On Photography & Wonder Woman

Ever since I watched Wonder Woman, I’ve wanted to blog about it.

I loved the film and its approach to photography, but until today I haven’t been able to articulate why. It was re-reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others that it struck me. In her famous book, Sontag writes:

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” (p. 89)

Well, this is quite an statement for someone who wrote two books on photography. What does Sontag mean by “understand”? And by “photographs’?

She writes “photographs”, but she probably means “photographic images”. In that case, I agree with her. Photographic images do not provide much information regarding the event represented. We can’t understand an event by just looking at how it was captured by a camera for a very brief period of time, and later processed into a positive print. Fair enough.

But this is a very, very, VERY limited approach to photography. Photographs are not, or not only, photographic images. Photographs are visual objects, which (usually, often, definitely not always) display an image. Photographs are quite complex objects, and photography involves quite complex practices. Then, why should we reduce photographs to their unstable images? Photographic practices can make us understand.

Let’s take the example of Wonder Woman. I know, Wonder Woman is not a historically accurate film (if only…!). But the moments when photography features in the film are quite good representations of the daily presence of photography during the war and today. They perfectly show the kind of things we can actually understand through photography.

The film starts and ends with a photograph. Diane is doing work in the archives of the Musée du Louvre (as one does), and receives a briefcase with a glass plate. The black and white image shows her and her four friends. It is upon receiving the glass plate that Diane tells the story of how she basically saved the world. We don’t understand the First World War by looking at this image. Following Sontag, the image only works as a spark, inducing memories and a narrative through which the spectator can understand what happened.

But are talking about the image or about the photograph/glass plate?

Later in the film, we see the moment when the photograph was taken. After the first victory of the team, the photographer of the village takes the photo of the group. The film spends some time showing everything around the image: the camera, the group posing, the rest of the people of the village watching them. The scene is about doing photography, not about the particular image and what it can reveal. That this moment is integrated into the narrative (Diane’s own narrative) demonstrates that the image not only sparks the memory of the war, but also the memory of how the photograph was taken. The act of taking the photograph was important in itself. Through this scene, we can understand how and why sometimes we value photographs. The image is only the excuse to remember the moment when it was taken, and what that moment means to us.

My favorite scene was, however, towards the end. When the war is over (spoiler altert?), one monument is covered by photographs, typically of the dead. I cried so much at this point. This is a very poignant scene, but also a very informative one. Photographs helps us to understand rituals of collective and individual mourning. This scene shows how private photographs circulated through the public sphere, acquired new meanings (from being a personal portrait to become a symbol of heroism and patriotism) and became objects through which mourning war articulated.

Of course we can understand the world through photography, because photography makes our world. We just need to stop obsessing about what is in the image, to look at what we do with photographs -and what photographs do to us.

 

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RESEARCH SEMINARS IN CULTURES OF PHOTOGRAPHY, SPRING TERM 2017

Medical Histories in Photography and Film

Clephan Building, De Montfort University

Tuesdays 4-6pm

Please check exact room numbers for each individual seminar below

Open to all – just turn up

 

January 10, 2017 (room CL 2.35)| Dr Katherine Rawling (Associate Fellow, CHM, University of Warwick)

Authority, Agency and Ambiguity: Doctor-Photographers and the 19th Century Medical Photo

 

February 7, 2017 (room CL 2.30)| Dr Lukas Engelmann (Research Associate, CRASSH, University of Cambridge)

Picturing the Unusual. Medical Photography as ‘Experimental System’

 

March 7, 2017 (room CL 2.29)| Dr Anna Toropova (Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, University of Nottingham)

Cinema and Medicine in Revolutionary Russia

 

In case of queries contact Dr Beatriz Pichel beatriz.pichel@dmu.ac.uk

Source: RESEARCH SEMINARS IN CULTURES OF PHOTOGRAPHY, SPRING TERM 2017

First World War Photography

What makes First World War photography so special?

This question is haunting me as I (try to) write my book. I started researching this topic in 2008, basically because I didn’t know anything about it. By the end of the PhD I loved the topic, but shortly after I completely disengaged with it.

Four years after my viva, I’m taking a fresh look at the material, and this is what I’m finding.

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Verdun

Jay Winter said in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning that the scale of loss created the necessity of new languages. Survivors needed new ways to express, communicate and understand what was happening. Modernism can be understood as a reaction to the inability of traditional languages to express new ways of dying, mourning, etc.

