Documentary Strategies in Contemporary Photography
20 April–9 May 2021
Participating artists: Laia Abril, Mathieu Asselin, Lara Baladi, Kerstin Hamilton, Karlsson Rixon, Bouchra Khalili, Frida Orupabo, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon
About the Exhibition
The times we live in have been characterised as a period of post-truth – one in which fact-based truths are often replaced by so-called alternative facts. Emotions and personal beliefs are used to sway public opinion at the expense of science-based arguments.
In photography, objectivity and truth have been debated since the 1980s, and the once widespread idea of photography as a neutral representation has been discredited. Portraying other people’s lives is challenging and there is the constant risk of exoticisation and exploitation. Documentary photography has therefore long been subject to criticism, but in the last twenty years, the field has undergone a change. Today, photo-based artists are approaching social issues with new strategies and an awareness of their own role in forming narratives.
This exhibition explores how nine contemporary artists approach ideas of truth, facts, and objectivity, and how they – guided by ethical reflections – make urgent matters visible. Their work portrays some of the most challenging issues of our time: human rights, the environment, democracy, migration, technology, and violence. The projects are rooted in social realities – but they do not attempt to represent reality. The artists step into the world, turn to archives, and nuance established views. Here, the truth plays a central part – not as an authoritarian or neutral vision, but as a starting point for socially engaged contemporary art.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue in newspaper format, distributed both digitally and in print.
About the Artists
Mathieu Asselin’s photo-based examination of the multinational biotechnology company Monsanto focuses on the devastating effect of toxins introduced into the landscape by Monsanto. The ambitious, five-year undertaking that started in 2011 gave rise to images that serve as reminders of personal suffering and environmental destruction in the wake of one company’s pursuit of profit. Asselin says, “Everybody has their own truths, depending on their moral grounds. The full story is that Monsanto did good things, too. I am choosing to tell only one side of the story because I believe nothing that Monsanto has done good can make up for all the bad things that they have done.” He photographs scenes in the present and adds depth by digging into Monsanto’s advertising history. Archival images that communicate idealized Monsanto visions make up a substantial part of Asselin’s work, entangling the fictitious, dreamy corporate scenarios of the past with new photographs that testify to real traumas in the present.
Kerstin Hamilton’s work The Science Question in Feminism focuses on women in the history of science and addresses the discrimination that continuously impacts what and who is prioritized in scientific communities. The images are obvious constructions—they don’t mirror reality: “Gender discrimination is a subject that is visually difficult to capture in a ‘straight’ photograph. Making montages was a way of availing myself of the limited existing photographic material of these twentieth-century scientists. The technique also made it possible to introduce visual indications of the researchers’ scientific achievements, placing the portraits in a context.” A selection of works from the series A World Made by Science are also included in the exhibition. They explore ways in which science permeates the world, with special attention to contemporary female scientists, ground-breaking nanotechnology and its role in battling climate change as well as the rise in antibiotic resistance.
Frida Orupabo’s images are firmly rooted in a montage tradition: “I am interrogating myself, my perceptions and ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class, and culture.” She places her work in the realm of personal familiarity. But the personal is profoundly and purposefully entangled with collective experience. She states, “A main focus is on how black women are portrayed and perceived and, further, the consequence of these ways of seeing.” Orupabo makes montages because they enable her to explore gender: “I am interested in the body—specifically the black female body; how it is interpreted, talked and written about, and how that affects me/us.” With a master’s degree in sociology and a background as social worker, Orupabo reflects, “Sociology, very simply put, looks at how we impact and create society, but also how social systems shape and impact us. I believe this informs all my work.”
Lara Baladi also engages with the montage tradition and describes her poetic and pressing work ABC: A Lesson in History as “inspired by 1950s propagandist educational books.” Her images are vividly blue in colour: “Each plate is printed on watercolour paper using an analogue [photographic] process: cyanotype. These cyanotype prints, reminiscent of the blueprints of engineering drawings, inscribes the ABC as the core language—and structure—to engineer a revolution.” In January 2011, Baladi was one of the hundreds of thousands of people across Egypt who took to the streets in protest against President Hosni Mubarak. “In the context of Tahrir Square, in a country where photography had been banned in most public spaces until 2011; where if you were photographing you were assumed to be an Israeli spy; where (anti-camera) propaganda helped generate paranoia, fear, and mistrust between people… literally overnight, the camera became one of the most efficient ways to counter the state and its security apparatus.”
