Thinking about not looking

by | Apr 10, 2013 | Curatorial, Photography | 4 comments

After taking an (accidental) hiatus from No Looking After the Internet in March (between Easter, Passover and this fascinating screening series organized by my colleague Pablo de Ocampo, it was impossible to schedule), we are back this month, looking at a collection of found photographs that artist Chris Curreri has been thinking about for some time now. When I first conceived of the looking group, this was how I’d imagined the series working best: as a chance to do research on images in public, by looking at photographs that a guest facilitator (an artist, curator, writer or art historian) was also wrestling with and field testing how the images could be interpreted by a wide audience, in a variety of viewing contexts.

It also feels a little scary in this particular instance. Usually, I struggle with deciding how much context about the images I should provide to participants before we look at the photographs. It seems necessary to explain why I have chosen a particular image or set of images, especially since the looking group has so far been in dialogue with another exhibition in the city: in the first month, for instance, we looked at photographs that had formed part of the research for Deanna Bowen’s “Invisible Empires” exhibition at the AGYU, while last month we looked at miniature reproductions of 52 photographs included in the “HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS” exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre (which are offered to visitors for free within the exhibition). But one of the goals with No Looking is to experiment with how we make sense of images without the traditional contextual frameworks of the caption, the gallery exhibition, or the artist’s talk–style presentation, and to think about how our looking practices change without these aids. This contextual information about an image—how it was produced, where it originally circulated, and the position of its subject and author—invariably enters the discussion at looking group, but my goal has been to push participants to try to make meaning from the images without relying on this information as an “answer” to what we are supposed to do with these difficult photographs, and our (affective) responses to them. It’s often an uncomfortable position for me to occupy as the curator: I don’t want the looking group process to be about getting to the “real” meaning behind an image (which framing strategies like captions or didactic panels seem to promise) and it feels like it sets up a strange power dynamic for me to have more knowledge about the production and circulation of the images than the other people who are willingly looking with me (though I suppose this is always true of curatorial work, to some extent).

But with Chris’s archive of found self-portraits, there is no “answer” to why, how or for whom these images were made: we know next to nothing about them and will have to rely exclusively on what the photographs show to try to make meaning from them. In some ways, it is perhaps the perfect test case for No Looking as a methodology. The questions that these photographs raise for viewers will necessarily be self-reflexive since they are, in this instance, unanswerable. In our discussions as we planned this month’s meeting, Chris and I kept coming back to this rift between what the photographs show and then what we are supposed to “do” with them, as viewers and, in his case, as the caretaker and potential exhibitor of them.

Planning this iteration of No Looking has also been an opportunity to reflect on how this gap between what the photographs show and what we want from them has become apparent through the past meetings of the group, and to think more about some of the challenges or “productive failures” (as Kim Simon and I have been affectionately calling them) of trying to make meaning from photographs together in public. While I have asked Alison Cooley to attend the monthly meetings and write a critical response for the Gallery TPW R&D website (which will appear after this month’s meeting), I’ve also been thinking about how the past two meetings have raised questions about what it is we want from images, and from our collective experience of looking at photographs. And, perhaps more importantly, why we don’t want to look at some images and why we self-censor parts of our interpretive process.

In the first meeting of the looking group, this issue of self-censorship seemed particularly prevalent in the context of the lynching photographs we looked at: images that originally circulated as postcards and later in the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition, and which Deanna Bowen had considered as part of the research process for her exhibition at the AGYU. Whenever No Looking convenes, I ask that participants not just try to “read” the image out loud, explaining what they see and how they interpret the image, but to also think about how we look as individuals and as a group. The discussion therefore oscillates between close, formal readings of the image, questions about its production and previous life as an image, and self-reflexive observations about the focus of the group’s discussion: what we pay attention to and what we avoid in both our looking and our talking.


With the Nelson lynching photographs, it seemed even more difficult than I’d anticipated for the looking group participants to focus on the images themselves, and the discussion often circled around the photographs by speculating about the lives of the subjects and the responsibility and feelings of the lynching spectators. Considering the formal aesthetics of the photographs, and our position as contemporary spectators, was much harder to get at. At one point, for instance, Leila Timmins pointed out that the photograph showed Laura Nelson wearing a wedding ring: a detail I hadn’t before noticed in the photograph, but which immediately stood out as one of the photograph’s eerier qualities since her son, hanging next to her, has been stripped of much of his clothing. Though we considered this detail in the image once she pointed it out, there was no sustained discussion about what it might mean in the context of the lynching postcard, or what we make of it as viewers today. Similarly, my friend Oliver Husain, who had helped to set up the viewing space through his installation in the gallery, later told me that he had wanted to talk about the ghostly way that Laura’s dress hangs in the air, but felt that it was somehow inappropriate to raise this aesthetic consideration in light of the content of the images. (Though I would argue that these aesthetic details are vital to the force of the images and account for our fascination and discomfort with looking at them.)

Discussing our discomfort with looking at these images was equally difficult. At one point, one of the participants asked me, as the curator, whether they knew they would be looking at lynching photographs when they decided to come to the event—whether that information was provided on the website or in the press release for the event. It wasn’t, and his suggestion was that he did not choose to look at these images, that they had been somehow forced upon him, and that his emotional reaction to them was therefore not his responsibility. When, late into the discussion, other participants began to articulate their anxiety about looking at these photographs—a feeling I also sometimes have when looking at them—it felt like a relief to be able to acknowledge why we avoid looking at these kinds of images, but it was also difficult to move the discussion beyond this admission. If we feel this sense of anxiety, avoidance or self-censorship, what do we do with these affective responses? How do we make sense of them and take them seriously?

