Material Malfeasance: Trace Evidence of Violence in Three Image-Acts

Photoworks, Issue 17, (November 2011-April 2012): 28-33.


Materials generally register the imprint of violence through deformations of their structural composition, whether achieved through natural processes that can liquefy rock into lava and metamorphose limestone into marble, or unnatural acts of aggression that can pulverize concrete buildings into debris and riddle surfaces with ballistic scars. Photographic materials, by contrast, record the trace effects of violence through representations that reorganize the pictorial field. They may document the chromogenic forces of violence, have violence done to them through acts of image vandalism, or even “bruise the public eye” in their retinal viscerality, but rarely are they themselves subject to material transmutation as a consequence of such an encounter. This second-order of testimonial—violence once removed from its ‘cherished’ object—has none the less bestowed onto photography a legal role as a mechanism for truth-telling, which consistently supersedes the testimonials of other material witnesses.

The standing of the image as objectively congruent with a given reality on the ground holds within many contemporary discourses, even if it fails to convince the majority of photo theorists of its capacity to testify. My goal, here, is not to rehearse the contestation of photography’s truth claims–a debate that is already fully crafted and mapped–but to reflect upon the provocations that modes of visual “witnessing” have raised for a series of contemporary image-practices. While I specifically eschew those practices that are self-identified as enacting the role of the “professional witness”, which we have to come to know through the phenomena of embedded journalism, I am interested in examining the shift from an image that merely records history to one that is itself an object of historical forces, capable of testifying on behalf of its own history to history. In particular, I would like to turn to three image-events that have been troubled by the evidentiary discourse around the limits of representation within conditions of violence.


The Day Nobody Died, Broomberg and Chanarin, 2008

The Day Nobody Died, Broomberg and Chanarin, Afghanistan, 2008