On Collaborative Practice in Contemporary Photography
Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image.
Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography
This article centers on the notion that photography is inherently collaborative. This might not seem like a contested or groundbreaking line of thought but, until quite recently, photography’s history was shaped by the modernist concept of the artist as individual author. Following a century-long debate about the medium’s status, photography was finally embraced as an art form in the late 1960s when conceptual artists started using photography, and photographers, on the other hand, started to edition and sign their work (as “vintage prints”). Although the idea of authorship was instrumental in the legitimization of photography as art, it also led to a highly restricted understanding of the medium. In his recent publication Photography and Collaboration (2017), RMIT University professor Daniel Palmer even goes so far as saying, “Bound up with the construction of the modern author more generally—and related anxieties around originality and intentionality—it is difficult not to read [the fixation on authorship] as stemming from the idea that photography can be performed by anyone. Unease about photography’s democratic promise has, particularly in the hands of art historians, been overcompensated for in the figure of the bloated author.” Roughly put, in order for a photograph to be an artwork (to be exhibited, studied, and collected by modern art museums), curators and historians stressed the original vision and unique eye of its maker. This focus on the photographer as artist—and less on the subject and the sociopolitical conditions that shaped their view—remained persistent long after photography’s emancipation in the art world.
Revisionist publications such as Photography’s Other Histories have sought to expand the history of photography by moving away from a focus on Euro-American art and including other forms of (vernacular) photography. In recent years several scholars, curators, and photographers have emphasized the aspect—and importance—of collaboration in photography. For example, photographers Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald, together with scholars Ariella Azoulay, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler, have since 2013 been re-envisioning the history of photography in their research and exhibition project Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography. In my own practice as an art historian and curator, I became aware of this aspect while working on the group show On the Move – Storytelling in Contemporary Photography and Graphic Design at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2014. The exhibition featured twenty-eight projects by more than sixty photographers and designers working collaboratively. The show illustrated that photography projects are increasingly multi-platform: they not only consist of photographs on the wall or in a book but also include video projections, spatial installations, websites, and apps. As a result, interdisciplinary collaboration became a necessity. For example, multi-platform projects like Kadir van Lohuizen’s Vía PanAm (2011–2014) or Anaïs Lopez’s The Migrant (2018) strongly rely on the practical and artistic input of graphic and interface designers, programmers, image and video editors, writers, researchers, and producers. Working in teams is a practical solution for a technical problem. But the rise in collaborative practice also points to something bigger, and can be linked to societal debates about visual representation, inclusivity, and who has the right to represent whom. This aspect became clear to me through another work, Welkom Today, a collaborative photography project about the post-apartheid era in South Africa, launched at the Stedelijk in May 2019. In this article, I will use Welkom Today (a work in progress at the time of writing) as a starting point to discuss recent examples of collaborative practice in photography from my own experience as a curator working in the Netherlands. What these projects have in common is their self-reflexive, intercultural approach. Each work deals with the power relationship between (Western) photographer and (“non-Western”) subject, and more specifically with the representation of African histories and communities. The photographers in this article express a critical view on the documentary tradition in the postcolonial era. They counter the historical figure and singular perspective of the Western (male) photographer and propose multiple (insider) perspectives instead. It is not my intention to provide an exhaustive overview of collaborative practice in contemporary photography, but to highlight certain aspects of this development and to propose a different way of thinking about authorship in photography.
Welkom in Suid-Afrika (1990–1991)
With her highly political writing on photography, cultural theorist and Brown University professor Ariella Azoulay questions fundamental thoughts about the medium and its history, effects, and functioning in today’s world. In her much-discussed publication from 2008, The Civil Contract of Photography, Azoulay focuses on photographs as encounters, in both physical and philosophical terms. What she describes as collaboration is not simply a partnership between professional photographers, but the interrelation between photographers, subjects, and spectators. In her view, photography is relational and therefore the concept of authorship (and ownership of images) must be reconsidered. “In photography—and this is evident in every single photo—there is something that extends beyond the photographer’s action…. Even when it seems possible to name correctly in the form of a statement what it shows—‘This is X’—it will always turn out that something else can be read in it, some other event can be reconstructed from it, some other player’s presence can be discerned through it, constructing the social relations that allowed its production.”
This statement also holds true for Welkom Today, a new photography project that—unknown to its instigators at the time—came into being in the early 1990s. To prove Azoulay’s point, it is important to go back to the roots of the project.
In May 1990 the Dutch documentary photographer Ad van Denderen and writer Margalith Kleijwegt traveled to Welkom, a small mining town in South Africa, to document the last days of apartheid and the process of change, shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela. Van Denderen photographed political gatherings and protests, but also followed the everyday lives of the mineworkers—people going to church, school, and work, and also during their nights out on the town. Welkom in Suid-Afrika, his first traditional black-and-white photobook, brings together the separate worlds of the white middle-class community in Welkom and the poor black township of Thabong. The book provides an unsettling image of a segregated society and its long road to justice, reconciliation, and equality.
Welkom in Suid-Afrika also paints a portrait of Lebohang Tlali’s childhood. Tlali was born in 1978 in the township Thabong. With the help and support of his high school teacher, Tlali relocated to Cape Town to study art history and photography. There, in the library of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, he discovered Van Denderen’s book. It served as an eye-opener; Tlali saw for the first time how the white community lived during apartheid. At the same time, the photographs from Thabong provided a feeling of recognition. Many years later, in 2015, he decided to reach out to Van Denderen via e-mail. Tlali proposed bringing the photographs back to Welkom, where they had never been shown before. Ever since, the two photographers have worked on a critical follow-up, titled Welkom Today, which explores the post-apartheid period from multiple perspectives.
