Photography and Words: 
Narratives, Stories, Representations

Seminar in the frame of the Fotobokfestival Oslo 2021
curated by Zofia Cielatkowska
23 August 2021, Deichman Bjørvika 

Both the camera and the pen are, in a way, ultimately colonial tools, ordering, categorizing, and thereby creating reality in their own image. Each in their own way, photography, and writing take possession of the world, freeze it in images and representations, and often kill its vitality in the process.

– Filip de Boeck, Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City

But can this vitality –  in images or words – be saved at all?  And if so, what would it consist of?

For sure, both images and words are narratives – just different ones. While the text is fiction per se, photography creates a powerful illusion of its own singularity or authenticity. But in fact, a photographic image functions as an artifact with an infinite number of interpretations. The seemingly shifting nature of fiction in these two instances cannot deny that sometimes fiction serves as a better tool to make reality more visible and alive.

Sometimes these two similarly different narratives, or these two ‘modes of representation’ (E. Welch), meet in a very particular form, in a very particular genre. There are books in which the text could be an independent entity, but for some reason, they use photography as a partner in dialogue, as a partner in telling the story. These connections between the text and image vary from explicit to nuanced, from obvious to unapparent, from scientific to poetic. Sometimes one adds something to another, sometimes something gets lost, but for sure they create a specific form. The seminar focuses precisely on these unique publications in which text and photography are in dialogue. These books treat the photographic image not just as a purely informative or aesthetic supplement, but as a meaningful component. What do these two narratives give to each other and what is lost? How to analyze and interpret books that are both literature and photography? How is their storytelling similar or different? While the primary focus of the seminar is placed on this particular relation between photography and literature, it is not limited to, and examples from other disciplines like history, anthropology, science, journalism, etc. will be also taken into account.   

To give credit to historical precedents, early Surrealist experiments should surely be taken into consideration, but there are countless other examples: from the emblematic Austerlitz (2001) by S.W. Sebald to the more theoretical and politically engaged After the Last Sky (1986) by Edward Said, the essayistic Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine, the poetic Quelque chose noir (1986) by Jacques Roubaud, or Secrets from the Center of the World (1989) by Joy Harjo and Stephen Strom, to more typical fiction and literature such as Every Day Is for the Thief (2007) by Teju Cole.

In the Nordic context, one surely has to mention a very particular literary investigation by Tomas Espedal in Mitt privatliv (2014), a documentary study of a rural community by Sune Jonsson in Byn med det blå huset (1959), and the minimalistic photographic and literary forms of Fuglene under himmel (2019) by Karl Ove Knausgård. Or, in a more recent context, John Erik Riley’s Det jeg var (2020).            

The focus on literature relates to FFO’s 2021 collaboration with Oslo’s local libraries in order to make photography books more accessible to the public.

Opening |
Welcoming intro by Thale Fastvold (FFF Styrleder) and opening speech by Annette Trettebergstuen (AP, Medlem av Familie- og Kulturkomiteen på Stortinget)

Panel I | Representation and Beyond 
1. Zofia Cielatkowska, Photography as a Practice of Seeing (curator’s introduction to the festival)
2. Deborah Willis, A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (fragment from the lecture – video)
3. Sofie Amalie Klougart on Dette året (2021)
4. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Overwintering 

Panel II | Photography and Words
Line Ørnes Søndergaard and Yohan Shanmugaratnam on BRUDDET/ THE SPLIT (2021)
2. Tonje Bøe Birkeland on The Characters, The Buthan Trilogy (2021)
3. Jiri Havran on Photo After Sebald (2019)
4. Tomas Espedal, Liv og kunst. Liv som kunst.

Panel III | Public Space 
1. Viel Bjerkeset Andersen, Mot nord (Towards North); Arbeidersamfunnets plass seen from an Artist’s Point of View.
2. Siv Hofsvang, On Public Space
Closing speeches

Creative Writing | 2019

It began to improve

One of the poems published in Edition #6 of the “So Fi Zine”

So Fi Zine is an independent publication for sociological fiction, poetry, visual art, and other creative works. Each edition is inspired by the work of leading sociologists, who contribute guest editorials to their editions.

