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.
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
1. 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
3. Closing speeches