Was photography affected by this necessity of new languages?

The First World War was not the first war to be photographed -we have plenty of war photographs before 1914. It was neither the first war fully ‘covered’ by photojournalists, as the Spanish Civil War was. But as many authors have argued, we can see both tradition and new, modern languages in its production. We can both find very traditional portraits, and images of body parts that later inspired surrealists like Andre Breton.

While the focus of scholarship has been on how photographic languages changed, I’m more interested in photographic practices. What did it mean to photograph the war? How did photographing the war affect the ways in which people take, preserve, share and pose for photographs?

And what can photographic practices tell us about First World War experiences?

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this period was the creation of military photographic services, which had the explicit purpose of documenting the war. It is very easy to understand this production as mere propaganda, and thus focusing on how images like the one I posted above propagated nationalistic values. However, if we look closely at services such as the French Section photographique de l’armée (SPA), we’ll see that it was not that simple.

First of all, because the military authorities soon realised that the same images were interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences. Where the French population saw reassuring images of soldiers having some rest in clean camps, the neutral countries saw a lazy army unable to counteract the technological and military superior German army. Therefore, the SPA put a lot of effort in controlling the physical distribution of images. If they could not control the meaning of images, then they would control the circumstances in which images were saw and understood. This is why the SPA not only distributed photographing prints, but also albums and postcards, and organised national and international exhibitions. Each of these items was designed for a particular audience: French population, kids, neutral countries, allies, etc.

Shifting the focus away from the images to the mechanisms of control and distribution of physical material leads to examining the material practices of photography. For instance, it shows that war photography became a business, as photographs were sold and bought. How was this market regulated? More importantly, which were the suppliers of the SPA? Can this history of the SPA reveal more about French war economy?

It also puts the archives into a new perspective. While only some of the photographs would circulate as propaganda, all the images would be preserved as part of the war archives. How was the ideology of these archives based on its material disposition? Who was working in the archives, making the (diverse) classifications? Where were the photographs stored, and how?

By asking these questions, I hope to demonstrate that photography became a tool to engage with the new conditions imposed by the war, not just because of the images, but also because of the practices it allowed to develop. Photography involved actions. Some were adaptations of old actions; some were completely new. But in all cases, the camera, the print, the album, the archive, allowed engaging  in a very material way with what has happening around.

Albert Samama-Chikli, fort de Vachereauville, Verdun, 1917

SPA photography Albert Samama-Chikli in Verdun

 

 

 

On Dancing and Writing

Sometimes (the good times) writing makes me feel high -SO high. I get so excited, I enjoy it so much that I can’t describe it with words.

Dancing provokes me very similar feelings. It’s the only thing that makes me feel that good. And I’ve just realised why.

I’ve never been very regular at dancing. I’ve tried many different styles in my life (contemporary/jazz, belly dance, even bollywood for a week) but only I’ve only committed to two dances: ballet and swing, and both during my adulthood.

Swing and ballet look like very, very different dances, and indeed they are. But they have something in common: connection. Swing dance is all about connecting with you partner. It’s a conversation, where partners act and react to each other.You can learn the steps, but there’s no way to do them if you don’t follow the pulse of your partner. Dancing as a follower, I basically follow instructions: my partner decides which move we’re going to do. But if the lead just moves you mechanically, without listening to what you might offer, it’s boring and plain and a waste of time. The best dances are when we both actively respond to each other’s moves, and we laugh and maybe make mistakes, but we’re both THERE. Connecting.

Ballet is not (at its basic level at least) a partner dance. But again, it’s all about connecting. I was doing ballet during the last months of my thesis, and the year when I was unemployed and without any prospects of finding a job in Spain. Dancing ballet connected me with my body. It gave me a sense of control in a time when I had no control at all about important aspects of my life like, you know, work. Focusing on my insteps, my legs, my stomach, my back, my chest, my neck, my head, my arms and my hands all at the same time gave me a sense of being there, of connecting with me.

Connection is the key to dance, but it is also the key to writing. Sometimes meetings, emails, forms, bibliographies and notes eat up all my time and I forget why I’m doing what I do. Too much to do and too little time to do it means that we often rush to finish things. As a consequence, I don’t enjoy them anymore. Writing becomes a boring, plain, mechanical dance with a non-listening partner.

