A manifesto for unlearning

How can we use participatory photography as a tool for emancipation, unlearning assumed hierarchies between artists, subjects, and audiences?

Eva Sajovic Agnes Czajka
20 November 2017
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Image taken during the Darat Al Funun Foundation residency in Jordan. All rights reserved.In March 2017, the Who Are We? Tate Exchange project explored, among other themes, contemporary discourses on migration and representations of migrants and refugees. The photographic work of Eva Sajovic framed discussion at one of the learning labs that formed part of the project. Eva’s practice pushes the boundaries of participatory and collaborative arts, challenging the dynamics of power and assumptions made by artists when working with and alongside communities of dis/placement. The learning lab, titled, Unlearning the Role of the Artist, explored the politics and ethics of representing ‘others’ in a time of global displacement, and interrogated the use of participatory arts practices, particularly participatory photography, when working with displaced populations.

In the interview that follows, Eva Sajovic reflects on the two photographic projects that framed the discussion and the questions they raise about power, agency, voice, and some of our deep-seated assumptions about the relationships and responsibilities of artists and audiences.

Framed by Eva’s participatory photography and social portraiture, the critical reflections of the artists, curators, activists, educators and academics who participated in the Learning Lab led to the emergence of a Manifesto for Unlearning. The Manifesto, edited by Agnes Czajka (AC) and Eva Sajovic (ES), has been re-printed below the interview. It is a live and evolving document – please feel free to contribute to it through the ‘comments’ section.

AC: Tell me a bit about the work you presented at the 'Unlearning the Role of the Artist' learning lab at Tate Exchange. You subsequently exhibited some of that work at Galerija Media Nox in Maribor, Slovenia, and reflected on it in a second learning lab, which opened the exhibition and was facilitated by Counterpoints Arts and Terra Vera. Tell me about the photographs you exhibited, and the stories they tell.

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Image from the Happy New Year New Year Dreams Come True project. All rights reserved.ES: The work I exhibited and discussed at the Tate Modern and then at Galerija Media Nox was produced as part of two distinct projects, which nevertheless had two things in common. Both addressed the subject of displacement, which is something I deal with in a lot of my work, and both employed the methodology of participatory photography, again, a methodology I work with quite often. So even though the projects were quite distinct, they were also synergetic. The more I reflected on the methodology as well as on the photographs themselves, the more I realised that they also raised some common questions – around community, belonging, participation, dispossession and displacement, survival, agency and voice. 

These are all big questions, some of which I tried to think through in the learning labs, with you, and with Áine O’Brien from Counterpoints Arts. The work I discussed during the two learning labs (no. I March 2017, Tate Modern and no. II, 13 July 2017 at Media Nox, Slovenia) and that I exhibited in the PREMIKI/Photographic (Communities of) Displacement exhibition at Media Nox were intended to act as catalysts for conversation, knowledge sharing and solidarity in relation to some of these issues. The learning labs were also dedicated to interrogating the often taken-for-granted distinctions between photographer, subject and viewer, and tried to challenge traditional conceptions of the roles, responsibilities and power relationships that emerge between photographer, subject and viewer. In doing so, they tried to explore the possibilities of rethinking and re-contextualising photography and the photograph as critical, emancipatory practice. 

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Image from the Happy New Year New Year Dreams Come True project at the entrance of the PREMIKI/Photographic (Communities of) Displacement exhibition at Galerija Media Nox in Maribor, Slovenia. All rights reserved.AC: We’ll come back to some of this later, but for now, tell me more about the two projects. One was produced as part of a two-leg residency at the Darat Al Funun Foundation (DAFF) in Amman, Jordan, the objective of which was to explore the relationship between climate change and displacement. 

ES: The starting point for the residency in Jordan was research conducted at Columbia University in 2015, which suggested a connection between crop failure in Syria and migration into Jordan (and further into Europe). Climate change, caused largely by consumption in the west, has, between 2007 and 2011, contributed to the worst drought in Syrian history. The drought led to a mass exodus of rural farm workers into the city, exacerbating existing social tensions and potentially contributing to the outbreak of civil war, which in turn, lead to further migration from Syria, including to Jordan.

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Images taken during the Darat Al Funun Foundation (DAFF) residency in Jordan. All rights reserved.My stay in Jordan, and the work I did there, raised a number of questions for me: questions around representation and power, whose voice tells whose story, and participation as a more ethical way of working with others. While I was there, one of the events that profoundly affected my ways of working and knowing was a visit with two Syrian farmer families that lived on the side of the road in Mafraq (an area near the Zaatari camp) in what are known as ‘informal tent settlements’. 

