Aline Benecke

Aesthetics of Wit(h)nessing: Conversing through Performing Photography

This Ph.D. project explores the possibility of witnessing trauma through photography, its different
modalities, potentialities, and limitations. Following postmemory theorists such as Marianna Hirsch and
Ulrich Baer, the underlying hypothesis of this project is that photographs call on viewers to assume a
responsibility with regard to the image, and thus to become potential witnesses (Hirsch 2012, Baer
2002). I propose to examine my family photo albums in order to understand how trauma is transmitted,
and how what Saidiya Hartmann calls “critical fabulation” might question dominant historical narratives
(Hartmann 2008). In my family’s case these narratives center on Wehrmacht in World War II (WWII)
and the Forces armées françaises in the Algerian War of Liberation from 1954 – 1962.
This project is designed as an art-based research project located at the intersection of postmemory
theory, trauma studies, performing photography, and autoethnography. The transgenerational and
transcultural subjects that I intend to put into conversation through photography are my two grandfathers
and myself. One grandfather was a hobby photographer and member of the Wehrmacht in WWII, who
witnessed different scenes of violence and events in Poland and the U.S. The other grandfather was an
Algerian Harki mercenary soldier, who fought for France and witnessed the atrocities of the War of
Liberation against the Algerian Independence Army. Taking into consideration the differences in
geography, time, and the relevant subjectivities, the proposed project explores ways of interfering in the
transmission of experiences of violence via montage, mapping, drawing, describing, and performing with
existing and materially absent, hence “missing photographs” (Azoulay 2010) of cultural “scenarios”
(Taylor 2003). Rooted in insights into the limits of witnessing through understanding (Laub/Felman 1992,
Palacios 2017), this project pursues art-based means of wit(h)nessing, approaching the traumatic trope as
a suspended “event of photography” (Azoulay 2010), a “haunting” of the social fabric (Gordon 2008).
The project develops and puts forth an aesthetics of wit(h)nessing by re-creating “performative acts”
(Taylor 2003) of cultural scenarios of haunting. These performative fabulations are “suspended events of
photography” (Azoulay 2010). Key research questions are: How to insert conflicted sets of meaning into
closed cultural scenarios, producing paradoxical conventions of seeing and understanding and thus a
break in the transmission of trauma through the aesthetics of performance? How to process the meaning
of scenarios involving ghosts and flashbacks in terms of wit(h)nessing as disobedient knowledge? What
can art-based research contribute to the pressing question of how to create visibility for marginalized
historical scenarios of violence and oppression without reproducing them? Inspired by the work of Ariella
Azoulay, Rabih Mroué, and Forensic Architecture, the proposed project aims to deepen the field of
trauma studies and the concept of traumatic images while enriching the intersection between social
theory and art-based research. Finally, the project aspires to delve into photography as an imaginary that
informs “disobedient” visibilities (Palacios 2017), which in turn allow various conflicting forms of meaning
to emerge as they prepare the ground for a paradoxical sociality.
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