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Letters

Letter 2: Positioning

Leiden, March 22nd 2019
Dear Dr. Julien, 
Following up on the previous letter in which I introduced myself as well as my interest in your photographs, I would like to share some thoughts with you about the way you and I manoeuvre between – and make use of different disciplines. Pointing out some of the similarities and differences between us will, hopefully, explain what I started to do with your photographs and why.  
I’ll take the academic disciplines we wish to engage in and our dissertations as vantage points. It seems to me that we both are primarily interested in anthropology. This is not the most obvious academic discipline for either one of us, taking into consideration that your doctorate, as I only recently found out when trying to read your dissertation, was obtained in ‘math and physics’ at Utrecht University and mine in a programme for artists and designers offered by Leiden University. We both start our inquiries with multiple disciplines at play. The question then is how these disciplines related or relate to each other. 
In academic discourses across the humanities and social studies the word ‘interdisciplinarity’ is currently ‘en vogue’. The term, signifying “the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity”, usually implies something that is desirable and productive, but how and when the drawing of knowledge from several fields or disciplines into one particular context actually leads to added value, to a whole that is more than an (often unequal) accumulation of its parts, is rarely clear and I have not yet seen it addressed in a satisfying way. In an attempt to address this in relation to our practices I would like to first give some thought to the two components of the notion: ‘Inter’ and ‘disciplinarity’.
The word disciplinarity builds, of course on discipline, which can signify both a distinct subdivision of knowledge as well as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour”. Building on these two meanings disciplinarity is a framework that allows specialised discourse to unfold and a factor that limits the exploration of possibilities through rules and codes. 
The prefix ‘inter’ signifies an in between. Alternative prefixes in relation to disciplinarity are intra- (within or inside), multi- (involving several or many disciplines), cross- (beyond disciplines, combining disciplines) and trans- (the union of interdisciplinary efforts).
Besides it may not be bad to take into account that to ‘inter’ as a verb signifies the activity of burying a dead body, as it might have to lead to the conclusion that to go from disciplinarity to interdisciplinarity implies the end of the relevance of the subdivisions of knowledge involved. On that note I’ll return to the ways in which each of us was disciplined.
Knowing that you taught chemistry in a high school for decades, I was surprised to learn that you were awarded your doctoral degree not in chemistry but in math and physics. When I was in high school the three were distinct subjects. It did not occur to me then how they relate, overlap and need one another, and I guess I have not given it a lot of thought since. A confession: I hated math and physics even more than chemistry and dropped all three subjects as soon as I could. I (therefore?) do not understand most of the writing in your thesis. It is presented in jargon that is only accessible for those who have been disciplined. 
I tried to understand the title of your dissertation “Electrokinesis of Silverhalogens” by looking up the two words that meant nothing to me on first sight.
About electrokinesis I read that it refers, in physics, to “the transport of particles or fluid by means of an electric field acting on a fluid which has a net mobile charge.” This still had a limited resonance, but the word electrokinesis also signifies the idea of the generation of electrical force using psychic power, as ‘demonstrated’ in works of fiction. I stumbled upon numerous sources that claim that this type of electrokinesis can be trained by humans. What do you think? Does this border on the many myths you heard in Africa? Is it simply an appealing story? Something we are yet to understand and master? Or can choose to believe (in) it, like the existence of one superior being and creator, as you so often discussed with your friends belonging to pygmy communities?
The title of my dissertation is “Ebifananyi, a study of photographs in and through an artistic practice”. I imagine that there is one word in this title that does not mean anything to you. Or, actually, could the Luganda word Ebifananyi ring a bell and take you back to the time you visited Buganda and photographed the royal enclosure and tombs in 1933? In any case, Ebifananyi is the word used to signify photographs as well as other two-dimensional referential depictions, but its most literal translation would be likenesses. This suggests that photographs are something different for people who use this linguistic construct than for you and me, who have been disciplined to think of them as pictures made with a camera and a light sensitive surface. This is funny when realising that until recent developments in digital photography, the silver halides among the silver halogens you studied were, as you of course know, key to the production of photographic pictures. 
Despite my illiteracy in terms of physics I recognised the structure of your dissertation and saw a parallel between our research-processes as discussed in our respective introductions. During the first stages of our research we both were confronted with a fallacy in our basic assumptions, which changed the substances we worked with. If I understand correctly this meant in your case that a quality that you projected onto silver bromide and that was needed for the experiments central to the research method did not exist. In my case it meant that the position of photographs in my study shifted from being a way to get access to aspects of a particular cultural context to being its subject. 
