007.01 THOMAS KEENAN

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS KEENAN BY ÖZGE ERSOY


Alex Webb, HAITI, Port-au-Prince, 1994. U.S. troops land as the press awaits.
©Alex Webb/Magnum Photos.

In Fall 2009, I participated in Antiphotojournalism, a seminar conducted by Thomas Keenan and Carles Guerra at Bard College. In our discussions, we questioned the so-called demise of news photography, and explored the critical and alternative accounts of the institution and practice of photojournalism from the 1960s to the present. In 2010, the conversation between Keenan and Guerra evolved into an exhibition of the same title, which they co-curated at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona between July 5 and October 10. The following conversation revolves around this exhibition, touching on the reality-constitutive effects of media practices, as well as the notions of critique and rhetoric.

Özge: You have a longstanding interest in challenging the presumption that cameras always follow events to represent and document them. You have written on the role of the news media in the US intervention in Somalia, NATO operations in Bosnia, and more recently on jihadist videos. You describe these ‘wars’ as “battles of images” and discuss the ways in which images can turn into opportunities, performances, and exhibitions, which are produced for the camera. You therefore turn the initial presumption upside down and ask whether images have become the precondition for events to happen. I’m curious as to how your interest in the power of contemporary imagery translates into Antiphotojournalism.

Tom: For me, one of the best organizing terms for thinking about this problem has always been the “photo opportunity.” This refers to moments when something happens in the world in order that a picture can be taken of it. The traditional epistemology of photography presumes that first of all there’s something in the world and then, in an independent or neutral way, it’s represented somewhere else. The structure of the photo opportunity, however, indicates that at least sometimes things appear in the world for the sake of a picture, that they wouldn’t happen without the image, and that the possibility of representation precedes and in some sense makes the event. The sequence doesn’t get completely destroyed, but rather somehow scrambled, so that things happen in front of cameras that are waiting for them to happen.

The slogan of this would be a phrase from New York Times that I wrote about, a story from Sarajevo in 1995 in which the reporter chronicles a sniper shooting captured on videotape. The reason why the shooting was captured on videotape is, the reporter says, that “there was a cameraman there, waiting.” This phenomenon of a “cameraman there, waiting” doesn’t seem to be singular anymore; it is a feature of the contemporary reality we live in. Cameras create a space and time of appearance in which things happen.


Gilles Peress, The Long Arm of Justice, 2002-2010, detail. Courtesy of the artist. Original photograph by Serbian paramilitaries, 1999, photographer unknown.

Özge: When and how did cameras gain the power to create this space of appearance?

Tom: It may be that this is a structure of representation or signification itself, and cameras are simply the currently privileged medium for that. But the period we’re talking about begins with the turn of 1990s—with the 1989 overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, and the Rodney King tape, among others (McKenzie Wark captured this moment beautifully in Virtual Geography.) The Gulf War was the first time reporters systematically traveled in an embedded way with fighting forces. It was also famous, or infamous, for the initial experiments in corralling journalists in briefing rooms and hotels, and subjecting them to videotapes that were made by weapon systems as a substitute for reporting. This was another kind of photo opportunity—the mechanically- or technically-generated news image from laser-guided bombs, tele-guided missiles, and the like.

Özge: Can you talk more about the different ways of reporting during the first Gulf War? Why are these significant in the history of photojournalism?

Tom: Reporting from within military commands was virtually the only way that foreign journalists could cover the first Gulf War, on both sides. Journalists were briefed, in Dhahran and Baghdad, and taken on tours, and that was about it. A few went “unilateral” as they called it; they operated outside of the control of military forces. These reporters were mostly in Iraq—some were captured and some were killed. The bulk of the world’s media, however, was in Saudi Arabia with the Americans and their coalition. Reporters have always traveled close to militaries, of course; in a certain sense war correspondents, if they were ‘close enough,’ were always in the vicinity and often under the protection of the fighters, but the Gulf War constituted the birth of an official practice and doctrine of embedded reporting.

