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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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