The title of your dissertation mentions what it is about, mine also includes what could be thought of as a discipline and positions it as a method: ‘in and through an artistic practice’. This implies that the how of the research is as much at stake as the what. I take this to be the fundamental difference between our otherwise overlapping interests and ambitions to contribute to the development of knowledge. 
At this point it might be useful to introduce the term affordances. I only came across it when finalising my dissertation and used it casually in the conclusion, but want to explore it further while working with your legacy. Psychologist James Gibson proposed to think of all organisms as beings in an environment that offers affordances, possibilities. These affordances are not fixed but relative to the organism that actives them.
Allow me to illustrate this by constructing a string of affordances, starting from your training as a chemist, which could have led to a career in a university lab. You, however, made it into an affordance that allowed -gave you a reason- to travel. Browsing through your photographs it seems to me that the camera that you brought with you on these journeys afforded you to approach people in different ways than taking their blood samples did. In the former case these people were individuals with an agency that they brought to the encounter to a bigger or smaller extent. In the latter case the individuals formed a line, waiting to be taken blood from. They were turned into a source of data before receiving some salt or tobacco in return. The photographs that resulted from these encounters afforded, for you, communication about your experiences in publications and lectures and for your audiences to imagine ‘Africa’. These same photographs now afford for you to be remembered as a photographer, as your legacy is in the care of the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. They afford for me to bring something when I travel to the same places you once visited. They also afford me to experience the affordances your photographs have for the descendants of the people connected to who and what you once photographed. And they will afford the audiences to the outcome of my artistic practice to engage with all of this from their position. 
British anthropologist Paul Basu currently leads a research project called ‘Museum affordances’, which is “investigating the latent possibilities of museum collections, curatorial interventions and innovative exhibition practices.” To do this the ‘Museum Affordances’ project works with data collected by colonial anthropologist N.W. Thomas: his notes, objects, sound recordings and photographs. The project builds on the premise that there are affordances tacitly present in Thomas’s materials that can only be activated by people who connect to them in other ways than a British team of researchers can do. Materials are brought to where they were once collected and which in turn informs them. In the process the position of N.W. Thomas is made relative to what the material he collected and produced affords while it is kept in British museums. I only got to know about this project recently, but consider it to be related to what I, several years ago, started to do with your legacy. I intend to look beyond the output of the way you were disciplined and see what this affords. Meanwhile I am curious as to whether and how the central position of artistic practice as method may have other affordances than a more conventionally disciplined vantage point.
I will end this letter with an experience that may say something about the affordances of ‘making’ as a tool to investigate your material. This example concerns the photographs and film footage you produced in 1932, while being hosted by Kwei Dokie, chief of the Manoh in Sanniquellie. 
The name Dokie immediately rang a bell when I mentioned it to the man who was driving me upcountry in Liberia in 2013. One of the first victims of the Charles Taylor regime, leading up to the civil war in the country in the 1990s, was Samuel Dokie, member of a prominent family in Sanniquellie. It indeed turned out to be easy to find family members of Samuel Dokie, who all identified as descendants of the chief you photographed. I was first introduced to mr. James Moore, who was burdened with the responsibility of passing on the family history. He knew stories about his ancestor who was an important chief in the early 20th century, but had never seen him. He told me all he knew about Kwei Dokie, and I gave him copies of your photographs.
When I returned to Liberia, a year later, I also had access to digitised versions of the film you made about your journey through Liberia. The titles you added to the footage mention that a party was organised in your honour, and that the chief, who you call a King enjoyed himself at the dance. So did Dokie’s descendants when watching the film. 
After the screening a lady approached me. She introduced herself as someone who married into the family. Her mother, she said, was 106 and lived with her. She would like for her mother to be remember, just like Chief Kwei Dokie. Would it be possible for me to come and film her? 
The next day I paid a visit. Mother was beautifully dressed but did not seem to be aware of her immediate environment. Her daughter switched on a sound system and played music from her mother’s youth. As soon as the eyes of the elderly lady sparked with recognition and life. A gap between her past and our present was bridged by music and documented in film by me as an affordance of film footage produced by you eighty-two years earlier. In addition, the excess of description that is part the photographic capture shows a reality full of care behind a façade that, at least to my western eyes signifies poverty.
Our interest in anthropology and the privileges that allow(ed) us to travel affords so much more than data, doesn’t it? This raises the question what kind of impact the documents we produce could afford, which is what I will be thinking about towards a next letter to you.
With warm regards,
Andrea
An earlier version of this letter was performed during the so-called ‘Joined Session’ of the doctoral candidates of Doc-Artes and PhDArts, Leiden University, March 2019
Categories
Letters

Letter 1: Introduction

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]To my porters. 