The subjects in Laia Abril’s works are rooted in the gruesome, often invisible experiences of women such as rape, eating disorders, and unsafe abortions. Her projects are time-consuming; she deliberately opposes the short-lived reports in newspapers. Dear Truth includes selected parts of On Abortion, the first chapter of the long-term series A History of Misogyny. Every year, unsafe abortions lead to the death of tens of thousands of women around the world. The women who undergo hazardous abortions do so not because of insufficient medical and technological knowledge, but as a consequence of society’s religious and political motivations. Trust and responsibility are crucial to Abril: “You are always faced with the possibility of making a mistake when you are working with other people’s lives. It is a stressful situation as an artist and a great responsibility.” Women’s mental and physical health is continuously jeopardized, which Abril puts in context by juxtaposing historical conditions, material equipment, ideological incitements, and personal testimonies.
Karlsson Rixon’s and historian of ideas Mikela Lundahl Hero worked as volunteers in a refugee camp in Greece. The resulting work which is shown in Dear Truth started “as a reaction to how people in the margins today are gathered in camps. So far, I [Karlsson Rixon] have made a couple of works on these situations, and in all of them I try to reflect my own position as a photographer—for example white, queer and Western—and what it means to work photographically based on these positions.” The work that grew out of their time in the refugee camp consists of photographs and texts. Some of the photographs are cropped into circles that claustrophobically mimic a peephole: The view is masked and the people—predominantly children—are often facing away from the camera. The images make no attempt to offer comprehensive insight; they don’t bring us close or pretend familiarity with the situation that they depict. But they are intimate and touching in a subtle and unassuming way, facilitating gentle observations rather than sanctioning objectifying voyeurism.
Mother Tongue is the first chapter of Bouchra Khalili’s video trilogy The Speeches Series. Each chapter follows a different format, respectively articulating one of three concepts: language, citizenship, and labour. The chapter presented in Dear Truth attends to language and is narrated by five migrants who live in Paris and have been invited by the artist to recite literary and political texts. Khalili explains, “Each of them chose the piece she/he is performing. They translated and memorized those fragments. So what the viewer is watching, is literally a performance.” Born in Morocco, where the official history was in the hands of colonizers and the political regime, Khalili emphasizes the importance of private, intimate storytelling—what she refers to as “living archives”—to expand official histories. Her works can be seen to facilitate a reclaiming of history from the dominant voice.
Taryn Simon’s series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII is a multi-layered body of work that consists of eighteen chapters. The chapters record bloodlines, implying that “we are all ghosts from the past and the future.” Over the course of four years, Simon spent a vast amount of time travelling to a significant number of geographic locations with seven cases of photographic equipment. In line with a long portrait tradition, she photographed people straight-on as they look into the lens. In chapter VII, presented in Dear Truth, the narrative is of a bloodline interrupted as a consequence of genocide. The Srebrenica massacre, which is the deadliest war crime in Europe since World War II, took place during little more than a week in July 1995 in the city of Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Simon’s work, we are introduced to a family deeply affected by the massacre. The photographs help the viewer comprehend a family shattered by war and speaks of the power of the photographic medium to relentlessly produce and reproduce—and to remind us of histories that should be remembered.
Trevor Paglen’s images are commonly photographed from a distance and typically unoccupied by human bodies. The human presence is instead evoked in the material traces of technology: “Materials themselves have stories embedded in them.” In the work, of which a portion is shown in Dear Truth, the internet is in focus. Paglen’s investigation into the physical aspects of something as seemingly abstract as the internet and mass surveillance required him to learn how to scuba dive. He traced the locations of the underwater cables that transport ninety-eight percent of the world’s data across the globe, and the photographs give us a glimpse of a sphere that is normally hidden. Paglen’s photographs, that visually connect with landscape painting, expose the scenic landscapes in front of him, or indeed above or below him: he lures the viewer into seeing and reflecting upon the overlooked. His refusal to settle for quick and easy solutions has led him to challenge the technological properties of the camera, to experiment across disciplines, and to enter into pioneering collaborations.
Kerstin Hamilton, PhD candidate in Artistic Research at HDK-Valand, Gothenburg University
The exhibition is part of Kerstin Hamilton’s on-going research project The Objectivity Laboratory: Photography and Reality in Times of Post-Truth. The public defence of the dissertation will take place in November 2021.
Image: Kerstin Hamilton, Lise Meitner, Physicist, Austria/Sweden, 1878-1968, photomontage, 2018