Art in Times of Collapsing Systems | seminar | Luxembourg (2019)

Art in Times of Collapsing Systems
Seminar in the frame of Luxembourg Art Week organized by the University of Luxemburg/ 4-5 November 2019
Curated by Zofia Cielatkowska, Zoran Eric and Enrico Lunghi
Speakers: Zofia Cielatkowska, Zoran Eric, Enrico Lunghi, André Hoffmann, Dmitry Vilensky, Annie Anawana Haloba Hobøl, Adrienne Goehler.

Modern Art appeared with industrialization and shared with it the belief in progress. Postmodernism and contemporary art developed in times of expanding globalization. But what is the state of art in times of collapsing systems?

After the decline of the grand narratives in the 1970s and a short period of prevailing micro-narratives, a new big narrative is slowly but surely making its way into people’s minds: the collapse of the world as we know it today. More and more observers and scientists agree on the fact that the present capitalistic world is showing serious symptoms of disintegration. The consequences of its insane logic of perpetual expansion are now becoming palpable on the small planet sustaining it: the world is rife with ecological disaster and growing politico-social instability, a corollary of the increasing gap between rich and poor.

Yet nothing seems able to stop the deadly cycle of profit and consumption. As a result, democratic governments are increasingly undermined by macro-economical diktats, championed by opportunistic politicians; authoritarian rule progresses, as regimes worldwide oppress their own citizens; the prospect of wars for vital resources such as water drives up global military expenditure; blind faith in salvation through technology leads to public responsibility being devolved to artificial intelligence and foolish dreams of space colonization (conveniently obscuring the question how the same human beings who depleted a bountiful planet are supposed to survive in waterless spaceships or on a cold rock in outerspace).

In light of the impending ecological breakdown, many people believe that only a radical change of paradigm can help to secure a liveable future for the next generation. The concept of degrowth – centred on the local production and consumption of necessary goods and a drastic reduction of energy and natural resource consumption – is gaining popularity with all those who no longer want to participate in what they see as a collective suicide.

What is the response of art to this situation? Are artists inventing new practices that question the sense of locality and sustainability? How do they think about memory, posterity and universal values in times of an insecure future? How does the art world contribute to the necessary change of paradigm? Does it actually want such a change? Or is it just hoping to do business as usual in global art fairs and blockbuster shows, contributing to the financialization of art through ruthless speculation and money laundry?

Curated by Zofia Cielatkowska (Independent researcher, art critic and curator), Zoran Eric (Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade) and Enrico Lunghi (Curator and Art Historian)

Speakers: Zofia Cielatkowska, Zoran Eric, Enrico Lunghi, André Hoffmann (Lecturer, University of Luxembourg), Dmitry Vilensky (Artist, writer, and founding member of the platform Chto Delat?/What is to be done?), Annie Anawana Haloba Hobøl (PhD Fellow, University of Bergen), Adrienne Goehler (Journalist and independent curator), Béatrice Josse (Chief, MAGASIN des horizons) a.o.

04.11.2019, 14:30–19:00 (lectures)
05.11.2019, 14:30–20:00 (lectures followed by panel debate)

Luxembourg seminar

Postcolonial Ecologies in Art and Curating | seminar | Aberdeen (2019)

Postcolonial Ecologies in Art and Curating
Screening of Wild Relatives by Jumana Manna
Seminar and Workshop for Curators
Peacock Visual Arts & SCAN / Aberdeen / 4-5 October 2019

“[…]there is a pressing need for the recovery of the land that, because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, is recoverable at first only through the imagination. Now if there is anything that radically distinguishes the imagination of anti-imperialism it is the primacy of the geographical in it. Imperialism, after all, is an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control.” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism)

This workshop considers recent art practices concerned with postcolonial ecologies, and their relationship to curatorial practice. By focusing on concrete examples from the art scene we will reflect on the place of art in the contemporary crisis, consider how we engage with issues of change, and finally how art can contribute to a better understanding of vital issues in society.

Through analysis of various visual, performative and textual sources (literature, poetry, non-fiction, pop-culture, academic etc.), the workshop will also pay attention to how certain narratives are constructed. What is the place and the role of imagination and emotions in an everyday life which mixes freely reality with fake news? The aim of this constructed discussion is to show how disparate areas of power, exclusions and marginalization are related to one another. Amongst other issues the workshop will touch on the current state of journalism, censorship, racism and rhetoric.

