The Silence of Photographic Testimony: Anthony Luvera’s Residency
Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and lecturer based in London. Since 2002 he has undertaken a large-scale photography project collaborating with homeless people, which features a range of stylistically diverse photographic enquiries and interventions, including documentary images of London and Belfast, assisted self-portraits and polaroids which, in their totality, form an archive of more than 10,000 photographs and ephemera collected by over 250 people. Luvera’s practice is an example of a highly committed, long-term engagement with photography as a tool for both sociological research and an investigation into photographic representation and its connection to the changing nature of the archive.
What we might term “archive studies” became an important feature of the intellectual and artistic landscape in the twentieth century. Along with a number of artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Christian Boltanski, Susan Hiller, Idris Kahn and Raqs Media Collective, several intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida have all contributed to the development of a philosophical discussion of the archive. These contributions have been made by way of analogous and comparative studies of such things as a child’s erasable writing tablet; the notion of an object as a mnemonic device (Freud, 1924); studying the past using its material remains (Foucault, 1969) and the archive as a place for forgotten memories that come to exist through the complex relationship between the sayable and the unsayable (Agamben, 1989). The archive itself represents the means in which humankind writes history in one way or another, which of course leads us eventually to some of the most profound questions one can ask about the existence of humanity itself: What is history and how do we document it? How do we account for what facts we may forget or misread over time? Do we have merely a fractured understanding of our own identities?
Photography, as a device both for documenting and interpreting the world as it moves and changes, is an important contributing factor to both the production and the discussion of the archive. Photography can fix images of the world for future generations to see. It is possible for us to build up concise memories of the nature of our world based on photographs we have viewed. In his essay The Body and the Archive (1986), Allan Sekula locates the ‘Most thorough early articulation’ of the photographic archive in police work photographing criminals in the 1880s and 1890s. Photography’s use within the context of criminology quickly became the catalyst for the amassing of large archives of photographic material, that social scientists could then study to better understand criminal behaviour. The reality of the situation was that the search for a specific criminal “type” was a fruitless one, and that there are innumerable differences to be observed within the plethora of images of criminals produced and collected. Here we find an important allusion to the difference between a photographic collection and an archive: A collection brings together a set of historical documents and an archive transforms them into an ordered group of materials from which history can be articulated through the act of oral or written communication.
It is a philosophical complexity in language that allows this transformation. Through a reading of an earlier study by Michel Foucault (The Historical a priori and the Archive, 1969), Giorgio Agamben suggests that the space between language and speech (the unsaid and the said) is the plane on which we can locate the archive. An archive is a mixture of unstated things and things open to subjective appropriation through articulation (things that haven’t been stated yet, and things that have the potential to be stated). In this sense Agamben “brackets” the subject (a person) between language and speech when defining the archive. The archive then becomes a site for the potential of generating language and therefore writing history through subjectivity. The archive is a place for a person writing history who ‘bears witness to the impossibility of speech’, as Agamben states.
In his project Residency, Luvera transforms a collection of photographs into an archive by finding a mode of photographic representation to communicate the impossibility of articulating the language of homelessness photographically: The space between homelessness and the camera is where he locates his silent subjects. Like the current state of digital archives, homelessness is a protean existence. To be homeless is to exist fluidly; “bracketed” between one place and another without a voice or the possibility of articulation. In this sense Luvera offers a voice, through photography, to homeless people. This body of work successfully extends the assisted self-portrait, as self-representation, into a photographic language that relates homelessness to the protean nature of the archive.
Irrespective of which subject might be photographing him or herself, Luvera’s photographs hold a logic through them that binds one image to another to enforce this broader concern with photographic representation and its impossibility of being articulated within an archive. It is precisely this impossibility – the “bearing witness” of photographic self-representation – that transforms Luvera’s project, his collection of photographs, into an archive. By allowing his subjects to photograph themselves, Luvera, in-part, solves the 19th century problem experienced by criminologists studying photographs. Luvera’s assisted self-portraits imbue the image with self-representation. It may not be articulated, indeed it is an impossibility of speech, but none-the-less the various homeless people are able to have a voice through their own image through a mode of articulable photographic subjectivity. Their photographic testimonies are ‘An impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking’, to quote Agamben. In this sense Luvera’s assisted self-portraits of homeless people exist as the complex, silent relationship between homelessness and the camera: They are able to contribute to an archive by speaking silently through the camera itself.
Residency grapples with some incredibly complex ideas whilst coherently and accessibly presenting a series of intimate, compassionate photographs. Awkward clichés are avoided in these images and instead – accompanied by topographical photographs of the areas in which the subjects chose to photograph themselves – the viewer is left with an experience of photographic portraiture that is as refined in its artistic accomplishment as in its intellectual rigour.