The Photographic Situation Project: Workshop

The Photographic Situation Project: Works-in-Progress Workshop
September 21-22, 2012

Organized by the Toronto Photography Seminar
Hosted by the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), University of Toronto.
Location: Room 208N (North side of building), Centre for the Study of the United States, Munk School of Global Affairs, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto ON Canada

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This two-day workshop invites a group of international photography scholars to workshop papers on topics related to “the photographic situation,” an emerging conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures. As Ariella Azoulay has made forcefully evident, photography should be understood as an event that mediates relationships between people. Its ontology is, therefore, political. With the aim of developing new questions, case studies, and methodologies for understanding the photographic situation, thirteen speakers will present works-in-progress in a series of six themed sessions and discuss their work with respondents and the audience.

Speakers include Elspeth Brown, David Campbell, Stephen Mayes, Gabrielle Moser, Andrea Noble, Sarah Parsons, Thy Phu, Sharon Sliwinski, Shawn Michelle Smith, John Tagg, Dot Tuer, Kelly Wood, and Andres Zervigon, with responses by Sarah Bassnett, Matthew Brower, Ann Cvetkovich, Deepali Dewan, Jonathan Long, Sarah Parsons, Thy Phu, Mark Reinhardt, and Tanya Sheehan. A schedule of events can be found below.

The workshop is organized by the Toronto Photography Seminar, in partnership with the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS), and the Developing Room, Rutgers University, on a three-year SSHRC Partnership Development Grant on the topic of “the photographic situation.”

Workshop papers will be pre-circulated to all attendees before the event through a password-protected website. Attendees are expected to read all the workshop papers and to participate in the discussion of them. Each session will feature two authors and one respondent: The respondent will speak to the two papers for 10 minutes, concluding with some questions linking the papers. Then, each of the two authors will respond for five minutes each. At the conclusion (i.e., after 20 minutes), the conversation will expand to include both the authors and the audience.The sessions will be followed by a summary discussion on the second day.

We welcome attendance by scholars, curators, and others who are not presenting papers to join us as audience members and discussants. However, we ask that you read the papers ahead of time. We understand that not everyone will be able to attend the full two days; we simply ask that you commit to reading the papers and participating in the sessions that interest you.

Due to an overwhelming amount of interest in attending the workshop, registration for this event is currently full. To be added to a waiting list in case spots become available, please email your name and your institutional affiliation to

If you are registered for the workshop, please use the username and password provided in your welcome email to log in here and access the working papers.

Keep up-to-date with the workshop proceedings at The Photographic Situation blog.

Schedule of Events

Thursday, September 20, 2012
Gallery TPW (1256 Dundas St. West)

7:00 pm - Panel discussion on “Unshowable photographs,” featuring Donald Weber (VII Photo Agency), David Campbell (DCAPS), and Sharon Sliwinski (Western University), moderated by Gabrielle Moser (York University)

Friday, September 21, 2012
Room 208N (North side of building), Centre for the Study of the United States, Munk School of Global Affairs (1 Devonshire Place)

9:30-9:50 am - Coffee and breakfast and reconnecting

9:50-10:00 am - Sharon Sliwinski (Western University), Welcoming remarks, “Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation”

10:00-11:10 am - Session 1

  • Sharon Sliwinski, Western University, “Notes on the Optical Unconscious”
  • Shawn Michelle Smith, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “First Photographs”
  • Respondent: Mark Reinhardt, Williams College

11:10-11:25 pm - Coffee break

11:25-12:35 pm - Session 2

  • David Campbell, DCAPS, “Photography, from Objectivity to Ostension”
  • Andres Zervigon, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, “Temporality, Imprint and the Odd Situation of Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Face of the German Race”
  • Respondent: Sarah Parsons, York University

12:35-1:30 pm - Lunch (provided to all attendees). Optional: grad student lunch in second floor lounge.

1:30-3:00 pm - Session 3

  • Gabrielle Moser, PhD candidate, York University, “Photographic encounters in the colonial archive: COVIC’s photo albums of Canada, 1908-11”
  • Dot Tuer, OCAD University, “Towards the Darkness: Preliminary Reflections on the Photographic Situation”
  • Sarah Parsons, York University, “Privacy, photography, and the art defense”
  • Respondents: Sarah Bassnett and Thy Phu, Western University

3:00 pm - Adjourn for the day. Conversation continues over cocktails (optional).

