Up Close and Personal: Photography and the Archive

May 20, 2024

To celebrate our collaborative exhibition, Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and the Art of Protest, a partnership between the V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project with South London Gallery, we invited writer Neha Kale to reflect on the importance of the photographic archive as a tool of protest and a ‘site of resistance’.

Neha Kale is a widely-published writer and cultural critic who focuses on the intersection of art, contemporary culture and society. In this post, she discusses three artists included in the Acts of Resistance exhibition who are using and challenging the history and concept of photographic archives; Carmen Winant, Hoda Afshar and Raphaela Rosella.

The power of the counter-archive stems from its ability to intertwine the act of bearing witness with an aesthetics of intimacy and care.

Neha Kale
In turn, photograph by Hoda Afshar, 2023. Photo courtesy Jo Underhill.

The three women in the photograph are drawn towards each other. Here, a shoulder offered as a headrest. There, a pair of hands working firmly, tenderly. Fingers, marked with polish, absorbed in the ritual of plaiting hair. The women wear black. But they turn away from the viewer. They articulate their grief in a private language. Not in words, but in gestures. In the shape their bodies make.

In turn, a 2023 series by the Iranian photographer Hoda Afshar, is on show at the South London Gallery, as part of Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, until 9 June. When I first stood in front of these images, where I live in Sydney, I was struck by the sense that I was being let in on scenes that were sacred. Of moments of great intimacy on a lush and epic scale.

In September 2022, a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, was killed by Iran’s morality police for failing to wear her hijab correctly. Images that proliferated on social media saw Iranian women stand on bins, raise their fists, plait each other’s hair on the streets as signs of protest. To make In turn, Afshar photographed Iranian women who, like herself, mourned from afar in Melbourne. She makes a counter archive by tuning into the poetry of these images. She imagines an elegy that can outlast the news cycle by amplifying what’s already there.

What does it mean to bear witness? Is it to subscribe to the language of the official record: the medical report, the legal document, the newspaper photograph, a form that no matter how glossy or well-intentioned too often reinforces the power of the viewer over the subject?

Or is it to look closer, to sift through the ordinary, the unofficial, the seemingly unremarkable for another kind of testimony? Images that speak to endurance in the wake of oppressive forces, say, such as in the case of Carmen Winant’s work The Last Safe Abortion.

The Last Safe Abortion, photographic installation by Carmen Winant, 2023. Photo courtesy Jo Underhill.

The installation, made since the collapse of Roe versus Wade (the landmark piece of US legislation which made abortion legal in 1973), assembles pictures of abortion workers, taken over the last 50 years. They answer phones. They schedule appointments. They placate patients in waiting rooms. The photographs, which are drawn from archives around the American Midwest, feel provisional. Their compositions are a little off-kilter.

Often, their subjects, deep in their labour, look away from the camera. The Last Safe Abortion is a collective portrait of the persistence of women who have fought over the decades for reproductive freedom, to free others like them. Their heroism is conveyed not in drama or theatre – feats worthy of a headline – but in the slow shuffle of administration. The cumulative power of the the daily event.

You’ll Know it When You Feel It, by Raphaela Rosella, 2023. Photo courtesy Jo Underhill

For Raphaela Rosella, the archive – from the Greek for “to rule” – is a symbol of authority. The acclaimed photographer grew up in Australia’s Nimbin, where working-class and First Nations communities are often heavily criminalised and incarcerated.

Her counter-archive, co-created over the course of 15 years with a group of collaborators, interrupts this paper trail – criminal records, court reports – with photo albums. Notes written in felt-tip. Conversations recorded between women who have been imprisoned and those who love them. It’s called You’ll Know it When You Feel It. If archives isolate, turn complex people into cautionary tales, then Rosella and her co-creators reverse bureaucratic violence by making a case for tenderness. The mother resting on her back, holding her baby on her belly. The balloons that fill a room, anticipating a birthday party.

The evidence presented in this counter-archive documents the pursuit of beauty in the wake of trauma, the endurance of relationships, despite records that surveil and punish and separate. The work insists that it’s not just about choosing to bear witness but deciding what we bear witness to.

You’ll Know it When You Feel It, by Raphaela Rosella, 2023. Photo courtesy Jo Underhill

See Acts of Resistance at South London Gallery until 9 June.

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