Interview with Jennifer Bajorek on Photography and the State

Author Jennifer Bajorek
in the galleries of the
pan-African exhibition
during the Rencontres de Bamako,
Bamako, Mali, November 2009.
Photograph: Erin Haney

Simon Dawes interviews Jennifer Bajorek on the Special Section on ‘Photography and the State’ that she co-edits (with Vikki Bell) and introduces in the TCS Annual Review 2010.

Read more to find out about the role of photography in South Africa, Israel/Palestine and Latin America, the relation between photography and the state, and how practical issues to do with photography help us theorise state sovereignty

Simon Dawes: To what extent are the articles in this section concerned with the relationship between photography and the state, as distinct from that between photography and the nation?

Jennifer Bajorek: The distinction of the state from the nation and even from the so-called modern nation-state is, as you know, totally unstable, but it is also absolutely crucial. In speaking of the nation – in the sense of a unified or quasi-unified linguistic community, or ethnic group, or people (each of these terms already veers off from the nation) – theorists have tended to assimilate photography to representational idioms and problems. For them, photography is a means or mechanism of representation, and it is thought to picture or depict something that precedes it—for example, a nation.

The essays in the present section could not be further from this tradition, which is premised not only on over-simple conceptions of photography, but on over-simple conceptions of politics.

The distinction of the modern nation-state from the state tout court presents more complex problems. The most interesting of these – for myself and for the present authors – are bound up with the legacies of European colonialism and imperialism in the present day. To be sure, there are a thousand theoretical approaches to the diverse and complex legacies of colonial administration and power relations for post-colonial states (including those that are/in Europe). Some scholars have argued that the nation-state is a distinctly European form of political organization, which was already in decline by the time of official colonialism. At the same time, there are serious counter-arguments to this view, which take on different inflections and emphases in different spaces. But these theories, for all of their differences, share a basic recognition that European colonial projects were nurtured by deep contradictions in the conception and composition of the nation-state. There is a basic recognition that these projects were premised on the ability of European states to exercise sovereignty in distant places that were not contiguous with (or even very close to) their own territories, and over people with whom they did not share a language, let alone a cultural identity, common history, or common ideologies and myths. (At least, they sought to exercise this sovereignty.)

Historically and in the present, photography has played an enormous role in the extension of sovereignty and of state power into distant lands. Even within a closed or continuous territory, photography has played an enormous role in the extension of state power into spaces that were previously secret, closed, not publicly visible or visualisable. Its role in this type of extension has been so great and so pervasive as to be rather astonishing. Collectively, we are just starting to theorize this. Many of us who are working on these questions have felt compelled to work on photography.

SD: How far does photography contribute to theorisations of state and sovereignty? From the perspective of those who research the latter, how important is photography?

JB: I see that I have jumped the gun and have already started to answer this question. As I was just saying, photography’s role in the extension of state power into far-flung places has been major and really extraordinary. In this respect, photography makes a monumental contribution to theories of the state and of sovereignty. I think we are in midstream with this. The moment of this intersection and mutual elucidation is hardly exhausted. And it is essential to underscore the complexity of the colonial and post-colonial situations in this regard, as I have just done. Questions about state power have haunted post-colonial Africa for a long time, and they inform the present-day situation in South Africa. Now, the discussion of South African art and, in particular, South African photography during “the struggle” years and also in the post-apartheid years has proved to be absolutely indispensable for an understanding of present-day South Africa. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen writes explicitly about this relationship in her essay. Questions about state power inform, albeit in different ways, the situation in Israel/Palestine, the primary site or primal scene of Ariella Azoulay’s writing, here and elsewhere. And they inform, in still different ways, Latin America’s political history, about which Jens Andermann writes. It is not by accident that the essays included here all discuss photography in spaces outside Europe, although it is equally essential to remember that the interest of photography for theories of the state and of sovereignty cannot be geographically determined or circumscribed.

For many of the authors writing here – in particular I am thinking of Ariella Azoulay – photography has been very closely bound up with a more general movement of deterritorialisation affecting states and citizens nearly everywhere, nearly all of political space. Andrea Noble’s essay also articulates this link, in a concrete and historically nuanced way. She is writing about the role played by particular, named, and traceable photographs in the assertion of a state’s sovereignty over its citizens (in this case, Mexico’s) – and its subjection of its citizens, engaged in an act of open dissent – to extreme violence. At the same time, she writes about the role played by those same photographs in citizens’ contestation of that violence.