So, now I’m trying to stop, breath, and connect with what I’m writing. Remember why I do it, why I’m passionate about that particular thing in particular, or about the implications of that specific bit of the research. Think about the actual people I’m writing about. When I get it, this connection with my writing almost feels like a physical sensation -an agitation in my chest.

I know this connection is not particular to dancing and writing, and other things like yoga, meditation or photography have the same effects in other people. But I had never thought about writing as dancing, and suddenly it all makes sense.

 

 

Immigrant and proud

Let me be very clear: I’m an immigrant, and I’m proud of being an immigrant.

I’m Spanish. I’ve never felt very patriotic, and I don’t particularly love my country. But I neither love the UK, where I’m currently living. Yes, I’m very happy here: I love my job, I have friends who make my laugh and take care of me, I like the green landscapes I see from the train. But I’m here because it’s where I got a job, not because this country is better or superior than my own. I would also be very happy in my Madrid, with my family, and my friends.

Living abroad is not easy. Do you realise how much implicit knowledge you need in your daily life? Because it took me a long time, for instance, to learn that “surgeries” is where you make appointments with your GP. I didn’t know that we have to pay council taxes, which internet company has the better/ less bad reputation, or even what a Sunday roast is. I know some examples are silly, but still. These are things that I had to learn, and that I just knew back in Spain.

This means that every interaction has to be planned. Now I’m feeling more confident, but I still repeat twice in my mind what I want to say when I go to the doctor, buy cheese or need to see the finance team. It’s like I need to rehearse even the smallest of the things. This is exhausting. It takes so much energy. But it’s funny how I find myself rehearsing when I’m in Madrid and I’m happy because eh, I know the exact words here!

Language is, obviously, a problem. The first time I spent some months in London I wasn’t able to have a conversation in a pub. But hey, ask me anything about the First World War! I had learnt academic English first, so I had no idea of how to talk like a normal person. I still feel a bit uncomfortable using slang and more colloquial language, because I think I’ll use it wrong (luckily my friends are teaching me British culture and expressions all-the-time). Sometimes it’s also frustrating because, even if I rehearse 10 times what I need to say, the person at the counter, or the other side of the phone, won’t understand me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. As I said, I’m very happy here and I have no intention of coming back to Spain. Moreover, I know that I’m in a privileged position, because I have a good job, and I’m white, and not too obviously foreign.

I’m just saying that migrating is not easy. And that immigrants should be proud, because in spite of all, we’re doing it.

I’m not going to accept the racist discourse of this government about immigration. Not, we’re not too many. Not, we’re not stealing jobs. We’re fucking surviving.

Bye bye The Emotional Body blog!!!

Today is the last official day of my fellowship, and I wanted to look back. What was the intention of The Emotional Body blog, and what has it become?

This blog was born in February 2014 with my Wellcome Trust research project “The Emotional Body”. It was intended to be the space where I put bits of my research on photographic practices and emotions in French medical sciences during the nineteenth century. In these two years, I wrote, for instance, a series of posts on Photographing Expressions, focusing on Duchenne de Bloulogne, Charles Darwin, the Salpêtrière and Albert Londe.

But this space also went beyond my particular research project.

I have written about topics that suddenly caught my attention and had to do with photography and emotions or science. One year ago, I talked about the photograph of the  refugee child who washed up in a European beach. The photograph had been so massively circulated, and provoked so many reactions, that I wanted to think about how  photography can mobilise emotions -and how to even start to discuss this issue. Other posts, such as the one on criminal photography and the credits of Orange is the New Black, or ballet photography, were intended to apply historical concepts to popular culture. In this line, I particularly enjoyed writing on the (in)famous photograph of the V-Day  kiss. How could an image of street harassment become an icon for romantic gestures?

Feminism has been a growing concern in my blog. As I reflected on this post, I (try to) live a feminist life, but I don’t know how to materialise my feminism in my scholarship. Related to this, I wrote about how feminism, emotions and material culture are intertwined in my post on the Slashed Venus.

More broadly, I have wanted to use this page to think about photographic history. I wrote a first post on the differences between the history of photography and photographic history: the history (of anything) through photographic material. More recently, I published why I think photographic history matters. This is a long read, but it could be my manifesto.