Jumana Manna’s film Wild Relatives (2018) to screen at Peacock. Wild Relatives explores the recreation of a seed bank from Aleppo, Syria to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon due to the Syrian Revolution turned war. Having left behind its seed bank, the research centre began a laborious process of planting their seed collection from back-ups stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Following the path of this transaction of seeds between the Arctic and Lebanon, _Wild Relatives_ captures the articulation between this large-scale international initiative and its local implementation in the Bekaa Valley, carried out primarily by young migrant women. The meditative pace of the scenes are a succession of processes, partially-scripted dialogues, and observations that tease out tensions between state and individual, industrial and organic approaches to seed saving, climate change and biodiversity.


2019, 12. – 22. SEPTEMBER
curator of the festival: Christina Leithe Hansen
curators of the seminar: Christina Leithe Hansen and Zofia Cielatkowska
more: Forbunet Frie Fotografer

Part One |16. September
Presentations & talks
Rona Yefman / Bettina Camilla H. Vestergaard

Part Two | 18. september
Presentations by Katharina Sieverding and Maria Pasenau
Discussion with Heidi Bale Amundsen and  Bjørn Schiermer Andersen

Beyond the Photographic Image’

“Something was disquieting about visual images. They appeared to show everything, and yet, like the physical body, remained annoyingly mute. The visual world was like the husk you removed to get at the conceptual and verbal worlds inside, but having done so you couldn’t in good conscience throw it away.”

(David MacDougall, The Visual in Anthropology, 1997)

When photography appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century, together with other technological and social changes, it had an enormous impact on the way people communicated, experienced things, and perceived reality. However, critical reflection on photography appeared much later. The above-mentioned concern expressed by the American anthropologist connected with disquieting visual images returns nowadays in a different narrative marked by the redundancy of the visual material occurring at all possible levels of everyday experience (Hito Steyerl). Very often images in the media and social networks are shocking, provoking, attracting attention, yet they remain silent; they lack sources and context, thus making them extremely vulnerable to various manipulations.

The photographic image has never been innocent, but it currently seems that, more than before, its harmful power can be used on a greater scale, either purposefully or unconsciously. The way the content is created and shared, even if it seems a part of freedom of speech, is in fact not free. We live in times of platform imperialism; digital platforms have significantly influenced capital accumulation and digital culture (Dal Yong Jin). Of particular interest is how the digital influences democratic society:how it transforms the public sphere, or put differently, how the public sphere is shaped by debates surrounding crisis, conflict, migration, culture and our identity. Devices and platforms have remade the world and our understanding of ourselves within it (Nathan Jurgenson). Nor does posthumanism’s reflection on agency and technology (Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour) leave much space for optimism.

Understanding contemporary photography requires grasping a broader context of how the image is transferred through global media channels and used locally, and how it functions within rising inequalities, misinterpretations, or misuses. It also requires a reflection on the different responsibilities we have as participants in a democratic society with our different roles as artists, photographers, media journalists, media editors, politicians, scientists, and individuals who choose to share particular content on our social networks.

In such constructed reality, what is the place of photographers? Is their voice heard in the debates surrounding vital contemporary issues? And if almost everything is digital, what is the place of the photographic book? Is it an aesthetic object just for a small group of people? Or does it have the potential to be part of the discussion for a larger public? One of the earliest photography books, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) by Anna Atkins, was not at that time considered a photobook. Perhaps, then, the photobook has changed over time and manifests a different form.

COMMON SPACE, Images, Stories, Voices | exhibition | Timișoara | (2018-2019)

COMMON SPACE, Images, Stories, Voices
Art Encounters, Timisoara, Romania
8 December 2018 – 9 March 2019
Artists: Lera Kelemen, Gloria Luca, Liliana Mercioiu Popa, Ilinca Pop & Simona Constantin, Smaranda Ursuleanu

The word common suggests something that is usual, simple, typical, very often unnoticed and at the same time something that is collective and shared. The research, project, and exhibition COMMON SPACE – Images, Stories, Voices by showing various historical and contemporary materials devoted to or connected with  Romanian women, gives the space and time for (her)story. The project allows to notice and appreciate ‘simple’, unnoticed women work and activities of everyday life. The COMMON SPACE – Images, Stories, Voices is thus a pretext for the critical reflection on ‘feminity’ and woman place in history and in contemporary times.

