Discovering the Power of Resistance

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Photography PhD student, Epha Roe, reviews the University of Brighton symposium ‘Photography and Resistance’

Fig. 1 “A woman protests against the presence of soldiers in the townships, Soweto 1985”, Photograph by Paul Weinberg

I was fifteen when I first discovered photography. It was a last minute shift, not out of genuine interest, but because a close friend of mine had switched her choice from our mutually agreed-upon Drama and Theatre Studies, and I didn’t want to be potentially left alone at school. In the end we weren’t even put into the same group. But the choice had been made and has since ended up shaping the subsequent years of my life.

Fast-forward twelve long years to January 2019 and I find myself lucky enough to attend a two-day research symposium at the University of Brighton under the title ‘Photography and Resistance’, organised by visiting research fellow Kylie Thomas, and Uschi Klein. The symposium brought together photographers, artists and researchers from around the country and overseas, to discuss the varying ways in which photography (and other media) intersect with notions of resistance, in particular in relation to repressive regimes. It also connected researchers work on photographs taken during and after apartheid in South Africa, together with histories of photography in other locations.

A common thread throughout the speakers’ papers, as well as among discussions after, was whether the notion of resistance was implicit or explicit in its relation to photography. Indeed, whether or not resistance was an after effect, or might be contained within the action of taking a photograph. Further threads, however, seemed to demonstrate it as both.

Jordana Blejmar’s paper, ‘Spectral Topographies: Photography and Disappearance in Argentina’, explored the way in which the children of parents who were ‘disappeared’ during the 1976-83 military junta regime, used photography to reclaim their parents memory through constructed, fictional encounters. Using images of their parents translated through a mixture of photo-collage and projection, their photographs demonstrate a means of resistance both in the process and the result. Their images, effectively capturing the presence of absence, provide the potential of connection with other children of disappeared parents. Their photographs also act as visual invitations to activism.

Memory or remembrance as a tool of resistance was a theory reiterated by Patricia Prieto-Blanco, whose paper focussed on her co-author’s autograph book, inherited from her grandmother Viktorija; this was a product of Viktorija’s time in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northeast Germany in the Second World War. Here the book is understood as a place of relational resistance, somewhere where both Viktorija and her friends wrote of their time within the camp. In it, Patricia argued, Viktorija’s writings ignore the present of their difficult conditions in favour of an idealised future. Rather than constructing the war, they obstruct it through the subject of the autograph book.

An analysis of the Austrian photographer Dora Kallmus, by Kylie Thomas, discussed the tensions between Kallmus’ pre-war society photographs and her post-war images of a Parisian abattoir. Kylie showed how the latter was a possible act of resistance, as an indirect visualisation of her sister’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Other investigations of photography and antisemitism were present in Gil Pasternak’s work on the ‘Landkentnish’ (Yiddish for “knowing the land”) movement of 1926-38. Gil explained how it sought to preserve Jewish heritage among the growing rise of Polish nationalism. This movement, among other things, used photography to document Jewish monuments and create archives of local Jewish cultural heritage, effectively imaging the significance of intersectional cultures and national belonging, using the Polish landscape as its backdrop. This imaging, Gil argued, allowed Jews to consider their heritage within the Polish landscape, and simultaneously allowed Polish people a way to consider the landscape with the presence of Jewish life.

These instances of resistance all challenged restrictive or repressive structures. These same themes were underlined by the work of Juliana Kasumu, especially in relation to the archive as a site of history. Through using her own creative work as an example, Kasumu highlighted the importance of intersectional thought, especially when considering colonial photographs, which are often considered to be objective representations rather than sites of exploitation.

After two days of wide-ranging thought, the argument that photography may contain the ability to resist forms of repression, both during and after traumatic events, seems only to ring true. As well as getting to hear the many speakers’ fascinating perspectives on resistance, it also allowed me some surprising time for self-reflection. My early self-portraits, for example, themselves a gateway into photography and as a safe mode of self-representation, were themselves, in hindsight, a reaction to an environment that was restrictive and repressive. And although I didn’t know it then, it was in that year of discovering photography and discovering myself that I also uncovered the power of resistance.

Further details of the symposium, including further details of speakers and papers can be found here: https://photographyandresistance.wordpress.com/2019/01/23/research-symposium/

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