In the last months, however, I started to get personal and publish about my feelings about academia and being an ECR. The rollercoaster of the job hunt materialised in posts where I thanked my academic friends for being amazing and their constant support, reflected on personal stories and privilege (or lack thereof) and set up my resolutions for 2016.

If I had to chose my three favorite posts, I would select: My intellectual home -my love letter to the PHRC-, Academic Randomness (where I celebrate the serendipity of academic paths and decisions) and my most personal text, the one I’ve dedicated to my grandparents (which has nothing to do with the academia, but with life).

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, a lot -but not in the way I expected. At first, I thought it would be a great way to disseminate my research findings. Two years later, I realise that writing this blog had nothing to do with that. It has provided me a space to think and write outside the rigid framework of academic texts, to try new ways to write in English and find my voice in a foreign language.

This is the last post of The Emotional Body blog -but not the last of this blog! In the coming days, I’ll rearrange sections and find a new name and a new image.

Thank you all for reading, commenting, sharing, liking. You’re the best.

Exciting times ahead!

 

My grandparents

These are my grandparents.

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He, Santiago, was a jazz musician from Barcelona. He mainly played the double bass, but his education was the violin -he could just play any instrument whatsoever. He really had a gift for music.

In 1954, he spent three months in Helsinki, playing with an orchestra. I believe he had to dress with extravagant shirts as if he was Caribbean. His skin was not very dark and he was rather not hairy, but up north he was actually playing the Latin lover.

One of those nights, in a club near the sea or the port (or the river), she met two sisters, Raija and Anna. Raija didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and Santiago didn’t speak Finnish. They communicated in English. They communicated so much, that at the end of the three months, Raija left Finland and came to Barcelona with Santiago. Some months later, my mom was born.

This story has always fascinated me. They were both quite a character, so, as strange as it sounds, the story always made sense to me. Yes, it was a crazy thing to do, but I can totally see them doing it.

My grandma (la mumu, in our adaptation of the Finnish word into Spanish) was this amazingly beautiful, intelligent, strong, independent woman. She left everything behind, and never came back. She spoke from time to time to her sister Anna, but international conferences were expensive -I wish she had known Skype.

She had this funny accent. She used to confuse feminine and masculine pronouns -no matter how many times we said that it is ‘el crucigrama’, not ‘la crucigrama’. She wore leopard print swimsuits, and red sandals that looked like coming directly from the fifties. She was tough with us, she was funny, and I never heard her complaining -until very late.

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My grandpa (el bari, as we called him) was this grumpy, politically incorrect man that loved buying me and my sister records and changed the name of our favourite bands. He had had an accident when he was a kid (he fell off a tramway when he jumped to catch it) and since then he had had one side of the upper lip lifted. I always thought it was so cool that he looked like Elvis Presley.

I remember I was keeping a diary when he died. I didn’t know how to continue writing after that and I just stopped.

One of the things I regret the most is not having asked them more questions about their lives. I know bits: I know that my grandpa was a communist when it was forbidden in Spain, and became rather right wing when the socialist party was in power . I know that he used to make jokes to new musicians in the band, and that once they all locked one guy in a double bass case made of hay and started to pee on him -as a joke. I know that my mom was almost born in Egypt. My grandparents settled down in Barcelona. Apparently, nobody told my grandma that what she was learning was Catalan instead of Spanish -there was a bit of confusion when she moved later to Madrid. I know that just by going to the market and talking to the neighbors, my grandma learned both Catalan and Spanish. I’m really impressed by that. I remember receiving books in Finnish when I was a kid and thinking how on earth that language could make sense. But la mumu managed to do it.

I went this summer to Barcelona, and visited the place where my mom and grandparents had lived. It was so moving walking down the streets they had walked. It was like seeing traces of their history.

As a teenager, I always fantasised about writing a novel about them. I pictured scenes in black and white, of jazz clubs filled with people smoking -they smoke so much. It would be a novel that intertwined music with the political events of the fifties and sixties in Europe.

I’m obviously not writing that. But who cares.

They never told much about their lives, but somehow they managed to be very present in our lives. My sister is married to a musician. They and my nieces have the same excellent ear for music, such a natural talent. For my part, I’m also communicating myself in English, and I’ve become a migrant too. Obviously not in the same conditions as my grandma. But I like to think that her funny accent resonates in mine.

