From the start in 2012 working with the PJU-collection meant dealing with a dilemma caused by the position of Paul Julien as the person who produced the photographs, brought the collection together, and who was, therefore, the origin of its affordances. How could I deal with the historical contexts of the pictures and other documents in the collection, comfortably nested in imperial conditions and as a result often toxic and blunt exposures of cultural violence, without also negating these affordances? In the first stages of the research project, between 2012 and 2018, I largely ignored Paul Julien’s position as a strategy to make room for other views and voices.
From 2019 onward, after defending my doctoral thesis on photographs in Uganda, I started to rethink this strategy. In this thesis I used letter-writing as a form that would force me to address people with more and less radically different positions than my own. At the same time I started to use my engagement with the PJU collection as case study when asked to present my approach to working with complex archival materials. Most of these presentations were given in the form of letters with Paul Julien as addressee. This way I would have to take his position into account, while explicating mine and what was happening to the photographs he produced. To introduce him I used, in most cases, a film fragment from an unpublished documentary that was produced by Mr. Cor Adolfse, who was Julien’s literary agent during the 1990s. In this film Julien reads only ever so slightly adjusted versions of texts he wrote more or less half a century earlier, including the introduction to his second book De Eeuwige Wildernis // The Eternal Wilderness. This letter, in which I introduce myself to Julien, was antedated prior to the first presentation in letter form that took place March 2019. An earlier version of this letter was ante-dated and published in the booklet that accompanied a symposium on artistic research held at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, December 6th 2019.
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.
Houmt Souk, 22 July 1949. Paul Julien
None of you suspects that this book describes your lives. None of you has ever been able to read one single word, knows even what a book is, but with a flawless intuition you understood that you had a friend in me, and you answered with heartwarming loyalty.
INSERT (video wordt vervangen door een net iets betere versie, link blijft stabiel): https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/195524279
Groningen, March 2nd 2019
Dear Dr. Julien,
More or less seven years ago on this very day I traveled to Liberia for the first time. The aim of the journey was to find out what the photographs you made during your first expedition through ‘Equatorial Africa’ in 1932 mean to – and what their value is for – Liberians. This journey was a response to the introduction text in your book “Eternal Wilderness”. In future letters I intend to tell you more about this journey, but first I should introduce myself to you, which I hope will generate a common ground for us to build on.
I was born in 1974, when you were already in your seventies, and raised in a Roman Catholic family in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. Other than this, and different from you, religion did not play a big role in my life. In my primary and secondary education there was no ambition to contribute to science, nor did I have an urge to travel, both of which seem to have developed with you at an early age. I did, however, have an interest in the way everyday life manifests itself. In the production of photographs I found a way to make the outcomes of my interest useful for other people. I had a hunch that in order to meaningfully depict everyday life, it had to be familiar to me. It had to be experienced from the inside, not only seen from the outside. This led to a strong hesitation to travel as a photographer. I did, however, make a journey to visit a dear friend who had migrated from the Netherlands to East Africa. It was the end of 2001, the year, I would learn later, in which you left us.
By 2005 my friend had settled down in Uganda where I visited her again. This time too, there was a kind of confusion and fear that I self-diagnosed as a culture shock. I literally had to mind every step that I took while walking through Kampala or Kabale, the small towns in, respectively central and south-western Uganda that you may remember passing through during your journeys in 1933 and 1947. If I did not, I would fall as a result of my rather clumsy motorics and the conditions of the roads and pavements. The culture shock, I figured, was caused by a lack of familiarity with the world encountered. It had to do with the absence of things that could be taken for granted. It signalled, moreover, exactly those aspects of life that I had been trying to picture in the photographs I produced. I intuitively started to use my skill in the production of photographs as a tool to investigate this culture shock.
My intuition led to a shift in my career from editorial and ‘art’ photography towards academia. Producing photographs became a research method that was eventually formalised in a dissertation on photographs in Uganda that you may want to take a look at if this is at all of interest to you. It consists of eight photo books and a thesis that investigate the consequences that follow from the production and use of photographs in the particular historical and cultural context of Uganda. The observation that the Luganda word for photograph, Ekifananyi, does not refer to ‘writing with light’ but to a likeness has a central place in the thesis. Would you agree that this interest in how worldviews manifest in language is something that we share, even though you primarily applied it to words connected to religion, while I do this with pictures and photographs?