In his book Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War, John Fialka quotes a Marine officer: “We regarded them as an environmental feature of the battlefield, kind of like the rain,” he says, “If it rains, you operate wet.” The media are equivalent to a force of nature. You can protect yourself against some of the negative impacts but you can’t do anything about its existence. You simply factor it into your negotiations with all the other givens, and try to make use of it. This apparently casual metaphor offers a real insight about what we’re talking about. Media are a constitutive feature of battlefield reality. Here I use media in the broad sense, to include traditional newsgathering with reporters and cameras, as well as the cameras carried by fighters and fighting machines, on your side and the other side, and then also people who are independently or critically monitoring the activities of states or militaries (we could nickname them “NGOs,” and they are thoroughly mediatized as well). This is the territory I’ve been tracking for these couple of decades, and my interest in the reality-constitutive effects of media practices forms the background within which Antiphotojournalism appeared.


Online Broadcast: Tehran from the Bridges to Rooftops, 2009-2010, detail, compiled
by Sohrab Mohebbi. See the online map, September 18th 2009 (Map 1) which identifies
the location of the videos that protestors posted on YouTube

Özge: Would you say that traditional journalism has disappeared from this field?

Tom: No, it hasn’t. Antiphotojournalism tries to unpack and complicate a critique of traditional photojournalism, precisely because it hasn’t disappeared. If it were dead, we wouldn’t have anything to worry about. It is still powerful at the level of practices, assumptions, and expectations. But there are all sorts of practices which challenge, extend, undermine, and transform it. There are other ways of doing it, and there always have been, but they have been buried beneath the hegemonic institution of photojournalism and the heroic figure of the photojournalist.

Özge: Let’s talk about some of the works in the show. I’m thinking of the selection from Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train series from 1968. The work is a somehow earlier attempt to suggest an alternative to the traditional ways of capturing a news event. But I don’t think you wanted this work to historicize photojournalistic practices, right?

Tom: This is why I hesitated when I started periodizing. Alternative strategies in photojournalism are not part of a strictly periodic phenomenon. Indeed, the idea that images function as reportage long predates photojournalism. Carles and I even toyed with the idea of including older works, such as Goya’s etchings and Géricault’s The Raft of The Medusa. These examples are not bound by the photochemical indexicality that has always seemed to rule photography and photojournalism, but they still depend on the notion of a public that wants to know about and consumes events at a distance, and does it through the image.

Özge: So in what ways Fusco’s work is relevant to the way you think about photojournalism?

Tom: Fusco’s project begins in an utterly classical and traditional way. He’s a photojournalist on assignment for Look Magazine to cover a news event: the President has been shot; there’s a funeral; and his body is carried by train from New York to Arlington cemetery in Washington. When the train reaches the first station along its route, in New Jersey, Fusco is “overwhelmed” and “stunned,” as he says later, to see that the platforms and tracks are lined with people. So he runs to the window, and “photographed everything [he] saw on the track that day.” He turns his camera away from the objects it’s supposed to be looking at, toward the people looking at the vehicle of the object. Here the photographic or political interest is neither the funeral nor the burial, but rather the reactions to the funeral train. Fusco’s vast series of photographs create a portrait of America in mourning, through the more or less spontaneous arrival of people along the train track. He turns the assignment into a narrative, and the coverage into a story about America, not about the president. He also does this in a stylistically unconventional way—the photographs are not carefully framed; they are often blurry and crooked, because he stands on a moving train. That gesture of turning the camera away from the icon toward the act of watching itself, and turning that watching into the story itself, seemed to us to mark a departure from the tradition, coming from within it.

Carles and I came to think that the most powerful critiques of photojournalism were just these sorts of deviations, swirls, and divergences from within the practice. They break from where they start. This was our provisional starting point for understanding how these alternative practices develop.


Paul Fusco, Robert Kennedy funeral train, USA, 1968. ©Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos.

Özge: What are the first works that the viewer sees when he or she enters the gallery? What constitutes your ‘introduction’ for the exhibition?