The story of this encounter shows the impact of a photobook. However, it also points to an uncomfortable aspect of the Western documentary tradition. If the photographs were never seen in their place of origin, for whose eyes were they intended?
In the case of Welkom in Suid-Afrika the aim was to create awareness among the Dutch public about the political tensions in the former colony. In addition to the book, Van Denderen published his photographs in Vrij Nederland (a left-wing Dutch news magazine) and followed up on his series with a reportage in NRC Handelsblad (one of the main newspapers in the Netherlands) in 2004. His photographs were used to inform, as a call to action, and to contribute to the efforts of the international community to put pressure on the regime. But Van Denderen also wanted to show a different side of the story; he documented the rising tensions between the white and black communities without showing violence directly. He always shunned sensational news images. This set him apart from the practice of “victim photography” and its focus on oppression and human suffering. Regardless of the photographer’s good intentions, the emphasis on victimhood and the belief in the power and truth of a single photograph were thoroughly criticized in the 1980s and ’90s. Artists and critics such as Martha Rosler argued that “documentary, as we know it, carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful.” As a result of this discussion, more and more artists and photographers, including Van Denderen, started to question their position as image-makers. Instead of making statements, Van Denderen became increasingly interested in raising questions.
In 1991, the same year Welkom in Suid-Afrika was published, anthropologist Jay Ruby reflected on the “crisis of documentary photography” in Perspektief Magazine. He links this crisis to the postcolonial era and the emancipation of formerly marginalized groups, which led to the contestation of the authority of a “Western, male, middle-class, heterosexual construction of reality.” According to Ruby, this new world order required a reinvention of all forms of representation, including documentary media. He goes on to compare the work of documentary photographers and filmmakers to the practice of anthropology. “In order to maintain a viable position in a post-colonial world, anthropology is attempting to re-invent itself, stopping the pretense of ‘speaking for’ and beginning to explore ways to ‘speak about’ or ‘speak with.’” Or, in the profound words of James Clifford in Writing Culture, “Anthropology no longer speaks with automatic authority for others defined as unable to speak for themselves.” This critique also hits the core of documentary photography. One solution that Ruby proposes for this crisis of representation is the “development of a multivocal approach, that is, the sharing of the power of authorship.” However, it would still take almost two decades for this idea to become commonplace in photography.
In 2006 curator Okwui Enwezor followed up on the debate in the book for his landmark exhibition, Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography. He not only repeats the critique on victim photography (and silencing the subject), but specifically attacks the misrepresentation of the African continent by traveling Western photographers. In his text he focuses on the “clash of lenses” and the dissonance between “how Africans see their world and how others see that world.” In order to counter colonial myths about Africa, which in his opinion still persisted well into the twenty-first century, Enwezor calls for self-representation. “Photographic depictions of Africa in the global media are shaped primarily by the subjectivity of Western photographers, many of whom wield a controlling influence over visual meaning.” The reason for this, he argues, is simple: “Western photographers have the broadest access to distribution systems and reach far more of the global public because of the Western control of global media and institutions of visual and archival modernity.” In short, the problem Enwezor describes is not the lack of other images or voices from Africa, but the lack of platforms and visibility.
In the twenty-eight years between Welkom in Suid-Afrika (1991) and Welkom Today (2019) the issue of visual representation moved to the forefront of the public debate. The issue today is not simply the victimization of the “other” in news media, but the lack of diversity and the need for other stories as well as inclusivity in society. In the words of Enwezor, “As globalization spreads, it also exposes the fault lines of knowledge circuits that for such a long period remained Eurocentric.” Globalization also fundamentally changed the cultural landscape. Since the late 1990s there has been a significant rise of photography platforms in Africa, creating various lively art scenes throughout the continent. It also led to the emergence of a strong African documentary tradition. Without being able to discuss these developments in detail, it is clear that the rise of collaborative photography projects follows on a radically different understanding of what it means to depict other cultures and communities.
Ruby’s proposal for “multivocality” also resonates in the work of Dutch photographer, researcher, and curator Andrea Stultiens. In 2011 she founded the crowdsourcing platform History in Progress Uganda with artist Rumanzi Canon Griffin. Together they document, research, and share Ugandan photography collections and archives. Their aim is to activate the historical images in the present by sharing their findings on Facebook, hosting exhibitions, and making publications. In her eight-part book series, Ebifananyi, Stultiens looks into various collections, including portrait studios, colonial archives, and family photo albums. In these small, intimate publications she is paradoxically both present and absent. Stultiens is explicit about her own subjective take on the material, but at the same time she does not want to claim the role of author. For example, her name is not mentioned on the cover of the books. She describes her research as a form of collaboration with other photographers—either in real life or mediated through their work. Rather than appropriating the work of others, she takes on the role of an editor/moderator by recontextualizing the images and discussing their possible meanings in the present. This complex position is one of the outcomes of her recently completed PhD Arts research, titled Ebifananyi: On photographs and telling histories from and about Uganda. Her work is inspired by Azoulay’s notion of photographs as encounters and Tim Ingold’s writing on correspondences as a way to relate to photographic material and positions. Stultiens’s research is practice-based and relational: each exhibition or publication is formed in dialogue with others, builds on previous experiences, and explores different artistic strategies.