Tag Archives: Cobblestones

`If photographs could talk…’, Joseph McGonagle, Manchester, 11 September – 26 October, 2009


John noted in my journal entries over the summer that when I arrived in Algiers I put down my pen and switched to using my camera to continue the dialogue.

But this was not as straightforward as it might seem.

I had been warned before by several people that taking photographs in Algiers would not be easy – and is, in fact, to be discouraged. On my previous visit to the city a year earlier I had noted that the camera culture endemic to the UK’s streets seemed nowhere to be found. I didn’t think this was necessarily a question of limited means or access to photographic equipment: as any visitor to Algiers will immediately realise, mobile phones (many of which have cameras) are ubiquitous and there is no shortage of camera studios and film processing shops in the city centre. The invisibility of the street photographer seemed more down to local and cultural reasons rather than the socio-economic ones Western visitors may readily assume.

But, of course, not all street photographers in the city would be locals anyway: I might have expected to see a more visible presence of visitors there, but tourism clearly continues not to be a priority. This is not to say that Algiers is devoid of such influxes: many foreigners are residents, and the current numbers of Chinese migrants working on major construction projects across Algeria is testament to this. As I described earlier, summertime also heralds an increase in the circulation of diasporas between France and Algeria, and it was clear that many of the people thronging the city’s streets in July were visiting family and friends during their summer holidays. Nevertheless, I very seldom saw someone actually using a camera – and on the very rare occasions when I have in the past, it has mostly been by the city’s seafront, with families posing against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.

Discretion is therefore de rigueur, and from discussions I have had with local photographers, it’s clear that surreptitiousness is crucial. Consequently, many of my photographs were taken in carefully chosen places: in famous sites outside the city and areas where I felt less conspicuous. But looking back at my images now, it’s not a coincidence that few feature people: apart from the attendant ethical questions this would pose, I was also concerned by the more immediate consequences of being caught snapping by local police.

Indeed, my brief brush with the law during my stay was a case in point. Unable to sleep one morning as dawn broke, I decided to venture outside onto my fifth-floor hotel balcony in order to photograph the skyline and roofs opposite. Through blurry eyes, I dozily composed several images. My snapping abruptly stopped, however, when out of the corner of my left eye I discerned a policeman down below, hands firmly on his hips, silently staring up at me…

The automatic flash on my camera had given me away. Without wishing to acknowledge his presence – and keen to avoid the detailed conversation that would undoubtedly ensue – I quietly retired inside my room and gently closed the window behind me. I then waited for the knock on the door…

But none ever came. Now fully awake, and feeling suitably foolish, I returned to bed and tried to fall back to sleep. It would be easy to write off this incident as an illustration of the evident nervousness and suspicion that surrounds the use of photography within Algiers, but given recent events closer to home – that have notably inspired the British Journal of Photography’s current `Not A Crime’ campaign (http://www.not-a-crime.com/), alongside the `I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist’ campaign (http://photographernotaterrorist.org/) – perhaps the plight of photographers in the UK is not so dissimilar…

Away from my travels, as a researcher in visual culture, over time I have become acutely conscious of how hazardous working with images can be and sometimes wondered if they shouldn’t have a warning sign. It’s often all too tempting to use images as mere `illustration’ of a pre-existing argument, as if they were little more than an ingredient in a recipe. It seems far more preferable to let images `speak’ for themselves… but if images could `talk’, what would they say?

I have always been interested in how an image can denote very different things simply through the use of cropping and choice of scale, the location where it appears, and which text accompanies it. The seemingly ever-increasing circulation of images via online social networking and media sites serves as a reminder of how foolish it would be to assume that an image has any inherent meaning – or that there’s only ever one and that this is immutable.

This thought leads me to recall Susan Sontag’s assertion that:

`Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph’

Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 2002) (orig. publ. 1979), p. 23

…a timely reminder of how a photograph’s veneer of veracity may peel back to reveal nothing: the more you look, the less you see.

Nevertheless, to reflect upon this collaboration with John, it’s been enlightening to observe which photographs he has chosen from those I offered him, how he processed them, and which of the many possible narratives have developed over the time of my participation. The selection of images and positioning of text alongside them has duly shaped our narrative and undoubtedly encouraged certain meanings. Perhaps, in light of this, we could reformulate Sontag’s statement: whilst one may never understand anything from a photograph, with the auxiliary power of an accompanying text, can’t they be made to say almost anything?

As our dialogue in Left Luggage thus begins to draw to a close, John sent me an e-mail asking me to think about:

`The role of photography in your trip and its relationship with your simultaneous roles of researcher, tourist, diary writer, suitcase carrier, North European, and linguist. I was also thinking of the relationship between the snapshots and the texts you have produced, as well as the ensuing dialogue between us traced in Left Luggage.’

I now become conscious of a link between the function of the suitcase in Left Luggage and of photography within it. Whilst the use of accompanying texts, blog entry titles, photograph captions and sequencing of photographs all work to anchor the uploaded images, is not the fate of these images, circulating virtually via the blog, also to travel?

Participants in Left Luggage may briefly borrow John’s suitcase, but perhaps its viewers could be interpreted in turn as `borrowers’ too: the image here, like the case in between uses, an empty vessel filled with whatever significance its user chooses. The image considered thus would become an item of left luggage too: deposited online but in suspended animation until accessed or, indeed, reclaimed.

Or should we, alternatively, see the viewers as passengers too, transported elsewhere by the images? Do images travel with you, carried within your mind? Could viewers themselves be `carriers’? Photography as infection?

But as I muse about the role of images here, another voice from the past returns with a timely warning never to take photography at face value. For, as Barthes claimed:

`Au fond, une photo ressemble à n’importe qui, sauf à celui qu’elle représente’

(Ultimately, a photo resembles anyone, except the person it represents)

Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), p. 160.

I had hesitated before suggesting I participate personally in Left Luggage: perhaps I had had nothing to fear all along.
Text © Joseph McGonagle, 2009