'To Make Us Wonder Who We Are': A Conversation About Humanist Photography

Alexandra Tommasini, Sylwia Serafinowicz, Achim Borchardt-Hume

AT: We would like to begin the conversation by talking about some of the recent exhibitions at the Whitechapel and then look more broadly at the exhibition of urban landscape photography.

SS: You were appointed Chief Curator of the Whitechapel in 2009 and since that time there have been a few very thought provoking photographic exhibitions that you contributed to, such as: Where Three Dreams Cross and solo exhibitions of works by Walid Raad, Zarina Bhimji, and Thomas Struth. I was wondering whether there was a common denominator between these shows at the Whitechapel?  Can you say more about the reason why these were showcased?

ABH: The first counter-question that comes to my mind is how to separate the exhibitions out by medium because, generally—while there is an awareness of it—I don’t think we program in that way. It starts more the other way around. You look first at the panorama of what artists are doing today or in recent times. For example, where do people ask questions that seem to have some relevance to where we are now and how can you present this in an exhibition format within the gallery? Part of that conversation involves thinking about where the lacunae are in our knowledge.  That was very much the case with Where Three Dreams Cross. In terms of how it has cast photography historically, there is relatively little awareness of photography in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Some of the other ones were programmed for different reasons. Thomas Struth is an artist working with photography and is probably one of the key figures in his field, but he has not exhibited in London for 20 years. Paul Graham is one of the most significant British artists working in photography and has never had a major solo exhibition here. For Walid Raad, I find the relationship to the medium slightly different. In Walid’s case, while the medium is of course photography, arguably, it is also other things like memory and the archive. There is a surface similarity in terms of what the object looks like but the approach is quite a different one. What interested me particularly about Walid’s work is how you conflate reflections on history and a moment of crisis in history with a moment of crisis in the medium. So, he conflates the postwar history of Lebanon and our sudden surge of interest in the Middle East with the crisis of photography – how photography proliferates at the moment and also how it is nostalgic. I guess I am keen to point this out because, while they all work with photography, only some would customarily be labeled photographers and the other ones would be labeled artists. As a visual arts venue this raises the questions: where, how, and who do I speak to when I work on which project?

SS: Why do you use the phrase ‘crisis of photography’?

ABH: I think that a lot of the conventional understanding of what defines a photograph doesn’t hold up to scrutiny anymore. We all know this. I think our relationship to photography is fundamentally changing. On the one hand, now everybody can be a photographer. That was very curious in terms of, for instance, Where Three Dreams Cross. The conventional analog photographic apparatus was too expensive to become a mass medium in those countries. So unlike here, people didn’t see their personal history continually mediated through photography. Now they do because they have mobile phones. You see history the way you live it now; it is documented as it happens. It is completely different because everyone can take pictures. At the same time, because everybody is familiar with Photoshop, you also have the question as to how truthful photographs really are. So nobody would require you to see a newspaper photograph and say, ‘I get it now, that’s the story’. We would all know that that image is taken from a vantage point. You decide what you show. In other words, it is a relationship that you have with photography as archiving history, the way you see it now in digital format, the way it can be manipulated, the way you can make what look like photographic images but aren’t really photographs. If Wolfgang Tillmans makes a large photographic print for which there is no negative and there is no pretext in reality, then what is that thing? It looks like a photograph, but is it a photograph the way we generally understand it? So in those philosophical terms, when I say crisis, I think it is on a par with historical media such as painting. If you say painting is in a crisis then you can say photography is in a crisis.

SS: Maybe art historians are in a crisis trying to define photography. It is difficult to say that it is the photographer’s crisis as they have more latitude to express themselves through the media. 

ABH: But maybe it is also that, this idea of crisis, or whatever you want to call it – this moment of turmoil – is not such a bad thing. Certainly for an artistic standpoint, actually quite a lot can come out of it.

SS: I was thinking also how in the last three years this photography-focused programme – if I can say that – worked in conjunction with the Whitechapel’s very strong tradition of exhibiting socially, and also locally, concerned art.

