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 Marianne Hirsch and Ulrich Baer, the underlying hypothesis of this project is that photographs call on viewers to assume responsibility with regard to the image, and thus to become potential witnesses (Hirsch 2012, Baer 2002) in particular in the social realm of families (Hirsch 2012). 

How can we understand the power of the traumatic trope being passed on from generation to generation? In her work, Ariella Azoulay categorizes different forms of power produced when the meaning-making process in viewing photography is suspended. “Missing photographs” are unavailable and inaccessible. They are not looked at and processed and do not become part of the societal shared imaginary. I argue that precisely its suspension qualifies analogue, vernacular photographs as objects of Haunting of the social fabric (Gordon 2008) and I add that these absent objects are powerfully present in the social realm of the family. I hence propose to examine my family photo album in order to understand how trauma is transmitted via „missing photographs” (Azoulay 2010) instead of present photographs. My material is „missing photgraphs”of my families lived experience as „indigenous subjects”of Algeria under colonial rule and as „non-persons”in post-colonial France, where their oppression continued. 

Rooted in insights into the limits of witnessing through understanding (Laub/Felman 1992) the proposed project explores the performative potential of „Wit(h)nessing” (Palacios 2017). 

Wit(h)nessing is a mode of being „with”the traumatized subject instead of objectifying it. I aim to develop an „Aesthetics of Wit(h)nessing” by re-creating “performative acts”(Taylor 2003) of these cultural scenarios of colonial haunting. I search for conversing „beyond the symbolic realm”(Palacios 2017) with my family members and hence for ways of interfering with the transmission of experiences of violence via montage, mapping, drawing, description, and performing. I wonder how – what Saidiya Hartmann calls „critical fabulation” (Hartmann 2008) – questions dominant historical narratives and hence potentially creates my position in society as Franco-German-Algerian.

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, Tina Campt,  Saidiya Hartman,  Rabih Mroué, Margarita Palacios 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. 


Aline Benecke, 2019, Photo: Vir Andres Herra
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