Saturday, September 22, 2012
Room 208N (North side of building), Centre for the Study of the United States, Munk School of Global Affairs (1 Devonshire Place)

9:15-9:30 am - Coffee and breakfast and reconnecting

9:30-9:50 am - Ann Cvetkovich (University of Texas at Austin), Response to the “Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation”

10:00-11:10 am - Session 4

  • Stephen Mayes, VII Photo Agency, “From Memory to Experience: The Smartphone, A Digital Bridge”
  • John Tagg, Binghamton University, “For Translation: On Shèying, Sajin and Photography”
  • Respondent: Matthew Brower, University of Toronto

11:10-11:25 am - Coffee break

11:25-12:35 am - Session 5

  • Andrea Noble, Durham University, “Severed Heads and Body Parts: Baroque Legacies in Mexican Visual Culture”
  • Thy Phu, Western University, “The S-21 Photos and the Rhetoric of Rescue and Rights”
  • Respondent: Deepali Dewan, Royal Ontario Museum

12:35-1:30 pm - Lunch (provided to all attendees)

1:30-2:40 pm - Session 6

  • Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto, “‘The Amorous Regard’: The Queerness of the Photographic Situation in the Work of George Platt Lynes”
  • Kelly Wood, Western University, “Lincoln Clarkes’ Heroines
  • Respondent: Ann Cvetkovich, University of Texas at Austin

2:40-3:00 pm - Coffee break

3:00-5:00 pm - Plenary discussion

  • Responses to the workshop proceedings and future directions, moderated by Tanya Sheehan (The Developing Room, Rutgers) and Jonathan Long (DCAPS, Durham University)


Elspeth Brown
‘The Amorous Regard’: The Queerness of the Photographic Situation in the Work of George Platt Lynes
This paper discusses two bodes of work by the American photographer George Platt Lynes (1907-1955)– his high-end fashion work and his erotic male nudes—in order to write a history of queer transatlantic fashion photography in the interwar years. 

David Campbell
Photography, from Objectivity to Ostension
My paper will explore how historically we have come to think about both the photograph and photography generally. This consideration will demonstrate that most efforts which seek to address the issue of photography’s essence ontologically—a necessary direction if we are concerned with the issue of what photography ‘is’—find themselves caught in ultimately unproductive discussions of indexicality and objectivity as ways of comprehending the relationship between representation and the real. After illustrating this point literally as well as conceptually, I want to argue that photography can be better understood in terms of ‘ostension’, a practice of pointing to something rather than a reflection or reference of something.

Stephen Mayes
The Smartphone camera in Photojournalism
There’s been much discussion about the Smartphone camera and the imagery it produces.  Most has focused on the aesthetic of the image, some has explored the growth of citizen journalism and how the field craft of photojournalism is changing.  I’ll touch on many of these issues but really I want to lead he discussion to what I see as the truly transformative quality of the Smartphone, which is the transformation of the photographic image from a static document to a dynamic streaming experience.  What happens to photojournalism as practitioners, participants and audiences adapt to the new protocols of visual culture?

Gabrielle Moser
Photographic encounters in the colonial archive: COVIC’s photo albums of Canada, 1908-11
As part of my broader dissertation project, this paper analyzes the photo albums produced as part of the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee’s (COVIC) slide lecture series through the rubric of the event of photography. From 1908-11, COVIC, a scheme developed by the British government to teach colonial schoolchildren about the geography and peoples of the Empire, hired a single photographer to create thousands of images around the world, constructing an archive of imperial belonging. Following Ariella Azoulay’s work on the event of photography, this paper extends the relational encounter that is initiated by the camera to include the photographic archive. Through a close reading of the photographs of Canada that were produced for the project, the paper treats the COVIC photo albums as another, protracted photographic event where photographer, subject and viewer negotiate their relationship to one another. 

Andrea Noble
Severed Heads and Body Parts: Baroque Legacies in Mexican Visual Culture
This paper is concerned with the visual culture of the Bicentennial commemorations of the foundational historical struggles for Independence and the Revolution, which are set in the context of another contemporary violent conflict, the so-called ‘war on drugs’. It takes as its starting point the striking visual parallels between the Bicentenary celebrations and narco violence that played out in the newsweekly Proceso, in the launch in April 2009 of collectable installments dedicated to the Bicentenary on the one hand, and in the two special issues dedicated to ‘El México Narco’, published in the summer of the same year, on the other hand. In the latter, the reader/viewer was confronted with the ravages of drugs-related violence illustrated by gruesome, excessively graphic images of heads without torsos and torsos without heads. The paper asks what is it about the Mexican image environment that authorises the entry and circulation of such graphic images? And, in turn, how are we to understand the contemporary cultural moment that finds the proliferation of visual artefacts associated with the historical Bicentennial involved in the making palpable and present the intangible – namely the nation – that sit alongside the severed heads and body parts in Mexico’s latest violent conflict?

