Photography and the Transnational Politics of Affect

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Modern Languages and Cultures


Photographs bear tremendous emotional and affective power thanks to their intimate and necessary relationship to the material world, their 'having-been-there' quality. Disseminated across an evolving range of media and spanning geographical distances, historical periods, and cultural and linguistic divides, photographs are routinely presented for everyday consumption, calling on us to recognise our fellow human beings in moments of crisis and duress: from the all-too familiar images documenting successive waves of famine and disease, through those that bear witness to the action and destruction of war or 'natural' disasters and their aftermath, to the photo ops staged in the arena of struggles for human rights. As they circulate in the global public sphere, such photographs invite patterns of identification, mobilizing shame, inciting outrage, hatred, fear, compassion, etc. The very fact that they continue to circulate testifies to the on-going belief in their power to communicate affect transnationally and ultimately to effect change.

However, despite the enduring historical relationship between photography and the affective, photography scholarship has yet to examine the emotional aspects of the medium's persuasive power. Our network therefore aims to address two overarching questions. First, how has photography emerged as one of the key modes in the representation of political events, and consequently framed what is visible and hence, sayable? Second, how do photographs serve as vehicles for the transnational communication of affect, and therefore aid (or hinder) the formation of (political) communities based around these emotional attachments? The research speaks directly to the relationship between visuality and politics, and is relevant to research and photographic practice that seeks to engage with the work that photographs do in relation to social change, human rights, and the public sphere. Conceived as an international and interdisciplinary project, the network has been designed to straddle the boundary between the academic community and other stakeholders, including photographers, curators, journalists, human rights activists and representatives of NGOs.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of this research:

A major objective of the network is to provide a platform for collaboration between researchers in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and key stakeholders -- including photographers, curators, human rights activists and representatives of NGOs. The subject of the network is also of potential interest to members of the wider public who, after all, encounter on a daily basis the kinds of photographic images that are its focus in the form of illustrations in newspapers and magazines, leaflets seeking donation to charitable causes etc.

Non-academic beneficiaries will benefit from this research in the following ways:

A key premise of the network is knowledge exchange, whereby the encounter between academics and non-academics transforms knowledge and practice for both parties. Just as academics will benefit from the insights, knowledge and understanding offered by stakeholders who produce and cause photographic images to circulate in the global public sphere, stakeholders will equally benefit from the kinds of theoretical and methodological insights that academics bring to bear on the analysis of the photographic image in this context. A clearer understanding of the potential benefits of participating in the network can best be achieved through examples:

(a) In the case of a representative of an NGO, an enhanced understanding of the emotional aspects of the medium's persuasive power and the culturally specific contours of a photograph's transnational circuits of dissemination has the potential to enable more effective awareness-raising campaigns.

(b) In the case of a museum/gallery curator, dialogue and exchange with the international and interdisciplinary participants in the network have the potential to spark new and innovative ideas for exhibitions and programmes on themes related to the network's key questions and concerns.

In addition, organizations, groups and individual photographers will benefit from increased publicity afforded their work through participation in the network.

Each of the activities of the network not only bring together academics and stakeholders, but will also include events - such as Q&A sessions with photographers - that will be widely advertised and open to members of the wider public. In this way, the network aims to encourage reflection on, and to enhance broader public understanding of the work that photographs do within the global public sphere.

There will be immediate benefits that can be identified during the life of the network, as signalled above. However, one of the principal aims of the network is to trigger exchanges, collaborations which will outlive the network - for example, larger scale collaborative projects, some of which can be anticipated at this stage, others will emerge as the activities get under way. Examples include a knowledge exchange partnership with an NGO; further work with cultural institutions on the role of images in the public sphere, e.g. Impressions Gallery, International Photography Center, Autograph-ABP.

Research and professional skills
The project incorporates a postgraduate research assistant who will be managed by the PI. S/he will acquire a range of research and professional skills, such as networking with a scholars based in a wide-range of international institutions; public engagement skills; presentation of work at international research fora; knowledge exchange activity with non-academic partners; editorial skills. Professional skills will include the administrative tasks related to the running the network; communication skills; organization skills; IT skills.


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Bassnett S (2015) Cold War visual alliances in Visual Studies

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Noble A (2015) History, Modernity and Atrocity in Mexican Visual Culture in Bulletin of Spanish Studies

Description Our network grant ran for two years between 2012 and 2014 and involved a collaboration between colleagues at the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (now incorporated into the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture and colleagues from the Toronto Photography Seminar, who also won funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

For us one of the most important elements of a Research Networking Grant was the space it left for unanticipated outcomes. Thanks to the opportunity to meet and work with Professor Thy Phy from Western University, and the Guatemalan photographer and activist Daniel Hernández-Salazar,'Photography and the Transnational Politics of Affect' has morphed into the long term project 'Cold War Camera'.

The premise of Cold War Camera is that photography plays a key role in the cultural politics of the Cold War and its aftermath, from its use in state surveillance operations; through its deployment in acts of resistance to state-sponsored terrorism; to its role in commemorative and on-going judicial processes. While scholars have begun to outline the visual cultural politics of the Cold War in regional and national contexts, there has yet to be a full exploration of the global, interconnected networks of production, circulation and reception of photography during this period. A full picture of how photography helped mediate a war that was prosecuted on multiple fronts requires the collaboration of scholars from different disciplines and wide-ranging historical and cultural expertise.
Cold War Camera already has a clearly defined set of academic outputs that include an inaugural conference hosted in Guatemala in February 2014; a special issue of Visual Studies (forthcoming 2015); and an edited collection with a major university press (forthcoming 2016). We now aim to build on our Guatemala experience, and in particular the field trip to sites of memory in Guatemala City, that took place prior to the inaugural conference to extend and strengthen the impact of the project beyond academia. Working in collaboration with the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City and Daniel Hernández-Salazar, we are planning a photography exhibition related to the Cold War's legacy in the Americas. In parallel, we are launching a crowd-sourced project - Coldwar Photoshoot - in which we are soliciting visual stories with the aim of expanding how we see the Cold War and its legacies.
Exploitation Route This project has scholarly impact -- the findings will be of relevance to scholars in photography studies, emotion studies, and Cold War studies.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Cold War Camera 
Organisation Western University
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Cold War Camera is an international collaborative project that involves the co-organization of research activities, including conferences, workshops, edited journals and books, and a planned photography exhibition that will explore the legacy of the Cold War.
Collaborator Contribution Co-organization of research activities.
Impact Multi-disciplinary: English, Latin American and photography studies
Start Year 2010