To you, my black helpers of many years toiling away in God’s African wilderness I dedicate this book,

which probably will not be shown to you and surely you will never read.

Paul Julien, Eeuwige Wildernis, 5 (Eindhoven: De Pelgrim, 1949). Translation based on a film produced in the 1990s by Cor Adolfse with Paul Julien as narrator.

Groningen, March 2nd 2019

Dear Dr. Julien, 

More or less seven years ago I traveled to Liberia for the first time and visited some of the sites that appear in the photographs you made during your first expedition through ‘Equatorial Africa’ in 1932. My journey was a response to the preface in “Eeuwige Wildernis” [Eternal Wilderness], the second of the four books in which you shared your experiences with a general audience. I encountered a copy of this book in a flea market about a decade ago  and was impressed by the beautifully printed photographs that accompany your stories. However, the preface of the book has the form of a letter to your porters and reading it left me with conflicted thoughts and emotions. I read it, on the one hand, as a sympathetic gesture to remind the reader of the book of the people who made your expeditions possible. On the other hand your wording creates a gap between the reader and ‘your black helpers’ since it emphasizes that the former is about to see and read what the latter will never be able to access.

Was it so absolute back then, in the 1940s, that your porters would not be given [sic] the opportunity to see nor have the ability to read your books? In the additional preface to the 1998 edition of “Eternal Wilderness” you mention that things changed significantly on the African continent since you set foot on it. What you do not touch upon in this text is that western gazes such as yours as well as the kind of privilege you worked with have been unpacked and thoroughly criticized by many, both within and outwith the field of anthropology. Edward Said’s Orientalism is perhaps the most obvious example. It is, given the emphasis on the impact of this book in my education, hard for me to imagine that you were unaware of this groundbreaking text and its effect on post-colonial discourse. 

I decided to engage with your photographs in order to reframe them, to add other contexts to them than the ones  you produced in your lectures, books and other publications. My engagements are based on an understanding of photographs as outcomes of “encounters between several protagonists in which the photographer cannot a priori claim a monopoly over knowledge, authorship, ownership, and rights”. What insights could other understandings of photographs your produced  bring, for example those from descendants of the people you met almost a century ago, bring to them in terms of aspects of African pasts and their past and present day European imaginations? Through answering this question I hope to contribute to debates on museum collections that were produced or brought together during the era of colonisation of large parts of the African continent. Related to this question and debate I will be sharing thoughts with you about the shifting developments in the ways in which we, both in academia and in everyday-life, inform ourselves about people, places, ways of living and the objects that play roles in it. 

It is these days much easier to disseminate photographs to people than it was for you in the previous century. The publication of books and articles, while still general practices, are no longer necessary to potentially reach a mass audience. The production of prints in the dark room and the time-consuming transport of a letter are no longer necessary to share a photograph with a particular person. I can upload digitised versions of your pictures or documents to a virtual space that disseminates its content through a computer network. This network, in turn, facilitates encounters through electronic transactions. Today I started to share your photographs on a so-called social network called Facebook. Billions of people, located all over the world, have a chance to encounter photographs others share in this virtual space. Through ‘tags’ and ‘shares’ I will try to reach out to people who might have an interest in your photographs while I am working through the archive from the Netherlands. I go through the boxes with negatives, photographs and documents and photograph them again. The digital files then become not only data that can easily be shared and disseminated but also materials that I work with and, respectfully, intervene with.

I actually already started to work with your legacy in 2012 when a Dutch photo festival gave me the opportunity to follow up on existing bodies of photographic work. This led, between 2012 and 2018, to journeys to and collaborations with people in Liberia and Sudan; discussions with people in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda about your photographs and exhibitions in Groningen, Monrovia, Khartoum, Venlo, and Rotterdam. From the experiences around these events I learned that it is not very complicated to find descendants of people in your photographs as long as there are clear clues such as names and places. I also learned from them that I cannot negate you as the photograph’s maker while reframing them. I am sure this is something I will be returning to in the near future.