Photos: Dana Dohotaru

The Talk | Performance | (2014)

Concept, idea and performance: Zofia Cielątkowska, Radosław Muniak
Photo: Magdalena Kącikowska
Organised by: Plac Defilad
20-21 September 2014

The Talk

The main aim of “The Talk ” was to draw attention to meeting and conversation. Two philosophers were closed in a white cube room for 24 hours exposed in a public place – Parade Square just in front of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

“The Talk” combined many contradictory ideas. Conversation in a public place is somehow related to the Greek Agora. On one side, according to the common understanding of the philosopher, it is a person who has knowledge. On the other hand, in this particular case ‘The Talk’ was put in the artistic, performative, every day and voyeuristic context. If someone decides to enter the white cube – is it because of the need of the talk, something that attracts his/her attention or some other reason? There was no documentation – no cameras, no audio recording. What was said – stayed there and in participants experience.


Open Studios | Warsaw (2014)

Open Studios
14, 15 June 2014, Warsaw, Poland
Curator: Zofia Cielatkowska

Open Studios was an event which took place in Warsaw in collaboration with more than 30 artists, who made accessible to all comers their studios or workrooms.



The Collection of Contemporary Art for The National Audiovisual Institute (2013)

The Collection of Contemporary Art for the National Audiovisual Institute ( 2013)
Curator: Zofia Cielatkowska
Collaboration: Katarzyna Spychala, Katarzyna Iwanska, Julia Plawgo
Project WebPage: NINATEKA

The Collection of Contemporary Art is an online collection created in 2013 for the National Audiovisual Institute. It presents video works, performances or documents about artists. The collection includes among others works of such artists as Jerzy Bereś, Teresa Murak, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Zbigniew Libera, Krzysztof Wodiczko etc.

An important part of the collection is the ‘art dictionary’ in which art historians and researchers describe among others such things as: Found footage, Happening, Interactivity, Mockumentary, Picture etc.


The Common Gestures| Cinema Screening (2018)

Gestures are a form of communication relying on the body. The can have various meanings: from a simple ‘yes’ made with the nod of the head to a more complex sense in the art or life (for instance, in political protest). They can accompany speech or be a sign of disappointment with the language. Gestures, if made consciously, rely on a silent ‘agreement’ that there is a common space of understanding in which they are readable and accepted. However, this agreement is usually written into power relations – visible, as well as invisible rules.

Sometimes the silence breaks and it often happens through an uncommon gesture – a disagreement with the structures existing on various levels. Paradoxically, the uncommon gesture very often allows one to discover what is really common, and what the true rules and patterns are. The artists selected for that short screening make such uncommon gestures. They are either connected with disagreement with the existing artistic rules (Ewa Zarzycka) or patriarchal relations (Natalia LL, Ewa Partum). They may question the concept of the body norms (Agnieszka Polska, Aneta Grzeszykowska), or emotional and physical borders of the individual versus others (Kwiekulk, Honorata Martin). They may also bring out the hidden structure of collective behaviours in the site-specific space marked by memory and history (Zorka Wollny, Joanna Rajkowska). The question of what constitutes the common gestures remains open.

Text&Curated by Zofia Cielatkowska


Natalia LL
Consumer Art, 1975
original 16’01” (fragment 5’56”)

Ewa Partum
Active Poetry. Poem by Ewa, 1971

Open Form – Game on an Actress’s Face, 1971

Ewa Zarzycka
Standing Dialogue, 2011

Joanna Rajkowska
Oxygenator. Grzybowski Square in Warsaw, 2007

Agnieszka Polska
Correction Exercises, 2008

Aneta Grzeszykowska
Bolymorphia, 2008

Zorka Wollny
Unhum for 23 Musicians and 52 Passers-by, 2011

Honorata Martin
Setting forth into Poland, 2013
original 17’25” (fragment 5’56”)