ACH: The local is a very curious question because I think it affects everybody. All art comes from a place. So, when we talk about global, it is easy to forget that everything comes from a place. London is a place and Aldgate East is a place within it. Bi-national people focus on a very strong local root and there tends to be a process of simplification. So in terms of Aldgate East – the area around the Whitechapel which is hugely mixed and has changed enormously over the years, and is continuously changing – the City is slowly spilling over. It has been subject to a considerable process of gentrification. A very strong and stable part of the population is Bangladeshi and Bengali. So I think, yes, over the years we have always tried to root ourselves in that, but I think it is not a simple equation. I think that it is true that we have a particularly strong connection with the community and it is a high priority for us but I would also say that that community is very diverse and very heterogeneous.

SS: Considering the exhibition of Walid Raad and Zarina Bhimji’s work, we can say that they both focus on conflict and its outcomes, such as migration. I was wondering what the photography of rural or urban emptiness, evident in both these projects, evokes in this context.

ABH: It is curious. I am not sure that Walid’s or Zarina’s work focuses particularly on conflict. I think the conflict is the background foil – it is a set of circumstances that has shaped a way of looking. I would say that, in Walid’s case, I felt it was more about the notion of preserving history materially and visually – a history that cannot be told orally.

Language is a system of abstraction that we rely on all the time but it may not be adequate for actually telling certain stories because it becomes too fixed. Language must be linear. I have to speak a sentence from beginning to end. That is not necessarily how things evolve. Things can stand alongside and in tension with each other. This is something that visual art can do. A photograph can hold the tension of conflicting ideas within itself which language cannot. So I think this is an important aspect in Walid’s work. Then more recently, there is increasingly the question of what we mean when we want someone to be an artist from the Middle East. What is this Middle East? Why are we so fascinated with it?

In Zarina’s case, I think it’s almost more the transcending power that an image can have, particularly by generating beauty – that you can make an image which takes on a life of its own and that, through its aesthetics, plays on a register which again bypasses language. So I think if you watched any of Zarina’s films or if you looked at any of her photographs, you would know nothing about their historic circumstances. It’s impossible to learn anything – it wouldn’t tell you a story. You wouldn’t know who has taken the picture, what colour skin they have, or how old they are. You wouldn’t know anything about Britain, India, or Africa, although you may begin to guess. Of course, it’s reliant on the second tier of information to some degree but I think what is in the work itself is this very, very strong emphasis on creating a moment of beauty.

SS: In the context of what you just said, what do you think about the function of titles of the work?  They are often elaborate. I wonder about the tension between the image and the title.

ABH: Yes, of course, I think it’s hugely important. It’s like charging a battery. You take something which has a large degree of openness, and you charge it in some direction by giving it a title.

In the context of Walid Raad, I feel the titles evoke strong connotations. They come out of an Arabic way of telling stories – they are very elaborate, full of subjunctives, potential, and they don’t correct it. So in a way, they give you a lot of information and then they don’t really.

In the case of Zarina’s work, I think it is a bit like poetry. There’s this moment where the image and language – which is a second tier – begin to respond to those elements which may create counterpoints. Something that may actually look like a very innocuous landscape may begin to look like an allusion to a moment of violence, or it can be a very personal association. Again it doesn’t actually increase your level of knowledge as such. But it’s like beginning to play the piano: you keep hitting one more key and it finally comes together.

SS: When you were talking about Zarina’s work, it seemed important that her photography offers a trigger for contemplation, rather than a depiction of a certain moment in time. I wonder whether there is a reason for this, given the fact that Walid and Zarina both use the mediums of film and photography. Do you see a relationship between the use of film and photography – the construction of an image which perhaps allows for contemplation and gives a certain sense of duration, rather than a depiction of one particular moment?

ABH: I think they offer two quite distinct approaches. In Walid Raad’s work, because he works in so many different media – there’s photography, film, performance, sculpture, installation, publishing, web projects – each media is used for its material connotations in order to play with a particular idea. So the film will only exist as a film. It will play with its own conventions, like in the example of the Fakhouri File, which I think is very funny. The film is so fast that you can’t really watch it. If you sit down in front of the film, you can’t read it. The Bachar Tapes give the notion of documentary which is then hugely inflated in the way it is projected. It uses all the tropes of documentary and yet, the narrator’s voice is the wrong voice: it’s not credible, it can’t be the one telling the story, and there are gender switches. That’s very consistent with the fact that the photograph doesn’t show you what it purports to show you.

So the Secrets in the open sea look like a series of monochrome blue images with small little black and white photographs in the corners. Allegedly, the latter were found underneath the blue with the help of chemical analysis.