AC: Tell me more about this visit, and some of the questions it raised for you. 

My visit to the informal tent settlement was arranged by a local activist and NGO worker from Jordan who regularly advocates around issues of migration. I was accompanied by a local resident of the area who provides informal support to the people I was visiting and an interpreter. We were warmly welcomed by the families, invited into their tents, and hosted with tea. Despite my attempt to focus the conversation on the questions of drought in Syria and the conditions on their Syrian farms prior to their move, the families were keen to discuss their current situation: the lack of support from international NGO’s and schooling opportunities for their children, for example.

We stayed with one of the families for a few hours and they were eager to talk and share their story. Them giving us their time created an expectation and a responsibility to share that story further, to make use of the time given. The immediacy of the critical situation the families were in made me question, ‘How can I do justice to their experiences and their stories? How and to whom does the photographic work that was produced as part of the encounter need to be shown? How can it be made effective?’ The encounter also raised another question: Which stories do we tell, and are we responsible for telling? As a photographer, I went in expecting, wanting, and indeed, being expected to as part of the residency to tell the story of climate change induced displacement. Of course, that is how this family wound up in Jordan. But that’s not the story the family wanted to tell. They wanted me, and those I would share the photographs with, to see their living conditions, their daily struggles, to hear about the problems they had enrolling their children in school. Weren’t those the stories I was then responsible, compelled to tell?

As all of this was happening and as I was reflecting on all of this, I was also always aware of ‘academic’ discourses and debates on the topic of over-representation of and over-research in disenfranchised and the displaced communities, and in particular, aware of the debates around photography, and the camera as an exploitive, voyeuristic, power-laden tool for ‘looking at the pain of others’. So whilst I thought I had a responsibility to show the photographs I took, I was simultaneously very wary of showing them.

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Images taken during the Darat Al Funun Foundation (DAFF) residency in Jordan. All rights reserved.AC: It sounds like this encounter provoked something of a crisis for you.  

ES: Yes. I felt quite conflicted and torn. I felt responsible to the people I worked with, that is, the families in the tent settlement, who were asking me to share the stories they wanted to tell, and to those who supported me in this work – those who introduced me to the families, accompanied me to meet them, translated, and so on. Many of these people had themselves experienced displacement, and likewise encouraged me to disseminate the work as a means of telling these stories. But then there was the organization that sponsored my residency. Whilst they supported me in the visits, they expressed concern about showing this work in a gallery context, which I understood to be related to some of the academic debates I previously mentioned, and the deep-seeded suspicion of the academic and art ‘worlds’ about the ethics of working with displaced populations, and the often taken for granted assumption that it is exploitive and voyeuristic.

AC: Let’s switch gears a bit. Tell me about the second project that formed the basis for the Learning Labs and exhibition. You collaborated with Chiara Perini, an artist from Italy, and a group of men, largely migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, living in ‘hospitality apartments’ in Cormons, Italy.

ES: Happy New Year New Year Dreams Come True was a participatory photography project that, through assisted portraiture and writing, explored the role of self-representation and identity in places of immigration. The resulting photographs were very tightly composed closeups, which remind one of identity photos, and were meant to create a level of discomfort. The photographs are not about prying into and revealing the stories of hardship that many of the subjects experienced as migrants, but rather, about gesturing towards the system, or better, the ‘migration industry’. When I showed it in Maribor it was still very fresh and in progress. We are continuing with the project, and this is one of the aspects that is now becoming more explicit and apparent.

We used ‘assisted photo-portraiture’ as an interface, exploring the perception of ‘self’ and the interpretation of the ‘self’ by ‘others’. The photographs were taken collaboratively, with the men taking portraits of each other with my assistance. I also took some. This way of working is about blurring the boundaries between the professional and the amateur, thus raising questions around authorship, and both the limits and potential of photography as a democratic tool for public representation. We didn’t start taking photos until after a series of meetings, during which we talked, shared our experiences and concerns, and trust developed.

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Collaborative photography during the Happy New Year New Year Dreams Come True project. All rights reserved.Happy New Year New Year Dreams Come True was part of a bigger project between the participants and 47/04, the organization that organises the In/Visible Cities multimedia festival, during which this work was presented. Participants in this project also participated in the festival in others ways. They were involved in co-organising a series of events, including food making, seminars, and a cricket game, and also, presented the photography, video and writing work that they produced in their own time but with the on-going support of 47/04, expressing themselves around whatever themes they chose.

