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Collaboration: Reviewed by Brian Arnold

Book Review Collaboration A Potential History of Photography Reviewed by Brian Arnold "In 1992, I traveled to Bali, Indonesia for the first time as part of a study abroad program. I spent 6-months studying Balinese Hinduism and the remarkable music unique to the island. Since that time, Indonesia has been central in shaping my ideas about music, photography, art, and art history..."
A Potential History of Photography
Thames & Hudson, 2024. 288 pp., 724 color illustrations, 8¾x11½".

In 1968 Sontag recorded her impressions of a first visit to Vietnam in a book titled Trip to Hanoi, where she confessed early doubts about photography. She landed in Hanoi, only to realize that photographs had clouded her perspective with preconceptions of Vietnam. To understand how the war truly affected the people in the North, she needed to see beyond photographs.

— Thy Phu, Warring Visions

Collaboration is informed by decolonial, anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, feminist and abolitionist struggles. We tried to reconstruct, challenge, imagine, and reenact collaboration as the different protagonists experienced it…We have not stopped with the photographer’s ‘intentions’ or ‘statements’, but rather we look at the photographic event as it unfolds over time. Attending the mode of participation of the photographed persons, in particular, enabled us to reconfigure also the participation of the photographers, not as solo masters but rather as parties to the event of photography.

Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography

In 1992, I traveled to Bali, Indonesia for the first time as part of a study abroad program. I spent 6-months studying Balinese Hinduism and the remarkable music unique to the island. Since that time, Indonesia has been central in shaping my ideas about music, photography, art, and art history. For decades now, I’ve struggled with the ethics of my work, a white man working in a colonized nation. I’ve always questioned my privilege in relation to my work in Indonesia — at times, I’ve been disgusted by it — and, as a result, I’ve found myself wrestling with complex ideas about power, imperialism, and personal identity. At times, my work with Indonesia has been profoundly humbling, empowering, and confusing, but, ultimately, I cling to the belief that I can contribute to new, anti-colonial histories. In developing my projects in Bali and Java, I have come to the conclusion that a truly revisionist approach to history has to be collaborative. We can’t erase colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, so we must think of new ways to share resources and try to tell larger stories about the consequences of subjugation.

Uyghur Community by Carolyn Drake

As one fully devoted to photography, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the medium since I first picked up a camera. I’ve hungrily read many different approaches to the subject, but none of them reflect the kinds of issues I found researching photography in Indonesia (the Szarkowski history, included Gordon Parks and Roy Decarava, but certainly never ventured into the dark history of photography as an essential tool of colonialism). Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, a new book developed by Ariella Aisha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler, comes as a breath of fresh air. It is the first history of photography I’ve read that starts with the understanding that the medium has been essential in establishing the racist, classist, and sexist foundations of our “democratic” institutions.

 Scherzo di Follia by Pierre-Louis Pierson

The book is divided into 8 sections (the authors call them clusters), each of these based on the premise that any photograph is an event, built on collaborative give-and-takes between the photographer(s) and subject(s). In presenting the various projects, the editors attempted to include the voices of both the makers and the subjects (to be clear, there is nothing about landscape or experimental approaches to photographic materials, this is strictly a sociological study of the medium). Indeed, Collaboration takes this a step further by encouraging all readers to treat the book as a living document; we as viewers are part of the collaboration by bringing meaning and conversation to photographs. The editors encourage us to use the book as a conversation starter, not necessarily as a completed work, and to bring it to our studios, galleries, and classrooms. This all-inclusive paradigm, for defining the photographic act and our understanding of the resulting images, is intended to help create a revisionist history, undermining Szarkowski’s (and so many others) need to point to individual genius.

Sabrina and Katrina by Endia Beal

Everything about the book is a collaboration, fully embracing its own core ideals. Compiled by the 5 editors, each representing different disciplines or approaches to photography, the clusters are built around different themes, each detailing a variety of photographic projects. The projects are each presented with a selection of pictures accompanied by quotes from their makers, including both the photographers and, when possible, the subjects. The editors selected the work, but rather than giving their own reasons for inclusion, they asked different writers to respond to each of the individual projects, ensuring that every component of the book is a collaboration, enriched with layers of conversation. Some of these writers are familiar names, but many I had to look up. And, like the editors themselves, the contributing authors represent an array of disciplines and perspectives, creating a truly interdisciplinary approach to the medium.

Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography

I want to conclude by returning to Indonesia; this book facilitated a great deal of introspection on that work in ways that are helpful in relating my understanding of the editors’ intentions. About 2-months after returning from my study abroad program, I met with a Peace Corps volunteer on my college campus. We talked about a lot of things, but what sticks with me is our conversation about privilege. I’d spent the previous months living in Peliatan, a village of about 6,000 in south Bali. There was one phone and one fax machine for the entire village (this was pre-internet). Most people had refrigerators and TVs, but electricity could be intermittent and there were no such things as laundry machines or VCRs. When I got home, I felt so disgusted by the American abundance that I saw clearly for the first time. I told the volunteer I wanted to give away everything I own and move back to Bali so that I could spend the rest of my life studying gamelan and Hinduism. The volunteer was an African American woman who just returned from service in Ghana. She too was wrestling with some big questions about personal and cultural identity. I remember one thing she told me quite clearly — never give up your privilege, but always strive to make sure you are using it for good instead of propagating more abuse. Indeed, this stuck with me to the point that I’ve worked to make it the defining element of my work in Indonesia since.

Aaliya, digital collage by Hamida Zourgui. Original photograph by Jean Besancenot.

Notions of privilege aren’t overtly discussed in Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, but I do think this is important in understanding the ideas presented by the authors. If collaboration is defined by sharing and exchanging resources, then sharing privilege is necessary for tipping the balance of powers, making a society that is truly democratic, not just in name, and escaping the boundaries of imperialism, patriarchy, and dominance. To be honest, there are things I don’t like about Collaboration (there is just a little information about a lot of photographic projects and ideas, making it read a bit like a historical tapas), but I also feel it offers essential ideas for recreating cultural and photographic paradigms. And, regardless, I think the book a must for anyone interested in photographic history or education.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.