And of course you know it’s impossible to make a photograph that has two images on top of each other. But every time I gave a tour of the exhibition, people asked, ‘Is it really a photograph underneath?’ So he plays very much with material conventions of the chosen medium.

I think in Zarina’s work, because it comes out of making photographic work, it is much more clear-cut. Then the question of how to turn the photograph into a spatial object seems to be a preoccupation: first hanging the image in the middle of the room, then making the room which has photographs all around so you’re surrounded by them, then making lots and lots of photographs taken in the run-up to the films using different media like Polaroid photography and digital photography. Then the film is made and after that you go back to discuss which type of photograph can stand by itself, not as a representative of the film but as a still image which works differently to a moving one. So, I see it as a different relationship.

SS: They are both very skilful producers of the images and seemed not be driven by nostalgia. That is why I was wondering whether we can talk about a certain tradition of landscape representation in their images, or whether their work is site-specific, time-specific, or both.

ABH: They are certainly not site-specific because I think it doesn’t address the specifics of the place they are showing. Time-specific is a very curious question. What makes work time-specific when it comes out of its own moment? I think that when you speak about traditions of image making, my impression is that Walid is very educated in the history of photography. He studied at Rochester. He really knows the history, particularly of American photography and European photography, and he plays with that. Sweet Talk is completely laid-out like a Walker Evans book. So he even conceives tropes of this history.

Intuitively, I would say Zarina’s comes from the history of art and painting. We could imagine that she is thinking of landscape depictions and creations of ideal landscapes transcending reality, which then creates a moment of transcending beauty in her work which then gets filtered back into the making of the photograph and film project.

To my mind I guess the big question between the two, I mean not just between these two artists but in the relationship between these two traditions, is: when photography formed its own conventions how much were they already formed by the understanding of painting? In the same way, there’s no painter that could ignore the conventions of photography.

SS: In their interviews, they both refer to abstract art. So, I am tempted to ask whether it is possible to read their images, which indirectly represent the contemporary human condition, in a politically and critically engaged way similar to how we read abstraction in Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko.

ABH: Abstraction is a very difficult thing, isn’t it? I think it’s the big visual invention of modernism. It fundamentally shifts the relationship between an art object and the viewer. I think historically when you had representation in art, the painter created a space for the viewer. So the artist and viewer met on this plane. Abstraction closes that off – there is the object and there is you.

So in a way you could say it’s a much more individualistic viewing experience, which is maybe closer to enlightenment ideas and our notion of self. But it also creates a bigger tension between the two.

I think those conventions are something which most artists are aware of, whether consciously, theoretically or just intuitively. So I guess in the interview with Walid Raad this came up particularly because I felt that generally the way that the work is discussed is in relationship to the Lebanese civil wars, their documentary value, and the idea of the archive. To me the materiality of Walid’s work was very important – they are real objects and things and he is very good at making things. Furthermore, he is as Western and American, because of his education and thinking, as he is probably Lebanese and Middle Eastern. He knows the conventions of Western art very well which is why we can, or I think somebody like me, can cross that boundary and go there because I have something which is familiar with me – it provides a new meeting point.

In terms of Zarina’s work, and I guess it is a question of a wider idea about abstraction not necessarily being tied just to this notion of showing you a thing but that there are systems of abstraction that allow you to transcend the specifics of the moment. Even when you see a specific building in her work the notion that you might understand more by knowing what this building is or who lived there is not significant. It’s not a building that has anything to do with her. It’s a building that was chosen for its particular visual qualities.

SS: So it seems as if there was nothing political about it…

ABH: Well that’s the great question of how one defines political, which I think is the big question of this moment. On the one hand there is now a lot of artistic practice which is borderline activist. It is very directional in terms of how it uses the mechanisms of art production to bring across a message. And there’s other work which put its politics in a different moment, creating this very open space so things get felt or thought about in a less directional way.

So I would say: is the work of an artist such as Zarina Bhimji political, in the sense that it will tell you something about post-colonial history or black identity? I would say probably not. Is it political – and arguably that applies to all art – in that it makes you far more aware of the world around you? Then I would say yes.

Walid’s I think is a different question. There’s a greater agency in terms of being very aware of history telling, storytelling, mechanisms of the art world, and how we are tied into the world at large. If you talk about the current interest in Middle Eastern art, it’s embedded in wider socio-economic mechanisms.

