In this essay, I explore an event that inspired my interest in the performative aspects of making political claims. The images included here were made at the April 2012 opening of an exhibition at the Cultural Center of the University of Huamanga, which is located in the capital city of the Peruvian province of Ayacucho. At the time, I was eight months into a yearlong period of fieldwork. The human rights organization Aprodeh asked me to videotape the opening for their website and archive. The exhibition featured clothing that had been worn by “the disappeared,” those who were killed by state or paramilitary forces during the internal armed conflict in Peru between 1980 and 2000 and whose remains were disposed of in mass graves or otherwise inaccessible terrain. I arranged to accompany a group of relatives of people who had been disappeared to see the exhibited clothes, including some with whom I had previously worked at Anfasep, a local organization for victims’ families. During the previous months we had made a documentary film about their practices of remembering the conflict. Yet the opening was the first event that I had attended with victims’ relatives outside of my own project, which granted me an unfamiliar distance from what unfolded there.
As these women moved through the exhibition, they performed a scene of suffering without unease. With my camera in hand, I sensed that I could go in close to film facial and bodily expressions of anxiety and pain. It was as though I had left behind my own, perhaps overly self-conscious sense of guilt around gathering data for my own scholarly project. I became aligned with their desire to enlist the acknowledgment and support of broader audiences in their political struggle for justice. For once, my job was not to think about our interactions in terms of my own body of work, but to follow their lead and put their expressions into pictures.
The moving images I recorded that evening introduced me to the fluidity of coming closer and seeking distance, sometimes punctuated by palpable abruptness in moments of insecurity. The camera enlisted me in the joint effort of “memory activism” (Friedman 2017, 150), which is marked by mutual engagements between different subjectivities inhabiting a diverse set of roles. As John Jackson (2013) has pointed out, today’s anthropological collaborator is a self-aware subject, who crafts her own auto-ethnography even as she critically consumes what the ethnographer has to offer. Here, Jackson makes a case against Geertzian thick description as the anthropologist’s core practice and for something that has become thinner through the subject’s awareness. I share the view that ethnographic practice has gone through substantial transformations inspired by demands to be included in the process of knowledge production, but here I argue against the idea of thinness. As rich as the representations of a collaborator’s own awareness and agency may be, the anthropologist’s engagement with them can also bring the complexities that inhabit the realm of the intersubjective into view.
This selection of still images from the video material that I recorded at the opening offers a sensitive, but precise way of narrating the experience of engaging with victims’ relatives, forensic scientists, and representatives of the state at the exhibition in Ayacucho. Each frame occupies a space in a sequence of frames and signifies a moment that my memory has rendered meaningful. At the same time, the choice of frame allows me to highlight dynamics that emerged between people, places, and objects. At twenty-five frames per second, my six hours of video material yielded 540,000 frames, each of them a possible choice. Taking a photograph involves ”a collusion with the contingency of the world whereby something is selected out of the ‘vast disorder of objects’ and what is documented only ever occurs once” (Irving 2006, 27). Indeed, Roland Barthes (1981, 6) would have us wonder, “of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other?”
Such questions, I have found, also apply to the selection of video stills. In integrating the process of image production with ethnographic practice, there are three instances where the researcher’s analytical work materializes. First, the moment the image is shot. Second, the moment the image is selected and edited. Third, the moment the image is arranged and/or circulated. It is precisely in this process of making choices that the production of anthropological knowledge inheres. The work of ethnographic photography, like that of ethnographic filmmaking or writing, can be understood as an analytical process in which the analysis is embodied in the crafting, slicing, and juxtaposing of material. For still images this means the choice of frame, the adjustment of color and light, the place that an image is given among other images, and the ways the image is placed in dialogue with other media and (con)texts. These different elements establish the rhythm through which memory is narrated. In this photo-essay, the addition of captions accelerates a particular kind of reading and accentuates points of irruption as well as moments of silence. Yet these captions do not seek to fix meaning so much as to evoke it.
Once displayed or circulated, images move between audiences and contexts by which they are reframed. The same images used here to complicate what might have been made simple may call up different meanings elsewhere. In a human-rights report, they may serve as truth-speaking evidence of loss and suffering. As such, the images may help to consolidate a shared and consensual memory. According to Deborah Poole and Isaías Rojas Pérez (2010), photographic images that are understood as self-evident and historical prepare “the perceptual grounds from which individual emotions and feelings can be interpolated as part of a collective moral engagement with the past.” Photographs can take part in processes that fix meaning in an effort to assert existential certainties.
The images that appear here do not speak for themselves or for others. Rather, they seek to evoke relationships between people, places, and objects in postconflict Peru. Articulated at the intersection of performance, visual narrative, and observation, these relationships are embedded in an effort to speak about transitional justice through a shared poetics of memory.
The title of this photo-essay was inspired by “Curating the Activist Object,” a project of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.
Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang. Originally published in 1980.
Friedman, Rebekka. 2017. Competing Memories: Truth and Reconciliation in Sierra Leone and Peru. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Irving, Andrew. 2006. “The Skin of the City.” Anthropological Yearbook of European Cultures 15: 9–36.
Jackson, John L., Jr. 2013. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Levi, Primo. 1988. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Summit Books. Originally published in 1986.
Poole, Deborah, and Isaias Rojas Pérez, Isaias. 2010. “Memories of Reconciliation: Photography and Memory in Postwar Peru.” e-misferica 7, no. 2.