Tom: The first two works are from former Yugoslavia. The first is Paul Lowe’s Fellow Travelers: The Media in Bosnia (1993-94), which is a series of photographs that originally accompanied his short text “Witness to Existence” in Camera Austria. “I am waiting,” he writes, “to go and see a massacre.” Covering the war from Sarajevo, traveling on a field trip to the site of an atrocity, he realizes he operates in a media-constituted and media-saturated environment. Things were happening for cameras—sometimes to the point of absurdity. Lowe is a former Magnum photographer who often worked in classic ways. However, in this work, he takes a break from formal reportage and turns his camera around to focus not on the event but on the photographers summoned by this event, and by others that follow. While he’s still doing exactly what the other photographers do, in a sense, he is in fact taking an altogether different type of photograph—an image of the event as image, a photo of the photo opportunity itself. He’s still taking photographs and using the same equipment, but these pictures open up and explore a gap inside the practice.

The other work is how to make a refugee (1999) by artist Phil Collins. As the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, and the NATO air campaign overhead, are underway, Collins goes to a press conference across the border from Kosovo in Macedonia, in which two Kosovo refugee families are introduced to the international media. He doesn’t cover the objects, but the frame (technical and institutional) that makes them objects. Collins’ camcorder moves around, shows the other cameras, explores the scene itself, and tries to understand precisely this mise-en-scène. Cameras and the directives for the ‘best’ poses construct the group as refugee families; hence the elegance of the title how to make a refugee.

So the exhibition begins by trying to identify and display this double gesture: a self-critical hesitation, a turning away and a refocusing, an investigation of the event of photography itself. It’s an exploration carried out with the old tools, though, not a renunciation or an abandonment. It explores the time and space in which reality anticipates the camera, where the image constitutes the event—and it does it with cameras.


Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999, film still. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

Özge: Last November, in your talk at Creative Time Summit in New York, you stated that this exhibition not only provides a critique but it’s also an “affirmation of the institution.” Can you elaborate on this?

Tom: There’s a tradition of thinking about critique as something that comes from outside. According to this traditional epistemology, one should be at a distance from the object in order to criticize it. In all sorts of contexts, we value this critical distance. But there’s something flawed about the idea, in ethical terms as well as epistemological. A critique—or maybe we ought to call it a deconstruction—of an object or an institution needs to remain attached to it, invested in it, contaminated by it. One only critiques something that one deems worthy of critiquing. This engagement implies, then, an affirmation of some possibility in the object, event, or practice that is being criticized. Every critique therefore commits itself to concretizing, realizing, or manifesting what those other possibilities might be. In the talk you mentioned, I was following a text from Jacques Derrida in which he uses the term “institution” for this. The deconstruction of an institution implies taking a position and making a commitment to an alternative institution. In short, if a thing is worth critiquing, one must take the risk of building the alternative that’s implied by the critique.

Özge: Do different critiques of photojournalism constitute a paradigm or a totality? Why did you choose a title that uses the suffix “–ism”?

Tom: The work we are showing is not a totality. But in a de facto way, it amounts to an alternative institution, or perhaps a small set of institutions, or “isms.” It exemplifies an alternative set of practices and positions that criticize but also affirm the possibilities of this institution—namely photojournalism—which now appears fragile and so worthy of critique. We didn’t say “alternatives to photojournalism.” We used the term “antiphotojournalism” in a loose way in order to make a claim about the coherence in the alternatives, without insisting that everyone should be an “antiphotojournalist.” We borrowed it, of course, from Allan Sekula, who coined the term to describe his own practice in covering the Seattle protests in 1999: “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.”


Ariella Azoulay, Act of State 1967-2007, A Photographic History of the Israeli Occupation, 2009, laser prints on paper, detail. Courtesy of the author, the Centre de la Photographie de Genève and La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona.

Özge: I’m really curious as to why you chose the visual exhibition format to make this argument. Here it might be useful to make a distinction between “visual thinking” and “thinking through visuals,” which I’m borrowing from Sarat Maharaj. The first implies a mode of thinking that doesn’t aim to unpack the visual and analyze its components. It rather uses loose and open-ended associations to ‘think’ about the visual by following an and+ and+ and+… sequence. In contrast, thinking through visuals requires a method, a systematic, grammar-like structure as it attempts to dissect and examine the visual. You have extensively used the second mode of thinking in your writings. Why an exhibition now?

