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PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM AS EVIDENCE / Vol. 89, No. 4 (Winter 2022)

Paul A. Kottman, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Of what are photographed or filmed images evidence? This is the organizing question of the present volume. This question is taken in many directions by the contributors, who write from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives. Some are philosophers; some are scholars; some are photographers. As a result, this issue contains reflections on various declinations of the core question: What kind of historical evidence is a photograph or film? What kind of political or legal evidence is a photograph or film? What is the ethical status of such images? Are there moral conditions under which photographs should, or should not, count as evidence? How is the truth or “facticity” of such images to be assessed, especially under current conditions of reproduction and production? What do the preservation and transmission of filmed or digitized images—as distinct from the preservation of material culture generally—say about our treatment of such images as evidence of the past?

Interest in “photographic evidence” typically centers on questions of what photographs disclose about the world. This forensic interest responds to the fact that photographic images are made through opto-mechanical processes that are independent of human intention. However, because photography is a means of automatic world picturing, it also has the power to populate the world with a-human images. The ways such images remake the world are investigated through critical readings of Michael Fried, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and Max Kozloff.

What habit of perception—of description—gives human viewers of photographs the confidence to regard them as evidence? In this comparative study of work by John Opera (b. 1975) and Jill Freedman (1939–2019), light-based art is subject to an analytic pressure that may undermine epistemic claims about what it is photographs can be said to contain. What constitutes a photograph in nonhuman terms is different from what we say, or want to say, it represents. Physics, philosophy, and the history of photography intersect at the point where we leap from image to meaning.

A photographic image is said to provide evidence of a photographed scene because it is a causal imprint of reflected light, an indexical trace of real objects and events. Though widely established in the history, theory, and philosophy of photography, this traditional imprinting model must be rejected because it relies on a “single-stage” misconception of the photographic process: the idea that a photographic image comes into existence at the time of exposure. In its place, a “multistage” account properly articulates different production stages, such as registering and rendering, that are relevant to understanding the relation between a photographic image and the photographed scene. By denying that any photographic image is a causal imprint, the multistage approach proposes a more demanding evaluation of photographic evidence. This has implications for documentary film and photojournalism, along with specialized applications such as forensics, surveillance, and face-recognition technology.

This article examines the innovative incorporation of photography into documentary film, exploring the various ways this specific manifestation of intermediality permits us to see both photography and documentary film otherwise. Photographs, whether professional or vernacular, are conventionally understood to furnish documentaries with indexical evidence and visual illustration of history, yet the spatiotemporal and aural dimensions of film permit documentaries to illuminate photography’s wider capacities beyond the merely representational. This essay argues that film can document more effectively than other media what people do with analog and digital photographs as material objects that enable various forms of social and political relationality through multisensory experience. Moreover, film can bring the event of photography into fuller view, demonstrating how no single participant (photographer, subject, camera, photograph, or viewer) has sovereignty over its affect, meaning, or value.

The ability of videos to serve as evidence of racial injustice is complex and contested. This essay argues that scrutiny of the Black body has come to play a key role in how videos of police violence are mined for evidence, following a long history of racialized surveillance and attributions of threat and superhuman powers to Black bodies. Using videos to combat injustice requires incorporating humanizing narratives and cultivating resistant modes of looking.

This essay describes acts of recording by Rakeiya Scott and Diamond Reynolds, who captured on cellphone video and vocally narrated the police deaths of their loved ones. There is a long Western tradition of testifying to the death of a loved one while it is unfolding. In the United States, this history is racialized by unjust Black death and the forms of extra-juridical testimony, from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells, that accompany it. But cellphone technology breaks with these traditions by making it possible to broadcast in the present and to a future audience; the women narrate in the future anterior tense. These videos do not provide visual evidence and also break with Susan Sontag’s and Saidiya Hartman’s sanction of violent images. The ethical and juridical demand of these videos is to listen and thus recognize the singularity of the loved one, who is also a citizen.

Films compiled from archival footage unsettle assumptions about film and photography’s ability to capture truth—and the archive’s ability to contain it—through a critical practice of pirating. Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera, Rona Sela’s Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel, and Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection manipulate images from archives to expose the technical and institutional manipulations within colonial propaganda, posing questions about how and when visual evidence becomes truth, with implications for mobile phone eyewitness videos today—and also deepfakes in viral disinformation.

As computer vision and artificial intelligence exert increasing influence on day-to-day affairs, and as surveillance and data profiling invade more spheres of contemporary life, a loose group of artists reveals the invisible images at the center of these systems. Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Teju Cole, Mishka Henner, Michael Wolf, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Forensic Architecture, and others work to expose the hidden mechanisms that operate outside of public view—and are therefore not subject to the commons—yet nonetheless define politics, society, and culture.

This essay considers how Palestinian history and experience might be reclaimed from colonial films from British Mandate Palestine, and how sensory and synesthetic attention developed in experimental filmmaking might bear on archival footage. Analysis focuses in particular on the possibilities of sound. My reflections draw heavily on a current work in progress, Partition, which makes extensive use of found footage from Britain’s imperial collections and sound recordings made with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and across the sites of their displacement. The film attempts to harness the disruptive potential of refugee voice to make visible the continuity of Palestinian presence in colonial archives and to deconstruct and reconstruct archival authority and colonial history.

Focusing on Darnella Frazier’s cellphone video of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, George Holliday’s video of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, and Abraham Zapruder’s film of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nature and shifting consequences of such “citizen witness” visual evidence are examined, in an attempt to better understand the changing relation between evidence and truth. What role does subjectivity play in the making and receiving of “citizen witness” visual evidence? Can imagination play a larger role in our determinations of the value of evidence?


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