The research method I just mentioned is grounded in an understanding of photographs developed by photography theorist Ariella Azoulay. She thinks of a photograph as the outcomes of an “encounter between several protagonists in which the photographer cannot a priori claim a monopoly over knowledge, authorship, ownership, and rights”. From this follows that photographs, the ones I worked with in Uganda as well as those in your legacy, cannot be claimed attributed to a single author or owner.
When I encountered your photographs for the first time I was struck by the depth suggested by nuance in grey-scale and deep blacks made possible by the rotogravure printing. The photographs I saw were produced in a variety of places, ranging from Tanzania in the east to Sierra Leone in the west of the continent. At the time I felt that I had to look beyond the photographic production related to Uganda, which is as you know, a rather small country within the scale of the continent. I considered this to be necessary to get an idea of how the pictures I worked with relate to a wider scope of imaginations of Africa.
Hoping that this gives you an idea of my motivation to engage with your legacy I return to the introduction of “Eternal Wilderness”. The one page text is written in a second person narrative that addresses your porters and dedicates the book to them. I was fascinated by this form, but also surprised if not disgusted by it. The words you used evoke the existence of your porters and at the same time create a gap between me as the reader of the text and the very people you address. It took me some time to understand what caused my surprise and disgust. It is the fact that your porters, formally the addressees of the text, were not its audience. Ever since this dawned on me it seemed both natural and necessary to reframe the photographs you produced with the descendants of the addressees of your letters and others who, however loosely, identify with them.
Just like you I have, before starting this correspondence made use of letter writing as a narrative device, a form that helps to convey a message to a wider audience while writing to a particular addressee. The thesis I mentioned earlier, for instance, is built around a set of letters written to a variety of people who have a stake in the historical photographs I worked with. The idea here, however, was not to evoke the presence of the addressees in terms of distance, which is how I read your use of it, but as a way of joining with them.
In The First Dutch Systematically Organised Encyclopedia, published in 1949, I read that “The reader will, through the study of anthropology and medicine, notice that these branches of biological science form a unity as far as the anthropology can be understood without the knowledge of medicine, but the other way around this is not possible.” This helped me to understand the way your research was embedded in anthropological practices during your days a little bit better. Since then the field of anthropology became increasingly critical of its imperial roots, of how it has been used to justify colonial ambition, to freeze people defined as ‘others’ in a time and space that does not develop.
You may remember how, during your days as a physical anthropologist, the nature of this branch of knowledge shifted from an entanglement with medicine and biology, to sociology and ethnography. British anthropologist Tim Ingold takes this development still further away from the idea of anthropology that you were familiar and comfortable with. He positions correspondence, in a wide sense including but by no means limited to letter writing, as a mode of being in the world of things as well as people that is “a joining with; it is not additive but contrapuntal, not ‘and…and…and…’ but ‘with…with…with’.” Different from your porters, who assumedly would not see the book your text is part of, the evoked presence of addressees of my letters had consequences for what I wrote. The same goes for the letters I write to you.
When speaking about my engagement with your work in public, I usually start with a fragment from the film that mr. Adolfse made with you in the 1990s. In this fragment you first introduce and then read the opening text of The Eternal Wilderness with minor adjustments compared to the words you wrote in Houmt Souk in 1949. These adjustments are based on the shift in medium rather than the post-colonial discourse that developed since the book was first published. It is, for instance, hard for me to imagine that you did read and think about the critique formulated by Edward Said in his book “Orientalism”. The fragment often angers the audience. In line with my sentiments when encountering the introduction of Eternal Wilderness, they often find your words and the pictures that support them embarrassing and/or painful. This, however, does not stop me from corresponding with you.My whole engagement with your legacy, including this correspondence after all, builds on the assumption that your photographs will gain both value and meaning by reframing them. This reframing is done by adding information, perspectives and updates to them with descendants of the people you once met. While I start to reflect on this process in preparation for my next letter to you I remain,
INSERT: slide-show or downloadable PDF of letter published in symposium booklet.