""New Mixtures: Migration, war and cultural differences in contemporary art-documentary photography""

By Mette Sandbye, professor of photography, art critic and head of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at Copenhagen University

Abstract and excerpt. Read and download in full (here)

Published in Photographies, 2018

Some have talked about a crisis in documentary photography since its inter- and post-war heydays. But more recently a new kind of art-documentary has developed with a self-reflexive approach towards the limits and the possibilities of photography. The spectrum between documentary and art provides photography with a specific opportunity to address difficult subject matter between the personal and the political. Leaving the discussion of “the politics of representation” — so dominant in the 1980s — aside and instead departing from a handful of newer theoretical framings which try to formulate an ethically responsive, activist and transitive form of photographic agency (such as Roberts, Thrift, Butler and Azoulay), this article identifies and discusses a current in contemporary photography of new conceptual strategies of socially and politically engaged documentary. This strategy is called “new mixtures” because it mixes hitherto separated photographic forms such as family and cell phone photos, reportage and conceptual and archival forms. It is identified as a global tendency, but more closely exemplified by the work of Scandinavian photographers Kent Klich and Tina Enghoff. As such the article identifies what is called both a “social” as well as a more “positive” take on both theory and photography, which has taken place in the decade that photographies has existed.

Regarding theory, one could say that the social, relational aspects of photography – what John Roberts calls “the social ontology of photography” in the quote above - have been put forward by theory in the period of the existence of Photographies, inspired by for instance material culture studies, visual anthropology, affect studies and non-representational theory. Today we see less a structuralist focus of what a photographs is, less a post-structural focus of the
determinating aspect of context, and more of a focus on what photography does; photography as interlocutor, photography as speech act, photography as a material object circulating, creating emotions and affect – I am referring to thinkers such as Margaret Olin, Ariella Azoulay, Elizabeth Edwards, Martha Langford, and many more. As Nigel Thrift writes in his book Non-Representational Theory. Space, Politics, Affect, representations of everyday culture can be seen as a way to articulate other forms of political agency and a call for a new ethics based on the recognition of the other. This is also in line with Ariella Azoulay’s ambition to connect photography with the term “civil imagination”. In her book Civil Imagination she advocates for an ontology of photography where we do not see the terms aesthetic and political as opponents and where we rather replace the term political with the term civil, or at least that we distinguish. She regards photography, not as a product but rather as an event, a meeting and a practice, which can at the same time reinforce and resist the oppressive reality of the people depicted in the photos. Nigel Thrift calls for new, interdisciplinary working methods to shed light on the everyday experience of both resistance and affect, at the same time as articulating “a politics of ordinary moments.” Such “ordinary moments” is exactly what the works of Klich and Enghoff are full of.
These new – and one could argue, in many ways more ‘positive’ takes on photography, have been enormously fruitful in many ways. But as some critics, John Roberts for instance, have pointed out these takes of the everyday doings of photography run the risk of creating some kind of soft, egalitarian, utopian humanism, takes the assumption of a homogenous global audience and might ascribe too much emancipation to photography. But as the works of photographers such as Klich and Enghoff demonstrate, underlining the aspect of affect, subjectivity and emotions related to photography does not exclude criticism and cultural critique, neither by the academic nor the artist.