SS: Just my last point before I hand over to Alexandra. It’s very interesting to hear what you’re saying because it almost makes me think that Bhimji’s work is a perfect example of a thought-provoking image: an image that doesn’t give any answers but makes you think about what you can see and what you can’t see, provoking further research.

AHB: Yes, and I think it is also the mechanism of forging something, which is very traumatic into something, which is beautiful. And that isn’t a way of covering things up, or denying the history, but I think it’s a capacity that humans have for making things.

SS: Do you think these deserted landscapes have a special capacity in this context? I know you were really struck by seeing her work and also interviewing her in the context of this exhibition.

ABH: I think it is a very curious thing. The landscape depiction in those films I thought was very fascinating because they are deserted. If one thinks about it, there are two distinctive narratives that coexist. This very often gets lost in the discussion of the work because the images can be reproduced, but the sound cannot. There is the filmed image and there is the recorded sound. The way it works is that the images get filmed first, the entire visual narrative is constructed, and then the audio narrative happens separately.

Very often when you see empty landscapes, actually in the soundtrack you hear presence, so you know there are other people around. In Out of Blue I found this particularly striking because it uses a lot of tropes, which I thought came out of film, if not outright horror film. It is using the uncanny. You see a deserted building and yet you can hear the human presence, which is a classic trope in film to create tension. You don’t know whether to be alarmed or not. So the landscape is empty, but you always feel there are humans there. It is somehow a place where something is happening, or has happened, but you are not quite told what this event is. I think it is in that tension where potential is created.

AT: We’d like to look more broadly at a few general curatorial questions. Can you identify any trends in the display of urban and rural landscape photography?

AHB: I think that the bigger question to me at the moment is how the medium is distinguished and how it is situated within the context of art. It is hugely shifting now.  We show photography at the Whitechapel Gallery and Tate is collecting photography.

Now, almost every artist, like almost every person, is a photographer. It’s become a much more pervasive medium. So I think there are certain conventions which have a fair deal of exposure. I think you see a lot of photographic work which will captures a certain place by applying a particular typology – a specific type of building, or a particular type of urban landscape, or a particular type of non-urban landscape. So the artists adopt the role of being the custodian of history. When they feel that a history has not been told, or has been told in a too ideologically stringent way, then they will photograph those places just to bring it to your attention. There is a different kind of history which you might not be able to recount in another way because the official one never takes into account the individual one. So whether that is seeing images of apartheid, or post-apartheid Africa, Palestine, or the Chicago project by Broomberg and Chanarin showing the training ground for the Israeli military, it just puts a reality in front of you. It uses the convention we think that is very familiar to us, but we know something is not familiar – it incites a process of questioning. I would say that more recently this custodianship of history has become a type of alternative reporting about world events. So where people feel that their stories are no longer communicated in a way that matches their experience on the ground, they will begin to use photography to put out a different image of a place. I have completely a different awareness of a place largely through the work of artists working in this media. Often this is the case for the Middle East or Africa, which don’t rely primarily on newspapers. We may actually find very little about certain events, but through using this mechanism, by putting photography out in the gallery context, we can.

AT: Earlier we were talking mainly about solo shows at the Whitechapel. I’m curious to know if you think there are any differences between solo exhibitions – one photographer, one visual language, one place, and one time – and group exhibitions of landscape photography? Could group exhibitions complicate the notions of temporality, space, and socio-political context?

ABH: I think that they are two slightly different beasts. Most artists work on smaller projects while also developing a bigger one. You can often only understand that bigger project when you see different bodies of work. So for instance, I would say, Thomas Struth’s bigger project is to understand why humans invest so much energy into getting beyond the here and now – whether that is by building churches in the Middle Ages, or by building rockets now. How come we can’t stay mentally put where we are? This seems to be inherent in the condition. In a way we can only understand it when you see his work looking at postwar German cities – a very neutral ground surveying urban landscapes of destruction and rebuilding. Comparing this to other forms of urban cohabitation such as Naples or Tokyo – a completely different mode of a postwar reconstruction – we then filter that through the idea or notion of culture.

