DCAPS IV - Doing Photography, Durham, 9-11 January 2013
The fourth international DCAPS conference took place in Durham in the month of January 2013 as part of the Photographic Situation project with colleagues in Toronto. Photographs have for long been central to discourses of human rights, humanitarian activism, pacifism, political mobilization, revolutionary struggle, social reform and warfare. Thanks to their intimate and necessary relationship to the material world – their ‘having-been-there’ quality – photographs bear tremendous emotional and affective power in these discursive contexts. Disseminated as they are across an evolving range of media, and spanning geographical distances, historical periods, and cultural and linguistic divides, photographs call on us to recognize our fellow human beings in moments of crisis and duress. As they circulate in the global public sphere, such images invite patterns of identification; they mobilize shame; incite outrage, hatred, fear, disgust, compassion, etc. Offering visual knowledge of suffering and injustice (embodied in the starving child, the destitute earthquake survivor, the victim of torture) photographs expose these conditions to public scrutiny, provoking a reaction in their viewers, impelling them to action, to ‘do something’. Indeed, the very fact that they continue to circulate testifies to the on-going belief in their power to communicate affect transnationally and ultimately to effect change.
And yet, when it comes to determining just what it is that such images accomplish, more often than not they are found wanting. Icons of outrage, as David Perlmutter has forcefully put it, “may stir controversy, accolades, and emotion, but achieve absolutely nothing.” The starting point of this workshop was that this paradox should not become an aporia, deterring us in the pursuit of an understanding of how photographs do the work they do. Or, in the words of Thomas Keenan: “images, information, and knowledge will never guarantee any outcome, nor will they force or drive any action . . . Still, the only thing more unwise than attributing the power of causation or of paralysis to images is to ignore them altogether.” The aim of the ‘Doing Photography’ workshop was to bring together a range of participants from different backgrounds – photographers, archivists, picture editors, NGO activists, academics, etc. – who are committed to exploring questions not so much of whether photographs work, rather of how they do the work they do.