Sarah Parsons
Privacy, photography, and the art defense
This paper traces and analyzes fears about privacy that are generated by photography. When Eastman Kodak introduced their first handheld camera in 1884, they unwittingly ushered in a new era of public surveillance. In part, it was the new ubiquity of photographic technology that prompted Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis to draft their now legendary Harvard Law Review article, ‘The Right to Privacyʼ (1890). Anxieties have hardly abated around questions of who takes photographs, for what purposes, and in what contexts they circulate. This article examines tensions between these privacy concerns and the use of photography for social activism or artistic expression.

Thy Phu
The S-21 Photos and the Rhetoric of Rescue and Rights
This paper explores the relationship between the S-21 photos and human rights. Although this important archive was first “rescued” by Vietnamese soldiers after their invasion of Cambodia in 1979, it was rescued yet again, in 1995, by the humanitarian organization Photo Archive Group. Between these two moments of rescue and beyond, both the national government and international community have invoked, and selectively overlooked, the photos. I argue that a Cold War context enlisted human rights as ideological ammunition, and fashioned the meanings of these photos to serve political purposes.

Sharon Sliwinski
Notes on the Optical Unconscious
My paper will try to articulate one aspect of what Benjamin called “the optical unconscious” by considering the paradoxes of sight involved in the practice of photojournalism. Susan Meiselas describes the paradox this way: “As practitioners we do live with what we’ve seen and heard. I don’t want to focus on us, but I do feel we photographers are impacted in ways that we don’t know fully.” For Meiselas, photographers are particularly haunted by images “we haven’t seen – or that we haven’t made.” She insists that these unmade, unseen images “inhabit” photographers nonetheless. What could it mean to be inhabited by an image that was never made or seen? Is this simply a matter of the split between the camera and the eye? How do events register as an image at the level of the unconscious? The paper will try to grapple with these questions in relation to a recurrent dream reported by the late South African photographer Kevin Carter. 

Shawn Michelle Smith
First Photographs
This is the introduction to my forthcoming book on photography, At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen.  Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, the book explores the vast sense of the unseen that photography as a visual technology paradoxically introduces.

John Tagg
For Translation: On Shèying, Sajin and Photography
The global circulation of Theory has seen it readily absorbed into the flow of traffic down the same well-worn highways of global distribution and extraction, the same deep channels of dominance and dependence. We know, however, that this system is in crisis today and this opens an opportunity to return to the original critical impetus, now expanded and multiplied as critical engagements with specific histories, specific frameworks of practice, specific institutions of photographic meaning take us far beyond the limits of the starting point. In response to this proliferation, the cultural anthropologist Christopher Pinney has recently called for an effective world history of photography. But I would have to modify this, by pluralizing both terms, opening the call to multiple histories of photographies.

Dot Tuer
Towards the Darkness: Preliminary Reflections on the Photographic Situation

For a number of years now, I have been haunted by a photograph of Josefina Villaflor taken in a clandestine detention centre during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976-1983. Villaflor is one of thousands of Argentine citizens who were kidnapped in the late 1970s by the military, tortured, and disappeared (meaning that their death in captivity was neither acknowledged nor registered by the military state and the whereabouts of their bodies remains unknown). The photograph of Villaflor is one of very few extant images that document the existence of the desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) after they were captured and before they were murdered. What follows is an initial attempt to articulate and reflect on how and why this photograph of Villaflor has elicited in me such a haunting affect.

Kelly Wood
Lincoln Clarkes’ Heroines
This essay examines Lincoln Clarkes’ “Heroines” series and the way in which these photographs demonstrate how available models for writing about photography are insufficient for the complexities and boundary-challenging nature of these particular images. The Heroines photographs are an as-yet uncategorizable form which brings into high relief the calcification of academic models of writing about documentary photography.

Andres Zervigon
Temporality, Imprint and the Odd Situation of Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Face of the German Race.
In 1932, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen joined the swelling corps of interwar photographers who chose to publish their images in a temporal or thematic sequence between the covers of a photobook. Hers, however, was an unusual tome that conjured a journey through rural Germany in search of racial purity, which it found in the exceedingly wrinkled faces of aged farming peasants. Essentially, she was associating the imprinting of national identity with the photographic process itself. This paper suggests that we use the modernist photobook as a useful tool for mapping the broader photographic situation, and Lendvai-Dircksen’s volume in particular for charting this supposed link between the camera’s snapping shutter and the life-long imprinting of identity.

Photo credit: Southworth and Hawes, Daguerreotype of the abolitionist Captain Jonathan Walker’s branded palm, 1845