Tom: First of all, it’s worth to remember that there are other ways besides writing for scholarship to happen. For instance, Walter Benjamin once attempted to construct a book that only consisted of quotations from other people, which uses the and+ and+ and+… sequence you described. This type of paratactic thinking would be a mode of making a claim and persuading the reader, without making an argument in the classic sense of abstracting, analyzing, formulating, and defending.

But it’s true that I’m more or less interested in the traditional scholarly way of making an argument. Here I will make an analogy. I’m trained as a literary critic originally. In this field, you can adopt or absorb, even invisibly, without quotation marks, words from the text you are writing about, in the text you are writing. There’s a chance not simply to illustrate your argument or to base your argument on something that is outside of it, but also to merge them, to allow one to infiltrate the other, which I have always found to be a great pleasure of writing.

This is harder to do when you are writing about images. There’s always a limit—the gap between the form, medium, materiality of the writing, and what you’re writing about. You can cite an image; you can embed it in a text; you can zoom in on an image; but there’s still a mediatic distinction between the analytic material and the things that are analyzed.

This is why I was attracted to the idea of an exhibition. It’s a chance to make an argument visually and to set up a system in which images could start talking to each other, building on each other, making references, and unfolding arguments in a non-thematized way. It’s been also an experiment in depriving myself of the analytical meta-language and demonstrating that I could make an argument only with the primary material.


In front: The Destruction of Destruction, collected and edited by Eyal Weizman, Yazan Khalili, and Tony Chakar. On the wall: Ariella Azoulay, Act of State, A Photographic History of the Israeli Occupation, 2009. Installation view, Antiphotojournalism, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, 2010 ©Gasull Fotografia.

Özge: Can you talk more about the ways in which you constructed your arguments visually in the gallery?

Tom: The work in the show is physically organized in a line—with a couple of exceptions—as there’s really only one path in the gallery. It was a challenge for me to have an argument in mind but not to present it as such. But it’s there, and in the end, I don’t think it’s too hard for a viewer to discern what the argument or the sequence is. And there is, of course, always the possibility of destroying our sequence, of constructing another route through the show and finding other arguments there as well.

I also learned a lot from Carles about how to make an argument visually—especially how to structure and signal things in advance. For example, there is a video piece by Hito Steyerl titled Red Alert (2007), which echoes Rodchenko’s monochromes with a red derived from the official palate of the American Department of Homeland Security. The monitors of the piece are very bright, and are visible from much earlier in the show. So one can anticipate it and have it color what one sees along the way. This is hard to imagine doing in a text.

Özge: I also want to talk about the traditional boundaries that separate documentary from photojournalism. The latter is often defined through the evidentiary role of photographs and a sense of immediacy rather than rhetoric—persuasion doesn’t seem to be essential here. Are photojournalistic images unleashed from the demands of this tradition? Can they suggest other stories?

Tom: Antiphotojournalistic ones can, and do. And they can offer evidence—but they don’t have to. It’s great that you’re introducing the notion of rhetoric, because the split is in fact the split inside rhetoric. Documentary and photojournalism are both rhetorical practices. Literary critic Paul de Man distinguished between two moments of rhetoric. The first, tropological dimension, concerns ways of knowing. If I say to you “she’s as lovely as a flower,” I’m not simply praising her but I’m offering you some knowledge—you know what a flower is, and now you know that she is like a flower. This is the traditional cognitive function of rhetoric. The other dimension is persuasive, which is about producing effects. I speak not to teach you something but to get you to do something: vote, buy, go to war, love, whatever. There is a meaningful distinction between these two, but they are also linked. That’s the gap that opens up here.

What we see in the exhibition is the independence of these two features. There are images that report, that convey what you call “immediacy”; they capture a moment, make it known and knowable, and send it somewhere else. But they are not bound by that demand. Most of the works are representational, in one way or another, but all of them, I would say, are also alert to the other rhetorical dimension, that of persuasion. On the one hand, the distinction between documentary and photojournalism gets productively collapsed or fuzzy. On the other hand, we’re not entirely in control of that distinction anymore, which means that the phenomenon of unleashing becomes possible.