AC: In both cases, as you yourself acknowledge, your work raises questions about power, representation, the photographic gaze. The images of climate refugees in Jordan and the migrants in Italy have garnered some critical feedback precisely because of that. How do you respond to critics who argue that they are exploitive and voyeuristic? 

ES: Work is always done in a context – that which exists ‘outside the frame’. In the case of the work I do, in part because of the methodology of participatory photography that I employ, a photograph is generated out of rich, prolonged relationships, which remain often inaccessible, at least to the viewer of the final photographic image. Yes, inequality of power exists in all relationships, including these. But I like to think that I make every effort to minimise that inequality, and also, then, to use my position of privilege to tell the stories that participants want me to tell, indeed, compel me to tell. To give access to those who view a photograph to what is behind it, around it, to the context in which it was taken, to the relationships that it emerged from, making documentation available as part of the work whenever possible, is important. Documentation being done as part of the process (and not afterwards) by everyone involved in the project rather than just the artist, contributes to the distribution of power. 

Nevertheless, because of the dominance of certain discourses in art and academia, it is easy to rush to judgment – perhaps too easy, and too convenient. As Jacques Rancière writes, ‘Images change our gaze and the landscape of the possible if they are not anticipated by their meaning and do not anticipate their effects.’ (Rancière 2009: 105)

In general, though, I don’t think photographs of, or done with refugees or displaced populations are necessarily exploitative and voyeuristic. It depends on each single case.

Generally in my work, I don’t seek to ‘look at’ people. That has never been the ambition. I hope that by adopting a more collaborative approach to photography this is realised. My projects are also long term, so that relationships of trust can be established. This way of working is about learning to see and to represent oneself, the conditions of one’s life, developing the skills to speak for oneself. Learning about visual literacy, to understand how the media operate, how to read or consume it to then counter it. I think the people I work with understand that. But there is learning yet to take place in the more privileged artistic and academic communities, which can be quite rigid in their outlook; very assured about their ‘knowing’. The purpose behind pairing the work with the Learning Labs was to open up these topics. 

AC: As this work has developed, and in each subsequent iteration, the concepts of ‘critical art’ and ‘participatory photography’ keep coming up. Can you say a bit about each of these, and about how you see your work in relation to these?

ES: I’ll start with participatory photography. I work in a transparent way, seeking to collaborate with others through an open conversation, explaining the objective of the work first, allowing the subject to decline involvement. The photographs are always taken with the full awareness and consent of the participants. Participants are also involved, to varying degrees, in composing the frame, choosing where and how to be photographed, and if possible, in editing and selecting the photograph to be exhibited. If possible, and if they wish to, they are also involved in extending or contextualising the photograph by pairing it with their narratives or stories.

Working in a participatory way requires staying open to challenges and changes in direction. It means enabling participants to foreground issues they are concerned with, which may not have formed part of the original ‘brief’. It also, and above all else, means being accountable to the people you work with. This can change the flow and direction of the project but critical art, I believe, must try to embrace this, allowing for the unforeseeable to guide the process. 

Another important aspect of participatory photography, and in particular portraiture, is that it can offer participants a way of ‘practicing’ their self-representation – it is a feedback process, being in front of the camera then looking at the photos, selecting and allowing the selection to be re-photographed, deciding what words will be used with the photograph. For those whose voice has been marginalised or unheard, participatory photography can support growth of confidence and ability to 'speak' for oneself. It is about developing consciousness about one's position and taking control of that. And this is a political act. I think this was clearly the case in the project I did in Italy, but also in Jordan. 

Following Rancière, I take critical art to be art that aims to produce a different perception of the world, and in doing so, create a commitment to its transformation (Rancière 2010). I can only hope that my photographic practice – not just the final images, but the processes through which they are produced – play a small part in that.

AC: Eva, thank you for your time and your reflections.

A Manifesto for Unlearning

We have a responsibility to interrogate and reflect on the interdependences between on our own lives and the lives of others.

As artists and practitioners we are often able to introduce the stories and lives of others to multiple publics. We take this responsibility seriously.

We aim to provide platforms and channels for others to represent themselves and the issues that matter to them.

We have a responsibility to disclose the unequal distribution of the power of speech, representation and recognition, and mobilise towards its redistribution. 

We seek to question how ‘participatory’ art is presented to publics by institutions. 

We seek to perpetually challenge institutions to promote forms of sensory strangeness by including unfamiliar, unconventional and singular voices and stories.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.

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