I think when you do group exhibitions you set out mostly an argument which comes from a different agency where there is the curator pulling out connections. The dynamic is different. If you then find the right things and they enter into a conversation with one another, then that can be very interesting. So I don’t see the value judgment between the group and monographic. The question is more, how this is being played out in a gallery’s programme? This really has to do with the question of scale, what you can do properly to the level that it should be done, and what feels pertinent in a particular moment in time. For me at least, I found that these are very curious questions put the other way around. This is a slightly roundabout answer to your question. When I was working on the exhibition of Wilhelm Sasnal as a painter, I was very interested in why we assume that photography can talk about the world we live in on a daily basis, but painting cannot. Is that really the case or can painting be used to do that too? So rather than always being the other way around and first going with the form and saying, ‘this is photography’, ‘this is painting’, maybe it’s more of a philosophical question, instead of ‘what’s the form chosen by the artist’. Maybe the question asked is a different one. And most artists, in my experience, work like that.  In my experience, it is very often that in conversation with artists, when you ask them about other artists they are interested in, they may not necessarily choose someone who works in a particular medium, or may not choose a particular photographer.

SS: When I saw the exhibition This is Whitechapel, which was based on photographic portraits, and later on when I was reading about Struth’s work in the Whitechapel catalogue, I started thinking about the photographs he made of the Whitechapel area. It was not reproduced in the catalogue and it was not on display, was it?

ABH: The work that Thomas did when he was young, when he came to the Whitechapel? No.

SS: That is interesting. Those images perhaps show a different view of the social atmosphere of the Whitechapel area in the 1970s than the photographs shown at This is Whitechapel.

ABH: In the Struth exhibition there was one photograph that was taken very near to here. The images that he took earlier on here, were actually in collaboration with another photographer. Because we had to reconfigure the entire exhibition, compared to what it had been in Basel and Düsseldorf, the question primarily was how to represent the work of Thomas Struth adequately on this occasion. Then to show the Ian Barry project at the same time seemed to create an atmosphere for asking questions. He was the first photographer to be commissioned by the gallery. I think it is fair to say when you look at those photographs on display, they are not only portraits of the area, but they also ask all kinds of questions about the relationship between a photographer and the subject of the photograph. Would we do this today in that same way? What is a documentary image? It also highlighted the fact that in Struth’s images you never see people close up. I think part of this is, I guess, making us want to be more precise in the way we think and the in questions we ask. Just talking about a photograph or a painting can mean a lot of different things. I think particularly with regard to photography this discussion has still has yet to be fully exhausted. We talk about the photographs as though we are all thinking of the same object. I think, for instance, generationally we don’t. If you mention to me a photograph, the first thing I think of is an analogue photograph I can hold in my hands and put in an album. If you ask my daughter the first thing she will think of will be a digital image on her phone. We use the same word to describe two different things, which were made for different purposes, get circulated in different ways, and entail different modes of image construction.

SS: Do you think that despite the absence of people in Struth’s photographs of the Whitechapel area, his images say something more about the people who were living there than in the portraits?

AHB: I think in a simplified way, I would say that This is Whitechapel was a documentary project to show you a place in a particular moment in time, whereas I think Struth’s is a humanist project to make you wonder who we are. In order to wonder about it he uses photographic images and their conventions and relates them back to painting.

So I think the question asked is a fundamentally different one. I don’t think it is about showing you a street in the East End. He may show you the street in the East End, but the question he will ask is: How come people here construct their social life together like this, when in Japan they construct it like that? So how much do we have in common and at what point do we become different? Yet what seems to drive us all seems to be the same all over – a sort of grappling with who we are.

SS: Thank you for this very beautiful conclusion to our questions about the humanist potential of landscape photography.  


 All images are copyright of Walid Raad.
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York



Image references

  1. Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) _ Plate 064, 2010 archival inkjet print, 44 x 74 in. (112 x 188 cm) © Walid Raad. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. back
  2. Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) _ Plate 639, 2010, archival inkjet print, 44 x 74 in. (112 x 188 cm) © Walid Raad. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. back
  3. Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) _ Plate 049, 2010 archival inkjet print, 44 x 74 in. (112 x 188 cm) © Walid Raad. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. back
  4. Walid Raad, Let’s be honest, the weather helped, Plate 004_Swiss, 1998/2006-7 © Walid Raad. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. back
  5. Walid Raad, Let’s be honest, the weather helped, Plate 013_Venezuela, 1998/2006-7 © Walid Raad. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. back