Media @ McGill

Reilley Bishop-Stall | Catastrophe In Camera: Decolonial Disclosure and Photography’s Crisis of Conscience

Submitted by Media@McGill on

Dissertation Outline:

My doctoral dissertation examines the photographic production of contemporary Indigenous artists who address the historical and ongoing processes of settler colonialism in their work. In each case, photography is both embraced as a profound medium with which to address history and interrogated for its practical and conceptual alignment with colonial exploitation, expansion and control. The primary question guiding this thesis is as follows: How are contemporary Indigenous artists photographically confronting the historical and ongoing processes of settler colonialism in North America? And, by extension, what are the political, ethical and conceptual implications of such artistic practices for the medium of photography itself? In response to these questions, my analysis is structured around three central claims: (1) a pervasive state of catastrophe in North America is disclosed in the work of contemporary Indigenous artists who employ photography in order to expose the direct connection between current crises and the history of colonization; [1] (2) by engaging with photography’s fraught history and persistently problematic associations with indexicality and evidentiary authority, these artists expose the medium itself to be experiencing an ethical crisis; and (3) this type of artistic interrogation of photography’s complex ethics and aesthetics necessitates a form of responsible spectatorship dependent upon the viewer’s thoughtful and durational engagement.

At the core of my research is a re-evaluation of the political and ethical implications of photography’s theorization, and my project engages with ongoing debates surrounding the medium’s shifting ethics, aesthetics and ontology in the digital age. While photography has, since its inception, been discussed and defined in relation to its presumed indexicality and documentary authority, the introduction and advancement of digital media and its ensuing effects upon the production, circulation, storage and spectatorships of photographs, has had undeniable consequences for the contemporary theorization of the photographic image. For this reason, numerous theorists have announced the emergence of a photographic crisis, referring to the widespread accessibility of digital media and the increased ease of image alteration technologies, as well as the replacement of professionals with amateurs in the discourses of art, advertising and photojournalism. Indeed, some have even argued that digital and analogue media share so little in common that we have actually entered a “post-photographic” age, and, as a result, media theorist Jay Prosser suggest that photography is currently experiencing an “existential crisis.”[2] Questioning the efficacy of drawing such strict divisions between analogue and digital – between the old and the new – my own project primarily concerns the often-ambivalent ethics associated with photographic media as it is employed across times, spaces and disciplines, for a wide range of purposes, and with varying levels of presumed veracity. Engaging with current scholarship regarding photography’s changing nature and interrogating the medium’s fraught history and common employment for the imaging – and, in some cases, aestheticizing – of atrocities for journalistic, propagandistic or humanitarian purposes, I argue that, in addition to its existential concerns, photography today faces something of a crisis of conscience.

The dissertation’s first chapter deals specifically with the history of colonial photography in North America, by examining the coeval production of two types of images produced in the late-19th and early 20th century by primarily non-Indigenous photographers. These are: (1) ethnographic portraits of Indigenous peoples for anthropological and entertainment purposes, and (2) promotional photographs for Canada’s Residential School System and America’s Indian Boarding Schools. Obscuring atrocities and cementing stereotypes that have persisted to this day, these parallel photographic practices have had enduring effects, and their paired analysis exposes a fundamental paradox at the centre of colonial ideology that sought the simultaneous preservation and eradication of Indigenous cultures. The artists examined in this thesis all evoke or engage with the historical and lasting legacy of such colonial imagery and ideology.

Throughout the following four chapters, I describe several (often overlapping) aesthetic procedures employed by contemporary Indigenous artists – including Kent Monkman, Ken Gonzales-Day, Erica Lord, Rebecca Belmore, Chris Bose and Barry Pottle – who each address photography’s unstable ethics and disclose a state of contemporary catastrophe in North America. These include the engagement with – or interruption of – historical archives through processes of either direct intervention, parody, masquerade or ironic juxtaposition (Chapters 2 and 3); the indexing or inscription of trauma on the photographed body or the photographic image itself (Chapter 4); and the assertion of resilience, self-determination and sovereignty through practices of individual or collective auto-ethnography (Chapter 5). In each of these cases, I argue that the aesthetic strategies should be recognized as attempts to decolonize representation by exposing, interacting with, and overcoming the troubling associations and central tenets of photography’s history and theorization.

Considering, in each case, the role of the spectator confronted with works of this kind, I draw on the philosophy of responsibility and justice, examining the work of Jacques Derrida, Hans Jonas, Bhikhu Parekh and Steven C. Rockefeller, who each express the ethical imperative of collective and inter-generational responsibility to combat the mounting social and political problems plaguing contemporary societies. Connecting this discourse to the spectatorship of contemporary art, I argue that approaching these works of art as decolonizing strategies necessitates the development of thoughtful and durational spectatorial strategies. My discussion is here informed by the work of Prosser, Ariella Azoulay, Sharon Sliwinski and Jacques Rancière, who each, in different ways, advocate a mode of inter-temporal and meditative engagement with politically charged art in order to make a conscious move “from response to responsibility.”[3]


[1] My use of the term “catastrophe” follows photography theorist and curator Ariella Azoulay’s assertion that in the contemporary age, “[c]atastrophe has altered its form, turning from a sudden event… into a perpetually impending state” that easily and often goes unrecognized or unattended (The Civil Contract of Photography, 289).

[2] Jay Prosser, “Introduction,” Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, Eds. Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2012), 13.

[3] Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, Eds. Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2012), 15.