Q&A w/ Tina Campt
Alaska: I’m wondering about your process of writing about orphaned photographs, and writing about people who you don’t know, and can’t talk to: as a historian, how do you work through the problems of biographical accuracy?
Campt: “There is a different kind of accountability when you’re writing about people you don’t know. It’s hard enough to write about people you do know, but I would say it’s even more treacherous when you’re writing about people you don’t because there’s so much you can get wrong. I had to let go of that and switch away from the question of accuracy. I tried as hard as I could with the partial historical archive that each of these collections have to be accurate; but I felt like the biggest thing that I was accountable to was that there are so many images in the world that don’t have a full accounting of them.
Does that mean that we need to leave them alone? Does that mean that the only way you can talk about an image is if you know everything about it with absolute security? I decided that this is a huge tragedy and that what we have to do is deal with these images as something more than biographical documents. I think that photographs tell us something about more than just the individual the picture represents… they tell us something about ourselves, something about the context, and they tell us something beyond the facts. What they tell us beyond facts can be as important as what they document.
So the shift that I had to make is to be accountable to the impulse of making photographs as opposed to the content of what’s in the photograph. Rather than asking ‘What is in this photograph?’, I ask, ‘Why was this photograph taken?’. This leads me to a whole other set of equally challenging questions that you have to answer. Why make a photograph on a bridge of three men hugging? And that may seem really mundane, but it’s really important. He was trying to demonstrate, to show something to someone else, but also to capture a moment beyond the moment. And then I ask myself, ‘What about that moment is so precarious?’ And when we put all these images next to one another, we see it’s not just this one moment… there were lots of photographs of him, and they’re all about him with his best friends, and he seemed to have a lot of best friends.
But why do we have this photograph now? Why did someone save it then? Why did people keep it over and over again? And what happened to it that it made us come here, together, to talk about it? Those aren’t questions that are biographical. They’re not. They’re questions that are about photography, family, culture, history.
So attending to those questions I decided was equally important as the biographical details. I couldn’t answer the biographical questions, but I felt that these were important images nonetheless. And to try and answer the other questions helps us to think about photography and making photographs differently. I wanted to liberate the photograph from this kind of linear narrative. ‘Photographs tell you a story…’. No, you tell the photograph a story, and the photograph answers you back and says ‘Yes’. I was interested in that, because these photographs were telling me stories that weren’t mine, but we needed to listen to.”
From Q&A session with Tina Campt and Leigh Raiford at MOAD, San Francisco, Nov.3, 2012
Campt, Tina, and Leigh Raiford. “AUTHORS IN CONVERSATION | Why Images Move Us: Family Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe.” Reading and discussion, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, November 3, 2012.