work from the 1970s to present was recently exhibited at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Jeu de Paume, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo. She has been the President of the Magnum Foundation since 2007, which supports, trains, and mentors the next generation of in-depth documentary photographers and innovative practice.

Ileana L. Selejan

Ileana L. Selejan researched photography in Nicaragua for PhotoDemos. She is a Research Fellow with the Decolonising Arts Institute and Associate Lecturer at the University of the Arts London. Her research focuses on photography and documentary practices in Central America. She was the Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College. She received her PhD in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was granted the 2012–13 Joan and Stanford Alexander Award from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Her work has been published in journals including Visual Studies, Photographies, and Photography & Culture.

Nestan Nijaradze

Nestan Nijaradze co-founded Tbilisi Photography House in 2007, an institution that aims to promote photography in Georgia, and currently serves as its director. She took up the position of editor in chief of Photo Magazine in 2007 until 2009, at which point she became the local production manager at the Georgian Spring project by Magnum Photo Agency. In 2010, she co-founded Tbilisi Photo Festival, an annual international photography festival, and currently serves as its co-artistic director. The key idea behind the festival was to make Tbilisi a central meeting point for photography from different regions – Asia, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Arab world, as well as to showcase the best of the world’s photography and to promote emerging regional photography. Additionally, she has been a curator of numerous photo exhibitions and photo projects in Georgia and abroad.

Taslima Akhter

Taslima Akhter is a Magnum fellow photographer & activist. She has been documenting garment workers’ life and struggles for 13 years. One of her photos, ‘Final Embrace’, became the iconic photo of the Rana Plaza disaster in which more than 1000 workers died. Taslima edited a 480-page Bangla book on Rana Plaza collapse: Chobbishe April: Hazar Praner Chitkar (24th April: Out Cries of Thousand Souls). She also served in an editorial role for the website As a part of working with the community, she coordinated the Memorial Quilt project (see: Taslima teaches at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. She wrote many articles on women & workers issues and translated Alexandra Kollontai’s writings. She is also working as an acting president of a workers rights organization Bangladesh Garment Sramik Samhati (Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity).

Oksana Sarkisova

Oksana Sarkisova is Research Fellow at Blinken Open Society Archives, co-founder of Visual Studies Platform at Central European University, and Director of Verzio Documentary Film Festival, Budapest. She teaches and writes on film, memory politics, and amateur photography. She co-edited Past for the Eyes: East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museums after 1989 (2008) and authored Screening Soviet Nationalities: Kulturfilms from the Far North to Central Asia (2017) and is currently completing a co-authored manuscript “Snapshot Histories” (with Olga Shevchenko, forthcoming).

Vindhya Buthpitiya

Vindhya Buthpitiya researched photography in Sri Lanka for PhotoDemos. She is an anthropologist and curator whose work is centred at the intersection of conflict and visual culture. Her current research is focused on war, photography, and civilian resistance in northern Sri Lanka, which considers the local and global aftermaths of civil conflict through the making and moving of images. Vindhya recently completed a PhD in Anthropology at University College London, where she is presently a Research Fellow. She also has over a decade of research and policy experience in the international development sector spanning post-war reconciliation, transitional justice and community-environment relationships.

George Agbo

George Emeka Agbo teaches in the visual arts department of University of Nigeria, Nsukka, having trained in visual art, museum and heritage, photography history and theory. He is interested in photography as a means of engagement with colonial history and postcolonial politics. He recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship on the AHRC-funded Museum Affordances/ [Re:]Entanglements project at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. The project involved reactivating the colonial archive (comprising photographs, artefacts and audio recordings) gathered in Nigeria and Sierra Leone by N. W. Thomas between 1909 and 1915. Under the African Humanities Program, a fellowship of the American Council of Learned Societies, he is currently working on a social media photography book project.

Naluwembe Binaisa

Naluwembe Binaisa researched photography in Nigeria for PhotoDemos. She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research seeks to understand the intersections of mobilities, belonging and citizenship across gender and generation dynamics. Her work focuses on a rapidly urbanising Africa and the diaspora, local and transnational flows, visual culture, digital technologies and the politics of identity and refuge. Naluwembe is committed to research enquiry that de-centres development discourses and centres Africa’s epistemologies. Her research spans the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Europe, and has been published in journals including Journal of Race and Ethnic StudiesPhotography & CultureJournal of Intercultural Studies and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Comparative Literature, Brown University. She is a film essayist and curator of archives and exhibitions. Her books include Potential History – Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019), Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012), The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008) and From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (Pluto Press 2011). Among her films and film essays: Un-documented: Unlearning Imperial Plunder (2019), Civil Alliances, Palestine, 47-48 (2012), Errata (Tapiès Foundation, 2019, HKW, Berlin, 2020), Enough! The Natural Violence of New World Order, (F/Stop photography festival, Leipzig, 2016).

Christopher Pinney

Christopher Pinney researched photography in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh for PhotoDemos. He is Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London. His research interests centre on the art and visual culture of South Asia, with a particular focus on the history of photography and chromolithography in India. His publications include Camera Indica (1997), ‘Photos of the Gods’ (2004), The Coming of Photography in India (2008), Photography and Anthropology (2011), and Lessons from Hell: Printing and Punishment in India (2018). He was Principal Investigator on the European Research Council Advanced Grant “PhotoDemos”.