Conference on Photographies and Conflict

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Famagusta Gate, Nicosia – November 2018
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Recently, I attended a conference on photographies and conflict that was organized by the International Association of Photography & Theory in Nicosia, Cyprus at the end of November 2018. It was the fifth conference of the association and it was titled “Photographies and Conflict: Archiving and Consuming Images of Strife”. I attended the conference as a presenter and I was very happy to meet with many scholars who are working on so many diverse and specific cases and their research actually spoke to each other either in terms of themes and methodologies. I particularly appreciated the tone adapted in these the presentations which were at times on very difficult topics and the presenters generally prioritized the specificities of their cases over theoretical questions. The general impression I left the conference with was that there is an emerging type of scholarship, particularly on difficult issues around images and photography, which opts to tackle with theory from the subject matter of each study, surpassing the disciplinary boundaries whether of anthropology, history, or media studies; a subject matter that is not given but has to be discovered and described along the way. In parallel to this, most of the scholars were engaged in their topics as “engaged scholars” who have taken upon themselves to work on this topic, either because it is directly related to their community, its history or its present. It was an opportunity for me to present to an audience whom I conceived as a sympathetic audience. And it is not often one feels this way when it comes to academic environments.

The conference was held at the Famagusta Gate, which is the historical gate in the Venetian Nicosia walls. It was renovated in early 1980s and turned into a cultural center. The walls of Nicosia surrounds the old city of Nicosia and is a superb example of Renaissance fortifications, with its eleven pentagonal bastions with rounded orillons, which are ear-shaped architectural elements that I had thought existed only in drawings as a figurative ornament. Beside the historical walls and gates that lead you to the modern and residential neighborhoods of Nicosia, the old city is divided into two by the Green Line on an east-west axis, making it the “last divided capital”; a phrase I heard on both sides, from members of both communities, and was also written on a plaque at the Ledra passage at the south.

One of the keynote speakers, Olga Demetriou, a social anthropologist currently teaching at the Durham University, gave her keynote speech on the particular case of Nicosia, and offered a reading of the buffer zone as an archive of this conflict. The line that crosses and literally divides the old city of Nicosia is itself very visible but at the same time hard to miss at times as the urban texture has evolved to assimilate it, or at times accentuating it by using it as a backdrop for a hype pub, for instance. The line is also not a line and it has layers which reveal the historical stages of its changing significance, and it became a texture that records the passing of time.

If not most, a lot of presenters work with digital images and new communication platforms. Yet, there was not a divide between those who are working with analog images as printed materials in more established archives and those who work on digital images in ephemeral state of presence in the sense of the type of questions one would ask to an archive, whether it is in the making or not. My impression is that there was a grounded understanding on the diversities of archives and their conditions of vulnerabilities rather than having two camps across the analog/digital divide. Navigating in the swamp of digital flow of images, some of us are inevitably create or curate our own archives that is called for by our researches. When, and in what form would these archives become accessible to others?

Akram Zaatari, a co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation based in Lebanon, shared the story of the beginnings of the Foundation through the story of one photograph, which was like the seed that grew into a delicate flower, and changed its habitat at every exhibition. Zaatari prefers to call the context in which the photograph appears as its “habitat”, and argues that every transfer of the photo object from one habitat to another leaves a trace on the image. The story of that particular photograph led to other stories of collections and photographers who become part of the Foundation and sometimes left it later on. Zaatari’s keynote speech was a thoughtful meditation on photographs as performing documents which invoke us “to write a better history of the present times.”

Last but not least, Anthony Downey, Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa at Birmingham City University, gave a keynote speech on the future of digital archives and cultural activism. Downey reminded of the larger context of technology companies and governmental agencies of intelligence that do not only define the conditions upon which the digital image comes to exist and circulate, but also indicate the dangers of an uncritical celebration of the new capabilities of “connectivities”, even though Downey didn’t use that term. With a cautionary tone, and what I considered as a corrective to the celebration of new communication technologies and techno-deterministic approaches to social change, Downey’s speech was also an invitation to tackle the fact that the same advances in the communication technologies has weaponized images and these technologies. Is internet presenting a proleptic collapse; a catasthrophe into the future?

Rather than as summaries that present the scope and depth of the speeches and presentations, I mark down these notes as the impressions and questions they have left me with.