The Day Nobody Died (2008) by Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg is a good example of this. Oliver and Adam did everything war photographers would do, except taking the kind of pictures war photographers would take. The piece is the record of their eight days embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan. When something happened, they took pictures, but not by pointing the camera at the event and clicking the shutter. Instead, they unrolled a large piece of photo paper from its box, allowed the light of the event to imprint itself for the duration of the exposure, and then rolled it up again. The work obeys (almost) all the rules of traditional, evidentiary, and indexical photographs, but it’s not a figurative presentation anymore—it’s a radically abstract object. It is at once documentary and photojournalistic, but neither—that’s the “unleashing” you refer to, I think, and exemplary for us of the antiphotojournalistic gesture.


Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, The Press Conference, June 9, 2008, c-type print, detail, from the series The Day Nobody Died, 2008. Courtesy of the artists.

Özge: I think there’s a productive tension between two different views about the rhetorical power of images. On the one hand, there’s an argument that images don’t anticipate their meanings or effects. They can only function “as new configurations of what can be seen, said, and thought,” to quote Jacques Rancière; they create a “landscape of the possible.” This is an approach that I easily relate to the visual arts. I associate it with its propositional strength rather than claims to readily ‘change’ social and political realities. On the other hand, images are anticipated to assume some serious roles. For example, Witness—an international human rights organization that promotes the use of video in advocacy campaigns—has a promotional video that combines the following text with footage that captures various human rights violations: “You can say a story is fabricated, you can say a jury is corrupt, you can say a person is lying, you can say you don’t trust newspapers, but you can’t say what you just saw never happened. Help Witness give cameras to the world, shoot a video, expose injustice, reveal the truth, show us what’s wrong with the world, and maybe we can help make it right.” In this context, images act as testimonies; they help us to seek justice and change lives. How do you think that the works in Antiphotojournalism play with this tension? What do we expect images to do?

Tom: Works in the show render this distinction fragile. They have the ability to function in the way you’re associating with art. Most of them start in a photojournalistic position, but they don’t end up there. They don’t leave it altogether, either. They still have some fidelity or connection to the tradition from which they are unleashed. They have the power—one that Rancière describes very well—of producing new configurations, but they are not disinterested critical positions; they are not purely autonomous aesthetic objects. They come from the inside of this tradition as a way to challenge its monolithic character. Ultimately this is not an art show, but it’s not a photojournalism show either.

All the works are engaged in political realities, which in many cases one would very much like to change, but I think they are all rather careful about presuming that an image will do the trick, that if they show us what’s wrong with the world, we can help make it right. It’s not that they’ve given up, obviously—it is a show about images, made of images. But they are images which, among other things, reflect on what images haven’t been able to do, and what remains to be seen in them. (The archival projects from Palestine are particularly eloquent here, including Ariella Azoulay’s Act of State and The Destruction of Destruction dossier from Gaza which Yazan Khalili, Eyal Weizman, and Tony Chakar have prepared.) These are works for which ‘exposure’ is not the primary task, or rather works which are interested in investigating the experience of over-exposure (think of the found photos in Gilles Peress’ project from Kosovo, or Mauro Andrizzi’s compilation of video from fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Sohrab Mohebbi’s archive of cameraphone images from Tehran). I imagine that most of the work expresses a certain hesitation about this causal chain that leads from the truthful representation of an event to the programs and protocols to change it. In your quotation from Witness the best word is “maybe.” It all depends on how strongly you read this first word: “Maybe we can help make it right.”

Antiphotojournalism is a show of maybe’s. It’s the work of a very experienced group of people who are critical of the capacity and the will of those who see their images to change these realities. They are not pessimistic; they’re simply sober in their analyses of the other things that have to happen besides photography in order to challenge the realities they are documenting. There’s still an umbilical chord that links “antiphotojournalism” to the tradition of presenting, recording, and providing a basis for a transformation, but there is also a healthy and profound understanding of all the mediations, institutional structures, and politics, which have to happen along the way between images and change. This is precisely what relates the works in the show one to another.

Published March 24, 2011.