Encounters with photographs, be they in person or through a screen presence in a so-called ‘online environment’ can take place on different metaphorical sites that are shaped by the context generated by those looking at and thus informing them. Two of those sites that I intended to explore are those of ‘spectacle’ and ‘appearance’. An encounter on a site of spectacle leads to othering, which distances those observing from the observed and makes further actions on an equal ground unlikely if not impossible. A space of appearance “where I appear to others as others appear to me” leads to a non-hierarchical and humble encounter allowing new meanings to unfold. For the moment I am dropping these notions here and will, as my ideas develop, come back to them in future letters.  I hope that my initiative will cause a shift for the site on which your photographs have been encountered mostly up to now. Your photographs afford more than the contexts they were given so far. These contexts include those you gave them in your books and lectures, those formulated by admirers of your skills as a photographer, or those who dismiss your legacy because of the methods you used and some of the claims you made. For these affordances to unfold, your photographs must reach new encounters and become parts of them. By initiating such encounters I also follow up on the attribution of your books to your porters as they could include their descendants or others who feel directly implicated by your past pictures. These are people who have an interest in and an understanding of your photographs because they offer a view onto their past mediated by your gaze. 

While writing the dissertation that provided me with the title, ‘Doctor’, a title that you used so proudly and consistently in any public appearance, I also made use of the epistolary format to mediate my voice. A more conventional academic voice would not have allowed the use of the dialogical, perspectival and emergent properties that are embedded in letter writing. I would like to expand on this initial exploration of the affordances of letter writing in a correspondence with you. Parallel to writing this and future letters, I will be informing myself by working with your legacy in a variety of ways. The documents that are connected to your photographs in the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum include numerous letters that were sent to and from you. They are either directly or indirectly triggered by your travels as responses to encounters you had with people; to your books; to your lectures or to your presence in the media. I hope that the choice for this format will allow a critical yet open position towards the relationship between the past you depicted and the present in which it is seen. I look forward to writing about the methodology and methods that I will test and develop while investigating your photographs and to sharing the insights this will lead to with you.