Academic randomness

In less than a month, I will start a new job. It’s my dream job: a permanent position at the Photographic History Research Centre (PHRC), DMU. For those who know my academic activities of the last years, this won’t be very surprising. Photography is my thing.

But it hasn’t always been like this.

Academia is all about planning. You’re supposed to always know what you’re doing next. But sometimes, things get in your way. Sometimes you have a plan, but you come across something unexpected…and you have to follow your guts. Academia is as much about planning as it is about instincts.

In 2002, I started my undergraduate studies in philosophy. I spent my early twenties reading Plato, Nietzsche, Kant and Foucault –and god, I LOVED it. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed struggling to understand Kant –and how awesome it felt when suddenly the texts made sense. I was the kind of nerd that actually enjoyed doing essays and even exams. But when I was so high on Ancient philosophy (and Kant), I had courses on Logics and the History of Science. These modules were completely different to what I thought philosophy was. I didn’t like them –at first. One day I suddenly discovered the wonderful world of formal language, and the philosophical problems of science. And I totally fell in love!

In 2007, I was deciding the topic of my MA dissertation. I wanted to do genealogy of death at war, or something like that. I was going to focus on the First World War. And my supervisor (the first to teach me history of science, by the way) suggested me: Why don’t you look at photographs?

As I said, my philosophical background was mainly history/philosophy of sciences, and logics. I loved Foucault (I still do), but his epistemological texts rather than the postmodern ones. I had deliberately skipped all modules on aesthetics/philosophy of art. I wasn’t interested in images AT ALL. My mind didn’t reason the way philosophers of art and aesthetics did. What did I know about photography in 2007? I tell you: nothing. Still, I accepted my supervisor’s suggestion.

It could have been a very wrong decision. Almost ten years later, I realise it was a very reckless thing to do.

Fortunately, it turned out to be the best decision ever. I don’t exactly remember why I accepted (probably because I didn’t know anything about photography, and that was enough reason for me at the time). I guess something in my guts told me that photographs were good material. I didn’t know why, or how. I just knew there were things to say –my task was, then, to discover those things.

Since then, many things have happened that have led me to where I am right now.

In 2011, I emailed Elizabeth Edwards to do a short stay with her, just when she moved to the PHRC as Director (yes, my first thought was: ugh, Leicester?) She was kind enough to reply to my email without knowing me or my supervisor or any in my network at all. I couldn’t finally do the stay with her, but they invited me to give a seminar. I knew then Kelley Wilder, we spent the evening talking about history of science and my guts told me that that had to be my place.

In 2013, I was applying for postdocs everywhere in Europe. It was an awful year of unemployment and a huge crisis of self-confidence. I contacted Elizabeth and Kelley with a proposal, and they supported me. They accepted to sponsor me, and helped me with the application. Elizabeth even sent me comments on my draft during a conference we were both attending.

The rest is history.

If I look back, I see hard work but also many random things, moments and persons without which this wouldn’t have happened. What if my amazing history of science professor wouldn’t have liked my first essay on the guillotine? What if I had refused to look at photographs? What if my email had got lost in the mailbox of Elizabeth, one of the busiest persons I know? What if I had been too shy or scare to even contact her?

I guess that what I want to say is that in academia, as in life, not everything is under your control. You cannot control everything that happens to you –and that’s good. Sometimes it’s frustrating and overwhelming, but other times randomness is the actual source of hope. Trust your guts and allow yourself to follow your intuitions. If you think there’s something there, go for it! Same thing goes regarding jobs. You never know where’s the opportunity –the amazing place that will allow you to blossom and be your best. Places that seem fancy can turn out to be a nightmare (trust me). Places where you first think “ugh” might become your home.

Embrace the randomness.

Interview in History of the Human Sciences

History of the Human Sciences has launched a new website and has interviewed me about my latest article, “From Facial Expressions to Bodily Gestures”

“The fact that we all assume that instantaneous photos of a smile are the only way to represent a smile tells us a lot about how pervasive the notion of the instant has been” – an interview with Beatriz Pichel

The questions, brilliantly put by Web Editor Des Fitzgerald, revolve around the role of visual technologies in the understanding of emotions, links between past and current practices and theories of emotions and the entanglement between science and art in the nineteenth century. Hope you enjoy it!

Captura de pantalla 2016-04-05 a la(s) 10.40.12