The impulse for many people (myself included sometimes) seems to be to try to politicize or instrumentalize these uncomfortable experiences. At the close of the group, after I’d suggested that we think about wrapping up, Bowen proposed that those feelings of discomfort are actually a symptom of something like white guilt: that, as contemporary (mostly white) viewers, acknowledging that looking at these images makes us “feel bad” is a way of escaping our responsibility to these subjects and the racialized violence inflicted upon them (a violence that is, of course, ongoing). Though I wished we’d had the time and space to keep talking after she made this suggestion, I’m also wary of writing off these responses as only a product of guilt. It seems to too quickly and too easily resolve viewers’ complicated relationships to these photographs, and has the tendency to shut down conversations about our desire to see these images, and our frustration that photographs consistently fail to incite any kind of tangible social or political change.


A different kind of “not looking” emerged in the second meeting of the looking group, which was marked by a constant need to contextualize the curatorial choices made in the “HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS” exhibition and a similar insistence that our interpretations of these images be “put to work” for a productive, educational ends. As we looked through the miniature reproductions of some of the photographs included in the exhibition, all drawn from the Black Star Collection, it was often the more ambiguous or abstract images that seemed to draw the focus of the group. These are images that require more work from the viewer because their relationship to human rights is difficult to puzzle out. Though the date of the photograph and major world events are provided on the back of every card, it is up to the viewer to provide further research or context about what the image depicts, especially when the events or subjects are less familiar to us as world spectators.

Having visited the “HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS” show four times now, each with a different friend, and seeing each of them collect the miniature images in different ways (one took only four and put each in her back pocket, another collected them all in a careful stack which went into her bag), I was curious about why viewers want to collect these reproductions and have them physically close to them when they might know little or nothing about what they depict. By turning these photographs into physical objects, the RIC postcards demand that viewers “do” something with the images, quite literally. And it’s clear that sometimes viewers are unsure what to do with them when they leave the exhibition. Not wanting to take them home (and presumably look at them again, in the intimate, private context of their home), but also not wanting to throw them away, many visitors have asked if they can return the postcards to the front desk staff, which such frequency that the RIC has actually set up a “Card Return” box outside of the gallery where viewers can deposit these images. To me, this is a fascinating crisis in how viewers deal with difficult photographs: we both want to look at them, repeatedly and in the close proximity provided by a printed, portable image, but we also want to keep them at a physical and ethical distance.

These discussions, as well as seeing the inimitable Shawn Michelle Smith give a paper at the AGYU’s “Crossing the Line” symposium back in February, brought to mind the distinction between photographic evidence and photographic meaning that Smith makes in her 2007 volume (co-authored with Dora Apel), Lynching Photographs. For Smith, the meaning of a photograph is not inherent in the image (what the photograph shows as evidence), but is socially constructed by viewers, who make meaning from it as it circulates in various contexts. This helps to explain the malleability of the evidence that difficult photographs—such as lynching photographs—seem to supply, being put to radically different uses by different groups at different moments in time. As Smith eloquently puts it, “Photographs as evidence are never enough, for photographic meaning is always shaped by context and circulation, and determined by viewers.”

No Looking suggests to me that there is an important difference between photographs that cannot be shown (which are censored or do not circulate because of the ideological investments in what the images “prove”) and photographs that cannot be looked at because of the ways they implicate the spectator (as aggressor, bystander or intended audience for this violence). Smith’s distinction between photographic evidence and photographic meaning has helped me to think about this as a difference between unshowability—which seems to have something to do with the evidence that a photograph supplies—and what John Tagg termed “un-look-at-ability”—which is perhaps the product of the difficulty viewers encounter in establishing the photographic meaning of an image. As artists, curators, or writers, we can show, and even insist on showing others, difficult images such as lynching photographs—can argue stridently that they supply evidence of something—but we cannot determine how viewers look at them and what they do with this experience of looking. What I’d hoped to do with No Looking is to find a context in which we can actually see how photographic meaning takes shape, collectively and socially, and to self-reflexively examine that practice.

To do this requires acknowledging the limits of curatorial strategies in affecting a viewer’s encounter with a difficult image. No matter how carefully we might try to manage a viewer’s encounter with an artwork—to use the gallery, the discussion group, the publication or the screening to stage a framework that allows for a productive discussion about the work—, the meanings that viewers make from these encounters will always be latent, contingent and malleable. As someone who is invested in the gallery as a space where viewers can engage with aesthetic and affective experiences they might not encounter otherwise, and as a place where difficult conversations can happen, I’m struggling to come to terms with this apparent disconnect: to accept, as Freud famously put it, that we are not the masters in our own house.

My friend cheyanne turions recently asked on her blog, “how can the curator remain humble about how their framing might resonate with viewers while simultaneously not attempting to predetermine the very same experiences viewers might actually have?” The more pressing challenge for me as a curator is to accept that I can never predetermine the experience a viewer will have with an image, and to instead find spaces and methodologies that allow this complex, contingent process of meaning-making to become intelligible.