Yours, 

Andrea[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

To my porters. 
To you, my black helpers of many years toiling away in God’s African wilderness I dedicate this book, which probably will not be shown to you and surely you will never read.
Paul Julien, Eeuwige Wildernis, 5 (Eindhoven: De Pelgrim, 1949). Translation based on a film produced in the 1990s by Cor Adolfse with Paul Julien as narrator.
Groningen, March 2nd 2019
Dear Dr. Julien, 
More or less seven years ago I traveled to Liberia for the first time and visited some of the sites that appear on photographs you made during your first expedition through ‘Equatorial Africa’ in 1932. My journey was a response to the preface in “Eeuwige Wildernis”, the second of the four books in which you shared your experiences with a general audience.[efn_note]Apart from Eeuwige Wildernis, Paul Julien, Kamvuren langs de Evenaar (Eindhoven: De Pelgrim, 1940), Pygmeeën (Amsterdam: Scheltens & Giltay, 1953), Zonen van Cham (Amsterdam: Scheltens & Giltay, 1959).[/efn_note] I encountered a copy of your book on a flea market and was impressed by the beautifully printed photographs that accompany your stories. While reading its preface, that has the form of a letter to your porters, I was disgusted and fascinated. This form could be interpreted as a sympathetic gesture to remind the reader of the book of the people who made your expeditions possible. That same gesture, however, creates a gap – if not a canyon –between that reader and ‘your black helpers’ by emphasizing that the former is about to see and read what the latter will never be able to access.
Was it back in the 1940s a given that your porters would not be given [sic] the opportunity to see nor have the ability to read your books? In the additional preface to the 1998 edition of “Eternal Wilderness” you mention that things changed significantly on the African continent since you set foot on it.[efn_note]Paul Julien, Eeuwige Wildernis (Antwerpen: Atlas, 1998), 9-10.[/efn_note] What you do not touch upon in this text is that western gazes such as yours as well as the kind of privilege you worked with have been unpacked and thoroughly criticized by many, both in and outside of the field of anthropology. Edward Said’s “Orientalism” is perhaps the most obvious example.[efn_note]Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1978).[/efn_note] It is hard to imagine that you were unaware of this groundbreaking book and the effect it had on post-colonial discourse. 
I decided to engage with your photographs in order to reframe them. These engagements are based on an understanding of photographs as outcomes of “encounters between several protagonists in which the photographer cannot a priori claim a monopoly over knowledge, authorship, ownership, and rights”.[efn_note]Ariella Azoulay, ‘What is a photograph? What is photography?’ in Philosophy of Photography, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2010, 9-13.[/efn_note] What insights could other sets of knowledge then yours bring to the photograph you made in terms of aspects of African pasts and their European imaginations?
It is these days much easier to disseminate photographs to people than it used to be for you in the previous century. The publication of books, articles, while still general practices, are no longer necessary to potentially reach a mass audience. The production of prints in the dark room and the time-consuming transport of a letter are no longer necessary to share a photograph with a particular person. I can ‘upload’ digitized versions of your pictures or documents to a virtual space that disseminates its content through a computer network. This network, in turn, facilitates encounters through electronic transactions. Today I started to share your photographs on a ‘social network’ called Facebook. Billions of people, located all over the world, have a chance to encounter photographers others share in this virtual space. Through ‘tags’ and ‘shares’ I will try to reach out to people who might have an interest in your photographs while I am working through the archive from the Netherlands. 
I actually already started to work with your legacy in 2012 when a Dutch photo festival gave me the opportunity to follow up on existing photographs. This led, between 2012 and 2018, to journeys to and collaborations with people in Liberia and Sudan, discussions with people in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda about your photographs, exhibitions in Groningen, Monrovia, Khartoum, Venlo, and Rotterdam. From the experiences around these events I learned that it is not very complicated to find descendants of people on your photographs as long as there are clear clues such as names and places, and not easy to decentralize yourself from what you make. Both of these issues will return in future letters I’m sure.
Encounters with photographs, be they in person or through a screen presence in a so-called online environment, can take place on different metaphorical sites that are shaped by the context generated by those looking at and thus informing it. Two of those sites that I intended to explore are those of ‘spectacle’ and ‘appearance’. An encounter on a site of spectacle leads to othering[efn_note]Lajos Brons. ‘Othering, an Analysis’ in Transcience, A Journal of Global Studies, Vol.6, No. 1, 2015, 69-90.[/efn_note], which distances those observing from the observed and makes further actions on an equal ground unlikely if not impossible.[efn_note]Stuart Hall, “’The spectacle of the “Other’”, in Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, (London, Sage, 1997), 223-290.[/efn_note] A space of appearance “where I appear to others as others appear to me” leads to a non-hierarchical and humble encounter allowing new meanings to unfold.[efn_note]Hannah Ahrendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998 (second edition), 198-199.[/efn_note] I hope that my initiative will cause a shift for the site on which your photographs have been encountered mostly up to now. Your photographs afford more than the contexts they were given by you yourself, by those who admire your skills as a photographer, or by those who fully dismiss your legacy because of your arguably problematic position.[efn_note]Sonja Wijs, “Afrika in beeld gevangen: Paul Juliens zoektocht naar de oorsprong,” in Dutch Eyes, ed. Flip Bool et al (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, 2007), 316-319. Lex Veldhoen “Dr. Paul Julien: ontdekkingsreiziger, globetrotter, antropoloog”, in Eeuwige Wildernis, 1998[/efn_note] For these affordances to unfold, your photographs need to reach new audiences.[efn_note]See the second letter to Paul Julien, on Disciplinarity, for a further introduction of the use of affordances in the methodology of this research project.[/efn_note] Such an audience could include descendants of your porters or their neighbours. People, that is, who have an interest in and understanding of your photographs because they offer a view onto their past. 
While writing the dissertation that provided me with the Dr. title that you used so proudly and consistently in any public appearance[efn_note]Paul Julien obtained a PhD in math and physics in 1933, but used and abused the title during his expeditions, something that is addressed in the third letter to him on impact. Andrea Stultiens ‘A letter to Dr. Paul Julien. Pondering the Photographic legacy of a Dutch ‘Explorer of Africa’’, in Trigger #01 – Impact,(Antwerp/Amsterdam: FoMu/Fw-books).[/efn_note], I also made use of the epistolary format to mediate my voice.[efn_note]Andrea Stultiens, “Ebifananyi, a study of photographs in Uganda in and through an artistic practice.” PhD diss., Leiden University, 2018.[/efn_note] A more conventional academic voice would not have allowed the use of the dialogical, perspectival and emergent properties that are embedded in letter writing.[efn_note]Liz Stanley, “The epistolarium: on theorizing letters and correspondences”, Auto/Biography, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2004, 201-235.[/efn_note] It is my hope that our correspondence, in which I write letters while I am informed by working with your legacy, will allow a critical yet open position towards the relationship between the past you depicted and the present in which it is seen. I look forward to writing about the methodology and methods that I will test and develop while investigating your photographs and to sharing the insights this will lead to with you.
Yours, 
Andrea

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