Arts & Culture

Group rediscovers forgotten images through photos

Photographic Archives Research group brings overlooked photos into lively discussions

Contributing Writer
Friday, October 9, 2015

For many, the words “photographic archive” conjure images of dusty books deep within a library, far removed from life and air. But Brown’s Photographic Archives Research Group breathes life into these archives, making them the centerpiece of planned conversations around five times throughout the year.

“I felt that many people were interested in working with photographs but didn’t really know how,” said Ariella Azoulay, professor of modern culture and media and comparative literature, who founded the group last year.

The group allows researchers to share and discuss the photo archives they are working on, as well as to interact with the guest speakers whom Azoulay recruits. “It’s a kind of combination between studying together, asking questions together (and) sharing procedures and methodologies,” Azoulay said.

Every month, the roughly 25-person group — composed primarily of faculty members and graduate students — meets in the Rockefeller Library’s Digital Scholarship Lab to discuss and give presentations on photographs they are currently working on in their research. These photos feature a variety of subjects, including studies on Icelandic women and labor in the Soviet Union, with the hope of forming “a kind of research and teaching tool,” Azoulay said.

Though the meetings run in fast-paced academese, Brown community members need not be fluent to join — an eccentric first-year with a passion for both archival research and photography can always sign up, Azouli said. The group is composed primarily of graduate students and faculty members because “it takes some time for undergrads to understand that they can be interested in photographic archives,” she added.

But there are exceptions. Maria Paz Almenara ’16, a political science and MCM concetrator who is writing her thesis on post-Civil War reconstruction in Peru, joined the group as a junior last year. “It’s intimidating, but I also really need to be there,” she said. “These people have a lot more background and a lot more theory (than I do), and it’s only been helpful.”

On Tuesday, the group had its first guest speaker of the semester. Artist Maryam Jafri ’94, who specializes in research-based artwork, gave a presentation entitled “Independence Day 1934–1975.”

The presentation is a collection of 57 images of the first moments of independence in various Asian, Middle Eastern and African nations. These images, culled from 30 different archives around the world, all depict the 24-hour period when a territory transforms into a nation state — a time Jafri has termed “the twilight period.”

These images are then sorted into idiosyncratic categories such as “first speech to the nation,” “vip parties,” “signings,” “parades” and “celebrations.” Once categorized, the photos are displayed in what Jafri described as a “broken grid” pattern on a gallery wall.

The point of these presentations is for the group members to reflect on the speakers’ practices, asking themselves questions such as “how do they work with images, what do they find, what is the journey with which they go from the moment they find (the image) until they start to produce?” Azoulay said.

The group revolves around in-depth question-and-answer sessions, during which group members can and will ask anything on their minds to the speaker, with many prone to launching into five-minute-long inquiries. During Tuesday’s question-and-answer session, Jafri’s fervent audience managed to touch on a myriad of questions, including: “How did you manage to get into archives when war hits the country, like in Iraq?”, “How do you access photos when the country doesn’t have official archives, like in Ghana?” and “How do you reconcile the artwork you create with the archives you use?”

Attendees of these presentations can learn about the topic and how they can create the same type of work within a topic that interests them, Azoulay said.

“Anyone’s encouraged to join, even if they’re just interested by an idea,” she added.

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