Performing Pictures




3 minutes reading

A funny thing happens when we encounter a photograph, and try to interpret its meaning. Even if we are looking at a photograph for the first time, we often are able to understand it because it refers to other images, ones that we already know. Photographs ‘cite’ visually, whether they quote existing pictures or images that we have in our heads.

This process of citation has been called ‘performative’. In the words of the American philosopher Judith Butler: “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names”. In photography, performativity can explain how a single photo never communicates to the viewer entirely on its own, but draws on a pool of images we have seen before, and what they stand for (which, of course, varies across geographies, social classes, and individuals). A photo simultaneously references images from that pool, and becomes one more image in the pool itself.

If each new image is understood with the help of others, how then can it ever communicate something radically different from the images that have come before? Can it ever challenge stereotypes? How can it communicate about situations that have not occurred before, and emotions that have not yet been communicated in other images?

A single photo never communicates entirely on its own, but draws on a pool of images we have seen before

To address this question, in the 1970s, the American photographer Cindy Sherman staged herself as varying ‘types’ of women from popular media. Sherman acknowledged that in our minds, there was a limited pool of images for what a woman could look like. By staging herself emphatically as each of these images, the pattern became explicit, and she was able to draw her viewers’ attention to the fact that we keep copying images, and limiting ourselves in the process.

In 2013, the French photographer Patrick Willocq was confronted with the same problem when he photographed a pygmy ritual in Congo. At the time, he felt he was taking good pictures. But later, when he saw the photographs, they seemed to merely reference the same pictures that Western media have spread for so long about ‘poor Africans doing primitive rituals in the jungle’. To prevent this from happening again, in a second run, he collaborated with the women who performed the ritual, and together they staged his photos with backdrops chosen by the women, drawing attention to what they found important.

Arguably, staged photography is particularly suitable for breaking with stereotypes and communicating yet untold emotions or situations. With its ability to cite from various registers of meaning in a single photo, staged photography creates more chances for new meanings. (Since every image is staged to some degree, we can also say that every image contains this possibility of citing different things simultaneously; yet ‘staged photography’ might be more actively looking for it.)

One example can be seen in the work of Gohar Dashti (1980, Iran). Her photographs show people’s daily rituals and celebrations, absurdly set in surroundings that are at odds with the depicted scene. For her series Today’s Life and War, she photographed a couple in different moments in their lives: from a wedding ceremony and a birthday party to daily activities such as drinking tea or reading the Quran. Around them are tanks, they use sandbags for tables, and barbed wire for clotheslines. Instead of quoting a single pool of images, Dashti’s photos say different things simultaneously. Because she cites both signs we associate with daily life and signs we associate with war in a single photo, she creates a clash of meanings. She does so in what might be called an exaggerated manner – but then again, people’s experiences often contain multiple, sometimes contradictory elements. As such, the clash of meanings in her photos might in fact show something closer to the lived reality of people in war than a documentary photo could. It’s evidence of a new reality, in need of a new means of expression.

The article Performing Pictures was published in GUP#51, the Rituals issue. The images are by Gohar Dashti, from her series Today's Life and War and Iran, Untitled.