Nor should we forget that photography has always had an extremely close relationship to the state. From very early days, the state has taken an interest in the possibilities of deploying and controlling photography for its own ends. In the famous and much-cited episode of the official presentation of Daguerre’s process to the authorities in France, we see an immediate attempt on the part of the state to claim a state interest in photography – as well as a corresponding push back. This episode is often written about. Critical problems about intellectual property, still with us today, also crop up in this moment. Decisions made by the state in regulating technologies that open up borders, or cross them and transgress them without possibilities for ready control – these are all part of photography’s history. As is the need for the state to invent a new relationship to the market, adapting to and inventing new legal mechanisms of policing and regulating the movement of images and image-making technologies within and across territorial borders.

These questions are not only part of 19th-century photography history. The sovereignty of a state or sovereignty “in general” is not a static thing. The invention of photography, as a historical event – and, some would argue, its ongoing invention – can be seen to have caused or to be causing a transformation and modification of, among other things, the sovereignty of states. Think about what is going on with surveillance (it is commonplace to call on the example of surveillance, biometrics, forensic and criminological and military uses of imaging technologies in the present), or with piracy, or with the security of servers in many places outside Europe and North America. These phenomena are all linked to photography in fundamental ways, and they are part of what we reference when we talk about photography every day.

I am grappling with some of these problems right now in my own research: where to put a secure server in an African state in a trans-national research project dealing with photographic archives in Africa? All of the major digital repositories and multi-institution, multi-collection digital platforms that allow researchers to access archival and historical photographs from Africa are currently run on servers that are not located on the African continent. Let’s pretend for a moment that we can accept this on a practical level (although many would argue that we should not accept it, and I personally am trying to bend the rules and question this kind of “given” in my practical research undertaken with African partners on the continent). What is the meaning of “local” ownership, administration, and management of an archive if access to that archive depends on people living 15,000 miles away? What does it mean to keep a photograph “in country,” in Senegal or in the Republic of Bénin, when the server through which that photograph will henceforth be accessed is in Los Angeles?

This is not a moral question. It is simply a practical question for my research. What do I tell the foundation I am asking for support? How do I calculate the cost of repatriating an archive without taking into account the location of the servers (the cost of maintaining a secure server is different in different places in the world)? It is also a theoretical question about photography and the sovereignty of states. I personally have some reservations about the use of the term “sovereignty” in some of the contemporary theory, but this is one instance where the term seems necessary.

SD: How did the idea for this section come about (both you and Vikki Bell are currently working in this area, aren’t you?)?

JB: Vikki and I are both working in this area, but we come at the questions from very different angles. This is part of what has made working together so fascinating. When Vikki and I met she was already in the midst of a major research project exploring the role of photography in collective acts of commemoration and contestation of government-sanctioned violence in Argentina and Northern Ireland. This project, which is very large, multi-faceted, and extremely interesting, confronts photography as both a political and an aesthetic object or agent in these highly specific scenes of violence, suppression, memory, and contestation. So we’ve been talking about these problems practically from the first day we met. In my research in west Africa, where I am working primarily with photographs and photographers of the independence generation, I’m coming at states and governments from a very different angle. I am working on very different photographs, circulating in different contexts and spaces, and intervening in very different debates, but many of the questions, as regards the political and aesthetic qualities of photography, remain fundamentally the same. The most interesting theoretical debates are the same, and we are basically reading and talking about the same texts. More than anything, these shared references have given shape to this section – the feeling that there is a kind of emergent corpus, and a set of common theoretical touchstones that we are drawing on. Much of this is rather new work, and it charts a different path from the Marxo-Foucauldian orthodoxies of a decade ago.

You should ask Vikki this question: I don’t know what she would answer! My memory of it is that we wanted to further a certain conversation we were already having, with people whose work we had been reading and teaching and debating, and with whom we had, in most cases, already been directly in dialogue. All of the essays in this section fit in this category, even if each one takes its own, distinctive approach.

Jennifer Bajorek is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she teaches on literature, philosophy and photography. She is also a residential research fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University for the 2010-11 academic year. Her publications include Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony (Stanford, 2009); with Eric Trudel and Charlotte Mandell, an edition and translation of the literary theory and political writings of Jean Paulhan, On Poetry and Politics (Illinois, 2008); essays in Critical Inquiry, Diacritics, and History of Photography; and translations of Sarah Kofman, Bernard Stiegler, and Jacques Derrida. Her current research is on aesthetic and political dimensions of photography. In addition to a book on the Bamako photography biennial, co-authored with Erin Haney (from which an essay also appears in the TCS Annual Review), she is currently writing a book on photography and political imagination in Senegal and Benin [email:]

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and the Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

To access Jennifer Bajorek‘s introduction to the Special Section on Photography and the State, ‘The State in Visual Matters’, go here

To access ‘Eye on Bamako: Conversations on the African Photography Biennial’ by Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney, go here

To access the all the articles in the TCS Annual Review 2010, go here

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